Where is Arkadag?

Turkmenistan’s National Leader and former president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has been missing for the past three weeks. His son and president has kept his agenda, traveling to Moscow and Tajikistan, as if nothing is happening. But is that the case?

The last images of Berdymukhamedov Senior since he disappeared from the public eye were recorded in late April, during a personal visit to Germany. ‘Personal visit’ is probably the best way to describe it, as he didn’t meet any German officials during his trip, during which he visited a horse-breeding complex, one of his many hobbies. Why the leader of one of the most authoritarian countries in the world is warmly welcomed by German nationals running such complex, like Conrad and Janika Schumacher, is another matter.

This was reported by Turkmen state media on April 29. Since then, there has been no update on Berdymukhamedov the Elder’s status. It was RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, known locally as Azatlyk, that first reported on Arkadag’s disappearance. It turns out he flew to Frankfurt on April 22 and the same plane returned to Ashgabat on April 28. Therefore, his visit to the equestrian breeding complex took place days before it was reported in the media. The question remains, was he onboard for the return leg?

A few days later, on May 1, a seemingly unrelated event took place. The veteran Rashid Meredov, Minister of Foreign Affairs since 2001, was granted holidays and his duties were assigned to his deputy. That raised some eyebrows. The announcement was sudden, and May is not the time when Turkmen officials take time off. Then Azattyk connected both events together.

During Berdymukhamedov Senior’s trip to Germany he was accompanied by Meredov. Therefore, and there is no proof more than what common sense points out, both events seem to be related. But one question remains unanswered: where is Arkadag?

Unfounded theories and possibilities

The opaqueness of the Turkmen regime and the lack of information lends itself to rumours. Therefore, without official information or reliable sources, the only thing best to do is to speculate. Let’s do it.

First things first. Why did Arkadag go to Germany? His passion for horses is unquestionable, but does it deserve a trip to Germany just to visit a little-known equestrian complex? Two further alternatives come to mind. One is related to health and the other to finances. Regarding the first, the Turkmen ruling elite has been treated by German doctors since president Saparmurat Niyazov’s (aka Turkmenbashi) times. About the second option, again since the Niyazov era, Deutsche Bank is said to hold funds belonging first to Niyazov and presumably now to Berdymukhamedov (or to the Turkmen state, the line is conveniently blurry).

Another question relates to Meredov’s role. The Foreign Minister is a survivor and has kept his job since the last years of the Niyazov era and has never been dismissed by Berdymukhamedov. That must be some kind of Guinness World Record, the type of awards which Arkadag is very keen on. According to a source cited by Azattyk, which has not been corroborated, both are “conducting unspecified meetings.” That is all the information we have.

Now the unfounded theories regarding what is going on:

A. Health. It is no secret Berdymukhamedov Senior has his share of health problems. Back in 2019 he disappeared for a month, although that time the Turkmen media tried to cover it with old footage, something which they haven’t done yet. The rumour was that he had died. Perhaps he was in a comma, maybe diabetes-related, but what is true is that he must have been seriously ill. When he remerged, in an event in Avaza, he seemed heavily medicated. So one plausible explanation about his current whereabouts is that he underwent medical treatment in Germany, or perhaps still is if he didn’t returned to Turkmenistan on April 28. A more dramatic, and unlikely, is that he has died. But even in this speculative exercise that is going too far (or is it?).

B. Finance. It could be that Arkadag’s health is now as solid as one of his golden statues and that the reason for his absence is more mundane. Maybe he is simply putting his affairs in order with his German bankers (anti-money laundering alarms not working in Frankfurt?) and he wants to have the savvy Meredov next to him. Once business is done, he will remerge (but is certainly take longer than one would expect). This option is not mutually exclusive with A., and it could also be he is doing this because his health is failing him, and he wants to make sure everything is in order sooner rather than later.

C. Power. The least likely of the reasons, but these are all speculative. It is a fact the power transition in Turkmenistan has not gone according to planned. Whether because he missed the spotlight, was displeased at how his son was ruling the country or any other reason, he made a comeback early this year when he named himself “National Leader of the Turkmen People”. In addition, his son and president has moved against his aunts and cousins, something which for certain was not to Arkadag’s liking. He is known to have a soft spot for his sisters, who dominate much of the economy. So what if there was some sort of power play within the ruling elite? On the same topic, Serdar could have event got the sign off from Putin during his recent trip to Moscow.

The scenarios above are mere speculation, but it could be that one of them, if only by chance, is correct. It could also happen that after publishing this article Berdymukhamedov Senior comes back life and this episode is forgotten. But until that happens or until we get reliable information, there is little left but to wonder where Arkadag is. And, as is usually the case in Turkmenistan, nobody knows.

[Update: on May 15 Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov reappeared on state television, but the reason behind his three-week absence remains unknown]

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