Turkmenistan unveils massive gold statue of president riding horse

The statue is called “The Protector”, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s unofficial title.

People gather for the monument unveiling ceremony in Ashgabat on May 25. Alexander Vershinin/AP
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ASHGABAT // The isolated Central Asian state of Turkmenistan on Monday unveiled a massive gold statue of president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov riding a horse in a move that echoes his predecessor’s cult of personality.

The 21-metre statue, located in the capital city of Ashgabat, depicts the president mounted on his favourite horse, Akkan (“White Khan”), and carrying a dove with his right hand.

Cast in bronze and covered in 24-carat gold leaf, it is the first such monument of the president of the energy-rich ex-Soviet country.

The statue is called “The Protector”, Mr Berdymukhamedov’s unofficial title.

Mr Berdymukhamedov, a former dentist, came to power after the death of Saparmurat Niyazov, who built a gold statue of himself that rotated with the sun’s movements before he suffered sudden heart failure in 2006.

The statue was taken down several years after Niyazov’s death, but has since been moved to the outskirts of the capital.

Niyazov, known for his cult of personality, also renamed months after members of his family and wrote a “book of the soul” that all schoolchildren were expected to learn by heart.

At the unveiling of the new statue, which Mr Berdymukhamedov did not attend, parliament speaker Akdja Nurberdieva said it was the result of “multiple suggestions from simple people, work collectives and public organisations”, in order “to mark his services to the homeland”.

The ceremony featured a rendition of the national anthem, soldiers taking an oath of loyalty to the president and a flock of white pigeons being released into the sky.

“All of us should thank the Almighty for the fact that our country is led by a wise statesman like the Protector,” said Nurali Gurbanov, 75, a pensioner attending the opening.

“We associate his name with our happy life,” Mr Gurbanov added.

Mr Berdymukhamedov’s style of rule is not unique in Central Asia, where longtime autocrats such as Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Tajikistan’s Emomali Rakhmon present their entrenched reigns as the only alternative to chaos and instability.

The lack of obvious candidates to succeed septuagenarians Mr Nazarbayev and Mr Karimov in particular has sparked fears of violent power struggles within the region’s elites when the strongmen eventually die.

But in Turkmenistan, whose population of around five million burns natural gas virtually free of charge in a state with the fourth largest reserves in the world, the transition from one all-powerful autocrat to another proved relatively seamless.

The parliament, which has no independent power, has bestowed titles on Mr Berdymukhamedov in the same way it did for Niyazov.

Last year it named horse-lover Berdymukhamedov a “Master Jockey and Mentor”. He was later recognised as a “People’s Horse Breeder” at a day of equestrian events in April, while his father, Myalikguli Berdymukhamedov, has also received numerous state honours.

In 2013, the president suffered a fall from his horse seconds after winning a race, clips of which have gained thousands of views on YouTube.

“The Protector” statue was unveiled to mark Ashgabat Day, a holiday celebrating the capital of 400,000 people that was recognised by the Guinness Book of Records in 2013 for housing “the highest density of white marble-clad buildings”.

“The monument of the Protector-Hero will perpetuate the memory of the heyday of the Turkmen state,” said Annadurdy Almamedov, a professor at the Academy of Arts of Turkmenistan, who was also present at the ceremony.

“We are witnessing today those glorious pages of history.”

* Agence France-Presse