Sometimes it’s hard to discern a parody from its original.
Like in this bizarre propaganda footage above, showing the 60-year-old president of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in full military uniform and dark sunglasses, firing Putin-style and with extreme precision at targets with an automatic rifle, pistol and even knives.
However, this video is actually a parody, created by opposition website in exile Khronika Turkmenistana (The Chronicle of Turkmenistan), as the first few seconds reveal.
In the edited version, which ironically went viral with more than 300,000 views, shots of Arnold Schwarzenegger suiting up and arming himself with several weapons in the 1985 action movie Commando pave the way for Berdymukhamedov’s military show-off.
Ruslan Tuhbatullin, the editor and producer of the satirical video, said Commando was the first thing that came to mind when he saw the propaganda footage on Turkmen State TV.
“I think the way Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov (try to read it out loud) was outfitted and his action hero attitude suits the Commando theme perfectly,” he said. “TBH it wouldn’t surprise me if Bedymuhamedov was actually trying to copy John Matrix.”
A former dentist turned authoritarian leader, Berdymukhamedov has won the latest (rigged) election with 97 percent of the vote. He’s been head of state since 2007.
Just like any dictator, Berdymukhamedov loves theatrical, crowd-pleasing, camera-filled displays where he can feed his personality cult.
Videos show him breaking into a song while visiting a gas chemical complex; playing piano, guitar and even doing a DJ set; writing songs with his grandchildren; riding horses (Putin, anyone); displaying his athletic prowess or working out.
Although, during the 2013 Day of the Horse celebrations, the president fell off his horse mid-race.
But for any of these videos, Tuhbatullin and his team produced a parody. Not that the originals aren’t funny enough.
“When making these videos I try to emphasise the absurdity of the situation in Turkmenistan,” Tuhbatullin said.
“Not that the raw footage broadcasted on Turkmen state TV is not absurd enough but these little additions help a lot and make people want to share these videos.”
One genuinely hilarious example is this clip of the president sporting an all-green tracksuit pumping iron in the gym, while his ministers zealously follow suit:
Tuhbatullin edited the video with sound effects from a Benny Hill-style show from the 1990s that was very popular in post-Soviet Turkmenistan called Maski-show.
“Berdymuhamedov regularly works out in gym (at least that’s what they claim on official media) and often makes his ministers, heads of force structures and even the head of the Parliament (the woman in the video) train alongside with him,” he said.
“I wonder what would happen if Trump tried to force senators and state prosecutors train in front of him in a similar fashion…”
The viral component of these videos is important to help raise people’s awareness of human rights violations in Turkmenistan, where there is virtually no free media, no opposition, no freedom of movement, no independent NGOs, no fair trials and justice, and total corruption.
“Where should I even start?” Tuhbatullin says when asked about the human rights situation in the country. “Turkmenistan is considered to have one of the worst authoritarian regimes. It’s always being placed in the very bottom of many human rights and corruption indexes.”
According to Reporters without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Turkmenistan ranked 178 out of 180 countries — before Eritrea and North Korea.
Transparency International ranked it 154 out of 176 as far as corruption is concerned.
“Regardless of constitution, Turkmenistan is becoming a monarchy,” Tuhbatullin said. “Country is ruled by one man, who’s already preparing his son and even grandson to take over.”
Who knows, maybe laughter will help prevent that from happening.