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Turkmenistan - People

The majority of Turkmenistan's citizens are ethnic Turkmen; other ethnic groups include Russian, Uzbek, and Kazakh. Ethnic groups were estimated in 2003 to include Turkmen 85%, Uzbek 5%, Russian 4%, other 6%. Turkmen is the official language of Turkmenistan, though Russian still is widely spoken as a "language of inter-ethnic communication" (per the 1992 constitution). Education is universal and mandatory through the secondary level, the total duration of which is 10 years.

In 1993 Turkmenistan had a population of 4,254,000 people, making it the fifth most sparsely populated former Soviet republic. Of that number, Turkmen comprised about 73 percent, Russians nearly 10 percent, Uzbeks 9 percent, Kazaks 2 percent, and other ethnic groups the remaining 5 percent. According to the last Soviet census (1989), the total Turkmen population in the Soviet Union was 2,728,965. Of this number, 2,536,606 lived in Turkmenistan and the remainder in the other republics. Outside of the CIS, approximately 1.6 million Turkmen live in Iran, Afghanistan, and China. Population density increased in the republic from one person per square kilometer in 1957 to 9.2 persons per square kilometer in 1995. Density varies drastically between desert areas and oases, where it often exceeds 100 persons per square kilometer.

In 1989 about 45 percent of the population was classified as urban, a drop of 3 percent since 1979. Prior to the arrival of Russians in the late nineteenth century, Turkmenistan had very few urban areas, and many of the large towns and cities that exist today were developed after the 1930s. Ashgabat, the capital and largest city in Turkmenistan, had a population of about 420,000 as of 1996. The second-largest city, Chrjew on the Amu Darya, had about 165,000 people. Other major cities are Turkmenbashy on the Caspian seacoast, Mary in the southeast, and Dashhowuz in the northeast. Because much of the Russian population only came to Turkmenistan in the Soviet period, separate Russian quarters or neighborhoods did not develop in Turkmenistan's cities as they did elsewhere in Central Asia. This fact, combined with a relatively small Slavic population, has led to integration of Turkmen and Slavs in neighborhoods and housing projects.

Turkmen society recognizes a class structure, ideologically based on Marxist doctrine, composed of intelligentsia, workers, and peasants. In practical terms, the intelligentsia and peasantry consist of Turkmen, while the worker class is the domain of Russians. Power and some wealth are associated with the Western-oriented intelligentsia, who hold the key positions in government, industry, and education. Most intelligentsia are educated in Russian language schools, often complete higher educational institutions in Russia, speak Russian as their language of choice, and are concentrated in urban centers, especially in Ashgabat.

Although many members of the intelligentsia favor cultural revival, more support restricting nationalist manifestations and the role of Islam in society. Many who are atheists and have identified with Soviet ideals harbor anxieties that distance from traditional values and especially from the Turkmen language will limit their career potential in the post-Soviet era.

Today's Turkmen have fully embraced the concepts of national unity and a strong national consciousness, which had been elusive through most of their history. The Turkmen have begun to reassess their history and culture, as well as the effects of Soviet rule. Some of the more notable changes since independence have been a shift from open hostility to cautious official sanctioning of Islam, the declaration of Turkmen as the state language, and the state's promotion of national and religious customs and holidays. For example, the vernal equinox, known as Novruz ("New Year's Day"), is now celebrated officially country-wide.

Interest and pride in national traditions were demonstrated openly prior to independence, particularly following the introduction of glasnost' by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1985. Since independence, the government has played a less restrictive and at times actively supportive role in the promotion of national traditions. For example, in a move to replace the Soviet version of Turkmen history with one more in harmony with both traditional and current values, President Niyazov formed a state commission to write the "true history of sunny Turkmenistan."

The Soviet period dampened but did not suppress the expression of prominent Turkmen cultural traditions. Turkmen carpets continue to receive praise and special attention from Western enthusiasts. The high sheepskin hats worn by men, as well as distinctive fabrics and jewelry, also are age-old trademarks of Turkmen material culture. The Ahal-Teke breed of horse, world-renowned for its beauty and swiftness, is particular to the Turkmen. Aside from a rich musical heritage, the Turkmen continue to value oral literature, including such epic tales as Korkut Ata and Gurogly.

Increased national awareness is reflected in modifications of the school curriculum as well. Among new courses of instruction is a class on edep , or proper social behavior and moral conduct according to traditional Turkmen and Islamic values. Officially sanctioned efforts also have been made to contact members of the Turkmen population living outside of Turkmenistan, and several international Turkmen organizations have been established.

Today, of the five or six Turkmen tribes that flourished 500 years ago, two major tribes remain, each of them divided into two distinct groups: the Ahal and Mary Teke, and the western and northern Yomut. The Teke is the largest of the modern Turkmen tribes. Its two subgroups, however, share little in common and are political and economic rivals. The Ahal Teke occupy most of the Ahal Region, a populous area in the south center of the country that includes the capital, Ashgabat. The Mary Teke occupy much of the Mary Region, located to the east of Ahal and bordering on both Iran and Afghanistan.

The western Yomut occupy much of the Balkan Region, which borders on the Caspian Sea. Their territory extends southward into Iran. The northern Yomut live in the Dashoguz Region in the north. The Yomut were separated in the 19th century during the wars against Russia.

Remnants of the other Turkmen tribes still live in the country: the Ersari in the Lebap Region, bordering on Uzbekistan and occupying much of the Amu Darya River Valley; the Salor and Saryk in the Mary and Lebap Regions; the Choudour in the north and east; and smaller groups like the Alili and Ata. The emblems of the five major historical tribes (Teke, Yomut, Ersari, Salon, and Saryk), best known for being the focal point of carpet designs, are preserved in the national flag of Turkmenistan.

The value that modern Turkmen place on tribal identity varies considerably according to age, location, and social status. Not surprisingly, the young, urban, and well educated are less likely to consider tribal origins important than the old, rural, and less educated. Still, it is the rare Turkmen who completely discards tribal identity. Even today, many Turkmen marriages in Ashgabat are intra-tribal.

Accents, intonation, vocabulary, and grammatical style are strong tribal/regional identifiers. Dress, particularly among women, can be another giveaway: color choices, embroidery patterns, and jewelry styles vary from tribe to tribe. Names can also give a hint of tribal identity. Preferences for given and surnames and the use of name endings ("-geldy;" "-murad") vary from region to region.

There is one important group-the Russified Turkmen elite-which has genuinely lost most of its tribal identity. For these individuals, Russian remains the daily language despite Government efforts to accelerate a transition to the Turkmen language. This effort appears to be picking up steam, however, and knowledge of Turkmen language is likely to become increasingly important, particularly in government employment and in the universities.

Turkmen social events revolve around the family. Memorials, weddings, and birthdays are celebrated with large parties called "toi." The menu for such occasions consists of traditional nomadic food. A favorite party specialty is "dograma," a thick soup made from dry bread, raw onions, and mutton fat. A must at any Turkmen meal for foreigners is the local version of the ubiquitous central Asian lamb and rice dish, "plov."

The 1995 census indicated that ethnic Russians made up almost 7 percent of the population; however, subsequent emigration to Russia and elsewhere continued to reduce this proportion. Most ethnic Russians and Armenians are Christian. Russian and Armenian practicing Christians are generally members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ethnic Russians and Armenians also make up a significant percentage of members of unregistered religious congregations; ethnic Turkmen are increasingly represented among these groups as well.

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