INTRODUCTION OF TURKMENISTAN
Turkmenistan, republic in the southwestern portion of Central Asia, bordered on the north by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, on the east by Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, on the south by Afghanistan and Iran, and on the west by the Caspian Sea. Ashgabat is Turkmenistan’s capital and largest city.
In Turkmen, the official language, the name of the republic is Turkmenistan Respublikasy (Republic of Turkmenistan). Turkmens constitute the dominant ethnic group. Turkmenistan was formerly the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). It became an independent country in 1991 and adopted its first post-Soviet constitution in 1992.
LAND AND RESOURCES OF TURKMENISTAN
Turkmenistan covers an area of 488,100 sq km (188,500 sq mi), making it the second largest country in Central Asia, after Kazakhstan. The entire central part of the country is occupied by one of the largest sand deserts in the world, the Garagum. About four-fifths of the country is steppe (semiarid grassy plain) that is part of the southern portion of the vast Turan lowland.
Most of Turkmenistan lies at an elevation of 500 m (1,640 ft) or less. The Akdzhakaya Depression, located in the north central part of the country, is the lowest point in the republic at 110 m (360 ft) below sea level. The Köpetdag mountains, which are prone to violent earthquakes, fringe the Garagum desert along the country’s southern border with Iran. Along the mountain foothills is a belt of oases, which are fed by mountain streams.
Rivers and Lakes in Turkmenistan
Freshwater resources are scant in Turkmenistan, and extensive canal systems are crucial conduits for irrigation and drinking water. The mountain streams of Turkmenistan dissipate upon reaching the arid sands and parched clay of the Garagum, so Turkmenistan’s only significant water sources are rivers that originate in other countries. The Amu Darya, which originates in the mountainous Pamirs region of Tajikistan east of Turkmenistan and forms part of the country’s border with Uzbekistan, and the Murgap, which originates in Afghanistan, are the two largest permanent rivers. Water from the Amu Darya and the Murgap is diverted into the Garagum Canal (built during the Soviet period) to supply water to the arid southern portions of Turkmenistan. Other canals divert water from the Amu Darya in the northern part of the country. The Caspian Sea, a landlocked saltwater lake, forms Turkmenistan’s entire western border. The most prominent feature along the Caspian shoreline is the Garabogazköl Gulf, which occupies a sizable portion of northwestern Turkmenistan.
Plant and Animal Life in Turkmenistan
Plant life is sparse in the vast, arid desert, where only drought-resistant grasses and desert scrub grow. The mountain valleys in the south support wild grapevines, fig plants, and ancient forests of wild walnut trees. The mountain slopes are covered with forests of juniper and pistachio trees. Dense thickets called tugai grow along riverbanks. The wildlife in the mountains of Turkmenistan includes the caracal (or Persian lynx), goats, cheetahs, and snow leopards. In the desert, gazelles, foxes, and wildcats thrive. In the tugai live jackals, wild boar, and the rare pink deer. Reptiles are abundant and include the Central Asian cobra, the desert monitor (a large lizard), several species of gecko (a small lizard), and the tortoise. Migratory birds, such as ducks, geese, and swans, inhabit the Caspian shore during winter.
Natural Resources of Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan has substantial reserves of oil and natural gas in the Caspian Sea area and in the Garagum desert. Other natural resources include deposits of coal, sulfur, magnesium, and salt. Only 5 percent of the country’s total land area is cultivated, nearly all of which (23,000 sq km; 8,880 sq mi) is irrigated.
Climate in Turkmenistan
The climate of Turkmenistan is desert continental, with cold winters and very hot summers. For most of the country, the average daily temperature in January ranges from -6° to 5°C (21° to 41°F), while in July it is 27° to 32°C (81° to 90°F). Average annual precipitation ranges from 80 to 400 mm (3 to 16 in), although two-thirds of the country receives 150 mm (6 in) or less.
Environmental Issues in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan suffers from a number of serious environmental problems, many of which stem from decades of economic mismanagement under Soviet planning. Excessive irrigation has severely degraded soil and water quality in Turkmenistan. Irrigation of the naturally saline soil has brought underground salts to the surface, making the soil even more saline while also making irrigation more necessary. Thus, excessive irrigation has contributed to desertification (a process whereby arable land becomes desert, or arid salt flats). In addition, Turkmenistan’s soil has become heavily contaminated with agricultural chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides, that are applied in large doses to cotton crops. These agricultural chemicals also contaminate the water supply, mainly through irrigation runoff. Untreated wastewater also pollutes groundwater, although there has been some improvement in northern Turkmenistan since the 1995 opening of a new water-treatment plant near Dashhowuz, constructed with aid from the United States. Since the late 1980s environmental awareness has been growing in Turkmenistan. The government has a ministry in charge of environmental protection, but only a small portion of the national budget is allocated for this purpose.
Turkmenistan is also involved in a regional effort to address the problem of the Aral Sea. This saltwater lake in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan has shrunk to less than half of its former size since the early 1960s. The greatest single contributor to the drying of the Aral is Turkmenistan’s Garagum Canal, which receives more water from the Amu Darya (one of two inflow sources for the Aral) than any other irrigation structure in the Aral Sea basin. The drying of the Aral Sea is considered one of the worst ecological disasters in the world.
THE PEOPLE OF TURKMENISTAN
Turkmenistan is the least populated of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia. In 2009 the country had an estimated population of about 4,884,887, giving it an average population density of 10 persons per sq km (26 per sq mi). Settlement is concentrated along rivers, canals, and other oases; the Garagum desert and the mountains are sparsely populated. Some 46 percent of Turkmenistan’s population lives in urban areas. Ashgabat, the capital, is located on the Garagum Canal in south central Turkmenistan. Other large cities are Chärjew, located on the Amu Darya in the east, and Dashhowuz, located in the north.
Ethnic Groups in Turkmenistan
With Turkmens constituting 77 percent of the population, Turkmenistan is the most ethnically homogeneous of the Central Asian republics. Uzbeks make up the largest minority group, with about 9 percent of the population. Other ethnic groups include Russians, Kazakhs, Tatars, Ukrainians, Azeris (ethnic Azerbaijanis), Armenians, and Baluch. In 1993 a bilateral treaty between Turkmenistan and Russia granted dual citizenship to Russians in the republic. At the 1995 census Russians constituted about 7 percent of the population, but since then many have chosen to immigrate to Russia. In 2003 dual citizenship was abolished, prompting many more of the country’s remaining Russians to leave for Russia.
Turkmens have retained centuries-old tribal allegiances that tend to be stronger than their sense of nationhood. As a result, tribal-based hostilities are far more pronounced than interethnic tensions. To date no tribal unrest has developed against the government, which has carefully avoided obvious favoritism toward any one tribe and generally worked to suppress tribal identification. The three largest Turkmen tribes are the Tekke in the central part of the country, the Ersary in the southeast, and the Yomud in the west.
Languages spoken in Turkmenistan
The official language of Turkmenistan is Turkmen, a language belonging to the Southern Turkic (or Oghuz) branch of Turkic languages. During the Soviet period, the traditional Arabic script of the Turkmen language was replaced in the late 1920s by a modified Latin (Roman) script, which was in turn replaced in 1940 by a modified Cyrillic script (the script of the Russian language). In 1993 the government of independent Turkmenistan announced that the country would officially return to a Latin script. The new script was largely based on the alphabet used in Turkey, but with specific modifications for the Turkmen language. Beginning in 1996 all primary and secondary schools were required to teach the new script, and by the early 2000s the new script was almost universally adopted. Russian is also spoken in Turkmenistan, mainly by the Russian minority. Under Turkmenistan’s 1992 constitution, which made Turkmen the state language, Russian lost its official status as the language of interethnic communication (a status it had held since 1990).
Religion in Turkmenistan
The predominant religion in Turkmenistan is Islam, which was introduced in the area by Arab invaders in the 7th and 8th centuries. Turkmens and other Central Asian peoples are traditionally Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school (see Sunni Islam). The officially atheistic Communist regime of the Soviet period sought to suppress religion in general, but Islam especially, because of its potential for creating coherent resistance to Soviet rule. Since Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991, many Turkmens and other Central Asians have revived their Islamic heritage. Today, Sunni Muslims account for about 85 percent of Turkmenistan’s population. Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, is also prevalent in the republic. Some of the country’s ethnic minorities—notably Russians, Ukrainians, and Armenians—are Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Azeri minority stands alone as Turkmenistan’s only Shia Muslim community.
Education in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan has a literacy rate of 99.5 percent, a holdover from the Soviet period when the government implemented a system of compulsory and tuition-free education. Under the Soviet system, education was the primary mode of Communist indoctrination. Reforms implemented since the late 1980s, and especially since independence, have provided for changes in curricula and teaching materials. Education is compulsory in Turkmenistan until the age of 14. Most students also complete secondary school, which lasts until the age of 17. Turkmen State University (founded in 1950), located in Ashgabat, is the country’s largest university. Turkmenistan also has a number of specialized institutes that train students for careers in agriculture, economics, medicine, and fine arts.
Culture of Turkmenistan
The Turkmens have an oral literary tradition that dates from ancient times. The oral epics are sung to this day by revered poets and composers called bakhshi. Written Turkmen literature dates most notably from the 18th century, when poet Makhdumquli Azadi-oghli Pyraghy produced poems held in high esteem by the Turkmens. His poetry pioneered a somber motif known as akhir zamana (fatal time), which expresses the misery caused by intertribal wars and attacks by foreign armies.
At about the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917 a reformist-nationalist literary movement emerged among the Turkmens. Among the intellectuals who led this movement were Abdulhakim Qulmuhammad-oghli and Berdi Kerbabay-oghli. Qulmuhammad-oghli organized a literary society of Turkmen writers. Many of these intellectuals became prominent figures in the local Communist party after Turkmenistan became part of the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
During the Great Purge of the 1930s, however, the Soviet regime summarily imprisoned and executed the Turkmen intelligentsia, including Qulmuhammad-oghli, ostensibly because they expressed nationalist ideas. Kerbabay-oghli survived the purges and went on to achieve recognition for his writings, which include the novel Nebit-Dag (published in 1957). The regime did not tolerate literary dissent throughout most of the Soviet period. Turkmen poet Annasultan Kekilova, for example, was locked away in a mental asylum in 1971 for daring to criticize local party officials in her poetry.
Folk arts are an important part Turkmenistan’s cultural heritage. Turkmens are especially renowned for their expertise in traditional rug-weaving techniques. Museums in the republic include the Turkmen State Museum of Fine Arts and the National Museum of History and Ethnography of Turkmenistan, both located in Ashgabat.
ECONOMY OF TURKMENISTAN
Turkmenistan was the poorest republic of the former USSR. The Soviet regime developed the republic to supply the raw materials of natural gas, oil, and cotton. The focus on raw materials left other sectors of the economy underdeveloped, as most of the materials were shipped to processing and manufacturing plants located in other Soviet republics. Because of the emphasis on raw material production, Turkmenistan did not experience a collapse of the industrial sector following the breakup of the USSR, unlike many other former Soviet republics. This initially cushioned Turkmenistan from severe economic disruption.
However, Turkmenistan remained highly dependent on imports of food and consumer goods, which were provided on a subsidized basis during the Soviet period. Due to price deregulation throughout the former USSR, prices for imported goods increased substantially. The country was therefore even more dependent on its export revenues, which were inconsistent from year to year due to sharp fluctuations in world prices, especially for natural gas. In addition, Turkmenistan’s largest purchasers of natural gas were often unable to make timely payments, leading to production cuts and decreased revenue.
The country’s gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the value of goods and services produced, declined through most of the 1990s. However, the country reported strong economic growth in 1999 and the early 2000s, mainly as a result of increased natural-gas exports. Exports of fossil fuels and cotton continue to form the foundation of the economy. In 2007 GDP was an estimated $12.9 billion.
The government of Turkmenistan has been slow to reform the economic structures it inherited from the Soviet system. Although some state-owned enterprises have been transferred to the private sector, progress has been limited and slow. The government continues to control the production and export of gas, oil, and cotton, as well as some other industries. It also dictates prices and production quotas for agricultural products such as wheat. The government justifies its control through large subsidies that provide gas, water, and bread to the population free of charge.
Pervasive government intervention has hampered the development of a free-market economy. The lack of reform has discouraged foreign investment, which the government has sought to help upgrade the country’s deteriorating infrastructure and diversify its industrial base. In addition, almost all international financial institutions, including the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have suspended relations with Turkmenistan, citing the country’s poor progress in instituting economic and political reforms.
Agriculture of Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan’s economy is predominately agricultural, with more than 40 percent of the labor force employed in the sector. Cotton is the primary crop, and Turkmenistan is one of the world’s leading producers of the fiber. However, Turkmenistan’s hot, dry climate and scarcity of water resources make it ill-suited for cotton production. Great amounts of water must be diverted to cotton crops through outdated and inefficient irrigation canals, such as the Garagum Canal, which were built during the Soviet period.
Turkmenistan’s government has encouraged some shift away from cotton cultivation, with the goal of diversifying crops and achieving self-sufficiency in food production. Although the principal food crop is wheat, Turkmenistan must import large quantities of the grain. Other cereal grains, vegetables, and fruit are also grown in the country. Livestock raising is also important, especially of Karakul sheep, horses, and camels. Although the collective (state-run) farms of the Soviet period have been reorganized into farmer-operated associations, the government continues to intervene in the sector. For example, it imposes production targets for wheat and cotton harvests and requires farms to supply state orders for those crops at low prices.
Mining and Manufacturing in Turkmenistan
The principal industry in Turkmenistan is the extraction of natural gas and oil. The country also produces important industrial minerals, including gypsum, iodine, bromine, sulfur, and salt. Energy products, primarily natural gas, are the largest export item. Turkmenistan is the second largest producer of natural gas among the former Soviet republics (after Russia). The gas deposits are located along the Caspian Sea coast and in the northern and eastern sections of the country. In the early 1990s the Turkmenistan government launched several large-scale ventures involving foreign partnerships to explore, develop, and export natural gas. Foreign investment was especially needed for the construction of new export pipelines, which the government sought as a way of achieving economic independence. In 1997 the first new pipeline opened, connecting gas fields in Turkmenistan with northern Iran. By the early 2000s, however, foreign interest in additional development had waned, mostly due to better prospects in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Most of Turkmenistan’s gas and oil continued to be exported through pipelines controlled by Russia, which imposed transit fees and quantity limitations. Aside from the production of fuels, industry in Turkmenistan is limited mainly to food processing and textile production.
Currency and Trade in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan remains dependent on trade with former Soviet republics, most of which now belong to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The export of fossil fuels drives the country’s foreign trade, and Turkmenistan has secured long-term gas-export agreements with Russia, Ukraine, and Iran. Besides other members of the CIS, Turkmenistan’s important trading partners include Turkey, Italy, and the United States. Turkmenistan’s involvement in international trade has been limited by the country’s geographic isolation, as well as its limited range of products. Its landlocked location poses significant problems in transporting products to and from world ports. It gained a new route to international markets in 1996 by the opening of a new railroad connecting Turkmenistan with Iran, and thereby the Indian Ocean. Because the new railroad connects with the former Soviet railway grid, it also significantly reduces travel time by rail between Europe and Southeast Asia.
The currency of Turkmenistan is the manat, which was introduced in 1993 to replace the Russian ruble. The government maintains a fixed exchange rate on the manat, rather than allowing market forces to determine its value. The official rate of exchange in 2001 was 5,200 manats per U.S.$1.
GOVERNMENT OF TURKMENISTAN
Turkmenistan promulgated its first constitution as an independent republic in May 1992, replacing the constitution of the Soviet period. The republic does not yet have a multiparty system in place, and most candidates have run unopposed in elections. All citizens aged 18 and older may vote.
Executive of Turkmenistan
The president of Turkmenistan is head of state, head of government, and supreme commander of the armed forces. The office of president was established in Turkmenistan in 1990 shortly before the republic’s independence from the Soviet Union. The 1992 constitution increased the powers of the president and made the president head of the Council of Ministers with the option of appointing a prime minister at any time. The president appoints the members of the council, which administers the daily operations of government. Under the constitution, the president is directly elected to a five-year term and may be elected for no more than two consecutive terms. However, in 1999 the Khalk Maslakhaty (People’s Council), the most powerful government body in the country, removed all limits to the term of President Saparmurad Niyazov, effectively making him president for life.
Legislature of Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan has a 50-member legislature called the Majlis (Assembly). Members of the Majlis are directly elected to serve five-year terms. A body called the Khalk Maslakhaty (People’s Council), which is headed by the president, is the ‘supreme representative body of popular authority.’ It has more than 2,500 members, including the Majlis deputies, the members of the Council of Ministers, the chairperson of the Supreme Court, regional governors, district representatives, trade unions, and chairpersons of public organizations. The decisions of the Khalk Maslakhaty supersede those of both the Majlis and the president. The Khalk Maslakhaty was originally established as a supervisory organ, but constitutional amendments passed in 2003 required it to remain in continuous session and empowered it to pass constitutional laws. These changes effectively made it the country’s leading legislative body.
Judiciary in Turkmenistan
The judicial system of Turkmenistan includes a Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the nation, and a Supreme Economic Court. The Supreme Economic Court rules on contract disputes, conflicts between businesses, and other commercial and taxation issues. Under the 1992 constitution, the president of Turkmenistan appoints and removes all judges.
Local Government of Turkmenistan
For purposes of local government, Turkmenistan is divided into five velayets (regions). The velayets are further subdivided into ils (districts), which may be either counties or cities. Each of the velayets is ruled by a veli (governor), who is appointed by the president. The veli in turn appoints the heads of the ils within his velayet, who are known as hekims.
Political Parties of Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan is a one-party state. The Communist Party of Turkmenistan was renamed the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT) in December 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The party retained its position as the country’s only legal party, whereas in most other former Soviet republics the Communist Party was suspended or dissolved. President Niyazov headed the DPT. Several opposition groups have been officially banned, including a popular front organization called Agzybirlik, founded in 1989.
Defense of Turkmenistan
Before Turkmenistan became an independent country, its armed forces were part of the centrally controlled Soviet security system. In 1992 the government of Turkmenistan began developing a national defense force. The government based the new armed forces on former Soviet military units that were still stationed in the country. Under an agreement with Russia and Turkey, Turkmenistan’s armed forces are to operate under joint Turkmen-Russian command, with Turkish military advisers, until they are fully developed. The republic has an army of 21,000 troops and an air force of 4,300. The Caspian Sea Flotilla, a former Soviet force now based at the Russian port of Astrakhan’ (except for a portion ceded to Azerbaijan), operates under the joint command of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. However, the government of Turkmenistan plans to develop its own navy. All males in Turkmenistan must perform 18 months of military service beginning at the age of 18.
International Organizations in Turkmenistan
In 1991 Turkmenistan joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose political and economic alliance of 12 former Soviet republics. In 1992 it became a member of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), which promotes economic and cultural cooperation between Islamic states. In 1994 Turkmenistan became the first of the Central Asian states to join the Partnership for Peace program of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a program designed to strengthen relations between NATO and non-NATO states. The republic is also a member of the United Nations (UN), the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
HISTORY OF TURKMENISTAN
Throughout its history, the expansive, barren area between the Caspian Sea and the Amu Darya river—the area of present-day Turkmenistan—has been subject to conquests by foreign powers. It became part of the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great in the 500s BC and was conquered by Macedonian leader Alexander the Great in the 300s BC. Arabs invaded the area in the 7th and 8th centuries AD, introducing the local population to Islam. In the 11th century the Seljuk Turks appropriated Merv, an ancient city near Ashgabat, as the center of a dominion that stretched from Afghanistan to Egypt. Merv became one of the most important Muslim cities in the world. The land of present-day Turkmenistan was included in the vast empires of the Mongol Genghis Khan in the 13th century and the Turkic leader Tamerlane in the 14th century.
The ancestors of the Turkmens, believed to be Oghuz tribes from the foothills of the Altay Mountains to the northeast, migrated to the area in about the 10th century. The Turkmens, a nomadic Turkic-speaking people, were a distinct ethnic group by the 15th century. From the 15th century to the 17th century, the southern portion of present-day Turkmenistan was under Persian rule. Meanwhile, the northern portion fell under the suzerainty of Khiva and Bukhara, which both became Uzbek-ruled states in the 16th century. The Persians ruled Khiva and Bukhara from the early to the mid-1700s, when Uzbek dynasties regained control.
By the mid-1800s the Russian Empire, which sought to expand its frontier into Central Asia, had gained control of the Kazakh lands in the northern part of the region. In the 1860s Russia began a systematic military conquest of the remainder of Central Asia. By 1876 the Russians had subjugated the entire region, except for the bulk of Turkmen territory. Russian military outposts were by then established in the north near Khiva and along the Caspian Sea coast. In 1877 Russian forces began a military campaign against the Turkmens. The Turkmens, particularly the Tekke tribe, proved to be a formidable force, putting forth the greatest resistance the Russians had encountered in their military advance into Central Asia. The Tekke in Gökdepe, near Ashgabat, soundly defeated Russian forces in 1879. However, in 1881 Gökdepe finally fell to the Russians, with the loss of about 150,000 Turkmen lives. Russia’s successful conquest of this Turkmen stronghold brought an end to any effective resistance among the Turkmen people. Russian control over all of Central Asia was completed in 1884 with the annexation of Merv. In 1887 and 1895 Russia and Britain (which was contending with Russia for control in Central Asia) signed border-delimitation agreements that fixed Russia’s southern frontier, thereby formalizing Russia’s annexation of its vast new territory in Central Asia.
In the first years after the Russian conquest, Central Asian nomads dispossessed of their traditional grazing lands waged sporadic revolts against Russian rule. In June 1916, during World War I, the Russian government issued a decree drafting the Central Asian peoples for noncombatant duties, igniting a revolt that spread throughout the entire region. Among the Turkmens, the Yomud tribe was especially fierce in its refusal to submit to the draft. The subjugation of the Yomud, accomplished by the end of the year, required heavily armed Russian troops.
The Russian monarchy was overthrown in the Russian Revolutions of 1917, and Bolsheviks (Communists) seized power in Russia. The Turkmens resisted Bolshevik domination, fighting against Bolshevik forces during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921). In April 1918, following Bolshevik military gains in southern Central Asia, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the Turkistan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), which included the bulk of Turkmen territory and other parts of southern Central Asia. In July Turkmens led by Junayd Khan reversed the Bolshevik gain in Turkmen territory with the aid of British forces. An independent Turkmen administration was set up in Ashgabat with the protection of a British garrison. The war-weary British subsequently withdrew, however, and by 1920 Bolshevik forces had regained control. The bulk of Turkmen territory was reincorporated into the Turkistan ASSR. The Bolsheviks also conquered the emirate of Bukhara and the khanate of Khiva, which included the eastern and northern portions of present-day Turkmenistan; these two states were designated People’s Soviet Republics (Khiva was renamed Khorezm, as it had been known prior to the 16th century). Many Turkmens continued to fight against Bolshevik rule as guerrillas in the basmachi movement, Central Asian resistance that was widespread among the Muslim peoples of Central Asia until the early 1920s. In 1922 the Bolsheviks founded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and in 1924 Turkmen territory was designated the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). The Turkmen SSR included portions of the Khorezmian and Bukharan People’s Soviet Republics, which were abolished as political entities.
In the late 1920s the Soviet authorities began to take land and set up state-owned farms, forcing the local population to settle in one place in order to work in agriculture. Many Turkmens fought fiercely against this directive, as it threatened their traditional nomadic way of life. A number of Turkmen intellectuals became leading figures in the Turkmen Communist Party, a branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the only legal party in the republic. These Communist Turkmen leaders were denounced as nationalists and executed in the 1930s as part of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s violent and extensive purges of Soviet society (see Great Purge).
In contrast to the massive industrialization taking place in most other Soviet republics, the industrial sector in the Turkmen SSR received little development. Instead, the republic was an important provider of raw materials, mainly natural gas and cotton, to the more developed Soviet republics. In the 1960s the Soviet government devised a scheme to make the southern part of Central Asia the USSR’s primary base for cotton production. As a result of the strong emphasis on cotton growing, the Turkmen republic was unable to supply itself with basic food commodities and became increasingly dependent on the central government. The Soviet government’s demands for intensive cotton cultivation also led to the extravagant overuse of scarce water resources. The need for water for agriculture prompted construction of the Garagum Canal in the southern portion of the Turkmen republic beginning in 1954. This canal, the largest in the Soviet Union, diverted more water from the Amu Darya than any other irrigation works in the region. As such, it was the single greatest contributor to the drying of the Aral Sea. The canal also supplied polluted drinking water to the local population, contributing to the Turkmen SSR’s extremely high infant mortality rate.
Beginning in the mid-1980s Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev promoted major economic and political reforms in the USSR. The reforms fostered movements for greater local autonomy in most of the Soviet republics. However, no mass movement occurred in the Turkmen SSR, in part because of long-standing tribal divisions. Then in September 1989 Turkmen intellectuals formed a popular front organization called Agzybirlik. The Turkmen Communist Party banned Agzybirlik in January 1990. Elections to the Supreme Soviet were held later that month, and the Turkmen Communist Party won a majority of seats. The new legislature appointed Saparmurad Niyazov, the first secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party since 1985, as chairperson of the Supreme Soviet (the highest government office in the republic at that time). Conceding to popular pressure, the Supreme Soviet accorded official status to the Turkmen language in May and adopted a declaration of sovereignty in August. Niyazov was directly elected to the newly created post of president in October.
In August 1991 Communist hard-liners, who were opposed to the democratic reforms taking place in the USSR, staged an unsuccessful coup attempt in Moscow. Although the CPSU was officially banned after the coup attempt, Niyazov announced that the Turkmen Communist Party would remain the ruling party in the Turkmen republic. In October the Turkmen SSR formally declared independence, and the name of the republic was changed to the Republic of Turkmenistan. In December Gorbachev resigned, and the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist. That month Turkmenistan joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose alliance of most of the former Soviet republics. Meanwhile, the Turkmen Communist Party changed its name to the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, retaining Niyazov as chairperson.
Turkmenistan After Independence
In May 1992 Turkmenistan adopted a new constitution to replace the one of the Soviet period. The new constitution enhanced the powers of the president. Among other provisions, it made the president head of government as well as head of state and gave the president the option to appoint a prime minister at any time. Niyazov ran unopposed in an election held in June and was reelected president by direct popular vote.
In December the governments of Turkmenistan and Russia granted Turkmenistan’s Russian minority dual citizenship—the first such agreement between any of the former Soviet republics—in a move to prevent a large-scale emigration of Russians from Turkmenistan. The government of Turkmenistan also agreed to allow Russian troops to be stationed indefinitely along Turkmenistan’s southern borders with Iran and Afghanistan.
In May, meanwhile, Turkmenistan was the only CIS member that refused to sign a declaration of intent to form a CIS economic union. Although Turkmenistan subsequently agreed to join the economic union, it resisted further integration within the CIS. Turkmenistan was the only CIS member state in Central Asia to remain neutral regarding the civil war between government and Islamic rebel forces in Tajikistan, and it did not contribute troops to the CIS peacekeeping force that was deployed to that war-torn country in 1993.
Turkmenistan sought to strengthen regional trade relations with other Central Asian states as well as Turkey and Iran. In January 1996 Turkmenistan eased tense relations with neighboring Uzbekistan by signing a package of agreements on border disputes and the sharing of the waters of the Amu Darya. Relations with Iran received a boost from the opening of a cross-border rail line in 1996 and an oil pipeline in 1997. Until then, the only existing pipeline from Turkmenistan passed through Russia, which maintained monopoly control over the pipeline. Turkmenistan has continued to seek ways to develop its rich oil and gas reserves.
Niyazov’s Authoritarian Regime
In a national referendum held in January 1994, voters approved extending Niyazov’s term until 2002 without the need for a presidential election. Elections to the country’s new legislature, the Majlis, were held in December 1994. The only legal party was the DPT, and nearly all seats were filled by candidates who ran unopposed.
Niyazov’s style of leadership became increasingly authoritarian, and he developed a cult of personality. He was officially known as Turkmenbashi (Leader of the Turkmens). Numerous streets, buildings, and institutions were named after him, and his portrait was displayed prominently in public places . In December 1999 the Khalk Maslakhaty, the nation’s most powerful government body, removed all term limits on Niyazov’s presidency, effectively making him president for life.
Niyazov’s government became known as one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world. Niyazov maintained a one-party state and tolerated no political dissent. His government completely controlled the media, and censorship was widespread. Political freedoms were routinely suppressed. Following an alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov in late 2002, the government imposed strict laws to regulate public gatherings and broadened the definition of treason. The government also maintained strict control over the Islamic hierarchy, which publicly supported Niyazov, to prevent the development of a fundamentalist Islamic movement that could undermine the absolute authority of the state.
Niyazov’s sudden death in December 2006 from a heart attack plunged Turkmenistan into unprecedented political uncertainty. Two decades of dictatorship under Niyazov had not prepared Turkmenistan for a sudden change in leadership, and Niyazov had not designated a successor. A deputy prime minister, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, was named acting president pending a presidential election. The election, held in February 2007, was the country’s first to be contested, but no opposition parties were allowed to participate. The field of candidates included Berdymukhamedov and five other politicians, all from the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. Berdymukhamedov won the election with an overwhelming 89 percent of the vote.