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Turkmen Celebs Try To Debunk Rumors Of President's Death

Where's Berdy? Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has not been seen in public since July 5. (file photo)
Where's Berdy? Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has not been seen in public since July 5. (file photo)

As rumors persist of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's demise despite official denials, local celebrities in that tight-lidded nation have taken to Instagram to quell the speculation.

Officials have avoided blunt denials but insist that the 62-year-old autocrat is merely on vacation, and a statement from the Uzbek government said Berdymukhammedov had spoken by phone with Uzbekistan's president to wish him a happy birthday on July 24.

But Berdymukhammedov hasn't made a verifiably current public appearance since a televised cabinet meeting on July 5, including skipping a rare visit by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini the next day.

That has fueled dubiously sourced Internet reports that he had died of a long-standing health condition, seemingly spreading doubt even among the wariest of Turkmenistan's 6 million people.

"I ask you not to believe these lies," Turkmen stand-up comic Yagshy Goshunov said in a video to his nearly 100,000 Instagram followers on July 27.

Citing the old proverb that "the dogs bark but the caravan moves on," Goshunov went on to curse the "slanderers" and wish the president good health.

His clip was posted alongside a hashtag that has accompanied many of the official defenders' posts: #duryalan, or #stoplies in Turkmen. It was watched more than 30,000 times in its first two days.

Goshunov urged his social media followers not to believe the "extremely unpleasant information that is being shared online."

Berdymukhammedov's insistence on fawning, near-constant coverage by state-run media has given way to fewer canned, feel-good pieces during past vacations.

Turkmen authorities have repeatedly said the president is on vacation until August 15.

But they did not appear to help their cause by airing footage of Berdymukhammedov at a construction site in the capital, Ashgabat, that many observers said was impossible to date.

On July 26, Turkmen singer Selbi Tuwakgylyjowa called out those who spread "false information" about the "esteemed president."

"May Allah protect the president, first of all, and also our nation from the traitors of our motherland," Tuwakgylyjowa said in her video, also hashtagged #duryalan.

The pop star urged her 57,000 Instagram followers not to believe or propagate the rumors.

State media and other official outlets that dominate the post-Soviet cultural scene in Turkmenistan routinely exclude aspiring performers who are seen to be insufficiently loyal.

An Ashgabat-based emcee, Begmyrat Amangulyyew, meanwhile took his defense of Berdymukhammedov's health a step further, declaring, "We are ready to sacrifice our precious lives for our great president."

Amangulyyew, who has more than 26,000 Instagram followers, slammed "false and malicious" rumors surrounding "the state of the president's health."

A lack of independent media in Turkmenistan has created an environment that makes it difficult to obtain or confirm information.

On July 15, state media released an undated video purporting to show Berdymukhammedov working on a new book, watching footage of himself performing a song, and taking a walk with his granddaughters.

Europe-based independent website Hronika Turkmenistana reported that Turkmen police had detained three people in Lebap Province for spreading rumors about Berdymukhammedov's ill-health or death.

Similar speculation roiled neighboring Uzbekistan in late August 2016 about then-President Islam Karimov, although officials at one point acknowledged his hospitalization.

The Uzbek government officially announced Karimov's death on September 2, a week after the first rumors of his death appeared on the Internet.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service