Tightly-controlled Turkmenistan toddles towards family rule

Reclusive Turkmenistan, where the president's favourite animals are honoured with gold statues and state media fawn over his latest musical dalliances, may be edging towards family rule.

The 63-year-old autocrat recently promoted his son to several top posts, prompting speculation he is priming for a political transition to ensure his family's grip on power in one of the world's most secretive authoritarian countries.

If the rumours of hereditary succession come to fruition, it would be a first for the Central Asia, a former Soviet region spanning five countries where political opposition and media freedoms are in short supply.

Turkmenistan saw fresh dynastic speculation this month when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov bestowed his son Serdar with a series of key political positions.

By presidential decree, the 39-year-old was made chief auditor, deputy chair of the cabinet and a member of the security council.

The ballooning government portfolio makes him "second only to the president", Ruslan Myatiyev, editor of the independent Netherlands-based website Turkmen News, told AFP.

He added that he expected imminent personnel changes in the security council to ease the younger Berdymukhamedov into a body that would likely play a key role in overseeing any power transition.

The elder Berdymukhamedov is not the first eccentric ruler of Turkmenistan, an oil-rich country of six million people famous for its outlandish displays.

He took the helm in Turkmenistan in 2006 after the sudden death of the country's first president Saparmurat Niyazov -- who famously renamed the month of April after his mother but kept his family out of the public eye.

Berdymukhamedov initially served Niyazov as his personal dentist, and after that as health minister.

His ascension to head of state was backed by powerful members of the security apparatus.

Serdar Berdymukhamedov is his only son. He has three daughters, and is thought to have at least eight grandchildren.

- Path of continuity -

Turkmenistan's neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have both seen non-hereditary successions in recent times, but Tajikistan -- Central Asia's poorest country -- has the best chance of pipping Turkmenistan in the dynasty stakes.

Rustam Emomali, the son of long-ruling leader Emomali Rakhmon, chairs the senate, a position that would allow him to step into the presidency should Rakhmon leave office during his seven-year-term.

But exiled Tajik journalist Khayrullo Mirsaidov told AFP that there are "doubts he could hold onto power", in particular among Tajikistan's allies in Moscow.

He added that scant evidence of oratory skills may be holding the 33-year-old football fanatic back.

Ben Godwin, head of analysis at PRISM Political Risk Management, said the opaque politics in Central Asian countries see ruling family members "meet resistance from other elite figures within the system" who are often invisible to outsiders.

Nevertheless, the Turkmen president and his son are only two of a "large number of Berdymukhamedov family members and allies that occupy senior positions in Turkmenistan’s political economy, Godwin said.

That suggests "an overall path of political continuity," he added, giving both the family and the tightly-controlled system a strong chance of survival.

- 'Outmoded Instagram' -

Berdymukhamedov junior will combine the new positions with his role as head of the national alabai association, which promotes a breed of shepherd dog that Turkmenistan's ruler once gifted to Russia's Vladimir Putin.

The much-loved canine was feted last year with a giant golden statue in the capital Ashgabat.

Serdar Berdymukhamedov was a little known figure until 2016, when he was elected to parliament in a landslide.

But his debut in the political arena was shaky.

Early appearances on state television saw him "looking fairly lost", according to Ruslan Tukhbatullin, editor-in-chief of Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a Netherlands-based news website founded by Turkmen emigres.

Tukhbatullin said his image has since "been worked on" but he is notably less fond of cameras than his father, who routinely appears on state media riding bikes and horses.

Another relative who enjoys abundant airtime where he is portrayed as a prodigy is the president's favourite grandson, Kerimguly Berdymukhamedov.

The stocky teenager was shown photographing his grandfather adding final touches to a carrot-nosed New Year's snowman that they built together in December.

The pair have composed and performed several songs, including one synth-pop hit about national horses.

The budding young musician was even recognised with a state prize for his "enrichment of national art with new works, successful performances at festive events" last summer.

But it is early to make career predictions for the youngest generation of Berdymukhamedovs, Tukhbatullin told AFP.

"Berdymukhamedov uses state television like an outmoded Instagram," the editor said.

"Just as some parents brag about their kids on social media, so he shows off his grandchildren on national TV."