RFE/RL: Heir Apparent? The Grooming Of Turkmenistan’s Serdar Berdymukhammedov

It has been obvious for several years that Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has been grooming his son, Serdar, to become the country’s next leader.

The most recent example came in a February 11 announcement that Serdar had been given three new posts: deputy prime minister, which also gives him a seat on Turkmenistan’s Security Council, as well as the head of the government’s audit chamber.

The date of the announcement is interesting, since it was on the same day in 2007 that Serdar’s father was first made president.

The constitution also says that a president must be at least 40 years old. Serdar turns 40 on September 22.Ever since the 39-year-old Serdar entered the Turkmen political world, people have been monitoring his actions and looking for clues as to when his father might step down and let his son take his place in a country where no free or fair elections have been held since it gained independence nearly 30 years ago.

The constitution also says that a president must be at least 40 years old. Serdar turns 40 on September 22.

Serdar won a seat in parliament in a November 2016 election to fill a vacant seat. No reason was ever given as to why the seat was vacant.

Even though his name had hardly been mentioned anywhere prior to that, an election that probably would have passed unnoticed suddenly took on great significance.

Serdar had already served as a deputy agriculture minister and then as a manager of the now defunct State Agency on Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources.

On July 15, 2016, when that body was eliminated, President Berdymukhammedov signed a decree creating three new departments in the Foreign Ministry; Serdar was transferred to one of them.

Serdar Berdimukhamedov (left), then a deputy in Turkmenistan's parliament, meets in Astana in March 2018 with then-Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Serdar Berdimukhamedov (left), then a deputy in Turkmenistan’s parliament, meets in Astana in March 2018 with then-Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

It was already an amazing beginning to Serdar’s political career. He had only finished his university work in 2014 when he earned a degree in physics and mathematical sciences from Turkmenistan’s Academy of Sciences.

But Serdar’s fortunes really took off after his father became Turkmenistan’s acting leader in late 2006.

Until then, Serdar had been working in the food-processing sector and appeared to be headed toward a career in the Turkmen wine industry.

Insight into Serdar’s character is difficult to find. He certainly seems uncomfortable in many photos and videos.

But in 2008 he went to study at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy and was simultaneously assigned as a counselor at the Turkmen Embassy in Moscow. He completed his studies in Russian in 2011 and then became a student at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. While there for two years, he served simultaneously at the Turkmen Mission to the UN office in Geneva and as a counselor at Turkmenistan’s consulate.

The counselor posts were important because they preserved Serdar’s residency status. According to the Turkmen Constitution, parliamentary deputies must have lived in Turkmenistan for the previous 10 consecutive years to qualify as a candidate. Presidents must have lived in the country for 15 years.

Four months after being elected to parliament, Serdar was appointed chairman of the parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee.

He was reelected to parliament in March 2018 and from there he began a rapid climb up the state hierarchy.

In January 2019, Serdar was appointed deputy governor of Ahal Province, which is where Ashgabat is located, though the Turkmen capital has a special status and is not officially part of the province.

In June of that year he took over as governor and in February 2020 was appointed as the country’s industry and construction minister.

A short stint in the military was also part of Serdar’s preparation; he served in the army from 2001 to 2003 as a private. A surprise announcement came in August 2017 when he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, right before the start of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, though it was not clear when he was first made an officer.

In 2017-18, Serdar made official trips to Tatarstan to meet with President Rustam Minnikhanov; to Moscow, where he met with the chairwoman of the Federation Council, Valentina Matviyenko; to Kazakhstan, where he represented Turkmenistan at a Central Asian summit (though he was not in a group of photos with the other presidents); and then to Belarus to attend a meeting of CIS foreign ministers in April 2018 — just two weeks after he was appointed deputy foreign minister.

State media often airs video and photos of Serdar with his father, including at the February 2018 start of the Amul-Hazar off-road auto rally, where state TV showed a relay race in which President Berdymukhammedov handed the baton to Serdar in a cheesy — and unmistakably symbolic — gesture.

Passing the baton
Passing the baton

And while the early reports were often father-and-son affairs, Serdar and his government work have increasingly been the subject of reports in the state media.

Insight into Serdar’s character is difficult to find. He certainly seems uncomfortable in many photos and videos.

There are reports that when he was a student in Russia he was “composed,” not given to strong displays of emotion, and despite being the son of a president, generally behaved like any other student. Others say that prior to being elected to parliament he seemed more interested in business and appeared a bit disinterested in politics.

According to another report, after becoming governor of Ahal Province, Serdar imposed a series of new regulations governing access to the provincial administrative building and personal conduct inside the building.

The rise of the president’s son through the ranks has taken place in parallel with his father’s rumored health problems.

The new rules gave only a few officials permission to come to his office, ordering employees to remain in their offices during working hours unless they absolutely needed to go out, and that they should be quiet while inside the building. No mobile phones were allowed inside; guards — something that had not existed under previous governors — were placed around the building.

It is said that it was common for Serdar to bully subordinates, telling them: “I’ll snap your neck,” in a sign that his grooming process seems to involve a range of techniques for governance.

According to the constitution, the parliament speaker takes over if the president is unable to perform the functions of the top office.

That was also true when Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, died in late December 2006, though the speaker of parliament at that time, Ovezgeldy Ataev, was immediately arrested and charged with inciting interclan rivalries, clearing the way for the previously little-known health minister, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, to be named acting president.

In any case, elections to the newly created bicameral parliament are in March, and it will be the chairperson of the upper house of parliament who will assume the presidential post if the president is unable to perform his duties. Serdar is seen as a possible candidate for this position.

The constitution also says that a president must be at least 40 years old. Serdar turns 40 on September 22.

The rise of the president’s son through the ranks has taken place in parallel with his father’s rumored health problems. It is an open secret that Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is a diabetic and that it runs in his family (though there is no mention if Serdar also suffers from it).

There have been rumors since Serdar was first elected to parliament that Berdymukhammedov had fallen into a diabetic coma. For most of July and early August 2019, the president was unusually absent from state media, sparking speculation that he might have died.

Since the coronavirus outbreak started, it has been almost impossible for foreigners to enter Turkmenistan. The capital has been off-limits to all but a few outsiders. Among these few are a group of German doctors led by Klaus Parhofer, who have been flown aboard Turkmen airplanes to Ashgabat twice since late November.

The suggestion that Central Asian leaders would try to create dynasties in their countries is not new.

People thought it might be possible in Kazakhstan, where first President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s eldest daughter, Darigha, has been mentioned as a possible successor and, according to some observers, still might be.

In Uzbekistan, some believed first President Islam Karimov’s eldest daughter, Gulnara, might one day take the reins after her father died, though she was instead put in prison.

In the strongly patriarchal societies of Central Asia, the gender of Nazarbaev and Karimov’s eldest offspring may have worked against them, which could suggest Serdar, or Rustam Emomali — the eldest son of long-serving Tajik President Emomali Rahmon — might be better positioned to make the first dynastic transition.

But in Turkmenistan’s case, Berdymukhammedov is not the first president. The form of governance practiced in Turkmenistan — the cult of personality that places the president at the center of all that is and can be — is still easily recognizable as the form of government created by Niyazov.

It is difficult to predict if this system is transferrable from father to son, since the first half of the 30 years of Turkmenistan’s independence saw the rule of someone who was not from the Berdymukhammedov family.

Turkmenistan is not North Korea or Azerbaijan. Serdar’s eventual ascension to the presidency may seem probable, but it might prove incompatible.

Bruce Pannier