You are president of one of the world’s most repressive regimes. You arrest and torture political activists. You came to power in 2006 when the term of the previous president for life expired. Competing for office in a field of nine candidates, amazingly you prevail with more than 98 percent of the vote – an enormous accomplishment for a supposedly democratic election and one almost as impressive as Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein achieved in 2002, with 100 percent of the vote. But, then, dictators will be dictators.
Your country is Turkmenistan, and those living outside your borders are not getting a particularly “warm and fuzzy” feeling that “Turkmenistan is for lovers.” For you, this simply is not the image of respectability you wish to see projected.
But what is a dictator to do to change one’s image? How does he gain respectability, promoting the image of a “kinder, gentler” leader over the one known to exist? If you are Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, you most definitely have your work cut out for you.
One approach to take to demonstrate your sensitive side while continuing to torture your people is to use a puppy! After all, everyone loves puppies. So Berdymukhamedov provided just such a photo opportunity, showing himself giving fellow strongman Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, a puppy for his birthday in October. But the sight of two such ruthless leaders – neither one really known for his humanity – fawning over a puppy appears somewhat hypocritical. The effort did nothing to take the sharp edges off the dictator’s persona.
But, not to worry, the “Terror of Turkmenistan” had earlier embarked upon another approach he had in his bag of publicity tricks. He knew he needed help. He knew he needed an international organization involved to project the positive image he desired. And he knew exactly which organization to approach in order to “buy” the respectability he needed.
He turned to an organization demonstrating a high standard in promoting hypocritical values – the United Nations. After all, if the U.N. was capable of selecting some of the most brutal human rights abusers to serve on its Human Rights Council, how hard could it be to get its agreement to endorse a dictator? The U.N. – an organization driven less by the principle of human rights and more by the principle of “show me the money” – would be an easy sell. All he needed to do was identify a worthy project to fund and champion. He was right – he identified his project, and the U.N. proved an easy sell.
The project Berdymukhamedov identified was one involving the U.N.’s World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC). This group held a conference Nov. 30 to Dec. 1 in Germany, which Turkmenistan funded, to discuss reducing global tobacco consumption. A year earlier, Berdymukhamedov had imposed a ban on all smoking in his country. Due to addiction, the ban has come in handy to arrest journalists who have criticized the leadership and were caught with tobacco products.
There was irony in Berdymukhamedov’s selection of this particular issue as smoking is so imbedded within the country’s culture. It is a vice imprinted upon its young people at a very early age. As such, it is not uncommon to see boys as young as 10 with a cigarette dangling from their lips. But for a country with such a dismal human rights record, obviously its dictator had no concerns about the health of his countrymen.
While the government-controlled press in Turkmenistan projects the image of a leader committed to a healthy lifestyle, perhaps the dictator also relishes death by torture for his citizenry as a faster means of execution than the much slower process of death by tobacco.
But, as might be expected, passing a law banning smoking in a country like Turkmenistan proved as ineffective as a law in the U.S. would probably be in banning the dynamic duo of Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken from groping women. The result has been the emergence of a black market in which the cost of cigarettes has skyrocketed.
In its annual human rights reporting, the U.S. State Department routinely criticizes Turkmenistan. It notes a litany of human rights concerns running the gamut, such as, “arbitrary arrest; torture; disregard for civil liberties, including restrictions on freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and movement; and citizens’ inability to change the government through free and fair elections,” which helps to explain Berdymukhamedov’s whopping 98 percent vote.
The real tragedy evolving out of the U.N. and Turkmenistan working on this regional tobacco control project is clear. Whatever respectability Berdymukhamedov gained by teaming with the U.N. has come at the high cost of the WHO FCTC losing its own respectability. By affiliating with a country globally ranked 178 out of 180 in the Press Freedom Index, declared an “information black hole” (only edging out such free press stalwarts as Eritrea and North Korea) and holding a corruption index ranking of 132 out of 154, the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control foolishly gave a tacit stamp of approval to a dictator undeserving of it.
With the able assistance of Turkmenistan’s dictator, the U.N. has managed to sink to a new low.