May 16, 2013

Authoritarian Can’t Hide Embarrassing Story In The Internet Age

By: Joseph Hammond

Horses and powerful rulers have an odd relationship. Roman Emperor Caligula named his horse a consul. More recently, the horse of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov almost killed him.

Wearing traditional national dress Turkmen, the authoritarian leader was thrown from his horse last month in a race held in Turkmenistan. He was apparently briefly knocked unconscious this past Sunday it what was meant to be a carefully planned photo-op. After aids rushed to his side, the 55-year-old leader eventually regained consciousness and briefly appeared to reassure the crowd.

Despite his accident, it was widely reported that Berdymukhamedov won the 1,000 metre race against six rivals. (The media is tightly controlled in this nation of 5.5 million people.) Only recently have videos of the event leaked onto the internet.

The video shows both Gurbanguly’s headlong dive and assistants rushing to his aid. His horse Arkadag (the Patron) appears oddly unscathed. Occasionally, world leaders do die in horse riding accidents. Such was the fate of Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister, Don Senanayake, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), who died in 1952 when he had a stroke while riding in Colombo’s most famous public park, the Galle Face Green.

The authoritarian ruler of the gas-rich state of Turkmenistan entered in the event to promote the traditional Khal Teke breed horses. While horsemeat is consumed across the region, from Bashkortostan to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan is an exception.

Instead the Khal Teke has become an instrument of Turkmen softpower; the breed has been given as an official gift to various states including France (let’s hope it avoided the fate of a camel recently given to France from Mali).

(Perhaps taking a note from the political playbook of Russian President Vladmir Putin, Berdymukhamedov is an avid sports fan.  He has appeared in the media operating jet planes, race cars, practicing martial arts and shooting assault rifles. Last year, he asked government ministries to form ice hockey teams and he encourages a high level of physical fitness.)

But victory is victory: With the prize of 11 million dollars would make the event the world’s richest horse race (just surpassing the more conventional Dubai World Cup, a throughbred horse race for a 10 million dollar prize). With the race lasting just 21.2 seconds, the high purse would make the hapless president one of the world’s highest paid athletes on a second-per-second basis.

Joseph Hammond is a writer based in Cairo, Egypt. Turkmenistan military parade  image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.