The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After death rumors, Turkmenistan releases video of strongman leader driving rally car outside flaming ‘Gates of Hell'

Following rumors of his death, the president of Turkmenistan released footage that appears to show him driving a rally car near the “Gates of Hell.” (Video: The Washington Post)

Following rumors that suggested that the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, had died while in office, the strongman ruler has released footage that appears to show that he is not only very much alive, but also driving a rally car in circles near the “Gates of Hell.”

The health of Berdymukhammedov, who has led an authoritarian government in the central Asian government since 2006, had become the subject of speculation after he did not appear to state-run media in late July. A number of foreign organizations, some run by opposition groups, claimed he had fallen ill.

However, the 62-year-old reappeared in state media last week, apparently reviewing bus stops in Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat. On Sunday, state television aired a report that detailed how the president had spent his recent holiday.

Included in the trip was a visit in a rally car to Hell’s Gate, also known as the Darvaza gas crater — a flaming pit in the middle of the Karakum Desert that was caused when a natural gas field collapsed into a crater during the Soviet era.

The crater is believed to have been burning since 1971; Turkmenistan has said it hopes to turn the site into an international tourist attraction.

Berdymukhammedov was also shown in the video undertaking other leisure activities, including going to the gym, bowling, riding horses and producing music in a studio. It was not immediately clear when the video was filmed.

The Turkmenistan government has strongly denied that Berdymukhammedov had become ill or died. “They are an absolute hoax,” a spokesman for the Turkmenistan embassy in Moscow told Russian state media on July 21.

Under Turkmenistan’s autocratic government, it can be hard to ascertain the truth. Berdymukhammedov has cultivated a cult of personality through state television appearances in recent years, often appearing to easily beat competitors in games of strength or skill or showing off his musical ability to a rapt audience.

Only sometimes do less flattering images leak out: In 2013, amateur footage showed a hushed silence at a stadium as Berdymukhammedov fell off a horse during a race. Although the video of the president’s fall was widely reported by international media, it did not receive a mention in state television’s coverage of the event.