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Country Profile : Turkmenistan

Country profile: Turkmenistan

Map of Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is made up mainly of desert and has the smallest population of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

The government is autocratic, but the strict isolation imposed by eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov has lifted somewhat after his death.

The country says it has the world's fifth largest estimated reserves of natural gas

Despite its gas wealth, much of Turkmenistan's population is still impoverished. After independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 the country entered a period of isolation that has only recently begun to end.

 

At-a-glance

Turkmen dancers in traditiona dress
  • Politics: Turkmenistan has become less isolated since President Berdymukhamedov took power in 2007
  • Economy: It has large natural gas reserves but poverty levels are high
  • International: Turkmenistan exports most of its gas to Russia, but has been expanding export routes to China and Iran since 2009

 

It is a one-party state dominated by the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, which was led by the President Saparmurat Niyazov until his death in December 2006.

The late leader styled himself Turkmenbashi, or Father of the Turkmen, and made himself the centre of an omnipresent personality cult. Mr Niyazov, who made himself president for life in 1999, spent large sums of public money on grandiose projects while heavily cutting social welfare.

His influence spread into every area of life in the republic. Turkmens were even expected to take spiritual guidance from his book, Ruhnama, a collection of thoughts on Turkmen culture and history.

His successor, Kurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, has diluted much of the cult of personality established around Niyazov, but his own promises of political reform in the country have been largely unmet.

Turkmenistan is the most ethnically homogeneous of the Central Asian republics. There are some Uzbeks in the east, as well as small populations of Russians, Kazakhs, Tatars and others.

poster of Saparmurat Niyazov Late President Niyazov styled himself as Father of the Turkmen

In contrast to other former Soviet republics, it has been largely free of inter-ethnic hostilities. However, strong tribal allegiances among the Turkmen can be a source of tension.

With foreign investors keeping away, the Turkmen economy remains underdeveloped.

The country has been unable to benefit fully from its gas and oil deposits because of an absence of export routes and a dispute between the Caspian Sea littoral states over the legal status of offshore oil.

Turkmenistan produces roughly 70 billion cubic metres of natural gas each year and about two-thirds of its exports go to Russia's Gazprom gas monopoly. A protracted dispute between the two countries over the price ended in September 2006 when Gazprom agreed to pay 54% more.

Turkmenistan has since made efforts to break out of Russia's hold on its exports. It has opened major gas pipelines to China and Iran, and is considering taking part in the Nabucco pipeline - an EU-backed project designed to provide an alternative to Russian gas supplies to Europe.

 

 

Musicians chat before playing Turkmenistan has the smallest population of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia
  • Population: 5.2 million (UN, 2010)
  • Capital: Ashgabat
  • Area: 488,100 sq km (188,456 sq miles)
  • Major language: Turkmen, Russian
  • Major religion: Islam
  • Life expectancy: 62 years (men), 70 years (women) (UN)
  • Monetary unit: 1 Turkmen manat = 100 tenge
  • Main exports: Oil, gas, textiles, raw cotton
  • GNI per capita: US $3,420 (World Bank, 2009)
  • Internet domain: .tm
  • International dialling code: +993

 

 

President: Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov

Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov stands infront of fountain Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov

Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov secured a second five-year term in February 2012, winning more than 97% of the vote. In the election, Mr Berdymukhamedov faced several other candidates from his own party, all of whom expressed their support for him.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declined to send a mission to monitor the poll, saying there was little point given the limited freedoms and lack of political competition in the country.

Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov took office as president after winning elections in February 2007 with 89% of the vote.

There were six candidates in that poll, all from the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. Exiled figures from the Turkmen opposition were banned from competing, and human rights groups and Western diplomats condemned the election as rigged.

Weeks later the president was chosen as chairman of the People's Council, Turkmenistan's highest legislative body. He was the only candidate.

A former deputy prime minister, Mr Berdymukhamedov became acting president after authoritarian leader Saparmyrat Niyazov died in December 2006. Mr Niyazov had been in power since Soviet times.

His nomination for the presidency surprised observers because under the constitution the post should have gone to People's Council chairman Ovezgeldy Atayev. However, after Mr Niyazov died Mr Atayev became the subject of a criminal investigation and was sacked.

The new president promised to continue the policies of his predecessor but also to introduce reforms, including unlimited access to the internet, better education and higher pensions.

Soon after coming to power, he restored pensions to more than 100,000 elderly citizens, reversing President Niyazov's decisions to withdraw them the previous year.

He has dismantled aspects of his predecessor's personality cult, but in part only to introduce the beginnings of one of his own. Already, a new mosque was named after him in 2009, and bookshops are full of Mr Berdymukhamedov's own works.

Once Mr Niyazov's personal dentist, Mr Berdymukhamedov became Turkmen health minister in 1997 and deputy premier in 2001. One of his tasks was to implement Mr Niyazov's closure of most medical facilities, which brought public health care to the point of collapse.

Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was born in 1957.

 

Turkmen family watch TV Programmes from Russian TV are censored before being rebroadcast

The Turkmen government has an absolute monopoly of the media. The authorities monitor media outlets, control printing presses, block websites, monitor internet use and lay down editorial policies.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has described the lack of press freedom in the country as "unprecedented" in the body's history.

Under President Berdymukhamedov, "the state's absolute control of the press remains untouched", said Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF) in 2010.

The president suggested that some private newspapers might be permitted in comments in July 2010, but none has yet appeared.

Programmes from Russian TV are censored before being rebroadcast.

Turkmentelecom and other state bodies control internet access. There were 80,400 internet users by June 2010 (InternetWorldStats). Foreign-based opposition websites are blocked. YouTube and blog platform Livejournal were blocked in late 2009.

Turkmenistan is listed as an RSF "Enemy of the Internet" (2010) and one of the Committee to Protect Journalists' "10 worst countries to be a blogger" (2009).

The press

  • Neytralnyy Turkmenistan - Russian-language, published six times a week
  • Turkmenistan - Turkmen-language, published six times a week
  • Watan (Homeland) - Turkmen-language, published three times a week
  • Galkynys (Revival) - Turkmen-language weekly, mouthpiece of the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan
  • Turkmen Dunyasi - Turkmen-language monthly, mouthpiece of the Ashgabat-based World Turkmens Association
  • Adalat (Justice) in Turkmen
  • Edebiyat we Sungat (Literature and the Arts) in Turkmen

Television

  • Turkmen TV - state-owned, networks include main channel Altyn Asyr (Golden Age)

Radio

  • Turkmen radio - state-owned, operates four networks

News agency/internet

  • Turkmen State News Service (TSNS) - official news agency
  • News Central Asia - Turkmenistan-based agency, registered in US

 

A chronology of key events

6th century BC - Area of what is now Turkmenistan forms part of the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great.

 

Capital: Ashgabat

woman walks past mosqu in Ashgabat

Showpiece buildings dominate Ashgabat's skyline

  • Founded in 1881 as Russian military outpost
  • Largely destroyed in 1948 earthquake
  • Population: 605,000

4th century BC - Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquers Central Asia.

7th century AD - Arabs conquer Central Asia and convert inhabitants Islam.

10th-13th centuries - Nomadic Oghuz Seljuk tribes - the ancestors of present-day Turkmens - and Mongols immigrate from northeast; Genghis Khan conquers the region.

15th-17th centuries - Southern part of modern Turkmenistan comes under Persian rule, while the northern part is dominated by the Uzbek-ruled states of Khiva and Bukhara.

Russian rule

1881 - Area of present-day Turkmenistan incorporated into Russian Turkestan after Battle of Gok Tepe.

1916 - Turkmens join other Central Asians in violently opposing Russian decree conscripting them for non-combatant duties.

1921 - Turkmenistan forms part of the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR).

1925 - Turkmenistan becomes a fully-fledged constituent republic of the USSR.

1920s and 1930s - Sporadic armed resistance and popular uprisings in response to Soviet programme of agricultural collectivisation and secularisation.

1948 - Over 100,000 killed when earthquake devastates Ashgabat.

1960-67 - Turkmen cotton production expands dramatically following the completion of the Karakum Canal.

 

Independence

Children stand inforn of the independence building in Ashgabat

Children stand infront of the independence monument in Asgabat

  • Living standards dropped in the post-Soviet years

1985 - Saparmyrat Niyazov assumes leadership of the Turkmen Communist Party, replacing Muhammad Gapurov, who had held the post since 1971.

1989 - Turkmen fledgling opposition sets up Agzybirlik people's front, which is banned by the Turkmen Communist Party the following year.

Independence

1990 - Turkmen parliament declares sovereignty and elects Saparmyrat Niyazov as its chairman.

1991 - Saparmyrat Niyazov supports attempted coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, but declares independence just before the collapse of the USSR; joins Commonwealth of Independent States.

1992 - Turkmenistan adopts a new constitution making the president head of government as well as head of state and giving him the option to appoint a prime minister at any time; President Niyazov re-elected in direct popular ballot in which he stood unopposed.

1993 - Turkmenistan introduces the manat as its national currency, begins programme of cautious economic reform and encourages foreign investment in its oil and gas reserves.

1994 - Referendum approves extending President Niyazov's term until 2002 without the need for an election.

1997 - Turkmenistan legalises private ownership of land.

1998 - Natural-gas pipeline to Iran opens.

President for life

1999 - Parliament votes Saparmyrat Niyazov president for life. Death penalty abolished.

2000 - President Niyazov announces that he will step down by 2010, after reaching the age of 70.

2000 - President Niyazov announces plans for a 2,000 sq km artificial lake, to be built in the Karakum desert. The lake would aim to guarantee water supplies, but scientists warn the plan could wreck the local environment.

2002 August - President Niyazov renames the months of the year after himself, his mother and a book he wrote, the Ruhnama.

 

Parlimentary elections 2004

women puts ballot paper in box
  • Elections were denounced by exiled opponents of authoritarian President Nayazov; there were no oppostion candidates

2002 November - President Niyazov unhurt as his motorcade comes under fire in capital. Authorities blame "mercenaries" acting for exiled opposition leaders who in turn accuse Niyazov of staging incident as excuse to crack down.

Opposition activist and former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov is soon arrested, accused of being mastermind and sentenced to life imprisonment. More than 40 others convicted and jailed.

2003 April - Agreement signed with Russian Gazprom monopoly under which Russia will buy 60bn cubic metres of Turkmen gas annually.

President Niyazov decree cancels 1993 dual citizenship agreement with Russia, sparking diplomatic row with Moscow.

2004 August - President Niyazov orders the construction of a giant ice palace in the desert.

2004 November - Turkmen and Uzbek presidents sign friendship declaration, agreement on water resources.

2005 February - President Niyazov undergoes eye operation. Suggests closing hospitals other than those in capital.

2005 May - Deputy Prime Minister Elly Kurbanmuradov, a senior figure in charge of the energy sector, is sacked. He is subsequently jailed for 25 years on charges which include corruption.

2005 July - Rejep Saparov sacked as head of presidential administration and sentenced to 20 years in jail for corruption.

Energy deals

2006 January - President Niyazov orders substantial cuts to state pensions saying he wants to "bring order" to the system.

 

Niyazov dies

President Niyazov

The late President Niyazov tolerated no dissent

2006 April - Agreement signed with Beijing on building pipeline to supply Turkmen gas to China.

2006 September - Russia's Gazprom agrees to pay 54% more for supplies of Turkmen gas.

Radio Liberty journalist and human rights activist Ogulsapar Muradova dies in prison. Her family reports suspicions as to the cause of death but the authorities insist that it was from natural causes.

President dies

2006 21 December - Death of President Niyazov from heart failure is announced.

2007 14 February - Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is declared the winner of presidential elections, in which no opposition candidate was allowed.

2007 July - Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan agree to build new pipeline north of the Caspian Sea which will ensure Russian access to Turkmen gas.

members of the People's Council The Peoples Council promised a multi-party system in 2008

2008 January - Turkmenistan cuts gas supplies to Iran, blaming a technical fault and Iran's failure to pay for supplies. Iran reacts angrily, saying its neighbour wants to double the price.

2008 April - Turkmenistan reverts to traditional Gregorian calendar.

2008 May - President orders removal of rotating gold statue of his predecessor in Ashgabat.

New constitution

2008 September - People's Council approves new constitution that replaced it with larger, directly-elected parliament and promise of multi-party system.

2008 December - First elections held under new constitution, still dominated by pro-government candidates.

2009 April - Turkmenistan accuses Russia of causing explosion on main gas pipeline by suddenly cutting imports. Russia denies the allegation.

2009 December - Pipeline opened for gas exports to China, breaking Russia's stranglehold on Turkmenistan's energy reserves.

2010 January - Turkmenistan opens second gas pipeline to Iran.

2010 July - President Berdymukhamedov suggests that private newspapers might be allowed. International media freedom monitors dismiss his comments as window-dressing.

2010 August - Gold-plated statue of late President Niyazov removed from central Ashgabat, eight months after announcement.

2010 November - Turkmenistan says it will supply gas for the planned Nabucco pipeline, a project to allow EU countries to rely less on Russian supplies. The country says it will have up to 40bn cubic metres (1,412bn cu ft) of spare gas annually.

2010 December - Turkmenistan agrees to the "Tapi" deal to build a pipeline to carry gas across Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. No details are given about funding or how to secure a pipeline that would have to cross the violent Afghan-Pakistan border area.

2011 October - Parliament supports a motion conferring the title "hero of the nation" on President Berdymukhamedov.

2012 February - President Berdymukhamedov wins a second term in office, standing against token candidates and securing over 97% of the vote.

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