Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow is the President of Turkmenistan. He has held that office since the end of 2006, when he stepped in as acting president following the death of Saparmurat Niyazov. Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow officially won the election in early-February of 2007, and was sworn into office as the full President.
Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow was born in the 1950s in what is now the Ahal province, then under the auspices of the Turkmen SSR, as a part of the Soviet Union. He attended medical school in the 1970s, and pursued a career in dentistry.
In 1995, Berdimuhammedow joined the Ministry of Health and Medical Industry under president Saparmurat Niyazov, as the head of the dentistry center. He progressed quickly, and by 1997 was named the Health Minister. Four years later he was appointed Deputy Prime Minister.
In 2004 Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow had his salary suspended for three months by the president, in a sign of solidarity with lower-level healthcare professionals, who were at the time not being paid by the government because of budgetary issues.
President Niyazov died suddenly at the end of 2006, and Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow was put in charge of the commission to organize his funeral. Many people saw this as a sign that he would be the person chosen to fill in for the president. Sure enough, not long after, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow was appointed acting president by the State Security Council.
At the time Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow was appointed acting president, there was a provision in the constitution barring an acting president from running for the presidency in an open election. This was meant to stop someone from being appointed undemocratically and then using their incumbent status to hold on to power. However, not long after appointing Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow acting president, the People’s Council of Turkmenistan voted to remove that provision, removing any obstacle to him running for president.
In the open election, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow ran as one of six candidates, all members of the same party, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. He was widely supported by the various elite factions in Turkmenistan, and the official government results of the election show him having won more than 89% of the popular vote.
After taking on the full presidency, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow quickly set about shoring up diplomatic support internationally. He met with Vladimir Putin of Russia soon after his election, and also traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Abdullah. While in Saudi Arabia, he also visited a number of Islamic holy sites in Medina.
A number of rumors and speculations have risen surrounding Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow. Some people have suggested that, because of his visual similarity to president Niyazov, he may in fact have been the former president’s illegitimate son. Others have suggested this was a blatant propaganda move to establish a sense of continuity and legitimacy for his presidency. Many in the media have also criticized the election in which Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow won the presidency, with the International Crisis Group going so far as to call it blatantly falsified.