Quiet Tyrannies Like Turkmenistan Aren’t a Laughing Matter
John Oliver’s jokes aside, the country’s silly Guinness records are evidence that it isn’t seen as toxic, though it should be.
The latest episode of British comedian John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” show, watched more than 3.6 million times on YouTube in addition to its usual audience of several million on HBO, drew Western watchers’ attention to one of the world’s most secretive countries, Turkmenistan — the only nation that ranks below North Korea on the Reporters Without Borders 2019 press freedom list.
Oliver found it especially worthy of ridicule that Turkmenistan’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, keeps registering one fatuous Guinness World Record after another. Oliver even tried to set a record of his own — for the world’s biggest marble cake featuring an image of a man (Berdimuhamedov) falling off a horse — but the Guinness World Record organization turned him down “on the basis that it was merely an opportunity to mock one of our record-holders.” (The cake was made, anyway.)
The case of Berdimuhamedov’s Guinness records is worth more than a few laughs, though. The bigger issue here is how the Western world treats tyrants who keep below the radar.
Rights to the Guinness World Records brand belong to a U.K.-registered company called GWRUK Acquisition Corp Ltd Group, a subsidiary of the Canada-based Jim Pattison Group Inc, which also owns Ripley Entertainment with its Believe It or Not! museums and aquariums. GWRUK is a small firm with 2017 revenue of 26.6 million British pounds ( $32.1 million), according to data filed with the U.K.’s Companies House. Most of the revenue comes from publishing the Book of World Records, which sells well every Christmas season, but a smaller part is made from adjudicating record attempts. “This part of the business continues to perform strongly year on year,” the company’s report says.
I found 14 records in the company’s database that are attributable to the government of Turkmenistan. Some, not mentioned by Oliver on his program, are genuinely puzzling, for example:
— “Largest gul.” (The description of the record explains that “a gul is a medallion-like design feature which often form the main motif for weavings and traditional designs from Turkmenistan,” so this particular record is unlikely to be challenged by anyone outside Turkmenistan)
— “Largest roof in the shape of a star” (on a newly opened airport) and “largest architectural star” (built into the foundation of a TV tower)
— “Fastest 10 meters on hind legs by a horse” (in 4.19 seconds; the horse, Akhan, is owned by Berdimuhamedov)
— “Most people singing in a round” (they sang a song composed by Berdimuhamedov)
— “First gas to gasoline plant” (this one I find the weirdest of all: gas-to-liquids technology has been around for decades, and the first gas-to-gasoline plant actually opened in the 1980s. The one in Turkmenistan only started operation this year, and even if some aspects of its technology can be described as groundbreaking, that hardly justifies a Guinness record)
Oliver’s take on these “achievements” — most of them recorded in 2018 and 2019, creating the impression that Guinness World Records adjudicators are rarely out of the country for long — is that the company behind the book of records makes money off dictators who want their regimes to be the best at something if they can’t sit on top of more meaningful rankings. That, however, is not quite accurate.
Inviting a Guinness World Records adjudicator costs thousands of dollars; to afford it, one doesn’t have to be a dictator sitting on 10% of global natural gas reserves, as Berdimuhamedov does. Besides, most of GWURK’s revenue, according to its accounts, comes from Western countries. It’s not as if the company were intentionally cultivating dictators as a market for its adjudication services; otherwise, Turkmenistan’s neighbor, Uzbekistan, another oppressive dictatorship, would have set some nice “records,” too (in fact, its government hasn’t followed Berdimuhamedov’s example).
Saudi Arabia, another oppressive regime, has some silly achievements listed in the book (for example, its General Authority for Entertainment, formed in 2016 as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s liberalization drive, simultaneously set off 962,168 fireworks in several cities and had that duly certified), but it’s also mentioned in the book as the country with the most executions per capita. This doesn’t look like a conscious practice of pandering to tyrants for a little cash. North Korea, home to the “largest gymnastic display,” also has been listed as “the most corrupt country in the world” when so designated by Transparency International.
Something else is happening here. The Guinness World Records organization — which told me in response to my questions about Turkmenistan that it’s apolitical and steers clear of achievements that involve, for example, cruelty to animals and forced labor — likely doesn’t perceive Turkmenistan and its record-hungry president as toxic or villainous because few people know they exist.
Turkmenistan doesn’t try to obtain nuclear weapons or get into wars. Its government, on the other hand, tells the world as little as possible about the country. No matter where you’re from, it’s very hard to get a visa to go there. The government has even stopped the International Monetary Fund from publishing its regular reviews of the country’s economy.
Berdimuhamedov has his little quirks, as described on Oliver’s show, and his little vanity projects (the nation’s Guinness records aren’t meant to attract tourists but to heighten the leader’s sense of achievement). He’s not hiding them: News of his various exploits are pretty much all that leaks out about Turkmenistan on the social networks. And he’s not getting exercised when people laugh at him, even when the mockery takes a nasty turn. Oliver accused Berdimuhamedov of an unnatural affection for horses; that was three days ago, and there has been no official reaction. In a similar case in 2016 (only involving goats), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went after German comedian Jan Boehmermann with a fury, forcing German authorities to charge him under an obscure law about insulting foreign dignitaries (the charges later were dropped and the law rescinded).
In other words, Berdimuhamedov is happy to keep selling gas to China and having fun quietly; he won’t hurt a fly (well, not exactly, but his numerous political prisoners and more than 120 disappeared dissidents aren’t household names). What he does to his country of 6 million is nobody’s business because he meddles in no one else’s.
The existence of such quiet dictatorships (and there are quite a few) is proof that Western sanctions have more to do with interests than values. Turkmenistan isn’t under any sanctions: It has a most-favored-nation trade agreement with the U.S. Oliver is right to drag Berdimuhamedov into the light of day — but it shouldn’t be just for laughs.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.