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The Second-Most Megalomaniacal Dictator on Earth

Everyone knows the world's most megalomaniacal dictator. That would be Kim Jong Un of the North Korean hermit kingdom, also known as “The Precious Leader,” son of the “The Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il. His grandfather, Kim Il Sung, is still known today as “The Great Leader" for being the man who invented inventing things.

Funny that hardly anyone has even heard of the second-most megalomaniacal dictator on earth. We're all groaningly familiar with the likes of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, Russia's Vladimir Putin, and Iran's “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei because they all enjoy blowing things up in other people's countries, but not even Putin is as full of himself as Gurbanguly Mälikgulyýewiç Berdimuhamedov.

I can't pronounce his name either.

He's the ruler of—where else?—one of the 'Stans.

Turkmenistan, to be exact, where the post-Soviet period is exactly like its Soviet period.

Berdimuhamedov just erected a 69-foot statue of himself in the center of Ashgabat, the capital. He's up there on a golden horse atop an enormous slab of marble that looks like an iceberg.

He's compensating. Two years ago he fell off a horse at an official race. The only reason we even know this is because a brave person in the audience captured it on amateur video and uploaded it to the Internet. All the other riders rode past him as he lay flat on his back in the dirt, but he was declared the winner regardless and awarded an 11 million dollar prize for his “performance.”

One of the perks of absolute rulership, I guess. Nice work if you can get it, as long as you don't suffer from common ailments like a conscience or guilt.

When the statue was unveiled, students chanted “Glory to Arkadag!”

He pretends the whole thing was somebody else’s idea. “My main goal is to serve the people and the motherland,” he said, “and so, I will listen to the opinion of the people and do as they choose.”

Moammar Qaddafi used to say the same thing about his own buffoonish portraits plastered up all over Tripoli and even out in the desert.

This clown follows President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006 of heart failure. He renamed months of the year after himself and his family. He built a 60-foot statue of himself that slowly rotated so that his face was always in sunlight. Officials took it down in 2010, but rather than melting it into slag, they raised it 60 feet higher.

His face was on all the money, of course, but it was also on all the bottles of vodka.

Niyazov editedthe Qur’an so that it includes his birthday. The world's jihadists either didn't know, didn't care, or figured he wasn't a soft enough target. Not content to ban only Taliban-style long beards, he banned all facial hair, so whatever Salafists might exist in Central Asia may have rightly assumed that a guy like that won’t put up with their crap.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. He’s no cultural liberal. He banned ballet. He even banned lip-syncing, not because such activities threatened his rule, but because he didn't care for them, so why should anyone else?

Their job was to care about him. He even named a meteorite after himself.

Lots of books are banned in Turkmenistan, but not Niyazov's contribution to world literature, the Ruhnama. His government hails it as “The Answer to All Questions” and says it’s on par with the Bible and the Qu’ran, so no one ever needs to read anything else.

After all that, the country looks and feels pretty much like you'd expect.

CNN's Amanda Davies was there last week:

Shops are nowhere to be seen; nor adverts for international brands. Even people are hard to come by.

We'd been on Turkmenistan soil for 30 seconds when we glimpse our first Berdimuhamedov portrait. It took just 10 minutes from exiting the airport to be told: “You can't film that.”

[…]

Nobody we met would say anything against Berdimuhamedov. Then again we struggled to find anyone to say very much at all about anything.

The only other countries in the entire world more oppressive than Turkmenistan are North Korea and Eritrea. But Turkmenistan doesn't screw with its neighbors and there’s no pressure to reform from outside whatsoever, so its people will suffer indefinitely and, for the most part, anonymously.

 

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