Turkmenistan (11/03)



Area: 229,060 sq. km. (188,417 sq. mi.).
Cities: Capital--Ashgabat. Other cities--Turkmenabat (formerly Chardjou), Dashowuz, Mary, Turkmenbashi.
Terrain: 80% covered in subtropical, sandy Karakum Desert, with dunes rising to the Kopet Dag Mountains in the south along the border with Iran; borders the Caspian Sea to the west and the Amu Darya River and Uzbekistan to the east; borders Afghanistan to the southeast, Kazakhstan to the north.

Nationality: Turkmen.
Population (2003 est.): 5 million.
Annual growth rate (2003 est.): 1.82%.
Ethnic groups: Turkmen 85%, Uzbek 5%, Russian 4%, other 6%.
Religions: Muslim 89%, Eastern Orthodox 9%, unknown 2%.
Languages: Turkmen 72%, Russian 12%, Uzbek 9%, other 7%.
Education: Literacy--98%.
Work force (1996 est.): 2.34 million.

Type: Republic.
Independence: October 27, 1991 (from the Soviet Union).
Constitution: May 18, 1992.
Branches: Executive--president. Legislative--Parliament; People's Council. Judicial--Supreme Court.
Administrative subdivisions: 5 Velayat (provinces)--Ahal Velayat (Ashgabat), Balkan Velayat (Nebitdag), Dashowuz Velayat (formerly Tashauz), Lebap Velayat (Turkmenabat, formerly Chardjou), Mary Velayat.
Political parties: Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (opposition parties are outlawed).
Flag: Green field with a vertical red stripe near the hoist side, containing five carpet guls stacked above two crossed olive branches similar to the olive branches on the UN flag; a white crescent moon and five white stars appear in the upper corner of the field just to the fly side of the red stripe.

GDP (2002 est.): Purchasing power parity--$26 billion.
Real growth rate (2002 est.): 6%.
Inflation rate (2002 est.): 5%.
Per capita income (2002 est.): Purchasing power parity--$5,500.
Unemployment rate (2003 est.): 40%.
Agriculture: Products--cotton, grain, livestock.
Industry: Types--natural gas, oil, petroleum products, textiles, food processing.
Trade: Exports (2002 est.)--$2.97 billion: gas 57%, oil 26%; cotton fiber 3%; textiles 2%. Partners--Ukraine, Iran, Turkey, Russia, U.S., Italy, Switzerland. Imports (2002 est.)--$2.25 billion: machinery and equipment 60%, foodstuffs 15%. Partners--Turkey, Ukraine, U.S., Russia, U.A.E., France.
Debt--external (2001 est.): $2.3-$5 billion.

The territory of Turkmenistan has been populated since ancient times, as armies from one empire to another decamped on their way to more prosperous territories. Tribes of horsebreeding Turkmen drifted into the territory of Turkmenistan from ancient times, possibly from the Altay Mountains, and grazed along the outskirts of the Karakum Desert into Persia, Syria, and Anatolia.

Alexander the Great conquered the territory in the 4th century B.C. on his way to India. One hundred fifty years later the Parthian Kingdom took control of Turkmenistan, establishing its capital in Nisa, an area now located in the suburbs of the modern-day capital of Ashgabat. In the 7th century A.D. Arabs conquered this region, bringing with them the Islamic religion and incorporating the Turkmen into Middle Eastern culture. It was around this time that the famous "Silk Road" was established as a major trading route between Asia and Europe.

In the middle of the 11th century, the powerful Turks of the Seldjuk Empire concentrated their strength in the territory of Turkmenistan in an attempt to expand into Afghanistan. The empire broke down in the second half of the 12th century, and the Turkmen lost their independence when Genghis Khan took control of the eastern Caspian Sea region on his march west. For the next 7 centuries, the Turkmen people lived under various empires and fought constant intertribal wars amongst themselves.

From the 16th century on, Turkmen raiders on horseback preyed on passing caravans, pillaging and taking prisoners for the slave trade. After kidnapping Russians from the expanding Tsarist Empire, the Turkmen fell into trouble. Russia sent forces to Turkmenistan, and in 1881 fighting climaxed with the massacre of 7,000 Turkmen at the desert fortress of Geok Depe, near modern Ashgabat; another 8,000 were killed trying to flee across the desert. By 1894 imperial Russia had taken control of Turkmenistan. The October Revolution of 1917 in Russia and subsequent political unrest led to the declaration of the Turkmen Republic as one of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union in 1924. At this time the modern borders of Turkmenistan were formed.

The Turkmen Republic was under full control of Moscow, which exploited its raw materials resources for the purposes of the Soviet Union. Sovereignty was only a formality, since Russia ultimately ruled all Soviet states.

Following the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan declared its independence on October 27, 1991. Saparmurat Niyazov became the first president of the new republic and still remains the supreme decisionmaker. On December 28, 1999, Niyazov's term was extended indefinitely by the Mejlis (parliament), which itself had taken office only a week earlier in severely flawed elections that included only candidates hand-picked by President Niyazov. Independent political activity is not allowed in Turkmenistan, and no opposition candidates are allowed. The Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT) is the only legal political party. Political gatherings are illegal unless government sanctioned, and the citizens of Turkmenistan do not have the means to change their government democratically.

While the constitution provides for freedom of the press, there is virtually no freedom of the press or of association. The government has full control of all media and has recently moved to restrict foreign newspapers. International satellite TV is available. On November 25, 2002, an armed attack against President Niyazov's motorcade was made. The Government of Turkmenistan moved quickly against perceived sources of opposition. There were widespread reports of human rights abuses committed by officials investigating the attack, including torture and punishment of families of the accused. The Government of Turkmenistan denied the charges, but refused to allow independent observers at trials or to accept a mandatory OSCE fact-finding mission. It has instituted new measures to stifle dissent and limit contact with the outside world.

The population is 89% Sunni Muslim. The constitution provides for freedom of religion and does not establish a state religion; however, in practice, the government continues to restrict all forms of religious expression. A law on religious organizations requires that religious groups must have at least 500 members in each locality in which they wish to register in order to gain legal status with the government. The only religions that have registered successfully under the law are Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity, which are controlled by the government. The law has prevented all other religious groups, of which there are many, from registering. The government severely limits the activities of nonregistered religious congregations by prohibiting them from gathering publicly, proselytizing, and disseminating religious materials. The government's interpretation of the law severely restricts the freedom to meet and worship in private.

A Soviet-style command economy greatly limits equality of opportunity. Industry and services are almost entirely provided by government or government-owned entities, while agriculture is dominated by a state order system. Women face particularly strong discrimination in all social aspects, and their freedom is restricted due to traditional social-religious norms. All citizens are required to carry internal passports, noting place of residence, and movement into and out of the country, as well as within its borders, is difficult.

Corruption continues to be pervasive. Power is concentrated in the president; the judiciary is wholly subservient to the regime, with all judges appointed for 5-year terms by the president without legislative review. Little has been done to prosecute corrupt officials.

Principal Government Officials
President--Saparmurat Niyazov
Prime Minister--Vacant
Foreign Minister--Rashid Meredov
Ambassador to the United States--Meret B. Orazov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary

Turkmenistan maintains an embassy at 2207 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008; tel: (202) 588-1500, fax: (202)588-0697

Turkmenistan was an important supplier of raw materials, especially cotton, oil, and natural gas, during the Soviet era. One-half of its irrigated land is planted in cotton, making it at one time the world's 10th-largest producer. However, poor crops in recent years have led to a decline in overall cotton production. Turkmenistan possesses the world's fifth-largest reserves of natural gas as well as substantial oil resources. Until 1993, Turkmenistan experienced less severe economic decline in comparison with other former Soviet states because it was able to sell its natural gas and oil at world prices. In 1994, the Russian Government refused to allow exported Turkmen gas to pass through Russian pipelines to hard currency markets. Industrial production of gas fell sharply, putting the budget into deficit--a deficit which has since continued to rise sharply. Currently, Turkmenistan is heavily dependent on Russian pipelines to reach markets in Europe.

After Russia's refusal to transport Turkmenistan's gas, a difficult investment environment, high rates of inflation, and heavy government regulations made further economic progress unlikely. In the absence of gas revenues, Turkmenistan turned to the export of cotton, but poor harvests have had weak economic returns. In 1996 the economy bottomed out, and inflation rates continued to climb. Although the government avoided privatization, it attempted to fix the situation by creating a stabilization program aimed at a unified and market-based exchange rate, the allocation of government credits by auction, and strict limits on budget deficits. However, partial price liberalization, the end of subsidies from Moscow, and poor control over fiscal and monetary aggregates contributed to the high rates of inflation and significant drops in living standards.

With an authoritarian post-communist regime in power, Turkmenistan has taken a cautious approach to economic reform, hoping to use gas and cotton sales to sustain its inefficient economy. Privatization goals remain limited. Between 1998 and 2002, Turkmenistan has suffered from the continued lack of adequate export routes for natural gas and from obligations on extensive short-term external debt. At the same time, however, the value of total exports has risen sharply because of higher international oil and gas prices. Prospects in the near future are discouraging because of widespread internal poverty, the burden of foreign debt, and the unwillingness of the government to adopt market-oriented reforms. Turkmenistan's economic statistics are closely held secrets, and published GDP and other figures are subject to wide margins of error. Turkmenistan has cooperated with the international community in transporting humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.

Turkmenistan's declaration of "permanent neutrality" was formally recognized by the United Nations in 1995. Although the Government of Turkmenistan favors purchases from the United States, it has significant commercial relationships with Turkey, Russia, and Iran. The government worked closely with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan until September 11, 2001, and until that time had a growing cross-border trade with the regime in Afghanistan.

Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan wrestle with sharing limited water resources and regional environmental degradation caused by the shrinking of the Aral Sea. Multilaterally accepted Caspian Sea seabed and maritime boundaries have not yet been established. Iran insists on division of Caspian Sea into five equal sectors while Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan have generally agreed upon equidistant seabed boundaries.

For several years, Turkmenistan was a key player in the U.S. Caspian Basin Energy Initiative, which sought to facilitate negotiations between commercial partners and the Governments of Turkmenistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey to build a pipeline under the Caspian Sea and export Turkmen gas to the Turkish domestic energy market and beyond--the so-called Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP). However, the Government of Turkmenistan essentially removed itself from the negotiations in 2000 by refusing all offers by its commercial partners and making unrealistic demands for multimillion-dollar "prefinancing."

The United States and Turkmenistan continue to disagree about the country's path toward economic reform. The United States has publicly advocated industrial privatization, market liberalization, and fiscal reform, as well as legal and regulatory reforms to open up the economy to unhindered foreign trade and investment, as the only way to achieve prosperity and stability.

U.S. criticism of the Government of Turkmenistan's crackdown against perceived sources of political opposition after the November 25, 2002, has led to a marked downturn in bilateral relations between the Governments of the United States and Turkmenistan. Diplomatic missions from various countries and international organizations have joined together to persuade the Government of Turkmenistan to improve its human rights practices, but their efforts have been poorly received.

[Fact sheet on FY 2003 U.S. Assistance to Turkmenistan.]

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Tracey A. Jacobson
Deputy Chief of Mission--Robert J. Tansey
Political-Economic Chief--John T. Godfrey
Public Affairs Officer--Shannon E. Runyon
Consular Officer--Jennifer Hall Godfrey
Management Officer--Gary L. Anderson
USAID Director--Bradford Camp

The U.S. Embassy is located at 9 1984 Street (formerly Pushkin Street), Ashgabat, Turkmenistan; tel: [993](12)35-00-45; fax: [993](12)51-13-05.

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.