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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Turkmenistan : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Turkmenistan : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 5 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The Republic of Turkmenistan is situated in south-west Central Asia. It borders Uzbekistan to the northeast, Kazakhstan to the north-west, Iran to the south and Afghanistan to the south-east. The Caspian Sea lies to the west. The Kara-Kum Desert covers over 80 per cent of the country, occupying the entire central region. It is a rugged and mountainous country whish happens to have important oil and gas reserves, making it the second wealthiest state in Central Asia.


Main languages: Turkmen (official since 1990), Russian, Uzbek

Main religions: Sunni Islam, with elements of Sufi mysticism, Orthodox Christianity

Minority groups include Uzbeks (9.2%), Russians (6.7%), and Kazakhs (2%) (Turkmenistan Census, 1995).

Turkmen are a Turkic people of the Oghuz southern Turkic language group. A strong sense of tribal loyalty, reinforced by dialect, is preserved among Turkmen, who define themselves by tribe and clan. Major tribes include Tekke in central Turkmenistan, Ersary in the south-east and Yomud in the west. Almost 1 million Turkmen live in Iran, and an estimated 350,000 in Afghanistan.

Turkmen were converted to Islam earlier than other nomadic Central Asian groups (in the twelfth century), and have had relatively little to do with their neighbours. Turkmenistan is the most ethnically homogeneous state of Central Asia, with Turkmen making up about 77 percent of the population in 1995. Government figures for the end of 2003 presented to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and published by CERD on 1 April 2005 show a dramatic demographic shift, with Turkmen at 94.7%; Uzbeks with 2%; Russians with only 1.8%; and all other peoples, 1.5%. The accuracy of these percentages is however very doubtful.


Turkic tribes of the Seljuk Empire were already well established in the region that was to become Turkmenistan when the Mongolian hordes of Genghis Khan took control in about the 13th century. They were to form a distinct ethnic group during 13th to 16th centuries as they migrated from the area around the Mangishlak peninsula in Kazakhstan towards the Iranian border region and Amu Darya river basin.

Russia eventually began to move into this part of Central Asia in the 19th century, and effectively gained control by 1894. In 1924, what is today Turkmenistan and its modern borders were formed when the area became one of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union.

As the Soviet Union was on the verge of disintegrating, Saparmurat Niyazov, the former first secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan, was elected President in October 1990. Turkmenistan finally declared independence in October 1991. In June 1992, Niyazov was re-elected unopposed, receiving 99.5 per cent of the votes. In January 1994 a referendum was held to exempt Niyazov from having to seek re-election in 1997 to allow him time to complete his programme of economic reform, and extended the term of his office to 2002. His style of leadership was authoritarian, and his popularity was gained by such concessions as free electricity, gas and water supplies for all citizens from January 1993, although these supplies were scarce and available mainly in urban areas.

President Niyazov died in December 2006 and has been replaced by Kurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, who has said that he would continue to follow Niyazov's policies. He has however taken in 2007 a number of steps which suggest a slightly different – and perhaps more reform-minded – path by extending the number of school years and permitting the teaching of foreign languages.


Turkmenistan has been – and may continue to be – an authoritarian and repressive one-party state which was under the tight control of President Niyazov, who not only declared himself 'Turkmenbashi' (the father of all Turkmen), but was also made 'president-for-life' by the People's Council in 2003. No true opposition was allowed in the country and his book on spirituality, morality – the Rukhnama ('Book of the Soul') – still remains compulsory in schools, workplaces and in society in general, despite the former President's demise in 2006.

A rather extreme form of personality cult had emerged after the first volume of the Rukhnama was published in 2001: not only was the President's likeness on every public building and the currency, the Rukhnama must be available and displayed by all religious communities. There are reports in 2004 that mosques where the Rukhnama was not shown alongside the Koran were closed. The Rukhnama was apparently used since 2004 as the chief textbook for students at all levels: even obtaining a driving licence requires a 16-hour course on the President's book: it is still not clear if its use will be retained to such an extent now that he has passed away.

Despite Turkmenistan having ratified many international treaties and the enshrinement of a number of rights in the constitution, the increasing concentration of power under President Niyazov resulted in the serious weakening of the rule of law and separation of powers. There are no effective checks on Presidential power, as the judiciary is not independent. Freedom of expression is essentially non-existent, as the arrest, jailing and death in detention in 2006 of a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent involved in a documentary about Turkmenistan's educational and economic situation shows. There are consistent and continuing reports of the arbitrary arrests and detention, abuse, and torture of government critics, dissidents, journalists and human rights advocates.

There are no domestic or international human rights groups operating freely in Turkmenistan. On the more positive side, the Turkmenistan government has in recent years started to engage with, and submit its periodic reports as required by its international human rights treaty obligations. There are also two other state institutions which deal with human rights: the National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, headed by President Niyazov himself, is supposed to oversee the activities of the police, military, and judiciary. More recently, a Committee on the Protection of Human Rights and Liberties was established in the parliament. Neither is believed to have any real or effective authority to contradict government decisions and limit its powers exercised in ways which may breach human rights.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

The weak state of the rule of law and the lack of effective mechanisms for ensuring compliance with human rights legislation means that the vulnerability of minorities in Turkmenistan has been increasing. This is especially the case following President Niyazov's reported statement at the end of 2002 for the need to apply a 'third-generation Turkmen test' for access to higher education or public employment. As his edicts and statements are sometimes applied as if they had the force of law, this signals extremely exclusive and even racist policies of 'Turkmenisation'. President Niyazov is reported to have called for the enhancement of the 'purity' of the Turkmen and for the removal of those who dilute Turkmenistan's 'blood'. While verifiable statistics and data are hard to come by given that NGOs – both domestic and international – cannot be based or operate in the country, anecdotal information and reports from observers confirm the continuing extensive exclusion of minorities from most areas of employment and participation in public life. None of the above has changed significantly in early 2007.

The policies associated with Turkmenistan are exceedingly harsh in their impact for most minorities: higher education and jobs in the public sector have been effectively closed to non-Turkmen. Senior officials must be able to trace their Turkmen ancestry for several generations and it is reported that members of ethnic minorities are excluded from positions in the judicial system, law enforcement and military organisations. In addition, all job applicants must fill out a maglumat – a personal information form – which in practice allow those with foreign qualifications (who are often members of an ethnic minority like the Russians or Uzbeks) or of non-Turkmen to be excluded. As part of the Turkmenistan drive, all schoolchildren, regardless of their ethnic background, must wear ethnic Turkmen dress.

The Russian language still has a prominent position in political and elite circles, but it is increasingly supplanted by the Turkmen language. Religious minorities remain severely hampered through a series of legal restrictions to freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion restrictions

A 1997 law on religious organizations not only requires registration of all religious communities, it also requires proof that there are more than 500 adherents in the same district. Until 2003, only the Russian Orthodox Church and Sunni Muslims satisfied this requirement and were officially registered, with the effect that individuals belonging to religious minorities such as Bahá'ís, Buddhists, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses and many others were denied permission to conduct public religious activities.

State authorities justified the need for the 1997 legislation on the basis of the fight against terrorism and for reasons of security. The real motive has more to do with realpolitik: it was one of the tools used by President Saparmurad Niyazov to maintain an iron grip on Turkmenistan's population and suppress dissent.

This all changed dramatically for the better from March 2003 however, with amendments to the law requiring only five members of a religious community in the same district in order to be registered and statements indicating that the authorities would comply with international standards protecting religious minorities. In May 2003, this was followed up by President Niyazov signing two decrees which lifted various requirements burdening religious organizations. Since 2003, four more religious minorities (Seventh Day Adventists, Bahá'ís, Baptists and Hare Krishnas) have been registered. Despite these positive steps, the activities of non-registered religious minority groups are often restricted, with many still unable to establish places of worship. It is also reported that ethnic Turkmen members of unregistered religious groups accused of disseminating religious material received harsher treatment than members of other ethnic groups (US State Department, Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2004: Turkmenistan).

In September and October 2007, four prisoners of conscience were released on amnesty. A senior Islamic religious head, Nazrullah ibn Ibadullah, who was serving a 22-year sentence on publicly unknown charges, was among a group of prisoners released on presidential amnesty. Despite these releases, according to Forum 18, a Norwegian human rights organization working on issues of religious freedom, a 49-year-old Baptist pastor Vyacheslav Kalataevsky remains in police custody, amidst growing concerns he may be deported. According to the news site another Baptist pastor arrested with Kalataevsky, Russian citizen Yevgeny Potolov, was expelled from Turkmenistan in early July. Several Jehovah's Witness followers have also been given prison sentences in Turkmenistan for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience.

Russian minority

Legislation adopted after 2000 defines high treason, casting doubts on the internal or external policies of President Niyazov. Members of the Russian minority have increasingly spoken with their feet, with more than 200,000 leaving the country since 1995, and especially after 2003 when a new law forced them to renounce Russian citizenship or lose the right to own property in Turkmenistan. This country is seen as one of the most despotic of the region, with the authoritarian regime tolerating no opposition or freedom of the media. For example, the president ordered the renaming of calendar months in 2002 in order to honour some of the country's 'national personalities', including his mother, whose name is now officially the name for the month of April. This also remains unchanged in mid-2007.

While legislation would appear to grant minorities the right to education and access to public services in their own language, in practice this is not true except for the Russian language. Certain minorities are, in addition, specifically targeted by the government in such a way as to prevent them from claiming linguistic rights. Uzbeks, who were fairly numerous and concentrated in the north of the country, were forcibly transferred to desert areas of the country, 'diluting' their numbers to a level where authorities need not respond to their language preferences. A presidential decree of November 2002 initiated the forcible resettlement of the populations of three largely Uzbek regions (Dashowuz, Lebap and Ahal) to a largely uninhabited and uninhabitable desert in north-western areas of the country and was partially implemented in 2005. Reports in 2005 refer to continuing and active state attempts to assimilate them, including prohibitions on 'wearing native Uzbek dress to school, and an accompanying requirement that all Uzbeks wear Turkmen dress. Finally, like the Russian minority, Uzbeks are denied access to higher education; to career and employment opportunities; and to heritage-language education.'

Despite the relatively prestigious position of the Russian language, authorities have also moved to close down a number of Russian-language schools since October 2002, and in practice all non-Turkmen teaching has been severely restricted if not yet extinguished. It is reported that from 2005, no teaching in minority languages was to be permitted. Education is to be conducted in Turkmen only, with the exception of one official Russian-language school in Ashgabat. Other minority students who entered the school system in 1999 will be the last group to receive education in a minority language other than Russian; since 2000, enrolment in minority Uzbek and Kazakh schools was no longer allowed.

In July 2004, Radio Mayak, the only Russian-language news and radio service available, was shut down by the government because of 'technical difficulties' and replaced by a Turkmen language station. These and other measures increasingly adopted since 2001 are all part of a movement by state authorities to impose the 'Turkmenization' of most areas of public life in the country.

'Systematic discrimination against non-Turkmen minorities'

Reports in 2004 indicated a gathering move by the government to close minority ethnic and cultural centres. There is also still a flow of ethnic minorities leaving Turkmenistan as a result of what is seen as systematic discrimination against non-Turkmen ethnic minorities, such as ethnic Azeris reportedly compelled to leave the country in substantial numbers after purges which saw the replacement of minorities in state institutions with ethnic Turkmen employees.

Countries such as the US have not been overly critical of such extreme restrictions on minorities, perhaps due to an unwillingness to jeopardize their own interests – such as the currently useful corridor to Afghanistan, and fly-over rights which Turkmenistan granted to the US in 2001. Reactions from international organizations have been sharper, with the UN General Assembly adopting a resolution on human rights in Turkmenistan in December 2003, and the UN Commission on Human Rights also adopting a resolution on the situation of human rights in Turkmenistan in April 2004. The Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination has also specifically criticized Turkmenistan over its treatment of minorities, especially in the fields of education and employment.

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