Has anyone seen the Turkmen president lately?
The big news from Turkmenistan in the last few weeks has been that the country's mercurial president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has been absent from the news for large periods of time.
That's unusual because he normally dominates the state-run broadcasts.
And the few times Berdymukhammedov has been on television since going on vacation nearly one month ago, his appearances have raised more doubts than offered evidence of his well-being.
While officially on vacation, that has never stopped Turkmen state media from following Berdymukhammedov around in previous years.
But his absence from nightly Turkmen television newscasts and daily reports in state print media have some people seriously considering rumors that Berdymukhammedov is in poor health or possibly even dead.
Berdymukhammedov had already been officially on vacation for almost one week when Aslan Rubaev, identified as the director of the Center for Monitoring Eurasian Problems, told the Russian radio station and Internet news site Govoritmoskva.ru that Berdymukhammedov had died of acute renal failure on July 20, 2019.
There was no explanation in the July 24, 2019 report as to why the president chose to suspend his vacation for one day to occupy himself with the mundane matter of urban renewal plans in Ashgabat.
The news spread like wildfire across Russian-language media and it was only after a few hours later that the Turkmen embassies in Russia and Kyrgyzstan issued statements rejecting stories that the Turkmen president had died.
Before the end of the day, Rubaev was making a public apology for his remarks, saying they were unfounded.
But Berdymukhammedov had still not been seen and the rumors persisted.
Later that evening, Turkmen television news aired footage of Berdymukhammedov inspecting plans for a new district in the capital, Ashgabat, without explaining why the president had decided to break away from his vacation to look at drawings of new bus stops.
And then Berdymukhammedov vanished from local news again.
His next appearance in state media was not until Aug. 4, 2019, when state television showed a series of clips of Berdymukhammedov riding a bicycle, exercising, firing a rifle, bowling, riding a horse, working on a new book, composing a new song, and driving an SUV through the desert to the Gates of Hell — a perpetually burning crater that resulted from an attempt to flare gas there in the early 1970s.
He also appeared on state television on Aug. 5, 2019, holding a video conference call with officials.
On Aug. 3, 2019, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's office released a statement about Medvedev's impending trip to Turkmenistan to attend the Caspian Economic Forum in the Turkmen Caspian resort of Avaza, adding that he planned to meet there with Berdymukhammedov.
Not very convincing
That is the proof that has been offered to show Berdymukhammedov is alive and well.
But there are still many reasons to think that something is wrong with him.
Berdymukhammedov's appearances on state television on July 24 and Aug. 4-5, 2019, were not entirely convincing.
As mentioned, there was no explanation in the July 24, 2019 report as to why Berdymukhammedov chose to suspend his vacation for one day to occupy himself with the mundane matter of urban renewal plans in Ashgabat.
And RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, noted that Berdymukhammedov was wearing exactly the same suit and tie as he wore in a May 10 broadcast on state television, which is strange because he never wears the same suit — or even the same clothes — twice in his television appearances.
Berdymukhammedov did not speak in the footage aired on July 24, 2019, for example, to say he had just spoken with the Uzbek president, as was reported.
The Turkmen president also did not speak in the Aug. 4, 2019 footage aired on Turkmen TV, and the clips seem to be a compilation of his usual bizarre antics that are regularly shown on the evening news, and of which there is almost certainly an abundance of archive material from the cutting-room floor.
His hair is gray in the recent appearances, but that only narrows down the time frame to anytime during the last year or so, when he stopped dying it black.
The headlines of the reports seemed aimed at quieting rumors of ill health or worse.
Turkmenistan Aug. 6, 2019's headline said, "Turkmenistan's President Dedicates His Vacation To A Creative And Active Life," and the Golden Age website's headline read "The Turkmen Leader's Vacation: Active Leisure, Literary And Musical Creativity."
The Aug. 5, 2019 footage showed Berdymukhammedov discussing the country's economic performance, agriculture, preparations for the Aug. 11-12, 2019 Caspian Economic Forum and the Muslim holiday Kurban Bayramy.
Image of Berdimuhamedow, on display outside the national horse-racing ground in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
But again, Berdymukhammedov did not refer to any recent event that would have proven the footage was from sometime during the last two or three weeks. The conversations could have taken place several weeks or months ago.
Absent from the video conference was any criticism of officials' work, or reprimands for shortcomings, which are typical of these video conferences. It was also unclear why he again interrupted his vacation to hold the video conference.
Similarly, state print media had an unusual gap in reports featuring Berdymukhammedov.
News about the Turkmen president has always dominated state media coverage, going back to the early days of first Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.
A July 25, 2019 report about Berdymukhammedov congratulating new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was the last news about Berdymukhammedov for more than one week on the Altyn Asyr (Golden Age) state website until a report appeared on Aug. 4, 2019, about the footage shown on state television. The same was true on state website Turkmenistan Today.
The last reports featuring Berdymukhammedov on the Russian-based pro-government website Turkmenistan.ru are from July 25, 2019; one congratulating Johnson and another about birthday wishes for Mirziyoev.
Even stranger, Turkmenistan.ru on Aug. 1, 2019 reported about the CEO of the Malaysian company Petronas, Tan Sri Wan Zulkiflee Wan Ariffin, visiting Avaza and meeting with Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov and gas-and-oil-sector chief Yashigeldy Kakaev.
Berdymukhammedov's name is not even mentioned in the report.
Petronas has been doing business in Turkmenistan since 1996. Petronas developed and is still working Block 1 in Turkmenistan's sector of the Caspian Sea, "the first PSA to be awarded by the government of Turkmenistan."
Petronas has invested more than billion in Turkmenistan and was a sponsor of the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games that Turkmenistan hosted. When Berdymukhammedov visited Malaysia in November 2016, he made a point of meeting with Ariffin, as he had met with previous Petronas head Dato Shamsul Azhar in Kuala Lumpur in December 2011. Berdymukhammedov also met with Azhar's predecessor, Hassan Marican, in Ashgabat in May 2009.
Despite the history of close ties to the heads of Petronas, Berdymukhammedov could not find even a few minutes to meet with Ariffin at a resort area in Turkmenistan.
On July 25, 2019, Afghanistan completed the Aqina-Andkhoi segment of a railway line that is to link Turkmenistan to Tajikistan via northern Afghanistan.
Turkmenistan has been facing hard economic times since 2015 and this should have been good news for the country. Turkmenistan sent a delegation to a ceremony launching the new line that was reported on by Turkmen media. But there was not a word attributed to Berdymukhammedov about the accomplishment and what it could mean for Turkmenistan.
Where is he?
The immediate denials of Berdymukhammedov's death came, as mentioned, from Turkmenistan's embassies in Moscow and Bishkek.
But how would they know? Both embassies reacted rather quickly, almost automatically, rejecting reports of bad news about Turkmenistan as they usually do.
The Turkmen Foreign Ministry has not issued any statements denying the rumors Berdymukhammedov is ill or dead. In fact, while Berdymukhammedov has been on vacation it is not clear who exactly is running the country, though it does appear Foreign Minister Meredov is acting as the host to visitors.
And even Berdymukhammedov's vacation is unusual this year.
Turkmenistan's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov cut the ribbon to open an exhibition.
As the Hronika Turkmenistana website pointed out, he usually only takes two weeks of summer vacation. This year, his vacation is from July 15 to August 15.
Berdymukhammedov has in the past often taken his ministers, or many of them, along with him on vacation. Some of the ministers were at Avaza playing various sports at the end of July, but Berdymukhammedov was never shown among them, which is very unusual, as he customarily is on TV instructing his ministers how to exercise properly.
Again, the media is not following Berdymukhammedov around and showing footage of him frolicking on the Caspian shores or inspecting Turkmenistan's naval vessels or merchant fleet.
There was some footage at the very start of his vacation of him playing with his grandchildren and some kittens.
Turkmenistan has always been a unique, some would say bizarre, place, but in the last few weeks there is a feeling that things are not right. Established patterns of behavior are being ruptured without any credible explanation as to why.
It seems Berdymukhammedov has suffered some sort of problem, otherwise it would have been easy enough for him to appear on state television and say something — anything — about current events. On the other hand, Turkmen media is now devoting a great deal of effort to convince people that their president of the last 12 years is alive and healthy.
Although the first Caspian Economic Forum should be the focus of attention when it opens in Avaza on August 11, everyone will now be concentrating on whether Berdymukhammedov will make an appearance and, if he does, if he shows any signs of having suffered some illness or physical setback.
This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.