In 1990, the Supreme Soviet of Turkmenistan declared sovereignty as a nationalist response to perceived exploitation by Moscow. Although Turkmenistan was ill prepared for independence and communist leader Saparmurad Niyazov preferred to preserve the Soviet Union, in October 1991 the fragmentation of that entity forced him to call a national referendum that approved independence.

The winds of change came slowly and reluctantly to Turkmenistan. In 1989, Agzybrilk (“Unity”), a reformist, environmental party, was formed by intellectuals in Turkmenistan. When the party began drawing large numbers of supporters it was promptly banned. One concession was made to it, though: Turkmen was made an official language in 1990.

When other constituent republics of the Soviet Union advanced claims to sovereignty in 1988 and 1989, Turkmenistan's leadership also began to criticize Moscow's economic and political policies as exploitative and detrimental to the well-being and pride of the Turkmen.

By a unanimous vote of its Supreme Soviet, Turkmenistan declared its sovereignty, which meant that Turkmen laws had precedence over Soviet laws, on August 22, 1990. Saparmurad Niyazov, the Communist party boss, was elected to the newly created position of president on October 27, 1990. He ran unopposed and received 98 percent of the vote.

After the August 1991 coup attempt against the Gorbachev regime in Moscow, Niyazov called for a popular referendum on independence. The official result of the referendum was 94 percent in favor of independence. The republic's Supreme Soviet had little choice other than to declare Turkmenistan's independence from the Soviet Union and the establishment of the Republic of Turkmenistan on October 27, 1991. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Turkmenistan became an independent state when the Soviet Union was disbanded in December 26, 1991. None of the nations of Central Asia had ever existed as a true nation-state before 1991. Turkmenistan was totally unprepared to be a nation. It citizens didn’t want independence. In a 1991 referendum a vast majority of voters voted to remain in the Soviet Union

Turkmenistan After Independence

After independence Niyazov continued as Turkmenistan’s chief of state, replacing communism with a unique brand of independent nationalism reinforced by a pervasive cult of personality. A 1994 referendum and legislation in 1999 abolished further requirements for the president to stand for re-election (although in 1992 he completely dominated the only presidential election in which he ran), making him effectively president for life. During his tenure, Niyazov conducted frequent purges of public officials and abolished organizations deemed threatening. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

Independence was supposed to give way to democracy and unleash economic reforms, privatization and prosperity. Since the country was rich in resources and has a relatively small population everyone was supposed to prosper. This has not happened. Instead independence has given way one man rule and economic decline. Reforms have not taken place. Only the well connected prospered while the general population has gotten poorer.

Turkmenistan's authoritarian regime and regional social structure have produced the most politically and economically stable of the former Soviet republics. Although its leadership has gained a reputation abroad for repression of political opposition, it is perceived at home as promoting the social benefits, national traditions, and security of the Turkmen people. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In addition, to ensure its national security and trade prospects, Turkmenistan has charted an independent course in establishing a military alliance with Russia and trade and security agreements with Iran and Central Asian countries. In terms of natural assets, Turkmenistan is a landlocked, desert country beneath whose surface lie substantial deposits of oil and the fifth largest reserves of natural gas in the world. Foreign investors, attracted by the republic's calm and receptive atmosphere, have sidestepped human rights issues on their way to establishing joint exploitation of Turkmenistan's rich energy resources. *

Economic Situation in Independent Turkmenistan

At the time Turkmenistan became independent, agriculture contributed about half of Turkmenistan's GDP, whereas industry accounted for only about one-fifth. However, irrigation is necessary for nearly all the republic's arable land. In the early 1990s, government subsidies protected consumers from the shock of leaving the insulated Soviet system. Nevertheless, the standard of living protected by those subsidies had been among the lowest in the Soviet Union, and it deteriorated further in the 1990s. Although the Niyazov regime launched ambitious privatization programs in 1992 and 1993 — with energy, transportation, agriculture, and communications to remain under state control — only minor progress had been made toward the programs' goals by the mid-1990s. Progress also has been quite slow in the reform of commercial and banking legislation. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Turkmenistan played a vital role in the Soviet system as a natural gas supplier. In the post-Soviet period, Russia remained the republic's top trade partner, with Turkey moving into second place in the mid-1990s. A crucial rail link with Iran also was an important commercial improvement. *

The single most important mineral resource is natural gas; Turkmenistan's reserves may be among the largest in the world, with estimates as high as 15 trillion cubic meters. Nearly all the republic has been identified as potentially productive, and important offshore reserves exist in the Caspian Sea. The second major resource is petroleum, of which Turkmenistan has an estimated 63 billion tons. However, the range of the republic's mineral resources is small: sulfur, mineral salts, and clays complete the list. *

Economic Policy in Independent Turkmenistan

In the mid-1990s, Turkmenistan's economic policy continued to rely heavily on the West's demand for natural gas. But, for a nation isolated along the east coast of the Caspian Sea, gas sales depend strictly on pipeline movement. Existing lines, built to serve the Turkmenistan-Russia north-south axis, cannot fill this need. New lines moving from east to west have been planned, but all plans encounter strong geopolitical opposition from a regional power or from the United States. Until the pipeline problem is solved, Turkmenistan can sell gas only to the same customers it served in the Soviet era, who now are its impoverished fellow members of the CIS. Armenia and Ukraine, major CIS customers, have been chronically late in paying. In February 1996, Turkmenistan made a long-term agreement to sell as much as 15 billion cubic meters of gas per year to Turkey between 1998 and 2020. Turkey also received development rights for a field in Turkmenistan believed to contain 20 million tons of oil. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Economic indicators can only be approximated because Turkmenistan has not issued precise statistics. The national currency, the manat (for value of the manat), was devalued in late 1995 from a ratio of 500 to US$1 to 2,100 to US$1; it has remained non-convertible. It is believed that inflation in 1995 exceeded 1,000 percent; the 1996 annual rate, 140 percent, still was the highest in Central Asia. Exports for 1995 were about US$1.9 billion and imports about US$1.5 billion in official estimates. However, Turkmenistan conducts much barter trade, and payment failures of gas customers further undermine the application of cash trade figures. For 1996 the Economist Intelligence Unit forecast a 5 percent reduction of GDP following a drop of 15 percent in 1995. It also forecast a reduction in inflation in 1996 to 800 percent and a further drop in the value of the manat to a rate of 3,000 to US$1. *

The state still strongly dominates the national economy. Little private enterprise occurs without some form of government approval or support, and about 90 percent of the work force is in state enterprises. In 1996 plans called for modernization of tax and business laws, including joint-venture conditions for the oil and gas industries. Pending those developments, foreign investors face a mass of state bureaucracy.

As of the mid 1990s foreign investment had been small, and experts predicted no short-term improvement, partly because of the republic's insufficient legal and bureaucratic infrastructure, and partly because the very small and impoverished population provides little market opportunity. (The official average monthly wage was US$7 in early 1996.) The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and other international banks funded a textile complex, and Ashgabat Airport was modernized with a loan of US$31 million from the British Export Credit Agency. However, for 1996 total direct investment was only US$32 million, with another US$61 million in joint ventures and US$161 million in foreign loans.

Foreign Policy in Independent Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan has pursued the most independent and pragmatic foreign policy of the five Central Asian republics. The overall goal has been to form advantageous regional relationships without becoming involved in regional conflicts such as the Tajikistani civil war. In December 1996, Turkmenistan passed legislation declaring permanent neutrality and prohibiting membership in any military or political-military alliance entailing responsibilities for collective action by its members. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

President Niyazov has run the country's foreign policy personally; he has faced little pressure at home to orient policy in a particular direction. Thus, he has been able to form ties with diverse foreign nations, maintaining economic advancement as the primary goal. Through the mid-1990s, Iran has been the top regional partner, although national security relations with Russia also have been a high priority during that period. In 1995 Turkmenistan signed a series of bilateral agreements with Russia, expanding economic and political cooperation and proclaiming the two nations "strategic partners" through 2000.

Turkmenistan has explicitly avoided multilateral arrangements, most of them sponsored by Uzbekistan, with the other Central Asian republics. It refused membership in the Central Asian customs union established by Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan in 1994, and in the Central Asian Economic Union that sprang from the initial agreement. Turkmenistan also contributed nothing to the CIS peacekeeping force sent to Tajikistan by those three nations and Russia in 1993. Substantial tension has arisen with Uzbekistan over water consumption, competition on the world cotton market, the Uzbek minority population's potential for unrest, and resentment of Uzbekistan's ambitions for regional leadership. By the end of 1995, tensions with Uzbekistan were so high that Turkmenistan boycotted all regional meetings. However, in January 1996 a meeting of the two nations' presidents produced a package of economic cooperation agreements, and new agreements on road and railroad transportation were discussed in the first half of 1996.

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.

Last updated April 2016

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