RUSSIANS AND OTHER MINORITIES IN TURKMENISTAN

ETHNIC GROUPS IN TURKMENISTAN

The population is made of Turkmen (85 percent), Uzbek (5 percent), Russian (4 percent) and Other (6 percent) (2003). Other includes Kazakhs, Tatars, Azerbaijanis, Tajiks, Karakalpaks, Kyrgyz, Koreans, Ukrainians, Germans, Jews, Armenians, Persians, Lezghins, Uyghurs, Beludzhi, Kurds, Arabs and other ethnic groups from the former Soviet Union. According to the U.S. Department of State: There were an estimated 300 Jews, mainly in Ashgabat, but there was no organized Jewish community. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

In 2003 the population of Turkmenistan was 85 percent Turkmen, 5 percent Uzbek, and 4 percent Russian. Smaller ethnic groups, in order of size, are Tatar, Kazakh, Ukrainian, Azeri, and Armenian. There is no more recent data than 2003. [Source: CIA World Factbook] Ethnic Groups in 1991, Turkmen 72 percent, Russians nearly 10 percent, Uzbeks 9 percent, and Kazaks 2 percent. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the Soviet era there were more than twice as many Russians as there are now and Turkmen made up a smaller percentage of the population, but this has changed because so many Russians have left Turkmenistan since the break up of the Soviet Union. The Russians, who have traditionally lived in the cities, resented being relegated to second-class citizens. Most of the Russians that remained live in Ashgabat.

In the early 2000s, government and societal discrimination against minority citizens, particularly Russians, has increased the rate of emigration and depleted the fund of Russian technical expertise. Dual Russian-Turkmenistani citizenship was abolished in 2003. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007]

The main ethnic groups of Central Asia are the Uzbeks, Turkmen, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Uyghurs of western China—which all speak Turkic—and Tajiks, who speak a Persian languages. All of main these groups are Muslims and all but the Uyghurs have their own country. Many were once nomads who lived in yurts. Some still do.

Ethnic Mix in Turkmenistan

In the 1990s there were about 396,000 Uzbeks in Turkmenistan, compared to 18 millions in Uzbekistan and 90,000 Kazakhs in Turkmenistan, compared to 8 million in Kazakhstan. At that time there were about 3.6 millions Turkmen in Turkmenistan, 150,000 elsewhere in the Soviet Union, 1 million in Iran and 650,000 in northwest Afghanistan and smaller communities in Turkey and Iraq. Smaller minorities include 14,000 Beludzhi. In the 1990s, there were about 40,000 Iranians in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Turkmenistan and about 100,000 Kurds (many of them Yezidis) in Armenia, Georgia and Turkmenistan.

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “Something else attracted me at the Tolkuchka Bazaar: its multiethnic shoppers and stallholders. Most of the people were obviously Turkmen, but there were Russians, Persians, Azeris, and Uzbeks, too. For centuries, settlements across Central Asia were polyglot, and most people thought of themselves as Muslims or as tribesmen, and little else. In the nineteen-twenties, the Soviets carved the region into distinct republics, each named after a national group, but many communities remained mixed, and became more so over time. Some migrations were economic. Others, especially under Stalin, were forced, and left a number of ethnic communities stranded from their homes. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 ~]

“The most exotic group at the bazaar, and in Turkmenistan, was the Koreans. There were several tables of Korean women, smiling and shouting for attention, trays piled with pickled cabbage.“Stalin sent you?” I asked one. “He sent my father and mother,” she said. “Kimchi,” I said, the only Korean word I knew. “Yes, yes! Try some!” “It’s cheap. It’s the best. Buy some.” “Take me to America!” ~

Discrimination Against Minorities in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Although the law prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, ethnic minority status, or social status, discrimination continued to be a problem. The law provides for equal rights and freedoms for all citizens. Minority groups tried to register as NGOs to have legal status to conduct cultural events, but no minority groups succeeded in registering during the year. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

“The law designates Turkmen as the official language, although it also provides for the rights of speakers of minority languages. Russian remained prevalent in commerce and everyday life in the capital, even as the government continued its campaign to conduct official business solely in Turkmen. The government required ministry employees to pass tests demonstrating knowledge of professional subjects in Turkmen, and the government dismissed those employees who failed the examination. The government dedicated resources to provide Turkmen instruction for non-Turkmen speakers only in primary and secondary schools. \*\

“Non-Turkmen speakers noted that some avenues for promotion and job advancement were not available to them, and only a handful of non-Turkmen occupied high-level jobs in government. In some cases applicants for government jobs had to provide information about their ethnicity going back three generations. Because the government often targeted non-Turkmen first for dismissal when government layoffs occurred, disproportionately few non-Turkmen held government positions.” \*\

Yezidis

The Yezidis (also known as Yazidis) are a Kurdish-speaking religious group that lives in northwest Iraq and parts of Syria, Armenia and Turkey. Sometimes erroneously referred to as devil worshipers by Muslims and Christians, they practice a religion that has its roots in Sufism and Zoroastrianism and contains elements of Christianity, nature worship and Islam.

Yezidis physically resemble Muslim Kurds and Armenians although they consider themselves to be a separate people but some do refer themselves as Kurds. There a few scholars that believe that they may be remnant of an ancient Mesopotamian population.

There are about 1 million Yezidis worldwide, with about 300,000 of them in Iraq. Yezidis have traditionally been found in five major areas: 1) Sheihan, the most important, in northern Iraq, northeast of Mosul; 2) Saba Sinjar, in Iraq near the Syrian border, about 100 kilometers west of Mosul; 3) Halitiyek in Diyabakir Province in southeastern Turkey; 4) Malliyaj, to the west of the Euphrates and including Aleppo; and 5) Sarahdat in the Caucasus region.

The majority of Yezidis that live in the former Soviet Union live in Armenia and to a lesser extent Georgia. The census in 1989 counted 51,900 Yezidis in Armenia. Yezidis are found in significant numbers in the urban centers of Ejmiatsin and Gumri in Armenia and Tbilisi in Georgia as well as Aparan and Talin Armenia and Lachin and Kelbajar in western Azerbaijan. There a few small communities in Turkmenistan.

Early History of the Yezidis

Yezidis assert their religion is older than Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They claim they are descendants of Abraham. But all this doesn’t correspond with the fact that Sheik Adi ibn Musafir, the author of the religion’s sacred text, lived in the 11th or 12th century.

According to tradition, the Yezidis originated in Syria, near Basra, and later migrated to the Sindjat region of Iraqi Kurdistan, where they adopted the Kurdish language. It is said their religion was founded by Shaahid ibn Djarraah, the true son of Adam, and later restored by the caliph Yazid ibn Muawaiya. Some Kurdish scholars assert that Yezidism was the national religion of the Kurds in the Middle Ages. There no evidence to back up any of these claims.

Yezidism is believed to have been founded by Sheik Adi ibn Musafir, a semi-legendary Sufi mystic who died in 1162. According to legend he was sent by the Peacock Angel (See Below) to educate and guide the Yezidis. Sheik Adi’s tomb, near Mosul, is an important pilgrimage site for the Yezidi faithful.

Persecution of the Yezidi

The Yezidis have a long history of being persecuted. They were oppressed by their Ottoman overlords and Kurdish neighbors in the Ottoman era. Muslims accused them of being members of a heretical sect. They were disliked by formal government’s for their refusal to abide by their military service obligations. They have been misunderstood, laughed at, subjected to forced conversions and massacred. Under Saddam Hussein, they were protected and treated fairly well.

Many of the Yezidis that live in the Caucasus region were driven there during waves of religious persecution in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They settled in largely Christian Armenia and Georgia in part because throughout their history they have been persecuted less by Christians than by Muslims. A close bond developed between the Yezidis and the Armenians because both had been subjected of viscous persecution and forced migrations by the Turks under Ottoman rule.

Yezidi Religion

Yezidi theology contains Zoroastrian, Jewish,Manichean, Gnostic Christian (especially Nestorian) and Muslim, elements but there is no evidence that the Yezidi religion is an offshoot of any particular one of them. Yezidis believe the world was created by God, but was sustained by a hierarchy of subordinate beings (angels).

Yezidis believe there is no eternal damnation. Rather human beings are gradually perfected through a reincarnation-like series of lives. The souls of sinners may be passed on to animals but eventually they will reemerge as humans. They also believe that the souls of the righteous people can provide assistance to people living on earth.

Unlike other people of the world who descended from Adam and Eve, the Yezidi believe they descended from Adam only. In one version of their origin legend, there were 72 Adams, one after another, each more perfected than the one before him, with the 72nd one marrying Eve and begetting two children without Eve that produced the Yezidi race.

There are two scared books said to have been written in the 12th through 14th century. The Kitab al-Jilwa (“Book of Enlightenment”) is written in archaic Kurdish and thought to have been dictated by Sheik Adi. Most of the text is about the Peacock Angel, who speaks in the first person, often boasting of his powers and promising rewards for his followers. The second book, the Masxafe resh (“Black Book”) discusses the creation of humanity and the temptations of evil and provides information on taboos.

Russians in Turkmenistan

In 1979 Russians, Ukrainians and other Slaves made up 13.9 percent of the population of Turkmenistan . In 1989 they accounted for only 10.5 percent. Today Russians make up about four percent of the population.

Number of Russians (and their percentage of the total population) in Turkmenistan: 262,700 in 1959 (17.3 percent); 313,000 in 1970 (14.5 percent); 349,000 in 1979 (12.6 percent); 334,000 in 1989 (9.5 percent); Approx.,Less than 150,000 in 1999–2000. [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2006]

Many Russians live in the cities. The rural areas are dominated by Turkmen. In the early 1990s, Russians living in Turkmenistan were given the choice of having dual citizenship in Turkmenistan and Russia. Many Russians left. They held many of the professional an managerial jobs. In 2003, the dual citizenship option was revoked.

Russians in the Former Soviet Union

About 20 million Russians live outside of Russia in the former Soviet republics. The greatest number are in 1) the Ukraine (11.4 million); 2) Kazakhstan (6.2 million); 3) Uzbekistan (1.7 million); and 4) Belarus (1.3 million).

Russians once made up more than 20 percent of the population in smaller republic such as Estonia, Latvia and Kyrgyzstan. The percentage in these places is much lower now as many Russians have resettled to escape discrimination and anti-Russian sentiment.

By 1995, about 2.5 million Russians had moved back to Russia. The Russian government worried that Russia would be flooded with Russian returnees and was not forthcoming with the documentation necessary to live in Russia. Russians that had high-prestige jobs in the former Soviet republics were replaced by locals and were found they were not welcome in Russia. They were unable to get residence permits and were forced to work as illegal immigrants.

The increased numbers of Russians arriving from other CIS nations create both logistical and political problems. As in the case of non-Russian refugees, statistical estimates of intra-CIS migration vary widely, partly because Russia has not differentiated that category clearly from the refugee category and partly because actual numbers are assumed to be much higher than official registrations indicate. Many newly arrived Russians (like non-Russians) simply settle with friends or relatives without official registration. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Dual Citizenship and Migration of Russians from Turkmenistan

Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: Turkmenistan “recognized dual citizenship in 1993, within the framework of a bilateral agreement signed between President Niayzov and Russian president Boris Yeltsin. Approximately 90,000 people would have benefited from this treaty, 90 percent of them “ethnic” Russians. However, Niayzov abruptly abrogated the agreement in 2003, obliging all holders of dual citizenships to choose one or the other within three months. Accompanying this decision were discriminatory measures against those who chose Russian citizenship. Russia denounced this unilateral and retroactive decision as contrary to international law, but without managing to alter the Turkmen position. [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2007 ^^]

“On the expiration date, those persons who chose to remain citizens of the Russian Federation automatically lost their Turkmen citizenship. As foreigners, these Russians lost the right to own real estate and were forced to sell the property they possessed. In the span of a few months, the real estate market in Ashgabat collapsed, preventing those who wished to leave the country from financing their departure. Turkmen authorities began to confiscate the apartments of Russian citizens, and, to avoid an exodus of Russians, blocked the delivery of exit visas, then obligatory for all citizens. ^^

“In Turkmenistan, the census of 1989 counted 334,000 Russians, who constituted about 9.5 percent of the total population of the republic. By 1995 this figure had fallen to 6.7 percent; it is now at a low of just 2 percent. With the authorities in Ashgabat authorizing the right to dual citizenship with Russia in 1993, migratory flows were weaker in the first half of the 1990s. However, they accelerated with the increasing authoritarianism of the state, characterized by the harsh suppression of the right to dual citizenship in 2003. Currently, Turkmenistan’s population includes 150,000 Russians, at best. Some sources, such as the Institute for the Diaspora and Integration, based in Moscow and directed by the militant Russian nationalist Konstantin Zatulin, estimate that the number of Russians still present in Turkmenistan is much higher.”

Discrimination Against Russians in Turkmenistan

Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: “Today, approximately 50,000 citizens of the Russian Federation remain in Turkmenistan, deprived of their rights and regularly harassed by the authorities.” Turkmenistan “established a pragmatic national preference policy that forbids any non-Turkmen from competing in presidential elections. [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2007 ^^]

Authorities systematically refused to register the association Russkaia Obshchina for various administrative reasons, the extent of civil society was drastically constricted after independence. President Saparmurat Niyazov publicly announced that he would never recognize associations that represented Russians. In 2001, he prohibited all expressions of culture related to the West and Russia (theater, ballet, opera, and classical and contemporary music) by declaring them “contrary to the spirit of the Turkmen people.” The Russian cultural center closed, but inside its former building the authorities allowed a Pushkin theater to open. ^^

“They subjected the leader of Russkaia Obshchina, Anatolii Fomin, to strong pressures after he attempted to register an association to foster cultural and economic ties between Turkmenistan and Russia. Viacheslav Mamedov, another Russian leader, had to leave the country in January 2004 to escape repression. The situation of the Russian minority began to improve with the more Russia-friendly new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who was elected in February 2007 after the death of Niyazov. ^^

Russian-Language Schools and Media in Turkmenistan

Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: “In Turkmenistan, classes in Russian disappeared from course offerings soon after independence. Whereas the country had nearly 2,000 Russian-language schools in 1991, fewer than 100 existed in 2000, and only 50 in 2005. An additional 50 or so schools teach partially in Russian and partially in Turkmen. At the secondary level, just one Russian-language school exists. Founded in Ashgabat in 2002, during a visit to Turkmenistan by Russian president Vladimir Putin, it accommodates more than 600 students, though its official capacity is only 300. The children of personnel working at the Russian Embassy and other diplomatic missions also attend this school, which follows Russian curricula. [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2007 ^^]

“In Turkmenistan, all institutions of higher learning have operated exclusively in the Turkmen language since 2001, and Russianspeaking professors not able to prove their knowledge of Turkmen have been discharged... Since Niyazov’s death in December 2006, the situation seems to have evolved. The new government has once again approved the teaching of the Russian language in all primary, secondary, and university curricula. It will be difficult, however, for the new regime to improve the situation, because it faces a lack of Russianlanguage textbooks and qualified teachers.^^

“In Turkmenistan, the broadcasting of Russian television channels was prohibited in 1994, with the exception of ORT, the first Russian channel, which was broadcast in the country until 1998. Since then, the Turkmen population can get access to Russian television only by means of satellite antennae that only the urban middle class can afford. Since 1997, all Russian-language newspapers have also been closed except the very official Neitral’nyi Turkmenistan. The publication of any other Russian-language periodical or book on Turkmen territory has been forbidden since 2002. The last Russian-language radio station, Mayak, was censored in 2004. After the death of President Niyazov in December 2006, the authorities put ORT back on the air, and will most likely allow newspapers from Russia to return to the country.^^

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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