Turkmen Celebs Try To Debunk Rumors Of President’s Death

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

Officials have avoided blunt denials but insist that the 62yearold 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 longstanding health condition, seemingly spreading doubt even among the wariest of Turkmenistan's 6 million people.

I ask you not to believe these lies, Turkmen standup 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, nearconstant coverage by staterun media has given way to fewer canned, feelgood 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 postSoviet cultural scene in Turkmenistan routinely exclude aspiring performers who are seen to be insufficiently loyal.

An Ashgabatbased 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.

Europebased independent website Hronika Turkmenistana reported that Turkmen police had detained three people in Lebap Province for spreading rumors about Berdymukhammedov's illhealth or death.

Similar speculation roiled neighboring Uzbekistan in late August 2016 about thenPresident 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.

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.