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Dead Silence: Delays, Deception Mark The Deaths Of Dictators

Uzbek President Islam Karimov is not the only totalitarian leader whose death was announced after days of silence and speculation. (file photo)

Word on the health of a gravely ill Uzbek President Islam Karimov was slow to emerge in the Central Asian nation before his death was finally announced on September 2. But that's not really surprising.

In totalitarian states where power is largely in the hands of one individual, the death of the country’s leader can send shock waves through the whole of society with the public uncertain of who or what comes next.

For those jockeying for power, any delay can also be used to advantage. Here are some of the cases in modern history of an announcement of the death of a leader being marked by delays and deceptions.

Yuri Andropov

Yury Andropov (1914-1984)
Yury Andropov (1914-1984)

Soviet leader Yuri Andropov died at age 70 of kidney failure. He already had health issues when he became secretary general of the Central Committee of the Communist Party on November 12, 1982. He had diabetes and in February 1983 suffered kidney failure. At the time, however, the Kremlin did not disclose that fact. It was not until a few days after Andropov’s death on February 9, 1984 that TASS finally reported details of Andropov's catastrophically failing condition, which the Kremlin attributed to kidney failure. TASS said Andropov had been receiving kidney dialysis therapy since February 1983 when his kidneys stopped working. For the public in the Soviet Union, it was the first glimpse into some of the details of the Soviet leader's ordeal that incapacitated him for much of his short term in office.

Heydar Aliyev

Heydar Aliyev (1923-2003)
Heydar Aliyev (1923-2003)

Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev's rule during both the Soviet and post-Soviet eras was marked by a string of health issues, although little of that was officially reported. Aliyev suffered a heart attack in 1987, and in 1999 traveled to the United States for a heart bypass. People in his oil- and gas-rich Caucasus nation got their first real glimpse that all was not right with the veteran leader when he collapsed not once but twice on live TV in April 2003. The presidential press service downplayed the incident, saying Aliyev had merely lost his balance after suffering a drop in blood pressure. But in August 2003, Aliyev was hospitalized in the United States for treatment of congestive heart failure and kidney problems. It was at that time that Aliyev's administration began the first dynastic succession in any former Soviet state. Heydar Aliyev's son, Ilham, was elevated to the post of prime minister on August 4 and won the presidency in October in an election criticized by opposition leaders and the international community. Opposition leaders alleged during campaigning that officials covered up the extent of Aliyev's illness to facilitate the process of handing power to his son.

Heydar Aliyev died on December 12 of that same year, after leading post-Soviet Azerbaijan for more than a decade. He was 80.

Saparmurat Niyazov

Saparmurat Niyazov (1940-2006)
Saparmurat Niyazov (1940-2006)

Independent Turkmenistan's leader created one of the more bizarre personality cults in the former Soviet Union. Statues and portraits of the self-styled Turkmenbashi, Father of the Turkmen, were omnipresent. Cities, airports, and even a meteorite bore his name. Niyazov was said to have suffered from heart problems for several years, but media in tightly controlled Turkmenistan never made mention of it. It wasn’t until November 2006 that Niyazov himself acknowledged he had heart disease. A month later, he was dead at 66. Turkmen state TV announced on December 21, 2006, that Niyazov had died of a sudden heart attack. Opposition activists, however, said Niyazov, had died three days earlier, according to a RIA Novosti report at the time. Niyazov’s death created an instant power vacuum in Turkmenistan, as he regularly rotated officials so there was no one in the country who was an obvious replacement. As it turned out, a trained dentist and deputy prime minister, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, would be named acting president and Turkmen officials would rewrite the rulebook to allow him to stay on as president.

Josef Stalin

Josef Stalin (1878-1953)
Josef Stalin (1878-1953)

The Soviet dictator died on March 5, 1953, at one of his dachas Moscow-area dachas at the age of 74 after suffering a massive stroke. Several conspiracy theories claim he was poisoned by his entourage, but scant evidence has emerged to support that claim. News of his illness was published only a day before his death, when Stalin was already unconscious. After his stroke, Stalin was left alone for a few hours by his staff, who were too afraid to disturb him for fear of being accused of worsening his condition. The Soviet leadership at the time was in a quandary about what to do, since the death of Stalin was considered unimaginable. In the four days between his stroke and death, Stalin received practically no medical attention while Soviet leaders jostled for power. The Kremlin waited six hours to announce his death to the world and then to the Soviet people two hours after that.

Kim Jong Il

Kim Jong Il (1941/42-2011)
Kim Jong Il (1941/42-2011)

The North Korean dictator who drove his country into destitution and famine died of a heart attack on December 17, 2011, at the age of 69. State media in North Korea, however, did not announce his death until two days later on December 19. The delay was chalked up to political infighting and discussion on the makeup of the all-important funeral committee for the deceased leader. On the morning of December 19, the public was notified that a major announcement was coming in the afternoon. At noon, a TV news broadcast announced the death of Kim Jong Il and read out the 233 members of the funeral committee, topped by Kim Jong Un, his son and ultimately his successor. A year after Kim Jong Il’s death, rumors still swirled about the circumstances surrounding it. A 2012 report in a South Korean newspaper said Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack sparked by a "fit of rage" over poor construction work at a hydroelectric power plant.

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