Weekend at Berdi’s
The president of Turkmenistan is probably alive. But as with so much else in the country, it’s hard to tell.
Like Schrödinger’s cat, the president of Turkmenistan spent the weekend hovering between life and death, with neither outcome certain. It’s difficult to get information in or out of Turkmenistan, an isolated and secretive Central Asian country along the Caspian Sea that holds the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves.
Access to the internet is tightly controlled and censored, and there is no independent media. That leaves Turkmenistan’s residents and outside observers reading between the lines of official propaganda, relying on rumors, and subsisting on scraps of often thinly sourced information.
On Sunday, that rumor mill turned to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the 62-year-old autocratic president of Turkmenistan, with unconfirmed reports of his death from renal failure flooding social media, news sites, and online messengers. The Turkmen Embassy in Moscow eventually took the rare step of denying the reports on Sunday night, calling them an “absolute lie.”
However, the rumors had already been spreading for more than a day, and the embassy’s response occurred after reports in the Russian press about the Turkmen leader’s death began to grow. Berdimuhamedov has made no appearances so far, with the embassy claiming he’s dealing with his mother’s illness.
The episode illustrates how difficult it is to get accurate information out of the country of 5.7 million people, which many analysts say is second only to North Korea in terms of its leadership cult and deliberate isolation.
“This is the problem that happens when there is a monopoly on information in a country,” said Luca Anceschi, an expert on Turkmenistan at the University of Glasgow. “You can’t trust anyone, unless you want to trust the government.”.
Deliberate opaqueness is worsened by the eccentric and reclusive nature of Turkmenistan’s regime, which is often ill-equipped to handle the spread of online information and whose lack of credibility can lend plausibility to various rumors.
“The mere fact that a president of a country can be rumored to be dead for nearly a day without any statement is, in itself, quite telling,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based press freedom organization.
Rumors of Berdimuhamedov’s deteriorating health are not uncommon, but the most recent batch was set off by a strange sequence of events. The first reports of the president’s death appear to have originated from a YouTube channel linked to a group of exiled Turkmen dissidents based in Europe, which posted a video on Saturday. This claim circulated online and through messenger groups until it was picked up by smaller, and eventually larger, Russian media outlets.
The rumors coincided with an official vacation by Berdimuhamedov, who had not been seen in public for 10 days, and earlier online rumors about a team of Turkish doctors that flew to Ashgabat, the capital, in May, as well as several flights from Turkmenistan to Germany. The Chronicles of Turkmenistan, an opposition website based outside the country, reported that Berdimuhamedov’s mother is in serious condition and was transported to Germany and that this may explain the flights and the timing of the president’s vacation.
“This rumor apparently emerged from abroad, but the country itself is full of rumors and disinformation about price hikes and the price of oil and gas,” Bihr said. “This is a natural development for a country with a complete lack of credible information.”
The Foreign Policy