Turkmenistan is a country located in Central Asia. With the capital city of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan has a population of 6,031,211 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. Turkmenistan was a sub-republic in the Soviet Union between 1924 and 1991, when the Union dissolved and Turkmenistan became independent. During the Soviet era, the population was suppressed, while agriculture developed and the important cotton harvest sevenfold. After independence, Turkmenistan has remained an authoritatively controlled one-party state, first under President Saparmurat Nijazov (Saparmyrat Nyýazow) and after his death in 2006 by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.
During Josef Stalin’s time as Soviet leader (c. 1930–1953), no efforts were made to industrialize Turkmenistan. Every effort was concentrated on getting agriculture to produce raw materials. Despite the dry climate, extensive irrigation efforts were made. In 1954, Soviet prisoners began building the Karakum Canal, which is just over 140 km long, which runs along the desert of the same name. Thanks to the canal more than doubled the area cultivated, which was mainly used for cotton cultivation. The cotton harvest was sevenfold between 1940 and 1980. In the early 1960s, extraction of the now so economically important natural gas began.
- ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Turkmenistan. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.
At the end of the 1980s, almost half the population lived below the official poverty line. Birth rates were high and youth unemployment was high. Popular dissatisfaction led to demonstrations in the cities in the spring of 1989. Later that year, an opposition movement was formed against Soviet rule, called Unity. The movement was banned and in the election of Turkmenistan’s highest Soviet (parliament) in January 1990, only the Communist Party was allowed to stand. The party’s first secretary Saparmurat Nijazov was appointed chairman of the Republic’s highest Soviet. In the same year, he ran for direct presidential elections. As the only candidate, he was reported to have received just over 98 percent of the vote. Check best-medical-schools for more information about Turkmenistan.
Independence, Nijazov strengthens its power
The program of greater transparency and economic reform launched by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s had no impact in Turkmenistan. Rather, Nijazov took advantage of the situation to strengthen his own position.
When the Old Communists in August 1991 carried out a coup against Gorbachev in Moscow, Nijazov was waiting. He succeeded in retaining power after the coup failed, but the Communist Party changed its name to Turkmenistan’s Democratic Party. On October 27, 1991, Turkmenistan was declared independent, after more than 94 percent of Turkmen had voted for independence.
The following year, the regime presented a program with promises of free electricity, gas and water, later also bread, to all residents. The fact that this was largely implemented was probably of great importance for Nijazov’s continued support among the population.
He was re-elected as president in 1992 with over 99.5 percent of the vote. A year later, Parliament decided that Nijazov would be allowed to continue as president until 2002, without voters being allowed to speak. Parliament’s decision was confirmed in a referendum in 1994, again with around 99 percent yes votes.
Türkmenbaşy – “leader of all Turkmen”
The regime regularly presented staggered figures for the country’s economy, but the reality of the residents was difficult. In 1995, up to 1,000 people in the capital Ashgabat (Aşgabat) demonstrated in protest against Nijazov’s policies and the economic problems that had worsened after independence (see Economic overview). About 20 protesters were arrested and eight of them were sentenced to long prison terms.
Following criticism from the outside world, President Nijazov in 1998 admitted that many of those brought to trial in Turkmenistan were not criminals. He dismissed the state prosecutor and complained about incompetence and corruption within the police. Later that year, the president issued amnesty for around 8,000 prisoners sentenced for minor crimes. Some political prisoners were also released on appeal from abroad. However, it would appear that political repression had not seriously alleviated.
Nijazov’s rule was characterized by Turkmen nationalism in association with a remarkable cult of personality. He had the streets and monuments named after himself and made his birthday a public holiday. Nijazov’s portrait was printed on all banknotes. In Ashgabat, he had the country’s tallest building erected, crowned with a gilded statue of himself, slowly rotating after the sun. The statue was taken down in 2010 on the orders of Nijazov’s successor to the presidential post, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (see Current Policy).
In 2000, opposition leader Nurberdy Nurmamedow was arrested after he protested against a 1999 constitutional change that made Nijazov a lifetime president. Nurmamedow, who was the leader of the banned party Unity, was formally charged with attempted murder and sentenced to five years in prison. He was later pardoned by the president and released.
The opposition is being persecuted and imprisoned
Former Foreign Minister Boris hmyhmuradow in 2001 accused Nijazov of being more powerful than the old Soviet leaders. Ayhmuradow then lived in Moscow, which had become the center of the Turkmen opposition in exile. There was also Abdy Kulyýew, also a former Turkmen Foreign Minister, and leader of the Turkmenistan Fund’s opposition group. In 2002, the Turkmen Ambassador to Turkey, Nurmuhammet Hanamow, and former governor Chudajberdy Orazow also joined the opposition and fled the country.
At the end of 2002, the regime stated that Nijazov had been subjected to a murder attempt but escaped unharmed. The opposition, including various civil rights groups and environmental groups, was designated as responsible for the attack. Ayhmuradow, who had secretly returned to his homeland, was arrested. In a television appearance, he pleaded guilty to the attempted murder, a confession widely believed to have been enforced during torture. He was later sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of pardon. Many other opposites were also sentenced to prison sentences of varying length.
There were also reports that some members of Parliament had been involved in the assassination plot. This may have been behind Nijazov’s 2003 decision to deprive Parliament of its powers. Through a constitutional amendment, the right to pass laws was passed from Parliament to another political body, the People’s Council, which was controlled by the regime.
Nijazov dies quickly
It was difficult for the outside world as well as for the internal opposition to access Nijazov’s imperial power. He acted as a strong clan leader at the national level and managed to win the loyalty of various peoples. He presented himself as a father figure and protector of the vulnerable. At the same time, his political decisions were often bizarre and led to a deterioration in people’s living conditions. He banned opera (started performing again in 2019), closed libraries, closed hospitals, withdrew pensions and more.
In the hidden, power struggles obviously went on, and sometimes Nijazov undertook surprising remodeling in the country’s leadership so that no conceivable competitor could build their own power base. In 2006, the prosecutor was dismissed, who was considered one of the president’s most loyal employees. The head of the central bank also had to go, as did several ministers. Most were blamed for corruption and inefficiency. Nijazov announced that all newly appointed officials would in the future be allowed to begin their service with study visits in the country’s prisons.
The 2006 layoffs were followed by a series of arrests of people accused of hostile activities, illegal weapons possession and relations with foreign organizations. One of the arrested journalist Ogulsapar Myradowa, a correspondent for the US-funded news service Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, was sentenced after a ten-minute trial to five years in prison for possession of ammunition. Shortly thereafter, she died in prison under unclear circumstances.
In December 2006, Nijazov died of a heart attack at the age of 66. The sudden death shocked the nation and it was unclear who would succeed the president. According to the constitution, the President of Parliament would take over, but he was rejected as a new president when a criminal investigation was ongoing against him. Instead, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was appointed acting head of state. Presidential elections were announced in February 2007.