Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has made no secret of his love of horses: A passionate equestrian, he has written books about horses and was given the remarkable title of "national horse-breeder of Turkmenistan" last year.
Now the Central Asian strongman's love of horses has been immortalized with a gold-leaf statue of Berdymukhamedov on horseback in the Turkmen capital. The grandiose monument, unveiled on Monday in Ashgabat, sits atop a mountain of marble, towering some 69 feet above the city.
To outside observers it may seem like an odd move. While Berdymukhamedov may have put in place a mighty personality cult within Turkmenistan since coming to power in 2006, to foreigners he may be best known for an incident in 2013, during which he dramatically fell off a horse.
That infamous incident was captured in amateur video that showed Berdymukhamedov competing in an official horse race. At the start, the Turkmenistan president is leading the pack, but his horse stumbles and he is thrown into the ground, hard. In the video, the commentator stops and an eerie silence falls over the crowd. It's clear something has gone very wrong.
When the Turkmen president reappeared later, he was apparently unharmed though flustered. The BBC reports that those in the audience were told to delete any footage they had of the fall. Later, when news of the horse race was shown on television, Berdymukhamedov's fall was not mentioned. Instead he was announced as the winner of the race, and given a $11 million prize (which he donated to charity). The illicit video of his fall later went viral, however, pulling back the curtain on the personality cult.
Why would Berdymukhamedov want to relive this horrible moment? Well, for one thing, he may suspect that not too many Turkmen citizens would link the 2013 fall to the 2015 statue – the country is one of the most restrictive in the world and has tight censorship on the Internet.
And Berdymukhamedov has other concerns about his future legacy: In particular, how it stacks up to his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who led Turkmenistan for more than two decades. Many had hoped that Berdymukhamedov, a former dentist, would dial back some of the more outlandish elements of repression and personality cult in Turkmenistan when he was appointed acting president after Niyazov's death.
Instead, he appears to be focused on differentiating his own personality cult from Niyazov's. In particular, he appears to what to show himself as an active leader, winning competitions in taekwondo, cycling, and car racing: His own Web site suggests that he devotes "half of his day off to sports." Niyazov died from heart failure.
In Turkmenistan, where horse-riding is an important part of culture, a gold-plated monument to Berdymukhamedov's horse-riding skills may well be an important relic in the future. As the Guardian's Shaun Walker notes, Niyazov built a gold-plated statue of himself in the center of Ashgabat that would rotate so it always faced the sun. Under Berdymukhamedov, that statue has been moved to the outskirts of the city.
Berdymukhamedov has claimed that the statue was required as his people had called for it. “My main goal is to serve the people and the Motherland," Berdymukhamedov said in 2014 when the statue was proposed, according to the Associated Press. "And so, I will listen to the opinion of the people and do as they choose."