Turkmen society had traditionally been divided among animal herders (“charwa”) and farmers (“chomur”). These divisions exist within tribes within families and even within individuals, alternated between the two lifestyle on an annual basis or spending several years doing each. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia “edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

Turkmen have a traditional of blood feuds that often involved entire clans or tribes because of the action of a single individual. Tribe members were expected to come to the defense of others in a time of conflict. Warfare is no longer a common method of settling scores but marriage often is. The Turkmen practiced slavery in the old days, with slaves often being from other ethnic groups. To this day there remains some class distinction based on wether an individual is pure Turkmen (“igh”), a descendant of a slave (“qul”) or of mixed origins (“yarm”).

Age and gender are important factors that determine how individuals behave with one another. Men are expected to show great respect to their fathers and grandfathers, even younger brothers are expected to do the same to their elder brothers. Women are expect to show respect and modesty when they are in the presence of men.

Turkmen do not have a tradition of strong political leaders or tribal chiefs. In the past those who distinguished themselves in battle were given great respect but their authority within the tribe was not that pronounced or long lasting. In the Soviet era, Turkmen in positions of power tended to favor members of their own tribe and hand out high positions and jobs based on tribal affiliations.

Fundamental social institutions generally remained unchanged by the presence of Marxist dogma for over seventy years, although the presence of large numbers of Russians changed the distribution of the classes and the cultural loyalties of the intelligentsia. With some weakening in urban areas in the twentieth century, kinship and tribal affiliation retain a strong influence over the structure of Turkmen society. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The social structure of the Turkmen people is studied in The Yomut Turkmen by William Irons.


The basic, local Turkmen social unit is the “oba” (“aul” in Russian). It is a group of households associated with a specific territory held in common by the group. In the old days, an oba could be made up of one or several nomad encampments, which in turn were comprised of households made up of close relatives. Although Soviet collectivism largely replaced the “oba” with collectives and state farms, basic family and tribals structures remained intact. Migration from the rural areas to urban areas has weakened traditional structures to some degree,

In the old days, an oba was a group of households consisting of kin and nonkin that migrated together and formed discrete social units. A typical oba was made up of five to eight yurts, with the yurts arranged according to each household’s relation to the oba’s leader. Oba functions included helping one another in times of trouble, participating in kinship rituals such as weddings and funerals and economic exchanges. Household in the oba cooperated for labor intensive activities such as tending livestock and sheering sheep.

The oba’s leader is usually a senior member called an aksakal (“white beard”). Often he is no more than that the eldest male in a household or extended family. When he dies his eldest son becomes the oba leader.

Increased urbanization, the collectivization of herds and the enlargement of settlements has undermined the traditional oba system. Traditional administrative units have been replaced with administrative districts based on territory.

Soviet-Influenced Turkmen Social Structure and Classes

Although it is not a basis for political groupings, the rather vague phenomenon of tribal identity is a complex social phenomenon that retains important influence at the end of the twentieth century. The Soviet era added an element of cohesion to a previously loose and unassertive set of social loyalties among Turkmen. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Turkmen society recognizes a class structure, ideologically based on Marxist doctrine, composed of intelligentsia, workers, and peasants. In practical terms, the intelligentsia and peasantry consist of Turkmen, while the worker class is the domain of Russians. Power and some wealth are associated with the Western-oriented intelligentsia, who hold the key positions in government, industry, and education. Most intelligentsia are educated in Russian language schools, often complete higher educational institutions in Russia, speak Russian as their language of choice, and are concentrated in urban centers, especially in Ashgabat. *

Although many members of the intelligentsia favor cultural revival, more support restricting nationalist manifestations and the role of Islam in society. Many who are atheists and have identified with Soviet ideals harbor anxieties that distance from traditional values and especially from the Turkmen language will limit their career potential in the post-Soviet era. *

Turkmen Clans and Tribes

The Turkmen are divided into territorial descent groups, the largest of which are tribes. Each tribe is subdivided into increasingly smaller and more closely-related groups. Descent is traced patrilineally to a common ancestor, Oghuz Khan. Knowledge about descent groups is preserved through oral genealogies. When two strangers meet often the first questions they ask are about tribal origin so they can determine their relationship t each other. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia “edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

Centuries-old clan and tribe loyalties are very important even among educated Turkmen. People tend to hang out with members of their tribe and marry within their tribes. The five largest of the 1000 or so tribes, sub-tribes and major clans are the Yomud (Caspian shore and northern Iran), Tekke (Merv, Ashgabat and central Turkmenistan), Ersari (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border), Sarik (southern Turkmenistan around Kushka) and Salor (eastern Turkmenistan). The Tekke and Yomud tribes are dominant in political and intellectual circles.

Clan and tribal loyalties are stronger in Turkmenistan than in the other Central Asian states, inhibiting a strong sense of nationalism. Each tribe has a distinct dialect, style of clothing and jewelry and pattern woven on their carpets. Individuals have knowledge of recent ancestry back at least five generations but often have knowledge of the sixth or seventh generation to avoid getting caught up in a distant blood feud.

Tribalism in Turkmenistan

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. *

According to U.S. Diplomatic Cables: “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. [Source: U.S. Diplomatic Cable, November 26, 2007, Wikileaks ^^^]

“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.” ^^^

Different Turkmen Tribes

According to U.S. Diplomatic Cables: “ 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 [Source: U.S. Diplomatic Cable, November 26, 2007, Wikileaks ^^^]

“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. ^^^

There are five sacred tribes,, which are collectively known as Owlad. These trace their lineage not back to Oghuz Khan but to first four caliphs of Islam. Regarded as the protector’s of the Turkmen’s Islamic heritage, they are deeply revered in Turkmen society and often carry out important religious duties and have high status in their communities. Although they live among other Turkmen they rarely intermarry with other tribes. Members of the Owlad tribe have traditionally been called on to settle blood feuds and disputes. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

Turkmen Tribes In the Pre-Soviet Era

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

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. *

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. *

Rise of the Ahal Teke Tribe Power In the Soviet Era

According to U.S. Diplomatic Cables: “ 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. [Source: U.S. Diplomatic Cable, November 26, 2007, Wikileaks ^^^]

“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.” ^^^

Turkmen Tribalism Under Niyazov

According to U.S. Diplomatic Cables: “ 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. [Source: U.S. Diplomatic Cable, November 26, 2007, Wikileaks ^^^]

“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.” ^^^

Turkmen Tribalism Under Berdymukhammedov

According to U.S. Diplomatic Cables: “ 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. [Source: U.S. Diplomatic Cable, November 26, 2007, Wikileaks ^^^]

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. For example, when an Embassy contact from Dashoguz Province applied to study in the foreign languages department at the Turkmen National Institute of World Languages, there were only two slots available for Dashoguz applicants. Similarly, two slots were available for Lebap, Balkan, and Mary provincial applicants. However, the joint quota for Ahal province and Ashgabat was twelve slots. ^^^

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. ^^^

“Tribalism continues to remain a potential flashpoint for tension within Turkmenistan. Resentments over tribal discrimination, both perceived and real, have built up for centuries, and have been exacerbated by the lack of economic development and former President Niyazov's policies. That said, most minority tribes seem willing to accept Ahal Teke political domination — at least, for now — as long as it does not lead to continued economic neglect. The fact that President Berdimuhamedov seems to recognize this and to be responding to the economic inequities is a point in his favor. But tribal traditions still run strong in Turkmenistan, and many still prioritize family and tribe above any concept of national identity. Even if the president succeeds in bringing economic development — and increased employment — to all provinces, he may find creating a nation a tough task.” ^^^

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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