Turkmenistan's authoritarian leader unveils huge golden dog statue in the capital

A statue of a Turkmen shepherd dog, locally known as Alabai, in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan on November 10, 2020.

Turkmenistan's longtime leader has unveiled a giant gilded statue of a dog on a busy traffic circle in the capital Ashgabat.

Depicted standing proudly on a plinth, the gold-coated canine is an Alabai, a Turkmen-bred variety of the Central Asian shepherd dog and a symbol of national pride in the reclusive, authoritarian nation.
State TV Watan Habarlary showed President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov waving to clapping onlookers as he unveiled the statue this week, in a ceremony replete with traditional dancers, a child holding a real Alabai puppy, and a balloon release. A video screen wrapped around the statue continuously plays footage of the local breed running through grass or the desert and playing with children.
    Along with horses, dogs are considered part of the country's national heritage and are widely used by the many traditional herders among the population of six million. Berdymukhamedov, 63, has written a book and a poem about the Alabai dog and in 2017 gifted Russian President Vladimir Putin with a puppy for his birthday.
      The large, stocky breed is known as "wolf crusher" for its prowess in guarding sheep and goats and is also used to guard homes.
      The golden statue is the latest addition to Ashgabat's growing collection of monuments, joining a gold-coated statue of President Berdymukhamedov himself seated on a horse mounted on a white marble cliff, built at another major junction in 2015.
      Berdymukhamedov has held tight control of the country since the 2006 death of his equally authoritarian predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov.
        In the years since, the President has embarked on a building spree that transformed the sleepy capital into a showcase of golden domes, giant statues and white marble buildings. The city holds the Guinness World Record for the highest density of white marble-clad buildings anywhere in the world, and Berdymukhamedov's portrait hangs from many of them.
        Other projects include a $2.3 billion airport shaped like a bird and a $5 billion so-called "Olympic village" for the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, according to British think tank, The Foreign Policy Centre.
        Despite the glitzy capital and billions of dollars spent on architectural curiosities, Turkmenistan's population faces hyper inflation and food shortages.
        A 2019 report by The Foreign Policy Centre, suggests Turkmenistan's economy -- which relies on the country's vast reserves of gas -- is in the grip of its worst economic crisis and on the "brink of collapse," driven in part by low gas prices and falling natural gas exports.
        Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov presents a Turkmen shepherd dog to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on October 11, 2017.
        The government's inaction to respond to the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has also exacerbated the country's already dire food crisis, which has been compounded by poor harvests and shortages of subsidized food, according to a September report from Human Rights Watch and the Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights.
        Local people interviewed by the rights group reported waiting for hours in lines for subsidized food, of which up to 70 to 80% of their income goes towa