The government of Turkmenistan held ceremonies in the nation’s capital, Ashgabat, this week to debut a series of “social and cultural centers,” at the heart of which will be a nearly 20-foot-tall statue of a golden dog.
The dog represents the Turkmen Alabay, a type of shepherd dog bred in the country and known to be the favorite of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
“The initiative to put a monument to a dog, having demonstrated respect and honor to an exemplary courage and cordial heart of these wonderful animals, having highlighted their role in historical destiny of the nation and that place, which alabays occupy in life of the nation, belongs to the Head of Turkmenistan,” state media asserted.
Turkmenistan is an insular, repressive dictatorship whose government imposes cult-like worship of Berdymukhamedov. The president’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, styled himself “Turkmenbashi,” or “father of the Turkmen,” forced the nation to study his book of personal musings, “Rukhnama,” as core education and micromanaged the lives of citizens through bans on things like ballet and beards. Many consider Berdymukhamedov slightly less repressive than Niyazov.
Meanwhile, Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has just unveiled a gisnt statue of his favorite dog pic.twitter.com/NSlIlXbAoH
— Piotr Zalewski (@p_zalewski) November 12, 2020
Footage from Turkmen state television shows revelers in traditional Turkmen outfits chanting at the dog statue, which feature at its foot what appears to be a giant LCD screen playing footage of the shepherd dog in action, running through fields. While Turkmenistan insists it is one of the few countries in the world that has not documented a single case of Chinese coronavirus despite high numbers of cases in neighboring states, the participants in the event appear to be practicing social distancing, standing about six feet apart.
The alabay statue appears to fit the aesthetic of the city. Ashgabat is believed to be home to more buildings made of white marble than anywhere in the world and is cluttered with gigantic golden statues of Niyazov and historical figures. Berdymukhamedov’s promotion of dog breeding is somewhat of a contrast with Niyazov, however, as the latter had reportedly banned pet dogs due to their smell.
’Everywhere on the wide, deserted pavements were the ornate streetlamps whose curling finials were said to contain listening devices. I’d been told that the whole of Ashgabat was bugged.‘
— London Review of Books (@LRB) July 24, 2020
Berdymukhamedov has publicly embraced the alabay breed as the pride of the country, gifting a puppy to ally Russian President Vladimir Putin — who famously collects dogs. In August, Berdymukhamedov made a promotional visit to dog breeders to promote the practice, which Turkmen media described as a “centuries-old tradition that is an integral part of the national heritage” and a “subject of keen attention of the head of state.” The promotional trip reportedly followed the opening of a new veterinary clinic and pet hotel in May. Turkmenistan has not invested any state money in building new hospitals or clinics for human beings during the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, which Ashgabat insists is not affecting it.
Turkmenistan, and President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and his suspiciously smooth neck has been touring Ashgabat spreading the word about [checks notes] dog breeding. https://t.co/gFfXK6jPjQ pic.twitter.com/8y04LFNzin
— Alistair Coleman (@alistaircoleman) August 27, 2020
Turkmen state media, the only legal media in the country, described the dog statue as part of a larger “social and cultural” complex in the capital.
“According to the Resolution of the Leader of the Nation, developed district with excellent high-rise residential buildings has been erected in the western part of Ashgabat, necessary road and transport infrastructure has been established and original monument ‘Turkmen Alabay’ has decorated the center of the roundabout,” English-language state media reported on Tuesday. “Shopping and entertainment center ‘Gül zemin’, which meets all modern requirements set to facilities of service and entertainment sphere, has also been built in this part of the city. [sic throughout]”
“It has become a good tradition in Turkmenistan to celebrate house-warming party on the threshold of big national holidays,” the article continued, claiming that over 1,000 families, all tied to the government in some way, now own “comfortable apartments” in Ashgabat. The Turkmen government strictly regulates who both is allowed in the capital and where they can go, including largely limiting free-flowing foot traffic, making the city often appear entirely empty.
“New residential estate, which was built along Magtumguly Avenue on big land plot between Taslama and Teheran Streets, has perfectly merged to magnificent architectural ensemble of Ashgabat,” state media celebrated. “This white-marble complex has become another man-made symbol of the epoch of might and happiness, a real embodiment of socially oriented policy, which slogan is “The State for the Human Being!”, pursued by the Leader of the Nation.”
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) noted regarding the campaign to honor the alabay that Berdymukhamedov had recently launched a “brutal, ongoing campaign” to kill stray dogs in the capital. To eliminate the dogs, and stray cats, residents have anonymously told RFE/RL that the president tasked roving animal death squads to brutally beat the animals to death in public, then take their carcasses away. The brutality reportedly extended to those offering the animals compassion.
“On May 16, city workers in Ashgabat raided the home of a licensed veterinarian who had been providing free medical treatment to sick and injured stray animals at his home,” RFE/RL reported. “The veterinarian told RFE/RL he was handcuffed to a heating radiator by the workers while they took away the six injured dogs and cats he had been treating.”
While Turkmenistan, which can afford its lavish constructions due to one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves, has invested heavily in decorating Ashgabat, there is no evidence it is aiding Chinese coronavirus patients and the government insists that it has not documented a single case there. Australia’s ABC noted this week that Johns Hopkins University ranked Turkmenistan’s healthcare system as one of the world’s least prepared for a pandemic, despite the nation’s wealth.
Reports surfaced out of the country in March that Berdymukhamedov had banned the use of the word “coronavirus” in public, not just by media but by regular cities. Locals in Ashgabat reported the arrests of individuals found to have mentioned coronavirus in public. Police also banned the use of sanitary masks, which would indicate a concern on the wearer’s part that they may be in danger of contracting the virus, according to Reporters Without Borders. As the Chinese coronavirus is not the only known coronavirus in the world, it was not immediately clear at the time of Ashgabat had banned mention of other types of coronaviruses, such as the one causing Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
A month later, Berdymukhamedov organized an event attracting thousands to the streets of the capital, none visibly wearing masks in government-published photos: ironically, a celebration of World Health Day. State propaganda regularly shows Berdymukhamedov exercising or otherwise tending to his health and promoting the nation as one of the world’s healthiest. Turkmen media claimed that 3,500 “lovers of a healthy lifestyle” participated in a World Health Day bicycle ride through the capital and 7,000 nationwide joined the cycling event.
World Health Day prompted a rare mention of the pandemic in Turkmen media: “At a time when the situation with coronavirus remains tense in many countries of the world, a calm epidemiological situation is ensured in Turkmenistan thanks to timely measures.”