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Man Bites Dog: Turkmen President Puts Indoor Games' Mascot On Tight Leash

  • Pete Baumgartner
  • Sahra Ghulam Nabi

In the cheery images of Vepaly released on March 1, he is dressed alternately in a traditional Turkmen robe and skull cap or a modern T-shirt.

Just weeks after unveiling Vepaly, a cartoonish depiction of the ancient Alabai breed of Central Asian shepherd dog, as the mascot for the largest international sporting event that Turkmenistan has ever hosted, the country’s authoritarian president has unexpectedly told officials he’s not satisfied.

Turkmen officials announced in December that the canine would be the friendly face of September's Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. The event should bring up to 5,000 athletes from dozens of countries to Turkmenistan to compete in 21 sports ranging from basketball and chess to tennis and the ancient martial art of kurash.

Vepaly, which translates as "loyal friend," was presented to the public with great fanfare on March 1, and his cheery image -- dressed alternately in traditional Turkmen robe and skull cap or modern T-shirt -- is already emblazoned on posters and banners hanging and plastered around the capital, Ashgabat.

But President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who exercises considerable control over virtually all aspects of society in the gas-rich former Soviet republic, suddenly criticized the mellow-looking pooch at a government meeting on March 17.

Ahatmyrat Nuvvayev, the director of the Turkmen Academy of Arts, was on the receiving end of Berdymukhammedov’s bashing of Vepaly.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

Berdymukhammedov, who has dubbed himself Arkadag (The Protector), ordered Nuvvayev to "improve" the mascot and said it must reflect the country’s "national character" and "flavor."

Turkmenistan has spent billions of dollars preparing for the games -- the most prominent international event ever held in independent Turkmenistan -- including some $2.5 billion on a mammoth new airport built in the shape of a falcon in flight.

Opened in September, the airport was reported earlier this year to be sinking into its foundation. The cavernous airport was built to handle 17 million passengers a year, though critics point out that Turkmenistan has few foreign tourists, with an estimated 100,000 foreigners visiting the country in 2015.

The government spent upward of $5 billion on an "Olympic" village and numerous state-of-the-art sporting facilities complete with a monorail to carry athletes, officials, and fans around the complex.

Turkmenistan is suffering through economic crisis -- prompted by a decline in world prices for natural gas -- that has caused shortages at shops, increased unemployment, and delayed wages being paid to government workers around the country.

Berdymukhammedov's sudden rejection of Vepaly comes amid condemnation from animal rights activists for using the Alabai as a mascot because of the frequent practice in Turkmenistan and elsewhere in Central Asia and Russia of cropping off portions of the animal's ears and tail.

"We are categorically against unnecessarily injuring animals, including dogs [such as the Alabai]," Irina Novozhilova, director of the Russian animal rights group Vita, told RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service. "If there is no need -- or to do it just for decoration -- it makes no sense to expose them to injury. It is inhumane."

The Alabai is a Central Asian shepherd dog
The Alabai is a Central Asian shepherd dog

Dog breeders and some owners of Alabais say cutting the animals' ears and tails helps them fend off wolves, which often attack those regions of a dog's body.

"Cutting the ears and tail of an Alabai is fundamentally necessary," Geldy Kyarizov, a former minister of horse breeding who was in charge of Turkmenistan's iconic Akhal-Teke horse breed, told RFE/RL.

"It is a tradition that has existed for 5,000 years," he said, arguing that the cropping practice does not seriously injure the dogs and actually prevents them from suffering as they get older.

Vepaly mingles with his fans.
Vepaly mingles with his fans.

But it’s unclear why Vepaly displeases the mercurial Berdymukhammedov, as further details were not disclosed and it’s unknown if the president wants merely to alter a few details on the happy-go-lucky mascot or replace him altogether.

But with less than six months before the September 17 opening ceremonies, time is running short to revamp or reinvent the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games' four-legged mascot.

With reporting by Turkmen Service Director Farruh Yusupov
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    Pete Baumgartner

    Pete Baumgartner is a senior correspondent who covers sports and writes about events in Central Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. He can be reached at baumgartnerp@rferl.org

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