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Uzbek Statement On Birthday Call Contradicts Rumors Of Turkmen Leader's Death

Updated

According to his press service, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (right) spoke by telephone with his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (left) on July 24. (file photo)

Uzbekistan’s presidential press service said Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov spoke by telephone with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev on July 24 to congratulate him on his birthday.

The statement was the first official report about activity by Berdymukhammedov since July 21, when rumors on social media and unconfirmed reports by Russian news outlets claimed he had died.

Meanwhile, Turkmen state TV showed video footage of Berdymukhammedov at a construction site in the capital, Ashgabat, stating that it was recorded on July 24. It was not possible to immediately verify the date on which the video was taken.

The report stressed several times that the president is on vacation until August 15.

Turkmenistan is described by rights groups as having one of the most closed societies and oppressive governments in the world, with all aspects of public life controlled by Berdymukhammedov and his associates.

It is an environment where rumors spread quickly and independent journalists are blocked from filing reports that could help separate truth from fiction.

Berdymukhammedov's failure to appear in public since July 5, not even during a July 6 visit to Ashgabat by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, has fueled speculation about the state of his health.

Turkmenistan's state news agencies normally are filled with reports about Berdymukhammedov’s day-to-day activities as part of a cult of personality built around the autocratic ruler during his 12 years in power.

Diplomats at Turkmen embassies abroad have rejected the rumors of his death as "absolute lies," but neither state media nor government officials in Ashgabat commented on the reports for three days.

Prior to July 24, the only mention about Berdymukhammedov by Turkmen state news agencies were short reports on July 21 saying he was writing a book while on vacation and that he had congratulated Turkmen doctors on a national holiday for health workers.

Within hours of the announcement by the Uzbek presidential office of Berdymukhammedov’s birthday salutations to Mirziyoev, Turkmenistan’s state news agencies also began to carry reports about the phone call.

Other recent reports coming from Turkmenistan -- some confirmed by RFE/RL and others refuted -- have fueled speculation within the closed society about Berdymukhammedov’s health.

On June 29, during celebrations to mark the Turkmen autocrat’s 62nd birthday, imams at mosques across the country prayed for Berdymukhammedov’s health -- something they have not done in previous years.

Early on July 24, municipal workers in Ashgabat began cleaning the facades of public buildings -- a task usually performed in preparation for a large public event, such as a state funeral or an international conference.

Adding fuel to concerns over the president’s health were rumors that passenger flights within Turkmenistan have been halted. But flight tracking data from the website FlightRadar24.com on July 24 show several domestic flights operated by Turkmenistan Airlines in the country’s airspace.

Reports that Turkmenistan closed its border crossings with neighboring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in recent days are also untrue.

Turkmenistan closed its sole border crossing into Kazakhstan in 2018 for what the government in Ashgabat described as necessary construction work. It has yet to be reopened.

The Turkmen government also announced in early July that border crossings into Uzbekistan would be closed from July 10 through August 15.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Turkmen, Uzbek, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz services
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