Fact File: Turkmenistan

Name Түркменистан
Population 5,662,544
Capital city Ashgabat
Official language Turkmen (official), Russian
Religions Islam (89%), Eastern Orthodox (9%), other
Life expectancy 65.74 years
Population growth 1.7%
GDP $36.18 billion (2016)
HDI 0.692 (2015) (111th)
Gini 0.41
President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow

The ‘Doors to Hell’ – a collapsed Soviet oil rig – has been burning for over 40 years, far longer than the anticipated few weeks.

History

Bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Caspian sea, present-day Turkmenistan has been at a crossroads of world civilizations for a millennium. The city of Merv was one of the great Islamic cities, and until the fifteenth century was an important stop on the Silk Road, a trading route that connected Europe, Asia, and Africa. This region of cultural milieu was further emphasised by a history of different rulers, including Alexander the Great’s Persians, Islamic rulers, Turks, Mongols, and finally Russians in the eighteenth century. Despite figuring prominently among regions opposed to Bolshevism, Turkmenistan became a Soviet republic in 1924 and only gained independence at the break-up of the USSR in 1991. A recent history of Russian rule has meant that like other central Asian states, Russian language has remained the Lingua Franca post-independence.

Culture

Although there have been attempts to homogenise Turkmen identity since the 1930s, culture still has distinct unique clan-based characteristics, each with their own dialect and style of dress. As a nation, Turkmenistan’s most famed cultural export is its Turkmen rugs (often known as Bukhara rugs in the rest of the world). Throughout Turkmen material culture, clan differences can be observed in the styles and colours employed, most obviously in clothing, jewelry, and domestic decorations. Another distinctive manifestation of Turkmen culture are the large black sheepskin ‘Telpek’ hats often worn by men, somewhat resembling an afro hairstyle. Although the national cuisine of Turkmenistan possesses strong continuity with the rest of Central Asia, one unique element is the elevated position of melons; once the major supplier to the Soviet Union, melons are a subject of national pride, and are commemorated during the Melon Day holiday.

A woman displays a series of intricate carpets at a market in Balkanabatt. Carpet weaving forms such an important part of Turkmen culture, that carpet design is even featured on the national flag.

Politics

Despite elections taking place in 2012 and 2017, it is widely agreed that Turkmenistan is an autocratic single party presidential republic, demonstrated by current president Berdimuhamedow’s ability to win over 97% of the vote. A constitutional amendment in 2016 allows lifetime presidency. Human Rights Watch have designated Turkmenistan as ‘among the world’s most repressive and closed countries’, where the ‘president and his associates have total control over all aspects of public life’. This includes access to information, where the state controls all print and electronic media, and where journalists who attempt to publish material contrary to government sentiment are at risk of imprisonment and/or violence. Political dissidents are commonly incarcerated or forced into exile, and even in exile, there is risk of government reprisals for continued open government dissent. A supreme legislative body known as the Halk Maslahaty, comprised of up to 2,500 delegates (some of whom are elected by popular vote) is entirely made up of members of the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, and is chaired by the president for a life term.

A giant golden statue to Turkmenistan’s first president – Saparmurat Niyazov – stands overlooking Ashgabat.

Economy

Extensive natural gas reserves, the fourth largest in the world, mean that since 1993 citizens have received electricity and natural gas free of charge by the government. These vast reserves also dictate the country’s international relations. A pipeline connecting China and Turkmenistan has ensured China is the nation’s most important economic partner, however plans for a trans-Caspian pipeline that would carry gas to Europe and a pipeline heading towards South Asia are demonstrating a desire to expand exports beyond Iran, Russia, and China. Despite these ambitions, and a positive balance of trade, Turkmenistan is still considered a particularly isolationist state. However, Turkmenistan remains one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and has become one of the top ten global producers of cotton in an attempt to diversify. Centralised state ownership of the economy pervades most large industries including finance and natural resources, however since Turkmenistan’s independence there has been a movement towards privatisation in trade, catering, and consumer services, and private sector ownership forms the majority in agriculture, trade, and transport.

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