Avaza (Turkmenistan) (AFP) – Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov opened an economic forum on the Caspian Sea Monday, marking his first diplomatic outing and verifiable public appearance since rumours of his death swirled last month.
Journalists gathered in the resort town of Avaza to witness live footage of Berdymukhamedov meeting the heads of government of Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan as well as Iran’s vice president.
The occasion is the highest level gathering of the five littoral states of the Caspian Sea since a landmark summit in Kazakhstan a year ago.
But media interest was trained on whether or not 62-year-old Turkmen strongman Berdymukhamedov would appear as scheduled, after over a month of speculation over his health and whereabouts.
“Congratulations on the opening of the First Caspian Economic Forum,” Berdymukhamedov told his guests in footage broadcast for the media at the forum.
The rumour that Berdymukhamedov had died appeared to begin with a small foreign-based media outlet run by Turkmen regime opponents.
It then spread across Russian-language websites in former Soviet states.
Berdymukhamedov’s most recent verifiable public appearance had been at a government meeting on July 5, unusual in a country with no free media where he is a mainstay of state television.
On July 24 he appeared in a televised meeting with the mayor of Ashgabat, but foreign media speculated that the footage may have been backdated.
Earlier this month state television showed Berdymukhamedov enjoying his holiday in some style, racing a car around a flaming natural gas crater in the Turkmen desert know as the “Door to Hell” and shooting guns at a firing range.
While the scenes were typical of the president, often called by his moniker Arkadag or ‘Protector’, there was no proof of when it had been recorded.
Like other presidents in the region Berdymukhamedov has been dogged by chatter about ill health, even as fawning state media presents him as a champion equestrian, ace rally driver and keen cyclist.
He came to power in 2006 after the death of eccentric predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, who styled himself ‘Father of the Turkmen’ and revelled in a personality cult that was even more excessive than Berdymukhamedov’s.