Celebrated Turkmen movie director Yazgeldy Seyidov died in Moscow on December 25 at the age of 91.
Among his better-known works was the 1983 film The Education of a Man (Muzhskoe Vospitanie). (An English subtitled copy can be viewed here).
The plot is very much in the mold of Central Asian New Wave cinema of that vintage: It tells the story of a young boy plucked from coddled city living and sent to his grandfather and emotionally distant father in the tough Turkmen countryside to help tend to the sheep.
The feeble, soft child, Chaman, is much given to weeping over the mistreatment of animals — a detail that may make viewing of the film unsuitable for anybody troubled by that kind of thing. The cruelty, his grandfather explains, is necessary to keep the beasts safe, while death is an inescapable aspect of existence.
Not to spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that lessons are learned. The son eventually comes to understand the value of taking responsibility and becomes his own man.
In a curiously symbolic echo, President Serdar Berdymukhamedov on December 25 unveiled his first book. “Youth — The Pillar of the Nation” is said to highlight the successes of Turkmen youth and was released to coincide with a roundtable devoted to achievements attained in a year formally designated as “Happy Youth with Serdar Arkadag.”
This may need some unpacking.
Arkadag is an honorific title, signifying protector and patron of the people, that has habitually been reserved for Berdymukhamedov’s father, Gurbanguly, the former president. Berdymukhamedov senior seemed poised to slowly fade into the background when he stepped down as president in 2022, but early last year, he decided to reverse course. In his bespoke new capacity as National Leader, the elder Berdymukhamedov now acts as de facto co-head of state. The fact his son is now acclaimed by the hand-me-down title Serdar Arkadag, which is dutifully chanted by crowds of citizens marshaled into attending major public events, tells its own story. (Berdymukhamedov the elder, by the way, has at least 70 books to his name).
Each new year in Turkmenistan comes with its own bespoke motto. Last year, it was the aforementioned “Happy Youth with Serdar Arkadag.” The choice for 2024 is a tribute to the past rather than the future: “Magtymguly Pyragy: A Fount of Reason.” At first glance, this looks like an appeal to the wisdom of the Turkmen national poet and philosopher, who is believed to have been born in 1724. Such modesty is not in the Berdymukhamedov vein, however. The motto was chosen as it is the name of a poem forged from what state media describes as the “brilliant talent and wisdom of the Hero-Arkadag.” That is the older Berdymukhamedov, to be clear.
It will not be long, however, before the cruel gravitational pull of reality does its work on Berdymukhamedov senior’s soaring vanity.
Last year, Turkmenistan inaugurated its newest city, inevitably called Arkadag. This giant toytown was immediately bestowed with the trimmings of a real city: a TV station, a newspaper, and even a soccer club — all called Arkadag.
Arkadag the soccer team, which was put together through the raiding of the best talent from all its peers, in December earned international attention by securing the premier league title on its first attempt by winning 20 matches on the trot. Arkadag went one better on December 24 by bagging the Turkmenistan Football Cup by handily defeating Ahal 3-0.
In a message of self-congratulation, Berdymukhamedov senior predicted that Arkadag would now surely go on to achieve success in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League, known as ACL, and even in FIFA club world cup, a format for which no Central Asian team has ever managed to qualify. Doing this will “increase the international sporting prestige of the country,” he said.
For now, though, Arkadag’s domestic success draws mainly derision. An Al Jazeera article described the club romping to triumph in a “bizarre football season.” When quizzed what prospects he saw for the team, Alisher Nikimbaev, a former manager for Uzbekistan’s national team, argued that “in the long term, it won’t be successful as the dominance of Arkadag will bring down the level of competition in Turkmenistan.”
Formal business was limited over the holiday season, as is customary, but President Berdymukhamedov did find time on December 26 to travel to St. Petersburg to attend the annual informal Commonwealth of Independent States summit.
The intensity of attention that Russia lavishes on Turkmenistan these days is acquiring a somewhat peculiar flavor. Not a month passes without Moscow firing off one or more statements expressing undying commitment to inextinguishable amity.
On December 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin conveyed New Year greetings to Ashgabat in which he spoke of the “deepening strategic partnership” between Russia and Turkmenistan and emphasized the importance of operating collectively on international matters in ways that benefit both nations. He reserved special praise for Berdymukhamedov senior’s role in developing those relations.
This note was followed by another one, similar in content and spirit, from Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin on January 2.
One area of cooperation that looks to be of particular interest is what the two governments are doing to “counter the spread of disinformation and fake news.” A newspeak-tinted statement on mutual interest in advancing this agenda was released by Russia’s Foreign Ministry on December 25.
As barely needs noting, the authoritarian regimes of Russia and Turkmenistan share a profound hostility for transparency and free media. So when Moscow pledges its support to Ashgabat in combating fake news, this can only mean it intends to ensure that Turkmen citizens are ensured further inoculation from reality by means of digital censorship.
This is a priority for the Turkmen government. On December 28, Turkmen deputy Foreign Minister Myahri Byashimova met with deputy Chinese Education Minister Sun Yao to discuss bolstering collaboration in education, with a particular focus on cybersecurity.
On matters of defense, Ashgabat is open to multiple suitors.
On December 27, Berdymukhamedov the elder met in Ashgabat with the chief executive of Turkish defense company Baykar, maker of the Bayraktar unmanned aerial vehicle, and a representative of another Turkish military transportation manufacturer, BMC. The visiting pair reportedly made the case to Berdymukhamedov that buying more of their products — Turkmenistan already has several Baykar-made military drones in its possession — would be “a worthy contribution to further strengthening partnership relations.”
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.