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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Video of Turkmen Leader’s Spectacular Fall Foils Effort to Cover Up Accident

Video recorded in Turkmenistan on Sunday showed the nation’s president winning a horse race and then tumbling to the track, recorded by a spectator was obtained by Eurasianet.

The leader of Turkmenistan learned this week just how difficult it can be to maintain a cult of personality in the Internet era, when the official account of his dashing triumph in a horse race on Sunday was undermined by video posted on foreign Web sites, showing what state television had failed to mention â€" the president’s spectacular fall to the track seconds after his horse crossed the finish line.

Although Turkmen security agents reportedly conducted a very thorough search for footage of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s tumble before spectators were allowed to leave the race track on the outskirts of the Central Asian republic’s capital, Ashgabat, video of the accident, recorded from two angles, made it out of the grounds and onto the Web.

Images of the 55-year-old president’s wild ride and hard fall were posted online by both EurasiaNet, which obtained them from a spectator who wished to remain anonymous, and featured in a news report from Turkey’s Fox News.

The Fox Türkiye report, with closer images of the fall that appeared to show the president might have been knocked unconscious, mentioned that the Turkish minister for agriculture and animal husbandry was among the many foreign dignitaries invited to the weekend’s horse festival in Ashgabat, which might explain how the broadcaster managed to get its footage past security.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the American-financed broadcaster, reported that the president was riding one of “Turkmenistan’s prized Akhal-Teke horses” named Berkarar, the Turkmen word for Mighty. One witness, Clara de Vos van Steenwijk, who is the president of Luxembourg Akhal-Teke Association, told the broadcaster that as the president crossed the finish line “he looked at the crowd with a big smile and, about 20 meters further, the horse stumbled probably on a soft spot in the sand and went down on his knees and, of course, stopped at that point. And so the president who was going quite fast moved on and fell in the sand.”

As the track announcer simply said, “Our beloved president was able to finish the race in first place,” Ms. Steenwijk said, “of course it was a big shock for the public. There were thousands of people there and you could hear a pin drop.”

After the president’s limp body was bundled off the track, EurasiaNet reported, “security forces fanned out into the crowd and forced attendees with cameras inside the stadium. The doors were locked and anyone with video or photos of Berdymukhamedov’s fall was forced to delete them. University-age volunteers also kept an eye on attendees in an attempt to prevent anyone from hiding camera memory cards.”

After a long, uncomfortable wait for the spectators, Mr. Berdymukhammedov briefly reappeared, waving to the crowd, The Associated Press reported.

None of this drama made it into the edited highlights of the race broadcast on Turkmen state television, later posted online by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmen Service.

Shortly after Mr. Berdymukhammedov, a dentist by training, was re-elected last year with 97 percent of the vote, he asked if he could take part in the first race on a new automotive track in the Turkmen capital, surprising organizers with his last-minute request. As The A.P. reported at the time, the president “promptly proceeded to record the best time in the time-trial challenge.”

Robert Mackey also remixes the news on Twitter @robertmackey.