ASHGABAT - The ruler of ex-Soviet Turkmenistan has ditched his signature black hair dye a move that will be closely analysed in a nation famed for its leadership personality cults. A photograph of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on the front of state mouthpiece Neutral Turkmenistan on Thursday showed his thick, dark mane flecked with grey for the first time since he came to power in 2006.

Television footage showing the 61-year-old leader meeting neighbouring Kazakhstan’s new ambassador to the gas-rich nation confirmed the change.

Berdymukhamedov’s new look marks a break from his late predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, who made waves in 1999 when he appeared in public with auburn hair after previously sporting a whiteish do. Niyazov claimed the change was a byproduct of seeing a Chinese scalp doctor, initially to cure hair loss following a heart operation in 1997.

Niyazov’s hair later transitioned to a jet black colour, with cabinet ministers and the country’s ambassador to China following suit in shows of solidarity.

Greying presidential portraits across the country were scrapped for new ones. Both Berdymukhamedov, who became president in 2006, and Niyazov are honoured by golden statues in the country’s white marble-clad capital Ashgabat.

Rights groups accuse Berdymukhamedov of heading one of the most repressive and isolated regimes in the world.

In recent months he has performed a patriotic rap on state TV along with his grandson and released a biography of his mother, which has been acclaimed by local critics.