An expert's point of view on a current event.

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.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov presents a Alabai shepherd dog to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during a meeting in Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 11, 2017.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov presents a Alabai shepherd dog to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during a meeting in Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 11, 2017. Maxim Shemetov/AFP/Getty Images

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.”

Beyond rumors of the president’s health, Turkmenistan is believed to be in the midst of a growing economic crisis. In a sign of belt-tightening by the regime at the beginning of 2019, the government also hiked fees for utilities, including water, gas, and electricity—all of which were once free.

A report published in July by the Foreign Policy Centre, a London-based think tank (unconnected to this website), said the country was on the “edge of catastrophe” and that it was experiencing hyperinflation and food shortages, which have “led to the regime’s repression becoming ever tighter.”

In order to counteract the country’s dwindling foreign currency reserves, the government reportedly suspended the operation of locally issued Visa cards in 2018 and placed new restrictions on money transfer apps. The effect has meant that only the most privileged and best-connected citizens are able to go abroad or find ways to ease the growing economic pressure.

Despite the dimming economic situation in the country, state media in Turkmenistan often portrays the Central Asian nation in an era of prosperity and abundance, using images familiar from Maoist or North Korean propaganda. Programs routinely feature Berdimuhamedov visiting factories and schools, as well as strange videos of the president singing songs with his grandson, lifting weights, and shooting at targets to the enthusiastic applause of a group of officials.

“The country’s population are essentially economic prisoners,” said Kate Mallinson, an analyst at Chatham House and the managing director of Prism, a political risk consultancy, who visited Turkmenistan in June. “There is a growing gap with how people live and what they see on the TV screen, and it’s feeding a strong sense of hopelessness that can only grow.”

Berdimuhamedov has ruled Turkmenistan since 2006 following the death of his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, who was known for creating a cult of personality. Niyazov infamously renamed the months of the year after himself and his mother and raised a gold-plated statue of his likeness that rotated to face the sun.

After becoming president, Berdimuhamedov, who had risen from being a dentist to health minister under Niyazov, dismantled the cult. But by 2015 Berdimuhamedov was creating his own cult of personality, erecting a new golden statue of himself riding a horse and cultivating an image as an athletic strongman.

The Turkmen president was able to ride an initial wave of high energy prices to consolidate his hold on power, but the deepening economic crisis has shown the regime is on increasingly shaky ground, regardless of the veracity of the current set of rumors, Mallinson said.

“This episode should make it clear that Turkmenistan is ill-prepared to face the challenges of the future,” she said.

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan