ASHGABAT, April 29 (Reuters) - Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has taken his strongman personality cult to a new dimension with headlines in the state-run media trumpeting his victory in a horse race with an $11 million prize.
A professional dentist also known for his passion for glitzy racing cars, Berdymukhamedov has run the post-Soviet republic with an iron hand since 2006 when his flamboyant autocratic predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, died of a heart attack.
Widely referred to as “Arkadag” (The Patron) at home, he wields almost absolute power in the secretive, isolated Central Asian desert country of 5.5 million people that holds the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas.
State media on Monday showed Berdymukhamedov riding a shimmering straw-coloured horse of the national Akhal Teke breed named Berkarar (Mighty). He was wearing a traditional white Turkmen “telpek” sheepskin hat and crimson caftan.
The 1,000-metre (3,300-foot) race was held on Sunday when Turkmenistan celebrated The Day of the Turmen Racehorse - a holiday established by Niyazov to honour the local noble breed renowned for its speed and elegant grace.
“The spectators’ attention was riveted on the golden arrow - Berkarar, led by the leader of the nation. All was decided by fractions of a second, and Berkarar was the first to cross the finish line,” the Neitralny Turkmenistan daily wrote.
“President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has yet again demonstrated not only his high class as a horse rider, but also his strong will, firmness and courage.”
Berdymukhamedov, 55, will donate his $11 million prize to a state company breeding the Akhal Teke horses, local media said.
Turkmenistan, the only Central Asian nation that does not consume horsemeat, has developed a virtual cult of its “divine horses”. Akhal Teke horses have been given as a gift to the leaders of Iran, France, Russia, Kazakhstan and other nations.
Earlier Turkmen state television reports have lionised Central Asia’s youngest and most sporting leader by featuring him flying in a supersonic fighter jet, riding a tank, shooting an assault rifle and removing a benign tumour. (Reporting by Marat Gurt; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Mark Heinrich)