Jennifer Lopez spent her Saturday night in the oil-rich Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan, where she gave an immediately controversial concert that ended with her and her dancers singing "Happy Birthday" to Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, whose human rights record is considered one of the worst in Asia. The above video, likely from Turkmenistan state TV, shows clips from the concert, Lopez waving to Berdimuhamedow and the customary fireworks show for his birthday.
The concert was hosted by the China National Petroleum Corporation, a Chinese state-run energy firm with huge financial interests in the country, including a massive oil pipeline. China, to fill nearly insatiable energy needs, has a rapidly growing presence in the region.
A statement released by Lopez's representatives says that she didn't know about Turkmenistan's or Berdimuhamedow's human rights record. That's not entirely implausible: how many Americans can honestly articulate the differences between every post-Soviet, Central Asian republic? Still, had she or her staff googled either the country or its leader ahead of the event, here are some of the things they might have discovered:
• Human Rights Watch says that Turkmenistan "remains one of the world’s most repressive countries." Freedom House routinely includes it on their "worst of the worst" report on human rights abusers, alongside Sudan, Syria, Cuba and others. They cite the total absence of any political dissent, fierce retaliation against those who do speak out, media censorship and a cult of personality surrounding the president.
• The few independent journalist there are tightly controlled and live under threat. A man with Radio Free Europe was arrested without charge just last month. In 2003, another Radio Free Europe reporter wrote in the Washington Post about being detained, beaten, injected with an unknown substance and forced to pay a bribe for his release.
• The European Union, warning of worsening human rights abuses, has refused to engage directly with Turkmenistan's government since 2008, shortly after Berdimuhamedow took office.
• One Asia scholar, after a visit to Pyongyang, quipped that North Korea is "Turkmenistan without the oil."
• Perhaps Berdimuhamedow's oddest eccentricity is his apparently deep hatred of cats and dogs. At first, he ordered authorities in any city he was visiting to exterminate all stray cats and dogs there. But that eventually escalated to pets as well, with some dog-owners having their pet killed because the president had seen it from his motorcade and ordered its death.
• Although the country is not rich and food can be difficult for some families to afford, much of the country's oil wealth is invested in the city's ornate marble buildings and vast, undisturbed lawns.
• The Internet is tightly censored and most social media banned, which is why Lopez's choreographer J.R. Taylor received little reply when he tweeted, upon landing, "The Turkmenistan Breeze feels amazing at night Kidz! I wonder were all my Turkmenistan followers are!? Hit me up!" The tweet was later deleted.
Lopez is not the first pop star to have this problem. In 2009 in neighboring Uzbekistan, for example, Sting performed for the powerful daughter of dictator-for-life Islam Karimov. But the biggest authoritarian patrons of Western pop singers were by far the Gaddafis, whose patriarch Moammar ruled Libya for decades before being killed in a NATO-aided uprising and civil war. Several of the stars who performed for the Gaddafis – including Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Nelly Furtado and 50 Cent – later renounced their lavish payments, giving them to charity.