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Atlas Turkmenustan

Country (long form)
Total Area
188,456.46 sq mi
488,100.00 sq km
4,518,268 (July 2000 est.)
Estimated Population in 2050
Turkmen 72%, Russian 12%, Uzbek 9%, other 7%
98.0% total, 99.0% male, 97% female (1989 est.)
Muslim 89%, Eastern Orthodox 9%, unknown 2%
Life Expectancy
57.29 male, 64.71 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
1 Turkmen manat (TMM) = 100 tenesi
GDP (per capita)
$1,800 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
agriculture and forestry 44%, industry and construction 19%, other 37% (1996)
natural gas, oil, petroleum products, textiles, food processing
cotton, grain; livestock
Arable Land
oil and gas 55%, cotton 22% (1998)
machinery and equipment 45%, chemicals, foodstuffs (1998)
Natural Resources
petroleum, natural gas, coal, sulfur, salt
Current Environmental Issues
contamination of soil and groundwater with agricultural chemicals, pesticides; salination, water-logging of soil due to poor irrigation methods; Caspian Sea pollution; diversion of a large share of the flow of the Amu Darya into irrigation contributes to that river's inability to replenish the Aral Sea; desertification
Telephones (main lines in use)
320,000 (1995)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)

Though never a goal in itself, the sun-scorched, barren land between the Caspian Sea and the Amu-Darya passed in ancient times from one empire to another as armies decamped on the way to richer territories. Alexander the Great established a city on his way to India, the Romans set up near present-day Ashghabat and, in the 11th century the Seljuq Turks used Alexander's old city, Merv, as a base from which to expand their empire into Afghanistan. Two centuries later, the heart of the Seljuq empire was torn out as Jenghiz Khan stormed down from the steppes into Trans-Caspia (the region east of the Caspian Sea) on his way to terrorise Europe.

While the empire-builders tussled, nomadic horsebreeding tribes of Turkmen drifted in through the cracks, possibly from the Altay mountains, and grazed from oasis to oasis along the fringes of the Karakum desert and in Persia, Syria and Anatolia. With the decline in the 16th century of the Timurid empire, the region became a backwater dotted with feudal Turkmen islands. From their oasis strongholds, the Turkmen preyed on straggling caravans, pillaging and stealing slaves or skirmishing with other tribes. It was only when they started kidnapping Russians from the strengthening tsarist empire that the Turkmen fell into trouble. Military forces were sent to Trans-Caspia to rout the by now wildly uncontrollable tribes: in 1881 the Russians marched on the fortress of Geok-Tepe and massacred an estimated 7000 Turkmen. A further 8000 were cut down as they fled across the desert. Not surprisingly, the Russians met little more resistance and by 1894 had secured all Trans-Caspia for the tsar.

A group of counter-revolutionaries briefly held sway in Ashghabat when WWI and the Bolshevik revolution distracted the Russians. A small British force, dispatched from northern Persia to back up the provisional Ashghabat governemt, skirmished with the Bolsheviks but withdrew in 1919 and the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was formed in 1924. Soviet attempts to settle the tribes, collectivise farming and ban religion inflamed the nomadic Turkmen and a guerilla war raged until 1936. More than a million Turkmen fled into the desert or into northern Afghanistan and a steady stream of Russian immigrants began settling in their stead to undertake the modernisation of the SSR. A big part of the plan was cotton: Massive irrigation works bled the Amu-Darya and the Aral Sea all in the cause of crisp white shirts.

Turkmenistan was slow to pick up on the political changes in the other Soviet republics during the 1980s. The first challenge to the Communist Party (CPT) came in 1989 when a group of intellectuals formed Agzybirlik (Unity), a socially and environmentally progressive party. Agzybirlik was banned when it showed signs of garnering too much support, though the CPT did declare sovereignty in August 1990. In October 1990 Saparmurad Niyazov, unopposed and supposedly with the blessing of 98% of voters, was elected to the newly created post of president. One year later, upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan became an independent country.

The years since independence have belonged to President Niyazov, authoritarian head of the Democratic Party (DPT), the new name judiciously adopted by the old (and in no way altered) CPT. With his statue on every available pedestal, a clutch of towns renamed after him and enough public portraits to fill the world's galleries, Niyazov is the focus of a personality cult that makes Lenin look shy and retiring. He's now adopted the modest title of Turkmenbashi (Head of all Turkmen); parliament has named him president for life, though Niyazov has said he will step down by 2010.

Opposition parties and newspapers are banned and, though there are grumblings of dissent, Niyazov genuinely does enjoy considerable popular appeal. Rumours that he has sanctioned drug trafficking activities from Afghanistan and the failure of oil and gas wealth to make an impact on empty shop shelves combined with rampant corruption may see this support erode.