Jennifer Lopez performed one of the most unusual – and controversial – concerts of her career this weekend, when she crooned “Happy Birthday Mr President” at a lavish ceremony to mark the 56th birthday of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the leader of Turkmenistan and one of the world’s most repressive dictators.
The performance, part of which Ms Lopez spent in traditional Turkmen dress, was part of an overblown set of celebrations at Avaza, a Caspian Sea resort project that Turkmenistan has ploughed billions of dollars into developing. Mr Berdymukhammedov enjoyed celebrations that involved a firework display, a boat trip, and a drive-past alongside thousands of Turkmen citizens waving flowers and applauding.
However, the majority of the country lives in poverty, with access to internet and free media severely limited and foreign travel banned. Reporters Without Borders ranks the country as the third most repressive in the world. A representative of Ms Lopez said in a statement yesterday that she would not have attended the Turkmen concert, which was paid for by the China National Petroleum Corp, had she known about human rights issues in the country.
Ms Lopez has previously performed for a number of oligarchs in former Soviet countries, and ahead of a concert in Russia last year cut off a journalist who tried to ask her about the jailing of the Russian female punk group Pussy Riot. “I don’t really understand what you’re saying, but let me just shut you down anyway, because I don’t really like to talk politics,” she said.
Mr Berdymukhammedov is a former dentist and Health Minister who became President when the country’s first leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, died in 2006. Mr Niyazov had named himself Turkmenbashi, leader of all the Turkmens, and created a bloated personality cult that permeated all aspects of Turkmen life. Mr Berdymukhammedov slowly went about building up his own cult and now his photos adorn every street corner and he is treated like a deity wherever he goes.
Ms Lopez and her entourage were apparently blissfully unaware of human rights concerns in the country.
“The Turkmenistan breeze feels amazing at night, kidz!” wrote J.R. Taylor, the choreographer for Ms Lopez. “I wonder were all my Turkmenistan followers are!? Hit me up!”
The mystery of the absent Twitter fans is easily cleared up – the social network is banned for almost all of the very small number of internet users in Turkmenistan, along with many other websites deemed to be subversive.