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Lies, Damned Lies and the Health of Central Asian Presidents

Atambayev being loaded into an ambulance from Istanbul's Ataturk airport. Screenshot from Turkey's TDA news agency.

Atambayev being loaded into an ambulance from Istanbul's Ataturk airport. Screenshot from Turkey's TDA news agency.

On September 19, Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev was reportedly taken ill with chest pains while en route to the 71st UN General Assembly in New York and transported to a hospital for medical checks. Few in the ex-Soviet country are taking this news at face value, however.

This, after all, is Central Asia, an authoritarian region where rumours reign in the absence of reliable information and conspiracies that might sound far-fetched somewhere else soon take on a compelling logic.

So, officially, Atambayev is ill, and even video evidence from a Turkish news agency appears to testify to this.

Unofficially, the wily president that just celebrated his 60th birthday almost five years after coming to power is up to no flaming good.

“Critical condition”

Atambayev's apparent and unexpected heart problems come in the same month that neighbouring Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov was buried following a fatal stroke aged 78.

Atambayev falls ill. Straight after Karimov….Coincidence? I don't think so.

The Uzbek government's August 28 admission that Karimov had been hospitalized was its first reference to the veteran leader's ill health during his 27-year-reign, and led many to believe that the end was nigh.

And it was, except the government delayed the announcement of Karimov's death for as long as possible.

It came after Fergana News, a Moscow-based website with a web of contacts in the Central Asian state, reported him dead on August 29. It came after Reuters, citing diplomatic sources, reported him dead four days later. It came after Turkey, the first state to recognize Uzbekistan's independence on September 1, 1991, became the first state to send condolences in connection with the passing of its leader on September 2, 2016.

Only after all of these things happened did the Uzbek government take a cue and pronounce Karimov dead, releasing him from a previously announced “critical condition”.

Even prior to this officially confirmed death Karimov had been reported as falling into comas and suffering from heart attacks multiple times over the years.

Many of these brushes with the  afterlife were seemingly no more than the inventions of exiled opposition groups, but given the extent to which information is controlled in the country of 32 million people, it was always impossible to know for sure until he reappeared in public.

A question of timing

Whereas with Karimov the suspicion was always that he was dead or somehow incapacitated, even when he wasn't, with Atambayev, especially among his political opponents, the suspicion is that he isn't really ill at all:

A civic activist and former candidate for Ombudsman Rita Karasartova summed up one line of thinking, as an increasingly bitter battle between Atambayev's supporters and opponents over proposed changes to the constitution continues to rage in his absence:

Мысли вслух. Может быть такое что это заранее подготовленный План. Наш Президент никогда и не собирался ехать в Нью Йорк. Он должен лежать чуть ли не смертельно больным в Стамбуле, пока здесь будут проводиться аресты. Так он получает право сказать, что ничего не знал. В случае если что то пойдет не так, то можно переиграть и списать на исполнителя.

Thinking out loud. Maybe it is a prearranged plan. Our President was never going to go to New York. He should lie almost terminally ill in Istanbul, while arrests take place here. So he then gets the right to say that he knew nothing. In the event that something goes wrong he can blame his underlings.

Another line of thinking is that Atambayev has feigned illness in Turkey to get an audience with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after the two countries appeared to fall out in the wake of the bloody July coup Ankara blames on US-based Islamic theoretician Fethullah Gulen.

Yet another is that he did not want to be at the UN General Assembly, because he did not want to be asked awkward questions there about the dubious constitutional changes that he and his allies have been pushing so hard.

As one Facebooker noted, amid a storm of online conspiracies, “our poor president isn't allowed to be ill like a human.”

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev. Image taken from Russia government website.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev. Russian government image, licensed for reuse.

Ironically, while Atambayev's hospitalization took place just as he was scheduled to appear at the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly, Turkmenistan's all-powerful President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was subject to health scare speculation on his way back from the 70th Session this time last year.

As Eurasianet reported at the time:

Exiled Turkmen activists have noted a strange detour during President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s return from New York this week, prompting speculation that he might be unwell.

The Chronicles of Turkmenistan website said a keen-eyed reader scouring planespotter resource FlightRadar24 noted that Berdymukhamedov’s plane had stopped off in Munich, Germany, on September 26 instead of heading straight to Ashgabat.

That was enough to prompt opposition site to speculate that the president had stopped off for medical consultations precipitated by a health scare.

According to his official schedule, Berdymukhamedov was due to travel on September 24-27 to take part in the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

As it happens, Berdymukhamedov’s speech before the General Assembly included a passage on health and on the need to promote healthy lifestyles.

The report continued:

That Berdymukhamedov is in poor health is always possible, although state media tirelessly rams home the message that the president is a superior sporting specimen.

The Munich connection is an intriguing one, however.

Former President Saparmurat Niyazov, who is said to have lived sybaritically before succumbing to heart failure in late 2006, was especially fond of Munich doctors. As his then-health minister, Berdymukhamedov would likely have had direct communication with the clinicians.

Central Asian leaders and health rumours: a match made in an information vacuum.

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