Crossroads Asia

Vanity Without Borders: How Central Asian Despots Manipulate the International Press

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Crossroads Asia

Vanity Without Borders: How Central Asian Despots Manipulate the International Press

Global coverage of Turkmenistan shows the power of personality cults to set agendas far beyond national boundaries.

Vanity Without Borders: How Central Asian Despots Manipulate the International Press
Credit: Screenshot

Widely reported footage of Turkmenistan’s dictator in combat fatigues show that although Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is clearly a buffoon, the joke continues to be on the international press.

On August 3, President Berdimuhamedov nationally broadcast footage portraying himself as a sharp-shooting, knife-throwing man of action as part of a carefully choreographed PR stunt. The footage comes after years of chaos on the Turkmen-Afghan border and the specter of Islamist extremism in the country as Turkmenistan prepares to host an international martial arts tournament.

Much like Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest round of shirtless Siberian holiday snaps, which started to circulate all over Western media, Berdimuhamedov’s goofy antics did too. And they will again. In fact, Turkmenistan’s personality cult spins round and round the Western press like a campy, gold-plated merry-go-round.

And just like the political life of Ashgabat has been overshadowed by the figure of the president, first by Saparmurat Niyazov, and then by current Turkmen President Berdimuhamedov, international coverage also tends to follow the leader.

Immediately after Berdimuhamedov’s recent PR stunt, British newspaper The Telegraph published an article titled: “Turkmenistan’s dictator mocked over video portraying him as gun-toting, knife-throwing action hero.” Like a Dumb and Dumber video compilation, the article was essentially a run-down of Niyazov and Berdimuhamedov’s biggest blunders with the addition of a solitary, token sentence about the regime’s monopoly over domestic media.  

Other major outlets such as The Guardian also published articles on Berdimuhamedov’s stint as Rambo: First Dud. A simple keyword search of their archives makes clear the centrality of the presidential cult in their coverage: Turkmenistan’s singing president, Turkmenistan’s president named horse-breeder in-chief, and a February 2016 constitutional change solidifying Berdimuhamedov as president for life.

International coverage also veers toward the formulaic. A brief glance over many of the articles shows their commonalities: A paragraph on Berdimuhamedov’s 2015 gold statue to himself, his predecessor’s decision to rename the months of the year after immediate family members, and the current incumbent’s 2013 horse-racing mishap, when he fell off his horse mid-race. Most of them contain the same vague reference to human rights: “Turkmenistan is one of the most isolated states on earth, second only to North Korea.”

Ashgabat’s elite is systematically erasing the people of Turkmenistan from politics, and the strategy is being reflected back through press coverage. Personality cults are insidious, transcending national borders and making themselves synonymous with the states they control. This is exactly what they are designed to achieve. The credo of the dictator is simple: Je suis l’état!

Few are aware of Turkmenistan’s arrest and torture of political activists, rampant corruption, and desert prisons where people are starved, beaten, and left out in the sun to burn. Few know that the Turkmen government tears down people’s homes to make way for architectural vanity projects, or that widespread poverty, alarming food shortages, police brutality, and the fatal consequences of inadequate healthcare go on unaccounted for.

Few outside a small community of journalists and human rights workers focused on the region know the name of Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a Turkmen journalist who has been under arrest since July 2015 on what are widely seen as fabricated charges.  

All of this takes place under the watchful eye of a police state with tight border controls and a monopoly on information. Even satellite dishes capable of receiving news from outside the country face Ashgabat’s wrath.

By failing to put the people of Turkmenistan and the issues affecting them at the forefront of reports, we are failing to meet the core principle of journalism: Speaking truth to power.