One of the last times Uzbekistan's 75-year-old president, Islam Karimov, was seen in public was on March 19, when he was shown on state television dancing and ringing in the Islamic new year at a Norouz celebration in Tashkent.
Since then, however, Karimov has been conspicuously absent -- apart from today, when Uzbek television once again aired footage of the president
, this time during an apparent meeting
with the foreign minister of Kazakhstan, Yerlan Idrisov.
The latest on-air image, however, is likely to do little to dispel speculation that the aging president may have suffered a debilitating heart attack just hours after his turn on the dance floor, forcing Uzbeks to once again mull the question of who might succeed the longtime leader.
Members of the Uzbek opposition were the first to float the rumors of Karimov's heart attack, with Muhammad Solih, the self-exiled leader of the People's Movement of Uzbekistan, saying he had received the information
from a source close to Tashkent power circles.
Solih -- who lost his 1991 presidential bid against Karimov, only to flee the country to avoid treason charges -- spoke to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on March 26.
"I believe this 100 percent," Solih said. "From three different sources we were able to confirm that Karimov had suffered a heart attack after the Norouz celebrations and he still is in bed under doctors' care. We were told that he is still undergoing treatment but his condition has improved. Karimov might get better, but that doesn't rule out the fact that he suffered a heart attack. I'm sure of our sources; they're very reliable."
Song And Dance
The independent information website Respublika stirred the pot further
on March 26, citing unnamed sources as reporting that Karimov's younger daughter, Lola, had suddenly returned to Uzbekistan from her home in Switzerland.
Russia's privately owned K+ broadcaster on March 27 reported that it had received information "from Uzbekistan" that Karimov had been hospitalized for an "extensive" heart attack.
WATCH: Uzbek state television showed President Karimov celebrating at a Norouz event on March 19:
Officials in Tashkent have been largely circumspect, with an anonymous source in the presidential administration telling Russia's RIA Novosti that Karimov was "in excellent form as always."
The People's Movement of Uzbektistan has quoted its inside source as saying state media were ordered to broadcast archive footage of Karimov's dance-floor moves to dispel any rumors of ill-health.
Karimov's elder daughter, Gulnara Karimova, has issued more colorful denials, using her Twitter account
to reject suggestions of her father's ill health.
Someone would have to be "more than crazy" to suggest that Karimov had suffered a physical setback after "dancing for 20 minutes at the Nouruz holiday," Gulnara wrote in response to a question from one of her followers shortly before leaving to watch Uzbekistan defeat Lebanon 1-0 in a World Cup qualifier that her father originally had been scheduled to attend.
Waiting In The Wings?
In an opaque country
where strenuous denials are often interpreted as equally strenuous confirmation, the rumor of a Karimov exit has naturally stoked fresh debate about what and who comes next.
The spotlight has tentatively settled on three potential candidates to replace Karimov, who has ruled independent Uzbekistan for nearly a quarter-century.
Two come from within his ruling circle -- Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev and Rustam Azimov, who serves as first deputy prime minister and finance minister.
The third is Gulnara Karimova, the 40-year-old pop singer and fashionista who has little in the way of political credentials but is seen as a formidable curator of her family's billion-dollar business empire.
Karimova, Tashkent's permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, has in recent months traded in a jet-set lifestyle for quieter charity and social-networking activities at home, spurring speculation that she is attempting to build a support base for an eventual presidential bid.
Ongoing money-laundering investigations in Sweden and Switzerland have also been linked to Karimova associates, another factor that may be contributing to her sudden desire to spend time in Uzbekistan. Karimova has denied any involvement in the scandal.
Will He Or Won't He?
The question of succession is considered critical in a potentially unstable country like Uzbekistan, which is large, impoverished and, soon to serve as a key exit route for U.S. and other Western troops exiting Afghanistan.
Karimova herself has fueled debate on the issue by lashing out at least one of her nominal rivals. In a series of recent blog and Twitter posts, she accused Azimov
and his family of being involved in a solar-panel production project that she decried as corrupt.
Azimov -- who like most of the Tashkent elite does not share Karimova's enthusiasm for virtual online engagement -- has kept mum on the subject.
For now, all eyes are on the Uzbek parliament, which is due to meet for a joint session on March 28 -- an event that traditionally opens with a speech by Karimov.
One Uzbek senator, Svetlana Ortiqova, tells RFE/RL that Karimov is in perfect shape and may attend this week's session.
"On March 28-29, the joint session of parliament will commence," Ortiqova says. "If the president so desires, there's the possibility that he'll take part in the session. That's in accordance with the constitution and the law on the president. Thank God, everything is all right, everyone is healthy and sound. If everyone lives 100 years, we wish that our president lives 150 years."