Turkmenistan’s Road to Independence: Past, Present, and Future
Emily S. White
History of the Middle East
11 April 2008
Emily S. White
History of the Middle East
11 April 2008
Turkmenistan’s Road to Independence: Past, Present, and Future
Dry and desolate, Turkmenistan appears to the blind eye to be a barren, useless land, but underground is where this nation’s past comes alive. Its land has been inhabited for centuries by natives, by the caravans of the Silk Road, and by various empires as they pushed east. Indeed, underground one will find artifacts from nomadic horsemen, French traders, and Persian kings. The state of Turkmenistan endured so many centuries of disorganization and instability that when it finally gained independence in 1991, the new government ruled with a strict, authoritarian hold. It persecuted those who challenged it and forced secret, underground opposition groups to form. Underground also lies the story of Turkmenistan’s future. Its abundance of oil and natural gas gives this small nation power over its larger counterparts, and provides it with the opportunity to develop and prosper.
Like the majority of the Middle East, development and ownership of the land now known as Turkmenistan was volatile and passed among many kingdoms. Throughout its history, the region was not an independent nation but was generally composed of wandering horsemen (U.S. Department of State, 1) as well as several nomadic tribes vying for power. The area thrived from trade and was therefore a desirable land to control. One of its cities, Merv, or Mary, was a great commercial city and a busy stop on the Silk Road. For many centuries, the eastern portion of the region made up the Persian province of Khurasan (CIA, 1). Present-day Turkmenistan was not a central part of an empire until the reign of the Seljuk Turks, beginning in the eleventh century (Curtis,1). The Seljuk Turks who lived there became known as Turkmen, and they remained in the region after it was taken over by the Mongol Il-Khanid and Golden Horde empires two hundred years later (Sinor, 15). After the expiration of Mongol control, the inhabitants, who were famously skilled on horseback, survived by scavenging trade caravans en route to eastern Asia and Europe (U.S. Department of State, 1).
During the seventeenth century, larger tribes began to settle at the Khorezm oases and along the Atrek, Tejen, and Morghab rivers. Even then, the tribes fought over land and ownership. The Tekke, Goklan, and Yomut tribes, in particular, shared such a cold rivalry that they refused to band together to resist the Russian invasions of 1869 (Sinor, 15). Russia deemed these attacks necessary to unite the Tsarist Empire and free its people who had been captured by Turkmen raiders (U.S. Department of State, 1). The Russian military had the advantage over the Turkmen fighters because it was united and had easy access to the area once it established the port city of Krasnovodsk, now Turkmenbashy, along the Caspian Sea (Curtis, 1). Fighting continued for the next twenty years and peaked in 1881 in the desert stronghold of Gokdepe, near modern-day Ashgabat. Seven thousand Turkmen died, and eight thousand more were killed trying to escape across the desert (U.S. Department of State, 1). After this decisive battle, it became the Transcaspian Province of Russia; in 1899, it was officially named the governorate-general of Turkistan (Sinor, 15).
During most of the twentieth century, the region now known as Turkmenistan remained under control of Russia. In 1916, the Turkmen expressed their dissatisfaction with the situation by assassinating Russian leaders and administrators. They formed the Social Revolutionary Transcaspian Provincial Government, with help from the British, to fight Russian troops during the Russian Civil War. The British troops withdrew in 1919, however, and the revolutionary troops lost control of the region by 1920 (Sinor, 15). Unrest from the civil war remained in Russia, and in 1924 Turkmenistan was named one of fifteen republics of the Soviet Union. Though it was declared to be sovereign, Turkmenistan was actually controlled by the Soviets, who heavily depended on its raw resources (U.S. Department of State, 1). It remained a Soviet republic for most of the century. As its cities grew to become moderate industrial centers, many Russians and Slavs migrated to Turkmenistan. Many of its historical records, religious traditions, and cultural observances were lost and replaced with Soviet customs and beliefs (Curtis, 1).
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Turkmenistan finally declared its independence and became a sovereign nation on October 27 of that year (U.S. Department of State, 1). Communist Saparmyrat Niyazov, who helped lead Turkmenistan in its quest for independence (Curtis, 1), became the first president of the new state. A new constitution was written that created, in theory, a government that is structured similarly to the United States government’s three-branch system. The powerful executive branch includes the president, who serves as head of state, and his self-appointed cabinet. The legislative branch is divided into two assemblies, including a People’s Council of 2,500 appointed or elected delegates, along with a National Assembly or Mejlis composed of fifty elected representatives. The judicial branch includes a supreme court whose members are appointed for five-year terms by the president (CIA, 1).
Critics of the government argue that it is truly a dictatorship rather than a free republic, keeping many of its Soviet laws and customs. It technically allows for a liberal amount of freedom, but it also provides opportunities for the government to restrict such rights (Sinor, 12). For example, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan is the country’s only legal political party. Independent and opposition parties are not allowed, and the ones that do exist must operate underground or in another country (CIA, 1). All political gatherings must be mandated by the government. There is no real system of checks and balances between the government and its citizens; in other words, there is no legal way for the Turkmen to democratically change or overthrow their government. Another example of the government’s state of authoritarian rule is the excessive amount of power that the executive branch has over its citizens and the other administrative branches. In 1999, President Niyazov personally preapproved every candidate who was elected to the Mejlis; in turn, the newly appointed Mejlis declared Niyazov to be president for life just one week later (U.S. Department of State, 1). Then, a 2003 law arose which significantly decreased the power of the Mejlis, made the People’s Council the supreme legislative body, and reaffirmed President Niyazov as the leader of both (CIA, 1).
According to Curtis, President Niyazov’s extravagant spending record demonstrates that his main objective was to create and promote his own personality cult (1). About half of Turkmenistan’s gross domestic product was designated to go into a private presidential account that funded Niyazov’s choice projects. One example is a golden statue of Niyazov which continuously rotates to face the sun. Another of his projects was the creation of a “Golden Age Lake” in the middle of the desert, estimated to cost six billion dollars. He distributed posters and statues of himself across the nation. He changed the names of days, weeks, a horse, a canal, a city, and a Moon crater to resemble the names of himself and his family. The president also mandated that his autobiography Rukhnama, which means “Book of the Soul,” become required reading among all Turkmen students and even part of the driver’s license examination (Sinor, 15).
Due to the government’s allocation of money during its first fifteen years of statehood, Turkmenistan’s healthcare ratings are much lower than they were during the period of Soviet control. When President Niyazov needed eye surgery, for instance, he permanently closed all rural hospitals and used the additional money to improve the hospitals in the capital city where he lived (Dadabaev, 136). Today, medical centers lack necessary supplies such as syringes, sponges, and bandages (Curtis, 1). Educational systems are also very poor and underfunded. Schools cannot afford books and supplies (Sinor, 13). In 1996, it was reported that over half of the country’s gynecological and obstetrician patients died because their doctors could not access proper training (Curtis, 1). Many children do not complete their schooling and then encounter major difficulty finding jobs. In fact, Turkmenistan’s unemployment rate was sixty percent last year (Wunkerkink, 24).
Turkmenistan’s economic and commercial affairs also largely deteriorated when it broke ties with the Soviet Union. The cotton industry, one trade that the nation highly depended on, declined at this time due to several poor crops seasons (CIA, 1). Oil and natural gas resources were just beginning to be exploited, but its only major pipeline went through Russia. Turkmenistan also was forced to begin competing with other nations who offered lower prices; they could no longer depend on Russia to favor their commerce. No longer Turkmenistan’s parent country, Russia could now monopolize how much it paid for the price of gas (U.S. Department of State, 1). Along with its high gas prices, the Turkmen government established rigid and complicated immigration and emigration laws. Most of the nation’s businesses remained run by the government and did not welcome privatization (CIA, 1). According to the CIA, these stipulations made it unappealing for foreign businesses to invest in Turkmenistan’s highly demanded and widely available resources:
Extensive hydrocarbon/natural gas reserves could prove a boon to this underdeveloped country if extraction and delivery projects were to be expanded. (1)
Turkmenistan began its independence under difficult odds and with enormous but unrealized potential.
President Niyazov died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2006. Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the nation’s former minister of health, was named president pro temp. This action did not follow constitutional provisions and thus angered many observers worldwide. In February 2007, presidential elections were held; these were Turkmenistan’s first contested elections, or its first elections in which there was more than one viable candidate. Berdymukhammedov won the election despite allegations that it was prearranged, and he remains president of the nation today (Sinor, 15). President Berdymukhammedov is presently credited with being more philanthropic than his predecessor. Turkmen do not yet see golden statues of their new president as they travel to work or school. Since he took office, Turkmenistan’s health and education systems have already begun to slowly improve (CIA, 1). He is also working to promote a more open-minded and worldly society by beginning to allow minority groups to assemble (Wunkerkink, 25).
Turkmenistan has also begun to both improve its quality of life and reach outside its borders to interact with foreign investors. The government under President Berdymukhammedov is creating an area on the Caspian Sea aimed at pleasing tourists, it has stabilized the exchange rate, and it is working to decrease gasoline subsidies. Telephone monopoly Turkmentelekom is working with foreign industries to upgrade its telephone system with digital switching services (CIA, 1). The nation is currently attempting to reduce its economic dependency on Russia. For instance, President Berdymukhammedov recently reached a purchasing agreement with Russia and Kazahkstan that will assign Turkmenistan as the main provider of the natural gas that Russia so desperately needs. Essentially, Turkmenistan will now hold a monopoly against Russia and have the power to control its own prices (Land, 1). The country is also working with China to create a landmark 3,000-kilometer natural gas pipeline that will hold over three trillion cubic meters of gas (“Turkmenistan Begins…,” 14). Last year, American-based Chevron Corporation was invited to explore the nation’s oil deposits. The expected agreement between Chevron Corporation and Turkmenistan would provide Chevron with further natural resources and give Turkmenistan access to more advanced types of technology and equipment (“Central Europe…,” 14).
The struggle that the inhabitants of Turkmenistan have faced to become a steady, sovereign country lasted centuries. Once they received the title, however, Turkmen and global onlookers began to identify the idea of independence with oppression. Still, the improvements that the nation has reached within the past two years clearly demonstrate the untapped potential that Turkmenistan bears. Underground is truly where one can learn the most about this young country. It has a distinctive past that was inhabited by many passing civilizations, a crucial yet mistake-laden present, and a hopeful future filled with abundant resources and lessons learned.
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