What does a grateful nation get for the demagogue who already has everything, including 97 per cent of the vote and the titles of “Patron” and “National Horse Breeder”? The answer, if Turkmenistan is anything to go by, is a 21-metre marble and gold leaf monument, accessorised with a delirious chanting crowd.
The resource-rich but forcibly reclusive central Asian country has revealed its first statue to its dominant president, former dentist Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, after nine years of autocratic rule during which he has built up an all-pervasive and repressive personality cult.
Topped with a six-metre high statue of the president on horseback while holding aloft a dove, the monument was unveiled as birds and balloons were released into the air and students shouted “Glory to Arkadag” - or “The Patron”, the title bestowed upon Mr Berdymukhamedov by his people.
According to the official version, the edifice in a central square in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat was built only after public clamour for a permanent monument to the president became impossible to ignore.
One man attending the ceremony said: “Arkadag works for the glory of our people from dawn to dusk.”
But in a country where Mr Berdymukhamedov is also prime minister and commander-in-chief, the monument is in reality the latest manifestation of a system of government that has served Turkmenistan’s strong men leaders well for the last two decades.
The use of a personality cult to elevate the president to the status of a demi-god was pioneered by the current incumbent’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who had dotted his country with gilded statues of himself by the time of his death in 2006. Dubbed Turkmenbashi or Father of the Turkmen, the autocrat had one statue built in Ashgabat which slowly revolved to ensure his likeness was never out of the sun.
Mr Niyazov, a broad-beamed bon vivant who died of a heart attack, introduced a range of measures ranging from the eccentric - such as renaming the months of January and April after himself and his mother - to the tyrannical, including shutting hospitals and downgrading the education system.
His successor, who won a landslide 97 per cent in the 2102 presidential election, reversed some of those changes but has been no less assiduous in making sure those he rules believe he is fount of all material and spiritual improvement.
In contrast to Mr Niyazov, Arkadag portrays himself as an athlete and obsessive equestrian. He has dedicated himself to the promotion of the native Akhal-Teke breed and is duly portrayed riding one in his statue.
Human rights groups point out that despite promises of reform, the current president continues to preside over one of the world’s most repressive and isolated countries. Such concerns have nonetheless not stopped the European Union from striking a deal to commence gas exports from Turkmenistan, which has the world’s fourth largest reserves, to reduce its reliance on Russia.
Mr Berdymukhamedov remains modest in the face of his fellow countrymen’s apparent adoration. When presented with the statue proposal last year, he said: “My main goal is to serve the people and the Motherland. And so, I will listen to the opinion of the people and do as they choose.”
He did not attend the unveiling ceremony.
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