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Turkmenistan and Turkmen


The Turkmen are probably the leastknown major ethnic group in Central Asia, as they are a tribalbased people who live in the desert region between Iran and Uzbekistan. Turkmen are Sunni Muslims, although the affinity with Islamic practices is weaker than those of other ethnic groups in the region. Linguistically, the Turkmen language is part of the larger Turkic language group, and is considered to be closer to Azeri and Turkish, to the point of being mutually intelligible.

The Turkmen are known in the region as being nomadic peoples who have rarely been incorporated into regional empires. While a significant percentage of Turkmen live in the country of Turk-menistan, many live in bordering states. It is estimated that more than one million Turkmen live in Iran, slightly fewer in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, and nearly 500,000 live in Uzbekistan. The country of Turkmenistan itself is home to 4.8 million people, of whom 3,696,000 (77%) are ethnic Turkmen. The significant minorities in Turkmenistan are Uzbeks (9.2%), Russians (6.7%), and Kazakhs (2.0%). The capital city of Ashgabat has an estimated population between 600,000 (official) and one million (unofficial). This discrepancy belies a rather unusual problem in the country: there has not been an official census since the Sovietera census of 1989, thus it is difficult to ascertain with some level of confidence most population figures. The government declared at the beginning of 2000 that the population would exceed five million as a result of significant return migration of Turkmen from around the world. Non-governmental observers have not corroborated this figure, nor have they done the same for the current government claim that there are 5.7 million Turkmen living in the country.

The early history of the Turkmen is generally told by outside writers and observers. Turkmen (or Turcomen) tribes were noted by early travelers in the region and were often the source of concerns, for the Turkmen were noted for looting caravans and raiding settlements. Such stereotypes plagued the Turkmen up through the nineteenth century,

when the Russian Empire expanded to the region known as Transcaspia. Since the 1700s, Russian officials had heard complaints of Turkmen raiders taking Russian settlers in what is now Kazakhstan and selling them into slavery. In the 1870s, it was decided that the Russian empire should incorporate the region of Transcaspia into their southern holding. In 1880, Russian forces launched from the port of Fort Alexandrovsk along the eastern banks of the Caspian Sea and headed eastward. Initially repelled at the fortress of Goek Tepe, they regrouped under the leadership of General Skobelev and subdued the Turkmen resistance in the following year. The final southernmost border of the Russian empire was established in 1895 in a treaty with Great Britain, effectively ending any competition over Central Asia in the socalled Great Game.

However, tsarist control of Transcaspia was shortlived. With the outbreak of World War I, there was a concurrent increase in tribal activity against their Russian overlords. Turkmen participated in the 1916 draft law rebellion and effectively became autonomous with the collapse of the Russian empire in 1917. Throughout the Russian Revolution and Civil War, the region of Transcaspia was under the control of various competing powers, including a Turkmen tribal leader named Juniad Khan, as well as forces from the British Army who were sent to protect Allied interests in the region.

Eventually, the region fell under the control of the Red Army as the Bolshevik Revolution and civil war came to a close. The actual notion of a Turkmen state was not realized until the twentieth century tury, with the creation of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. Carved out of the territories between Uzbekistan and the bordering countries of Iran and Afghanistan, Turkmenia, later called Turkmenistan, was created for the tribal groups in the region. These nomadic tribes, from the Tekke, Yomud, and others, slowly developed a common Turkmen identity. Through the period of Soviet rule, Turkmenistan was one of the leastintegrated union republics in the Soviet Union. It was noted for providing raw materials such as cotton and gas to the country's planned economic system. It was also viewed as the strategic front line against U.S.supported Iran.

In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and, like the other union republics, Turkmenistan became an independent state. The First Secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party was declared president, first of the Turkmen S.S.R. and later the Republic of Turkmenistan. Saparmurad Niyazov has been president ever since. In the process, he has created a strong cult of personality that includes evervisible displays of his pictures, statues, and overall domination of the staterun media. His work of the late 1990s, the Rukhnama, has become a spiritual foundation for the Turkmen state and is something that all Turkmen must learn. Indeed, any opposition to Turkmenbashi Birigi (Father of the Turkmen, the Great) centers on challenging this personalistic rule.

Economic development in the country remains a paradox. In spite of a great potential in energy wealth, it remains mired in poverty. And while there are magnificent new buildings in the center of the capital city of Ashgabat, the countryside is dotted with substandard housing and living conditions. Turkmen traditionally have been nomadic herders, with an economy that is relatively autarkic. However, since independence, there has been a push to exploit the oil and gas reserves of the country. Because of an inability to find reliable, paying customers, Turkmenistan has not been able to benefit greatly from this natural resource. As of the early twentyfirst century, Turkmenistan is listed as having 150 trillion cubic feet of gas, which is one of the top ten deposits in the world. However, a lack of firm agreements with energy companies has resulted in much of this remaining unexplored.

The estimated 2002 gross national product (GDP) of the country was $21.5 billion, resulting in an estimated purchasing power parity (PPP) of $4,480 per capita. However, real per capita income was closer to $1,000 with most living on less than $200 per annum. An artificial exchange rate, vast corruption, and the concentration of wealth at the top level all have created conditions of abject poverty for the majority of Turkmen. Trade remains limited to countries such as Russia and Ukraine, the latter of which uses barter deals to finance Turkmen gas imports. There are also modest trade relations with neighboring Iran, capitalizing on a rail link that crosses the TurkmenIranian border.

Because Turkmenistan neighbors Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to the north, and Afghanistan and Iran to the south, these four states, plus Russia, play a decisive role in Turkmen foreign policy. However, tempering any effort at expanding relations is the current Turkmen foreign policy of "positive neutrality," which was declared in December 1995. According to this concept, Turkmenistan is not to be part of regional alliances and security arrangements. Thus, while it is technically part of the NATO Partnership for Peace program and the Commonwealth of Independent States, Turkmenistan rarely participates in conferences and meetings and never participates in joint security exercises. The magnitude of internal problems, though, may eventually compel the Turkmen government to more actively engage with outside states, particularly if it ever hopes to benefit from the energy reserves that have been underutilized.

See also: central asia; islam; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


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Bennigsen, Alexandre and Wimbush, S. Enders. (1985). Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide. London: C. Hurst.

Capisani, Giampaolo R. (2000). The Handbook of Central Asia: A Comprehensive Survey of the New Republics. New York, I. B. Tauris.

Cummings, Sally, ed. (2002). Power and Change in Central Asia. London: Routledge.

Kangas, Roger. (2002). "Memories of the Past: Politics in Turkmenistan." Analysis of Current Events 14(4): 1619.

Niyazov, Saparmurat. (1994). Unity, Peace, Consensus, 2 vols. New York: Noy Publishers.

Niyazov, Saparmurat. (2002). Rukhnama. Ashbagat, Turkmenistan: Government of Turkmenistan.

Ochs, Michael. (1997). "Turkmenistan: The Quest for Stability and Control." In Conflict, Cleavage, and Change in Central Asia and the Caucasus, ed. Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrott. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Roger Kangas

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