Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, has come a little late to the puppy party. Since the very beginnings of social media, dog (and cat) videos have ruled the world wide web — an uncontroversial dose of unadulterated cuteness in a polarised, often abusive space. But under the animal-loving leadership of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the country has now made quite a splash. Not content with a mere video, Berdimuhamedov unveiled earlier this month a gigantic golden statue of an Alabay — a shepherd dog breed that is held in high esteem in the country. Under the statue, an LED screen constantly plays videos of Alabays doing dog-like things, quite endearingly.
This is neither the first time Berdimuhamedov, an authoritarian ruler who allegedly suppresses press freedom and on whose watch dissidents “disappear”, has tried to woo his countrymen in this manner; nor is he the first of his kind to do so. Adolf Hitler was famously enamoured with Blondie, a German Shepherd and Vladimir Putin has Pasha, Verni, Yume, Buffy and Koni. Verni, in fact, was a birthday gift to Putin from Berdimuhamedov. The puppy, clearly, presents the human side of strong men, allowing them to be likeable by association, displaying a streak of emotion, while still being intimidating. Donald Trump not having a dog makes him a rarity in this league and among US presidents.
Turkmenistan, like India, has an almost reverential relationship with some animals –- prominently, Alabays and Akhal Teke horses. It may or may not be a coincidence that Berdimuhamedov has written books about both animals. Perhaps there is a silver lining in the political manipulation of animals — dogs, horses, elephants, cows and sometimes, avian fauna, such as peacocks. Maybe they aren’t merely props for the Great Leader who thinks fundamental human rights are a legal technicality but cannot resist puppy eyes. Or, more likely, some politicians prefer pliant pets to a critical citizenry.
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