Meet the dictator who rules secretive Turkmenistan, who portrays himself as an action hero and shows off by lifting gold bars in parliament

Turkmenistan

  • Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has been the president of Turkmenistan, one of the world's most restrictive and secretive countries in the world, since 2006.
  • Activists have decried the country's human-rights record and its closed nature, and experts have warned about the country's economy.
  • Yet Berdymukhamedov has made flashy displays a hallmark of his leadership, from building gold statues of himself to driving classic cars and putting on live DJ sets.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov serves as the head of one of the world's most secretive countries, leading a country with a widely-denounced human-rights record but becoming famous for his eccentric behaviour.

Berdymukhamedov, who has been in power since 2006, is keen to present a strongman image, and often pulls flashy stunts.Advertisement

He drives classic cars and competes in horse races, shows off his love for music by DJing and writing raps, and once gave himself a giant gold-leaf statue in the center of the capital city.

Information about Turkmenistan is tightly restricted, with almost no one able to enter. Here's everything we know about him.

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Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has been president of Turkmenistan since 2006. The central Asian country has a population of just under six million.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has been president of Turkmenistan since 2006. The central Asian country has a population of just under six million.

Turkmenistan holds presidential elections, but Berdymukhamedov's chances are never in doubt. He won his third term in 2017 with 98% of the vote, and in 2016 had changed the constitution to include rules that would allow him rule for life.

Turkmenistan holds presidential elections, but Berdymukhamedov's chances are never in doubt. He won his third term in 2017 with 98% of the vote, and in 2016 had changed the constitution to include rules that would allow him rule for life.

Source: Deutsche Welle

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Berdymukhamedov was a dentist before serving as the health minister for the country's former president Saparmurat Niyazov, who did things like name the month of January after himself.

Berdymukhamedov was a dentist before serving as the health minister for the country's former president Saparmurat Niyazov, who did things like name the month of January after himself.

Source: The Guardian

He has created a cult of personality in the country. The capital, Ashgabat, has a 68-foot (21-meter) gold-leaf statue of him on top of a horse on top of a marble block.

He has created a cult of personality in the country. The capital, Ashgabat, has a 68-foot (21-meter) gold-leaf statue of him on top of a horse on top of a marble block.
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Images of Berdymukhamedov on a horse are pretty common. He is often seen riding on one, in a likely homage to the country's history of nomadic tribes.

Images of Berdymukhamedov on a horse are pretty common. He is often seen riding on one, in a likely homage to the country's history of nomadic tribes.

When Berdymukhamedov fell off a horse in a 2013 race, state media did not broadcast the footage and attendees were told to delete their video. It's unlikely many in Turkmenistan remember the moment.

When Berdymukhamedov fell off a horse in a 2013 race, state media did not broadcast the footage and attendees were told to delete their video. It's unlikely many in Turkmenistan remember the moment.

Source: The Washington Post

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That didn't sway his love for horses, though. In 2019, he wrote a rap song about horses.

That didn't sway his love for horses, though. In 2019, he wrote a rap song about horses.

Source: BBC

This love of musical performance has seen the ruler DJ, perform supposedly self-written songs with his grandson, and sing to the country's workers.

This love of musical performance has seen the ruler DJ, perform supposedly self-written songs with his grandson, and sing to the country's workers.

Source: The Guardian

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Berdymukhamedov has shown his eccentricity outside the country too. In 2017, he gifted Russian President Vladimir Putin a puppy — and held it by its scruff.

Berdymukhamedov has shown his eccentricity outside the country too. In 2017, he gifted Russian President Vladimir Putin a puppy — and held it by its scruff.

Despite his (infrequent) foreign visits, Turkmenistan is famous for its restrictions. It was ranked worst in the world for press freedom in 2019, and Human Rights Watch called it "one of the world's most isolated and oppressively governed countries."

Despite his (infrequent) foreign visits, Turkmenistan is famous for its restrictions. It was ranked worst in the world for press freedom in 2019, and Human Rights Watch called it "one of the world's most isolated and oppressively governed countries."

Source: Business Insider

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Human Rights Watch also warned that "all aspects of public life are controlled by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and his associates" in the country.

Human Rights Watch also warned that "all aspects of public life are controlled by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and his associates" in the country.

British Think Tank The Foreign Policy Centre warned of Turkmenistan's "massive human rights abuses" and "use of forced labour."

Indeed, some parliament meetings have seemed to center around him and his flamboyant displays. He lifted this gold bar during a 2018 cabinet meeting while other politicians clapped.

Indeed, some parliament meetings have seemed to center around him and his flamboyant displays. He lifted this gold bar during a 2018 cabinet meeting while other politicians clapped.

The footage was broadcast by state TV channel Altyn Asyr.

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He's also known for his flashy displays outside of work. He's often pictured in fancy cars, like this green Bugatti that he drove in 2012 upon winning the country's first-ever car race after asking to take part last minute.

He's also known for his flashy displays outside of work. He's often pictured in fancy cars, like this green Bugatti that he drove in 2012 upon winning the country's first-ever car race after asking to take part last minute.

Source: CBS News

Sometimes these rides involve other world leaders, like this ride in a Russian limousine with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in August 2019.

Sometimes these rides involve other world leaders, like this ride in a Russian limousine with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in August 2019.
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Here they are again riding in a vintage Soviet-era car in Ashgabat in May 2019.

Here they are again riding in a vintage Soviet-era car in Ashgabat in May 2019.

But these public displays stopped for a period in the summer of 2019, leading to rumors on Russian-language media that he had died. He reappeared at the Caspian Economic Forum in August that year.

But these public displays stopped for a period in the summer of 2019, leading to rumors on Russian-language media that he had died. He reappeared at the Caspian Economic Forum in August that year.

Source: BBC

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Berdymukhamedov's ostentatious displays could actually be masking an economic crisis for his country, even if that information is kept from the rest of the world.

Berdymukhamedov's ostentatious displays could actually be masking an economic crisis for his country, even if that information is kept from the rest of the world.

The Foreign Policy Centre, a British think tank, said in 2019 that Turkmenistan is "in the middle of a sustained economic crisis that has seen hyper-inflation in the lives of ordinary people and widespread food shortages, all despite its vast gas reserves."