Saturday May 13 brought the question “Is Lukashenko dead?”, with the Belarusian dictator not seen since being rushed home from Moscow with a mysterious illness, but by the end of day observers of the comings and goings of dictators were also asking “Where is Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov?”
Berdimuhamedov, 65, has not been seen on state TV since April 29 when Turkmenistan’s Watan Habarlary news programme ran footage of him apparently in Germany, and consecutive no-shows during daily evening programming are very unusual for him. The footage, moreover, was shot on an unknown date.
Though he is no longer president of Turkmenistan, Berdimuhamedov has had himself made “national leader”, with son Serdar, who succeeded his father as president in March last year, constitutionally now only having the rank of minister. Senior Berdimuhamedov apparently reclaimed power from junior having grown alarmed at how difficult it was proving to rule from the shadows.
In any case, as the main man running an energetic all-action personality cult, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is usually only too happy to repeatedly step into the role of star of the evening news programme, so his disappearance, seemingly in Germany—where he was not known to have any official engagements—is raising plenty of questions.
There is in fact a precedent for Berdimuhamedov, president from 2006 until 2022, disappearing like this. In 2019, he was not seen in the TV news for a month between the first week of July and the first week of August, apart from in recycled footage.
On April 29, according to RFE/RL, the state news broadcast informed viewers about Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s trip to Germany “on behalf” of his son, during which he visited a German horse-breeding complex and “got acquainted with the peculiarities of keeping horses”.
Flight data from the Flightradar24 website cited by the Europe-based dissident publication Chronicles of Turkmenistan backs the theory that Berdimuhamedov took a trip to Germany. Its data showed the Boeing 777-200 (LR) aircraft used by Berdimuhamedov senior landing at Frankfurt airport on April 22 and returning to Ashgabat on April 28, the day before the TV news reported on his visit. But it’s unknown whether Berdimuhamedov was inside the plane that returned from Germany.
The fact that he did not make a public appearance on April 30 at equine festivities as part of national Horse Day raises more questions. The strongman is mad about horses (though he was once embarrassingly recorded falling out of the saddle at a big public event). He was awarded the title of "People's Horse Breeder” in 2015 and he is regularly shown riding Turkmenistan’s famed Akhal-Teke steeds.
A government source speaking on condition of anonymity told RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service that Berdimuhamedov and Turkmen foreign minister Rashid Meredov remain in Germany conducting unspecified meetings. But the media outlet was unable to corroborate this information with other sources.
Perhaps importantly, Turkmen state media reported on May 2 that a Turkmen government delegation had held talks with Deutsche Bank and another German bank, Commerzbank, as part of broader bilateral economic cooperation.
Is Berdimuhamedov going to emerge bearing major news? Unlikely. Whatever has been discussed will almost certainly be kept under wraps by the murky regime.