MOSCOW – Seeing the president slam face-first into the ground after falling from a speeding horse would be a shock to any nation. In authoritarian Turkmenistan, many residents didn't even get the chance.
President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov apparently wasn't seriously injured Sunday when his horse stumbled and he pitched into the dirt track at the hippodrome on the outskirts of the capital, Ashgabat. But the fall was certainly a wound to the pride of the 55-year-old Central Asian leader, whose all-powerful personality cult portrays him as effortlessly competent.
Thousands of people were in the stands for the race that celebrated Turkmenistan's renowned desert racehorse breed, the Akhal-Teke. But state television's video of the race cut off just before the fall and the extensive written reports on the event didn't mention the plunge.
All domestic broadcasting in Turkmenistan is state-run; newspapers are either state-run or under heavy government supervision. Media criticism of the president is non-existent and elaborate praise of him is ubiquitous in this nation of 5 million, wedged between the Caspian Sea and Iran, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
Turkmenistan's security agencies reportedly went into high gear to try to block video or images of the president's fall from slipping out to the rest of the world. The opposition-in-exile group Gundogar cited witnesses as saying police were carefully checking the computers, tablets, mobile phones and cameras of departing passengers at Ashgabat's airport. The horse celebration had attracted an array of foreign horse enthusiasts.
Video obtained by The Associated Press shows a rider falling when his horse stumbles just after crossing the finish line in first place. State media reported that Berdymukhamedov won the race.
The horse also fell, but quickly got up, showing a slight limp. Berdymukhamedov, however, lay motionless. Within seconds, several dozen men in dark suits and one in traditional garb including a high white sheepskin hat rushed onto the track, and an ambulance soon arrived.
The man who shot the video spoke on condition of anonymity for fear that divulging his name could have negative repercussions on his livelihood. He said the president reappeared about half an hour later to accept the winner's prize — about $11 million.
State TV showed the president accepting the award, which he said would be used to improve Turkmenistan's horse breeding.
The choreographed winning of the race — the nearest challenger was obviously throttling back his mount in the home stretch — the media censorship and the reported tough security response at the airport all reflect Turkmenistan's two decades of stifling authoritarianism.
Since becoming independent in the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan has been an extreme example of a one-party state.
Its first leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, developed a pervasive personality cult that included renaming months of the year after his family members. He also mandated that all schoolchildren study his rambling spiritual guide and once claimed that reading it three times would guarantee the reader a berth in heaven.
Some of his measures verged on black comedy, including banning opera and ballet because they did not reflect traditional Turkmen culture and banning lip-synching on the grounds that it weakened Turkmens' ability to become skilled singers.
Berdymukhamedov, who became president after Niyazov's death in 2006, has put aside some of Niyazov's more extreme measures, but he has not opened up Turkmenistan's politics or media. His own personality cult includes such feats as winning last year's maiden automobile race in Turkmenistan, even though he supposedly wasn't scheduled to take part and asked to join only at the last minute.
State media reports about the president's actions overflow with admiration and delight.
"The audience greeted President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, who finished first — demonstrating great skills of horse riding, the will to win, firmness and courage — with a storm of applause," the state news agency TDH reported after Sunday's race.