TURKMENISTAN: NAME, BRIEF HISTORY

TURKMEN NAME

Formal Name: Republic of Turkmenistan; Short Form: Turkmenistan; Term for Citizen(s): Turkmenistani (s). Noun for ethnic group:Turkmen, Plural: Turkmens. Adjective: Turkmen. Former name: Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic. Capital: Ashgabat (Ashkhabad). Independence: 27 October 1991 (from the Soviet Union).

The word Turkmen comes from two Turkic words: Turk, which means "Turk" and men which means "I" or "me." Thus Turkmen means "I am a Turk." Istan is the old Persian word for "place of." Thus Turkmenistan means "place of the Turkmen."

Stan -stan suffix \stan, stan\[Per.] 1: place, place of 2: land. Adopted into several languages from Persian, the court language employed in antique kingdoms of Central Asia. Thus the place or land of the Afghans is Afghanistan, the place of the Tajiks, Tajikistan. [Source: National Geographic, February 2002]

Books: “Central Asia: 120 Years of Russian Rule,” edited by Edward Allworth, offers a comprehensive treatment of the region. A more concise summary of each country’s geopolitical position in the 1990s is found in Charles Undeland and Nicholas Platt's “The Central Asian Republics”. “Central Asia,” edited by Hafeez Malik, offers a collection of articles on the history and geopolitics of the region. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Brief History of Turkmenistan

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “With the mountains of Iran and Afghanistan stacked up on its southern border, Turkmenistan was once a land of nomadic horse breeders in search of grazing pastures. It attracted conquerors—Alexander the Great, the Parthians, the Arabs, the Mongols—but because of its considerable size (it is almost a hundred and ninety thousand square miles), its inhospitable terrain, and its fierce tribalism it was not easily governed. Russia’s first military expedition into the region, ordered in 1717 by Peter the Great, ended in disaster; the tsar’s men were massacred by local khans. By the late-nineteenth century, though, the territory was under Russian control. The country did not have a defined border of its own until 1924, when it became a Soviet republic. “The Turkmen S.S.R. was always a backwater,” a seasoned American diplomat told me. “It was the sleepiest, most remote, least favored of the U.S.S.R.’s republics.” Niyazov, a career bureaucrat, was named First Secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmen S.S.R. by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, in 1991, he gave himself the name Turkmenbashi, “Leader of All the Turkmen,” and put himself in charge. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

Present-day Turkmenistan covers territory that has been at the crossroads of civilizations for centuries. The area was ruled in antiquity by various Persian empires, and was conquered by Alexander the Great, Muslim armies, the Mongols, Turkic warriors, and eventually the Russians. In medieval times, Merv (located in present-day Mary province) was one of the great cities of the Islamic world and an important stop on the Silk Road.[Source: CIA World Factbook =]

In the eighth century A.D., Turkic-speaking Oghuz tribes moved from Mongolia into present-day Central Asia. Part of a powerful confederation of tribes, these Oghuz formed the ethnic basis of the modern Turkmen population. In the tenth century, the name “Turkmen” was first applied to Oghuz groups that accepted Islam and began to occupy present-day Turkmenistan. There they were under the dominion of the Seljuk Empire, which was composed of Oghuz groups living in present-day Iran and Turkmenistan. Turkmen soldiers in the service of the empire played an important role in the spreading of Turkic culture when they migrated westward into present-day Azerbaijan and eastern Turkey. In the twelfth century, Turkmen and other tribes overthrew the Seljuk Empire. In the next century, the Mongols took over the more northern lands where the Turkmens had settled, scattering the Turkmens southward and contributing to the formation of new tribal groups. The sixteenth and eighteenth centuries saw a series of splits and confederations among the nomadic Turkmen tribes, who remained staunchly independent and inspired fear in their neighbors. By the sixteenth century, most of those tribes were under the nominal control of two sedentary Uzbek khanates, Khiva and Bukhoro. Turkmen soldiers were an important element of the Uzbek militaries of this period. In the nineteenth century, raids and rebellions by the Yomud Turkmen group resulted in that group’s dispersal by the Uzbek rulers. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007]

Annexed by Russia in the late 1800s, Turkmenistan later figured prominently in the anti-Bolshevik movement in Central Asia. In 1924, Turkmenistan became a Soviet republic; it achieved independence upon the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Extensive hydrocarbon/natural gas reserves, which have yet to be fully exploited, have begun to transform the country. The Government of Turkmenistan is moving to expand its extraction and delivery projects and has attempted to diversify its gas export routes beyond Russia's pipeline network. In 2010, new gas export pipelines that carry Turkmen gas to China and to northern Iran began operating, effectively ending the Russian monopoly on Turkmen gas exports. Subsequently, decreased Russian purchases, as well as limited purchases by Iran, have made China the dominant buyer of Turkmen gas. President for Life Saparmurat Nyyazow died in December 2006, and Turkmenistan held its first multi-candidate presidential election in February 2007. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, a deputy cabinet chairman under Nyyazow, emerged as the country's new president; he was reelected in February 2012 with 97 percent of the vote, in an election described as "a democratic sham." =

Historical Themes

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. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

During much of its past, Turkmenistan has received little attention from the outside world. Apart from its role in establishing the Seljuk dynasty in the Middle East in the Middle Ages, for most of its history this territory was not a coherent nation but a geographically defined region of independent tribal groups and other political entities. Like other republics of the former Soviet Union, Turkmenistan has emerged on the world scene as a newly independent country in need of both national and international acceptance, security, and development. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Turkmenistan is a very isolated place—cut off from its neighbors and the outside world by mountains and the Kara Kum desert. Until oil and natural gas were discovered there it did have much that anyone wanted and traditionally has been a place that traders crossed only out of necessity and brigands escaped to.

Turkmenistan was never an objective of conquest but it has been crossroads for conquerors on their way to lands worth conquering. Alexander the Great, the Mongols, Tamerlane: they all stopped here, but not for long. After the conquerors left Turkmenistan was left to warring tribes who fought among themselves and raided caravans that entered their territory and harassed villages within range of their horses.

Like the other Central Asian republics, Turkmenistan underwent the intrusion and rule of several foreign powers before falling under first Russian and then Soviet control in the modern era. Most notable were the Mongols and the Uzbek khanates, the latter of which dominated the indigenous Oghuz tribes until Russian incursions began in the late nineteenth century. *

Turkmenistan as One of the Stans

Turkmenistan has been described as the most despotic of the Central Asia “stans”: the “One-man Stan” where a “president wields kinglike powers, shackles freedoms, and splurges on luxuries.”

Describing Turkmenistan in the early 2000s, Mike Edwards wrote in National Geographic, “A nation of vast potential, with huge reserves of oil and natural gas, Turkmenistan...since independence has failed to escape from economic mire and harsh Soviet-style control. President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov headed the Turkmen Communist Party before the Soviet Union broke up. Now it's called the Democratic Party. It's the only one allowed. Opponents have been thwarted by arrests and harassment. The press is rigidly censored, and state-owned Turkmen Telecom is the sole Internet provider, allowing the government to monitor electronic mail. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, February 2002 ><]

“Niyazov was unopposed for president in 1992, in the first election after independence. Subsequently his rubber-stamp parliament, the Majlis, decreed that he could remain in office indefinitely. Nowhere in the former Soviet Stans is the cult of the ruler more intense. The president, who prefers to be called Turkmenbashi, Leader of the Turkmen, has put his likeness on everything from the currency to the local vodka. The main airport is named for him, and so is a city on the Caspian Sea. In Ashgabat, the capital, his gilded statue rotates atop a spire, one revolution every 24 hours. At dawn his outstretched arms reach southeast toward Afghanistan. By noon he faces Iran, and as night falls he is gazing north toward Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Turkmenbashi has steered a neutral course through the region's upheaval, and no guerrillas, Taliban spawned or otherwise, are known to have intruded. ><

“Turkmenistan cultivates the friendship of its neighbors in hope of marketing its great store of natural gas--possibly the fifth largest reserve in the world--and its petroleum. Iran has received Turkmen gas since 1998, and much of it goes to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations via Russian pipes. But Russia has refused to transport Turkmen gas to hard-currency nations, retaining the European market for itself. Plans for a pipeline across Afghanistan to Pakistan, of great potential benefit to those Stans as well as to Turkmenistan, foundered because of Afghanistan's turmoil. Another pipeline is more of a pipe dream and would pass under the Caspian Sea to Turkey.In all, energy exports bring in about 600 million dollars a year, far short of what the president expected when he promised to make Turkmenistan the "Kuwait of Central Asia" with free bread and a Mercedes for every family. Lack of funds, however, didn't deter Turkmenbashi from launching a radical makeover of Ashgabat, ripping out homes in the center of the city to get a site for his huge new marble palace. On the outskirts of the capital he built some 30 hotels that hardly ever host a visitor. With such splurges the government has run up a 2.3-billion-dollar foreign debt. ><

“The average wage earner, meanwhile, takes home about $30 a month. Men fortunate enough to own an old Russian Volga--far from a Mercedes--moonlight as taxi drivers to earn extra cash. Traditional nomads, Turkmen trace their origins to Turkic-speaking tribes that migrated from Mongolia and Siberia in the eighth century. During the Soviet era Moscow decreed that the Turkmen, like their neighbors the Uzbeks and Tajiks, must settle down on farms and grow cotton for Russian mills. Canals siphoned water from the Amu Darya and smaller rivers in the Turkmen republic and sent it across great swaths of the Garagum desert. The consequences were dire. Inefficient irrigation, especially leakage from canals, has created more than two million acres of useless salt marshes. Yet nearly half of the workforce in this nation of great potential wealth still seeks a meager living from agriculture, picking cotton by hand, with few if any benefits accruing from Turkmenbashi's one-man rule.” ><

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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