Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov stepped down as Turkmenistan’s president in March, handing power to his son, Serdar, in a managed election.
But the former leader, who ruled the country with an iron first after coming to power in 2006, has maintained a high profile in the tightly controlled Central Asian nation.
Often acting like a sitting president, Berdymukhammedov has visited and received heads of states, attended government meetings, and taken lavish tours of the country’s provinces.
The 65-year-old is still a top official, retaining his position as chairman of the upper house of parliament, a post he created and assumed in 2021. He has also kept his formal title of “Arkadag,” or “the Protector.”
But no official in Turkmenistan, barring the president, has ever had the level of influence and exposure that Berdymukhammedov currently enjoys.
Most recently, Berdymukhammedov received the presidents of Azerbaijan and Turkey in the Caspian Sea resort city of Awaza ahead of a trilateral summit.
President Serdar Berdymukhammedov had separate meetings with his Azerbaijani and Turkish counterparts, state media reported on December 14.
The former president stopped short of attending the summit. But his wife — former First Lady Ogulgerek Berdymukhammedova — surprised many in Turkmenistan by hosting the visiting first ladies of Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Berdymukhammedova rarely made public appearances when her husband was president.
Official photos show Berdymukhammedova attending an art exhibition and concert with Mehriban Aliyeva and Emine Erdogan before hosting a tea party for them. The current first lady of Turkmenistan, however, was nowhere to be seen during the trilateral summit.
Always On The Road
The elder Berdymukhammedov’s packed schedule in recent months has included an official trip to Moscow where he met Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 3. His son had visited the Kremlin in June.
On November 11, the former leader traveled to neighboring Uzbekistan to take part in a summit of the Organization of Turkic States attended by the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkey. Turkmenistan holds observer status at the organization.
Berdymukhammedov has also frequently toured the country’s five provinces where local authorities have mobilized thousands of people to clean the streets, paint faded buildings, or attend ceremonies to meet and greet the former leader.
Ahead of one of his trips to western Balkan Province last month, some 2,500 people were taken away from their day jobs to prepare the port city of Turkmenbashi for the visit, sources told RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service.
Residents said they did not know “until the last minute” if the former or current president was visiting their province.
On the eve of the elder Berdymukhammedov’s trip to Mary in November, a source close to the local authorities said that “at this point, it’s not clear who is coming and when they’re coming.”
“All we know is that a Berdymukhammedov will be visiting to attend a ceremony to lay the first bricks of a factory,” the source said.
“People don’t know which of the Berdymukhammedovs is really running the country, but whoever is in charge isn’t doing a good job,” a veteran Turkmen journalist told RFE/RL.
State media refers to the former president as “Our Hero Arkadag” and provides extensive coverage of his trips and meetings.
Many Turkmen privately complain about what they see as excessive preparations ahead of official visits to provinces where host governors create a facade of prosperity to hide the widespread poverty in the extremely isolated country.
“The country can’t afford this extravaganza for the father and son. They’ve turned the country into a family business,” the veteran journalist said on condition of anonymity.
“The Berdymukhammedovs live in their own world, completely detached from reality,” the reporter added. “They don’t know, or perhaps don’t care, that people don’t even have enough to eat.”
Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas, but the country remains largely impoverished. Chronic food shortages and price hikes have plagued many ordinary Turkmen in recent years.
Widespread poverty, corruption, and unemployment have forced millions of Turkmen to leave the country in recent decades.
Read More:Turkmenistan’s Former President Plays Role Of Leader Despite Stepping Down