Is Turkmenistan on the brink of collapse?
Men in white fur caps proudly ride horses across the steppe, rows of modern machinery glisten, Barbie-pink flamingos strut before clear blue skies and a white yacht cuts through the turquoise waters of the Caspian Sea.
These are idyllic scenes from a up to 5 kilograms, according to reports by Turkmen.news and Radio Azatlyk.
“There is no widespread famine at this point, but some people are going hungry,” says Myatiev, from Turkmen.news. “Many families are also having to survive on cheap foodstuffs, such as macaroni and bread, as they can no longer afford fruits and vegetables.”
Some people are so desperate they are buying soap and detergent in Turkmenistan and reselling it across the border in Uzbekistan for a small profit, he adds.
Unemployment has also surged. State-owned companies and administrations have been laying off workers on a massive scale in the past couple of years, according to The Foreign Policy Center. In early 2019, short on cash, the state scrapped its generous subsidies for water, electricity and gas, which had long been used as a tool to quell dissent.
Where is the President?
Berdymukhamedov is known as Arkadag or “the protector.” But in recent weeks there has been wild speculation about his well-being.
The president’s whereabouts are normally a daily fixture on the evening news bulletin, but since July 5 he has only appeared in state media three times.
The most recent video, broadcast on August 4, appeared to be an attempt to show the President was well and had merely been enjoying a summer holiday.
The extended clip showed the President bowling, riding a horse, recording a new song and driving an off-road vehicle near a burning pit of gas, but skeptics point out that none of the images were dated.
The death rumors date back to May when the Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported that a team of doctors was urgently flown in to the Central Asian country from Turkey. Some speculated Berdymukhamedov could have succumbed to kidney failure.
Their suspicions appeared to be confirmed when state media reported that the whole government was put on vacation from July 15 to August 15, despite those dates overlapping with the Caspian Economic Forum on August 11 and 12.
A representative from the Turkmen Embassy in Russia has vehemently denied rumors the President is unwell.
Officials from Tashkent have also said that Berdymukhamedov called Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev to congratulate him on his birthday on July 24.
And Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is set to meet him during the Caspian Economic Forum, according to the Russian government press service.
Very little information about the forum’s content has filtered through. As of early August, its official website had been inaccessible for over a week. As the event kicks off on August 11, onlookers will be closely watching for clues about the future of this secretive country.
CNN’s Olga Pavlova and Zahra Ullah also contributed to this report.