By Associated Press - Monday, May 25, 2015

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) — Turkmenistan has unveiled a grandiose gold-leafed statue of the president carrying a dove and riding atop a horse — a move aimed at burnishing the leader’s burgeoning personality cult.

The 21-meter (69-foot) monument presented to the public Monday in the energy-rich but isolated Central Asian nation includes a statue of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov mounted on a towering pile of marble.

Turkmenistan is dotted with gold-leaf statues to Berdymukhamedov’s eccentric predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006, but this is the first such monument to the current leader.

Elevating its leader to virtual demi-god status has for two decades served as a way for the government in Turkmenistan to enshrine its legitimacy.

Officials, however, insist the new statue in the capital, Ashgabat, was built in response to overwhelming public demand.

“My main goal is to serve the people and the Motherland. And so, I will listen to the opinion of the people and do as they choose,” Berdymukhamedov said in 2014, responding to the statue proposal.

The authoritarian former Soviet nation has no independent public movements, however, making the notion that the statue was a grassroots effort improbable.

Berdymukhamedov, nicknamed Arkadag (the Protector), won the presidential election in 2012 with a landslide 97 percent in a vote criticized by election monitors.

State media has assiduously cultivated an image of Berdymukhamedov, a 57-year-old dentist, as a dynamo beloved by the people. Depicting him as active and sports-obsessed is designed to distinguish him from the late Niyazov, a corpulent bon viveur who died of heart failure.

In April, parliament approved a government decree bestowing Berdymukhamedov with the official title of “national horse-breeder of Turkmenistan.”

Horses, particularly the native Akhal-Teke breed, are an integral component of Turkmen folk culture.

Until now, adulation for the president has been channeled primarily through monuments dedicated to his father, Myalikguli Berdymukhamedov.

In a practice echoing Niyazov’s habit of naming streets and organizations after his parents, a police unit was named after Berdymukhamedov senior in 2012. Two bronze busts have also been erected in honor of the president’s father.

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