Turkmen leader quells death rumours with return to TV screens

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov rides an Akhal-Teke stallion for Turkmen Horse Day in 2018. Festivities to honour the national horse were not toned down this year in the Central Asian country, which claims to not have any coronavirus cases

Turkmenistan's all-powerful leader returned to state television on Wednesday, dispelling an online rumour that he had died. Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, 62, was shown on television instructing the mayor of the country's capital Ashgabat on forthcoming municipal projects in his usual domineering style, indicating drawings of bus shelters with a pointer. Berdymukhamedov is a mainstay of state television in a gas-rich Central Asian state which has no free media and few sources of information that are not controlled by the government that he dominates. This was his first appearance on TV since July 15 when he had been shown writing a book, playing with cats and reviewing footage of himself and his grandson performing a song together. Prior to that, his most recent appearance on state television had been on July 5 when he oversaw a session of government. The rumour that Berdymukhamedov had died appeared to begin with a small foreign-based media outlet run by Turkmen regime opponents. It subsequently spread across Russian-language websites after a little-known Russian analyst, who cited businessmen in Turkmenistan "who have acquaintances in the security services" as confirming the information during a Sunday interview with Moscow radio. Turkmenistan's embassy in Moscow denied the report the same day, calling it "not information but pseudo-information. Absolutely not true". Berdymukhamedov came to power in tightly controlled Turkmenistan in 2006 after eccentric predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov died -- officially from a heart attack. Like other presidents in the region Berdymukhamedov has been dogged by chatter about ill health, even as fawning state media presents him as champion equestrian, ace rally driver and keen cyclist. In Turkmenistan's former Soviet master, Russia, speculation swirled in 2015 when leader Vladimir Putin was not seen in public for 10 days. But whereas Putin had Kremlin Press-Secretary Dmitry Peskov to deflect enquiries from reporters, there is no similar official in Turkmenistan willing to go on record. The few foreign news agencies accredited in the country of 5.2 million people often meet a wall of silence when they request information from government, especially if it concerns the activities of the country's 'protector', as Berdymukhamedov is known.