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Turkmenistan - Introduction

Turkmenistan is a relatively large country (slightly larger than the state of California), but sparsely inhabited (about five million), with abundant hydrocarbon resources, particularly natural gas. Turkmenistan is surrounded by neighbors which are not hostile, but significantly more powerful, even demographically. This situation, as well as the absence of explicit enemies predetermined neutral-s ' status, which is not only on paper but also in practice. Turkmenistan is the most secretive of the post-Soviet countries in Central Asia. Turkmen leader Saparmurad Niyazov, who ruled from 1991 to 2006, froze the country's domestic politics, making Turkmenistan a Caspian version of North Korea.

Turkmenistan is changing from the international bad-joke pariah state it was under the late President-for-Life Niyazov. But precisely what Turkmenistan is becoming is still a work in progress. Evidence increasingly suggested it could well one day become a responsible partner and a normal international player. A repetition of Niyazov's eccentricities and excesses, many of which still color the world's view of Turkmenistan, seems unlikely to occur with the new president. seems unlikely to occur with the current president. Still, in many respects, Niyazov era practices remain the model here, and Berdimuhamedov continues to substitute his predecessor's ideology with his own.

Following the death in 2006 of former President Saparmurat Niyazov, there was some optimism in the West that it would be possible to "turn the page" and Turkmenistan could shed its negative image and become more like other nations. Gone would be the Ruhnama (or Niyazov's book of the soul), gold statues, and bizarre pronouncements, such as renaming months after family members. There was also hope that the country would move, albeit gingerly, toward adopting political and economic reforms.

When President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov came to power he did make a number of important changes. The tenth year of education was restored as well as pension payments. The government reinstated graduate education. Restrictions on internal movement for citizens were lifted. The dual exchange rate was unified, and the currency was redenominated. The Ruhnama was de-emphasized and became a smaller part of the official curriculum. All of these were changes that most Turkmen would agree were necessary and removed some of the excesses of Niyazov's later years.

President Berdimuhamedov appears to be following his predecessor's example of establishing a cult of personality. This appears to be part of the model of governance that the Turkmen leadership knows and with which it is comfortable. However, so far Berdimuhamedov has set limits on the extent of the cult of personality, choosing, unlike his predecessor, not to have his image on currency or to have erected any statues of himself.

Tribalism continues to remain a potential flashpoint for tension within Turkmenistan. Resentments over tribal discrimination, both perceived and real, have built up for centuries, and have been exacerbated by the lack of economic development and former President Niyazov's policies. That said, most minority tribes seem willing to accept Ahal Teke political domination -- at least, for now -- as long as it does not lead to continued economic neglect. The fact that President Berdimuhamedov seemed to recognize this and to be responding to the economic inequities is a point in his favor. But tribal traditions still run strong in Turkmenistan, and many still prioritize family and tribe above any concept of national identity. Even if the president succeeds in bringing economic development -- and increased employment -- to all provinces, he may find creating a nation a tough task.

Turkmenistan was known for most of its history as a loosely defined geographic region of independent tribes. Now it is a landlocked, mostly desert nation of only about 3.8 million people (the smallest population of the Central Asian republics in the second-largest land mass). The country remains quite isolated on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, largely occupied by the Qizilqum (Kyzyl Kum) Desert. Traditional tribal relationships still are a fundamental base of society, and telecommunications service from the outside world has only begun to have an impact. Like the Kazaks and the Kyrgyz, the Turkmen peoples were nomadic herders until the second half of the nineteenth century, when the arrival of Russian settlers began to deprive them of the vast expanses needed for livestock.

The single most important mineral resource is natural gas; Turkmenistan's reserves may be among the largest in the world, with estimates as high as 15 trillion cubic meters. Nearly all the republic has been identified as potentially productive, and important offshore reserves exist in the Caspian Sea. The second major resource is petroleum, of which Turkmenistan has an estimated 63 billion tons. However, the range of the republic's mineral resources is small: sulfur, mineral salts, and clays complete the list.

Agriculture contributes about half of Turkmenistan's GDP, whereas industry accounts for only about one-fifth. However, irrigation is necessary for nearly all the republic's arable land. In the early 1990s, government subsidies protected consumers from the shock of leaving the insulated Soviet system. Nevertheless, the standard of living protected by those subsidies had been among the lowest in the Soviet Union, and it deteriorated further in the 1990s. Although the Niyazov regime launched ambitious privatization programs in 1992 and 1993--with energy, transportation, agriculture, and communications to remain under state control--only minor progress had been made toward the programs' goals by the mid-1990s. Progress also has been quite slow in the reform of commercial and banking legislation.

Turkmenistan played a vital role in the Soviet system as a natural gas supplier. In the post-Soviet period, Russia remained the republic's top trade partner, with Turkey moving into second place in the mid-1990s. A crucial rail link with Iran also was an important commercial improvement.



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