Over the weekend, the Magtymguly Theater in Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat, premiered its staging of Molière's Scapin the Schemer.
The 17th-century comedy tells the tale of a battle of wills between sons and fathers.
This somehow feels topical for Turkmenistan, where a similarly farcical intra-generational tussle is playing out.
Last week, a meeting took place in Germany’s capital, Berlin, between the leaders of Germany and Central Asia. This looked like yet another attempt by a major Western power to massage a region normally considered to be in Russia’s orbit of influence into considering alternative options.
While Germany and four of the Central Asian nations were represented at the event by their heads of state, Turkmenistan dispatched not the sitting president, but his predecessor, who also happens to be his 66-year-old father: Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. On another recent occasion in which Central Asian presidents got together – in Dushanbe last month – Berdymukhamedov the elder crashed the event and stole his son’s limelight.
Berdymukhamedov the elder is entitled to represent Turkmenistan in relations with other states, as well as sign international agreements, by virtue of his position as chair of the Halk Maslahaty, or People’s Council.
This state of affairs is the product of a piece of constitutional rejigging that unfolded in January. It was then that the overhauled Halk Maslahaty – theoretically an upper house of parliament, but in truth more of a supreme arbiter of government policy – was brought into existence with Berdymukhamedov the elder at its head in his new bespoke role of National Leader.
If there was any lingering uncertainty that this moving of the furniture was performed as more than a sop, to accommodate Berdymukhamedov the elder’s uncontainable ego, the sight of him consorting again among his erstwhile Central Asian peers put the question the rest.
The National Leader accordingly spoke in Germany for all the world as though he is still the person who determines Turkmenistan’s direction of travel. On September 29, he reiterated, for the umpteenth time, his country’s commitment to delivering gas to Europe through a trans-Caspian pipeline. As ever, Berdymukhamedov made it obvious he wants somebody else to pick up the bill.
"We are ready to resume active contacts with relevant structures within the European Commission, individual European states, and companies in the context of implementing major international energy projects," he said.
In his multiple meetings with German officials, Berdymukhamedov the elder issued insistent overtures that German companies across all kinds of sectors consider investing in Turkmenistan.
The Turkmen state media machine did provide some feeble justification for President Serdar Berdymukhamedov not bothering to travel to Berlin. On September 28, as his father was Germany-bound, the president was busy attending celebrations to mark the 32nd anniversary of Turkmen independence, which falls on September 27. The highlight of the day was his attendance at the races in the Akhal-Teke Equestrian Complex. In a curious omen, one of the racers reportedly fell off his horse and ended up needing intensive care. The most famous Turkmen horse rider ever to have humiliatingly tumbled off his saddle is, of course, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov himself, in 2013.
Although Berdymukhamedov the elder’s cult of personality long ago attained unreachable levels, it does not seem that the son is prepared to idle on this front. As Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news reported on September 28, a mosque now under construction in the town of Shatlyk, in the Mary province, may be named after the president. Construction of the mosque is being pursued in haste with a view to its inauguration on Neutrality Day on December 12. Shatlyk residents are even reportedly speculating that their whole town could be renamed after Serdar hajj, who earned that honorific title by virtue of his pilgrimage to Mecca in 2022.
This news comes in the wake of a gathering of the Halk Maslahaty last month presenting Berdymukhamedov the younger with a Hero of Turkmenistan state award for his “enormous personal contribution to strengthening the foundations of the national independence of Turkmenistan.” The title in some ways puts him on an even footing with his father, the officially designated Hero-Arkadag, the “heroic patron and protector of the people.”
It is difficult to imagine the constant sight of Turkmen leaders consorting with Western peers is not causing some degree of discomfiture in the halls of power in Moscow.
On the occasion of Turkmen Independence Day, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin sent a note of congratulations, approvingly remarking on the “principles of friendship and strategic partnership” underpinning bilateral relations. The love notes from Mishustin are piling up. The last time he wrote was on September 22 to wish President Berdymukhamedov a happy 42nd birthday and note his “personal contribution to the development of friendship and strategic partnership.”
President Vladimir Putin joined in this time too with Independence Day congratulations that carried, as is characteristic for the Russian leader, a slight veiled flavor of threat.
“I am confident that further strengthening the entire range of Russian-Turkmen relations will fully serve the interests of our peoples and contribute to the consolidation of regional stability and security," his note read.
In what may be a something or nothing detail, Putin addressed his congratulations to Berdymukhamedov the elder, not to the son. Conversely, the Independence Day note from the United States was addressed to the president and not the National Leader.
Data produced by Turkmenistan’s state statisticians are an open joke. International bodies like the International Monetary Fund are, nevertheless, compelled as a matter of course to accept them at face value.
It feels consequential, therefore, that the IMF has produced a report that essentially states that relying on economic data produced by Turkmen officials alone is pretty much useless.
The point of the report is ostensibly not to single out Turkmenistan, but to use the country as a banner example of how drawing on a wider array of indicators than just the top-line figures produced by opaque governments can offer a more accurate picture. Accuracy, the IMF experts argue, is after all in the interests of the country in question.
“In a case where the true state of an economy is a recession, but the official narrative suggests continued, uninterrupted growth … a contractionary policy mix encouraged by the strength of the official GDP growth data, may deepen, and prolong the recession,” the authors conclude.
And as it happens, the IMF’s alternative approach for assessing GDP in problem countries like Turkmenistan shows that the country has indeed at times slipped into recession, even as state propaganda boasted of consistent high growth. The Berdymukhamedov habit of lying has come at a cost.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.