Turkmenistan defies pandemic to celebrate national horse day

Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) (AFP) –


Turkmenistan flouted social distancing conventions introduced across the world in the face of the coronavirus pandemic with spectators packing a hippodrome for festivities honouring its national horse.

Footage broadcast by state television late on Sunday showed strongman President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov presiding over races to mark Turkmen Horse Day -- an important date in the Turkmen calendar.

While Berdymukhamedov, known as Turkmenistan's Arkadag, or "Protector", watched proceedings from a sealed box, ordinary spectators filled out the stadium and waved Turkmen flags.

Gas-rich Turkmenistan is one of the few countries in the world not to record a single COVID-19 case, although the government's traditional secrecy and the fact the country borders coronavirus hot spot Iran have cast doubts over the claim.

Rather than toning down celebrations honouring the Akhal-Teke horse, which is a central symbol of state propaganda, Turkmenistan appeared to kick off festivities early this year.

State television showed Saturday that races were also held in front of large crowds earlier in the week in the former Soviet republic's second largest city, Turkmenabat.

Unlike in previous years, diplomats and journalists were not invited to Sunday's festivities.

Diplomats from Germany, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates did however attend a Thursday presentation marking the translation of Berdymukhamedov's 2019 tome on horses, "The Horse -- a Symbol of Fidelity and Happiness", into the respective languages of their countries.

Turkmenistan restarted its domestic football league with crowds earlier this month after enforcing a brief hiatus as a pandemic precaution in late March.

Turkmen Horse Day was thrust into the international spotlight in 2013, when leaked footage emerged showing autocrat Berdymukhamedov had fallen off his horse after winning a race held as part of the festivities.