There was joy in Turkmenistan’s ruling family household over the weekend as Kerimguly Berdymukhamedov, the approximately 21-year-old son of the president, tied the knot.
According to a Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan report, the wedding took place on February 26 at the Arkadag Hotel in the capital, Ashgabat.
The event was not covered by state media, but it does not look like the authorities made much of an effort to keep things low-key. Major thoroughfares in the city were closed and security personnel were out in force, including along a highway heading north to the suburb of Choganly, where the bride’s family have been gifted a new home.
Chronicles conveyed some color from the festivities. The groom’s grandmother Ogulgerek Berdymukhamedova (the wife of the former president, who is father of the incumbent, and now-National Leader, Gurbanguly) performed the playful ritual duty of coaxing the bride. Neighbors of the bride’s family in the village of Herrikgala were made to vacate their homes while the ceremony played out.
Kerimguly will be a familiar figure for Turkmenistan watchers. He first came to public attention in 2012, most notably in the presidential elections held in February that year, when he joined his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather at the polling station.
It has been a whirlwind since then. RFE/RL has reported that in June 2013 he “took center stage” at a concert in the Caspian resort town of Awaza, where U.S. singer Jennifer Lopez was paid to perform at a bash to mark the 59th birthday of the then-President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Presumably after the singer safely cashed her cheque, Lopez’s public relations people issued a statement of regret, claiming that they had “no knowledge of human rights issues any kind” in Turkmenistan.
Little Kerimguly was undeterred by this implied rebuke and his public profile went from strength to strength.
Kerim, to go by the boy’s more familiar name, is perhaps best known for his alleged musical skills. He got an early opportunity to show these off in July 2016, when state television ran a report showing Berdymukhamedov the Elder with him and another grandson laboring over the composition of a new song. Many performances would follow. Among the most memorable was one in a TV end-of-year special in 2018, when Kerim and his grandfather together performed a song that, as the state news agency put it, had “sunk deep into the soul of all those who heard it.”
For all Kerim’s exposure, not much is known about his upbringing. Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news has reported that he along with two siblings did their studies at the privately run International School of Geneva, which charges around $36,000 in annual fees. The outlet churlishly questions how it is that Kerim’s father could afford such sums on a government salary.
One oft-whispered line of speculation is that the dynastic succession plan could one day see Kerimguly elevated to the presidency. Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov certainly seems fonder of him than he is of his own son, Serdar, who is limply performing the job of being president in the shadow of his father.
A few days before the wedding, on February 21-22, Serdar Berdymukhamedov paid a visit to Bahrain on yet another foray to the Persian Gulf. He met in Manama with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa for talks, but Turkmen state news media offered no useful details about what was discussed.
A Bahraini government statement noted that the men had exchanged some unspecific pledges to deepen trade and investment ties and to work together in the sectors of energy, food security, tourism and culture. The formalities concluded with the customary signing of agreements, including ones committing the countries to cooperation on maritime and railway transportation, education, and banking.
The mental energies of Berdymukhamedov the Elder, meanwhile, are still very much concentrated on ongoing work to complete construction of Arkadag, the new capital of the Ahal province named, it is almost needless to say, in honor of the former leader himself. Arkadag means patron in Turkmen and is the honorific with which crowds of weary Turkmens must greet their National Leader whenever he is out in public.
On February 25, state news carried a report on how the 65-year-old interior designer-in-chief inspected graphic mockups of the columns and candelabra that will be fitted at the main mosque in Arkadag. His deliberations on the matter were the main item in that day’s evening news bulletin.
Chronicles has crunched numbers made public by Turkmen official sources and found that the cost of importing building materials toward the construction of Arkadag, which is happening over two stages, will reach as high as $2.8 billion.
The teetering edifice of megalomania built around the Berdymukhamedov family should make it obvious how Turkmenistan is governed.
Preparations are nevertheless going ahead with the organization of an election for the pretend parliament to be held on March 26. The expiry date for the registration of candidates was due to expire on February 28.
This vote is only historically significant inasmuch as Turkmenistan earlier this year reverted to a unicameral parliamentary system. Berdymukhamedov the Elder briefly served as speaker of the Senate, but evidently got bored with that job. The Mejlis, as the parliament is known, is composed of 125 deputies elected in single-mandate districts. Turkmen nationals over the age of 25 are eligible to run, so Kerimguly will have to wait until the next election, in another five years, if he is interested in going into politics.
The big economy-related news of the week was that the government intends to set up free economic zones in each of the country’s five provinces by the end of this year. Each zone will center on commercial activities specific to that province, be it in the fields of trade, service, transportation, farming or industry, according to a state news report on February 23. In a familiar reprise, one stated goal is for the zones to advance the government’s import-substitution agenda. Officials also want foreign investors to bring their money. Because the government is willing these projects, there will doubtless be grand openings come 2024, although the prospect of many international businesspeople clamoring to sink their money into these zones looks remote.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.