All the King’s Horses, All the King’s Men

by Myles G. Smith on 5/1/2013

Was this really Esteemed President Gurbanguly Myalikgulievich Berdymukhamedov going telpek-over-teakettle from a beloved national treasure-horse at a staged horse race in Ashgabat last week?

EurasiaNet‘s scoop footage and on-scene reportage states as fact that Berdy himself was, as announced, riding the Mighty Berkarar when the horse hit a soft spot in the dirt, buckling at the knee and sending the President tumbling over his head. BBC’s similarly unnamed correspondent reported the same, though it offers no footage of its own. Turkish television also appears to report this as fact. Someone with better Turkish than mine (none) may get the subtleties of their voice-over. For its part, RFE/RL’s report on the incident submits the possibility that all was not as it seemed, while drawing an obvious conclusion based on the reaction of the dozens of goons who came running to his ‘rescue’:

To be sure, it’s impossible to confirm that the unfortunate rider is Berdymukhammedov. But the panicked reactions of security and the lengths to which Turkmen officials sought to confiscate spectators’ recordings and photos of the event, suggest the jockey is the Turkmen leader.

Official Altyn Asyr’s footage from the other side of the track is closer, and the face of the jockey does look like that of Berdymukhamedov. But as we have seen from past images, Berdy has many different looks (old dentist, young dentist, Segal). Some images that surface of the man appear real, but so heavily doctored as to appear absurd. Take this flying heil, for example.

Excepting the possibility that the entire incident was staged to prove that Berdy is the unbreakable demi-god his handlers have trumped him to be, the incident has re-taught us a few lessons about Turkmenistan under Berdymukhamedov.

Despite endless efforts to plan, rehearse, and stage-manage every aspect of public life, chance is basically unavoidable. When his many goons arrived to tend to him, they immediately began carrying him off the track towards the TV truck, not towards the waiting ambulance which follows the President’s caravan in Turkmenistan and throughout the FSU. They don’t even wait for a stretcher, putting him at risk for severe spinal injury. Injuries at Pop Warner football games are handled better than this. We might assume that he has a quality foreign doctor on hand to tend to him at all times (as Niyazov did), but no medical protocol was followed immediately following the incident. Apparently none of his goons have even basic EMT (or even Boy Scout-level) training.

I am one of few who believes that Berdymukhamedov was chosen by Niyazov to succeed him in the event of the latter’s inevitable demise. This would have likely been after several reports of heart attacks and attempts to overthrow his regime, unverifiable reports which probably contained some truth. Does Berdymukhamedov have a Plan B? His sons are too young. His sisters are kept from the public spotlight, due to their outsized and coveted role in the economy. His father comes to mind – an aging but ostensibly virulent guy that could serve as a caretaker, already propped up by the national propaganda machine, until a permanent replacement could be put in place.

For good reason, we spend most of our time speculating on succession in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. When Turkmenistan’s succession quandary was solved neatly over a few days in December 2006, we were, probably quite justly, surprised by how smooth the transition went. With the President determined to flaunt his health and well-being before his subjects, I think it safe to assume there is no Plan B, and that succession will be even less predictable the next time around.

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This post was written by...

– author of 12 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Myles G. Smith is a project manager, consultant, and independent analyst based in Central Asia. His writing appears regularly at, the Jamestown Foundation, and the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute. He is currently based in Kyrgyzstan, has lived in Turkmenistan and Russia and worked throughout the former Soviet Union. In the process of his work, he regularly consults a wide range of experts, officials, activists, journalists, academics, diplomats and entrepreneurs in the region. He is proficient in Russian.

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