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Turkmenistan - Tribes

Before the Soviet period, the Turkmen were organized into a segmentary system of territorial groups that Western scholars loosely designate as tribes. These groupings featured little sharp social stratification within or strong unity among them. Tribal structure always has been complex, and the Turkmen-language terminology used to designate lineage affiliation sometimes is confusing. Generally, the largest groupings, which may be equivalent to what Western scholarship labels "tribes," are called khalk , il , or taipa in Turkmen. Smaller lineage groups are equivalent to Western terms like "clans," "subtribes," or "branches." The smallest affiliations are equivalent to subclans or lineages in Western terminology. In the past, Turkmen tribes remained relatively isolated and politically independent from one another. All tribes possessed specific distinguishing features. Their dialects differed greatly, and in terms of material culture each large tribe had a unique carpet pattern, clothing, headgear, and brand of identification.

Although Soviet nationality policy was somewhat successful in diluting tribal consciousness, tribal identity remains a factor in present-day social relations. Except in such urban areas as Chärjew and Ashgabat, virtually all Turkmen have a knowledge of their parents' and consequently their own tribal affiliation. A Turkmen's tribal affiliation still is a reliable indicator of his or her birthplace, for example. Lineage still may play a role in the arranging of marriages in rural areas. In Soviet Turkmenistan, the membership of collective and state farms often was formed according to clan and tribal affiliation. Although kinship undoubtedly retains significance in contemporary Turkmen society, attempts to use tribal affiliation as the determining factor in such realms as current politics usually are not instructive.

Until the Soviet period, the Turkmen lacked paramount leaders and political unity. The Turkmen rarely allied to campaign against sedentary neighbors, nor did they form a unified front against the Russian conquest. Unlike other Central Asian peoples, the Turkmen recognized no charismatic bloodline. Leaders were elected according to consensus, and their authority was based on conduct. Raids and other military pursuits could be organized by almost any male, but the power he exercised lasted only as long as the undertaking. Turkmen tribal structure did include a leader or chief (beg ), but these positions, too, were mostly honorary and advisory, based on kinship ties and perceived wisdom. Real power was located among the community's older members, whose advice and consent usually were required prior to any significant endeavor. Although women rarely assumed prominent political rank and power, there were instances of influential female leaders in the nineteenth century.

Turkmenistan marks Carpet Day on the last Sunday of May. This national holiday was established before the country declared independence in 1991. The show is organized by the Turkmen Carpet state-run corporation comprising 16 enterprises. Their carpets won many prestigious awards at international fairs in Paris, Montreal, Leipzig, Brussels, etc. Many carpets have ornaments featuring the Turkmen national flag and coat of arms as a symbol of people's unity. Famous Italian traveler Marco Polo (1254-1324) wrote that Turkmenistan boasted the thinnest and most beautiful carpets in the world. Renaissance artists later used to depict these carpets on their paintings. Turkmen carpets were mentioned in Avesta (Zoroastrian archives), works by ancient Greek and Chinese historians, ancient Indian epics The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, The Shah Nameh by Persian poet Firdousi, The Thousand and One Nights, a series of stories in Arabic, etc.

The flag features a white crescent (symbol of Islam) and five stars; those stars represent the five regions of the country. Placed upon a green field is a symbolic representation of the country's famous carpet industry. The intricate design begins with a basic green flag featuring a vertical red stripe towards the hoist side of the flag. Placed within the stripe are five different carpet guls, embraced by a set of olive branches placed at the bottom of the stripe. The five different carpet guls, used in traditional carpet designs, represent the five main tribes of the country, and can also be seen as a manifest of national identity.

Notwithstanding 70 years of Soviet rule, tribalism remains a potent issue of potential division in Turkmenistan. One's tribal identity continues to influence who one will marry, whether one will enter the university or whether one can get a government job. Under former President Niyazov, the Ahal Teke tribe -- Niyazov's tribe, based in Ashgabat and Ahal Province -- not only dominated Turkmenistan's political structure, but also was the main beneficiary of Niyazov's Ashgabat-focused construction and economic development program. While the Ahal Teke continue to dominate the government under President Berdimuhamedov, the president seems to recognize that the former policy of economic favoritism was a recipe for instability and is seeking to address some of the worst economic inequities.

All ethnic Turkmen belong to one of Turkmenistan's approximately 30 tribes. The Teke, Yomut, and Ersari tribes are the largest of these, and they account for the majority of the Turkmen population. Among these, the Teke tribe -- the largest -- is divided between the Ahal Teke and Mary Teke. The second-largest tribe is the Yomut, with divisions between the Balkan Yomuts in western Turkmenistan and the Dashoguz Yomuts in northern

Turkmenistan. The Ersari, the third-largest tribe, inhabits the eastern province of Lebap. While this characterization is convenient, it is also based on fact, since Turkmenistan's provinces were delineated based on the territories of the three major tribes. The minor tribes include Gokleng, Chowdur, Saryk, Sakar, Salir, Salor, Bayat, Alili, and the Ata. Although every tribe has its own ancestor, Niyazov imposed the idea of a single mythical ancestor, Oguz Khan, in order to promote a point of convergence among the Turkmen tribes.

Tribal identity plays a major role in determining the life of the average Turkmen. Traditionally, every tribe has striven to maintain the purity of its lineage, leading to great pressure for children to marry within their tribe. This practice continues to prevail in most parts of the country. Parents of a Ahal Teke man were upset with his choice of bride, an Ersari. The Yomut parents of two sisters who married Ahal Teke men were disinclined to approve their daughters' marriages, because they did not want to see their children treated as second-class members of an Ahal Teke family. Indeed, minority tribes are less opposed to intertribal marriages between themselves than they are to marriages with Ahal Tekes, who are viewed as arrogant and superior.

Tribal origin can also influence one's career. For instance, the official Turkmen language is based on the Ahal and Mary Teke dialects. A strong knowledge of this "official" dialect is a prerequisite for a high-level government position. For example, a Ersari man from Turkmenabat City almost exclusively speaks Russian at work. This way, he gets more respect, since he does not have to cover up his Turkmenabat accent.

Before the Soviets unified the Turkmen tribes into the Soviet Turkmen Republic, the main source of conflict was over land and water distribution. During the Soviet era, however, the tribal conflict evolved into the question of who holds power. Aware that the Ahal Teke was the largest tribe and wanting to avoid fanning tribal tensions, Moscow instituted a policy of "tribal parity." The main objective of this policy was to guarantee all groups equal access to administrative positions and economic benefits. Consistent with this policy, many members of minority tribes were sent to Russia for education and recruited to government positions.

When appointing the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Turkmenistan, Moscow also introduced a policy of rotating the position among the tribes. Thus, while the First Secretary from 1947 to 1951, Shaja Batyrov, was Ahal Teke, his successor, Suhan Babayev, was Alili (1951-1958). First Secretary Juma Garayev (1958-1960) was Teke; Balysh Ovezov (1960-1969) was Yomut; Muhammetnazar Gapurov (1969-1985) was Ersari; and Saparmurat Niyazov (1985-1991) was Ahal Teke. Despite these efforts to share power, however, the power rested with the Ahal Tekes, the most educated and influential of all the tribes. This favoritism is also manifested in other sectors, including education. Although universities and colleges are free in Turkmenistan, each university department has a quota of how many students from each province it can accept.

Three major factors accounted for the Ahal Teke tribe's leadership. First, Tekes were at the forefront of the military resistance to Persian and Russian incursions in the nineteenth century, which allowed them to portray themselves as patriots. Second, Tekes were under direct Russian colonial rule since the 1880s, much earlier than the Dashoguz Yomuts and Lebap Ersaris. This enabled Tekes to become more familiar with the Russian culture, language, and government operations, giving them an advantage as they competed for high-level government positions. Lastly, Ashgabat, predominantly an Ahal Teke city, became the new republic's capital. After Moscow realized that having Ashgabat as the capital would enhance the already-influential Tekes, it officially decided to relocate the capital to Charzhow City (now Turkmenabat) in Lebap Province. However, the Soviets never implemented the decision to relocate the capital because of the bureaucratic hassle involved, and Ashgabat remained the capital city.

The first president, Saparmyrat Niyazov adopted a manipulative policy towards the tribal issue. On the one hand, he publicly admitted the existence of conflict among tribes. For example, during his January 2006 Memorial Day speech honoring the victims of the 1881 Gokdepe Battle, Niyazov acknowledged the existence of tribal tensions and called for their end. As a symbol of the tribes' unification in Turkmenistan, he called for more intertribal marriages. On the other hand, with his program of economic development and construction focused primarily in Ashgabat and Ahal province -- the areas where the Ahal Teke dominate -- Niyazov neglected other provinces, creating discontent among other tribes, especially the Dashoguz Yomuts and Lebap Ersaris. Due to their different historic experiences, the dialects, traditions, and lifestyles of these two tribes differ more from the Teke than those of any other minor tribes. Dashoguz Yomuts were part of Khiva, while the Ersaris were part of Bukhara -- both Uzbek khanates. Because of this, Tekes and other Turkmen tribes perceive Dashoguz Yomuts and Ersaris as being Uzbeks -- or, at least, semi-Uzbeks. Thus Dashoguz Yomuts and Ersaris, in addition to already being significantly different from the other tribes, also found themselves more neglected and isolated under Niyazov's rule.

President Berdimuhamedov continued to show the same tribal favoritism (towards the Tekes) as his predecessor. Like Niyazov, Berdimuhamedov is an Ahal Teke. Moreover, he comes from Gokdepe District, where the famous Battle of Gokdepe between Turkmen and Russians took place in 1881. Because this battle took place specifically in Gokdepe, where resistance to Russian rule was the strongest, the Gokdepe Tekes consider themselves the core of the Teke tribe. Thus, the President of Turkmenistan comes not only from the Teke tribe that holds both political and economic power, but also from Gokdepe, the heart of the Teke tribe. Moreover, within Turkmenistan's Cabinet of Ministers (all of whom were appointed by Berdimuhamedov), as of 2007 four out of seven deputy chairmen (i.e., deputy premiers) came from the Ahal Teke tribe. In addition, Parliamentary Speaker Akja Nurberdiyeva was also an Ahal Teke. On a ministerial level, 18 out of 22 ministers were Ahal Teke. As a result, Ahal Tekes continued to dominate the political arena, and there is only a very slim chance of getting a leading government post if an individual is not Ahal Teke.

Notwithstanding the dominance of Ahal Tekes in his cabinet, Berdimuhamedov did not initially define his policy on tribal issues. Yet, he has undertaken some serious steps that have led many to hope for fairer treatment for all tribes. For example, the candidates for the February 2007 presidential election were chosen from five different tribes. Although it was clear that these candidates were hand-picked and that Berdimuhamedov would win the elections, the fact that they represented different tribes made a significant impact on ethnic Turkmen. Since his inauguration, Berdimuhamedov has also ordered construction of new schools, hospitals, stadiums, hotels, kindergartens, and other similar establishments in all provinces. In July, the president announced establishment of a new free economic zone in Balkan Province's Turkmenbashy City. This plan will help develop a Yomut-dominated region. However, Dashoguz, Lebap, and Mary provinces continue to struggle economically, and it remains to be seen whether the president eventually will also seek to promote economic development in those provinces as well.

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Page last modified: 10-03-2013 19:18:08 ZULU