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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Turkmenistan

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Turkmenistan, 2007, available at: [accessed 31 May 2016]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
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.


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.


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.


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.



Minority based and advocacy organisations

Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia (US)
Tel: +1-202-898-2500

Public Movement for Human Rights
Tel: +3632-46-83-20, 29-02-08

Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (Austria)
Tel: +43-1-944 13 27

Turkmenistan Project (Central Eurasia Project, Open Society Institute) (US)
Tel: +1-212-548-0627

Sources and further reading


Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia:

Akiner, S., Central Asia, London, MRG report, 1997.

'Alternative Report on the Compliance of the Republic of Turkmenistan with the United Nations Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination', 67th session of the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, August 2005, International League for Human Rights, retrieved 18 January 2007,

Blandy, C.W., Instabilities in Post-Communist Europe: Central Asia, Sandhurst, Conflict Studies Research Centre, 1994.

Bushev, A., 'Turkmenistan: a kind of prosperity', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 1994.

Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 21 May 2002, UN Document CERD/C/60/CO/15.

Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 1 November 2005, UN Document CERD/C/TKM/CO/5.

CSCE, 'Report of the CSCE Rapporteur Mission to Turkmenistan', Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, 1993.

'Education in Turkmenistan', November 2006, Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, Vienna, retrieved 18 January 2007,

'Ethnic Kazakhs Flee Turkmenistan', 14 December 2005, Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, Vienna, retrieved 18 January 2007,

'Ethnic Minorities',3 December 2003, Stop Violence against Women, retrieved 18 January 2007,

Kamalova, N., Vitaliev, V., and Shields, A. (eds.), 'Front Line Central Asia: Threats, Attacks, Arrests and Harassment of Human Rights Defenders', 2004, International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, retrieved 18 January 2007, %

'Nations in Transit 2006: Turkmenistan', Freedom House, retrieved 18 January 2007,

Ochs, M., Human Rights in Central Asia, retrieved 18 January 2007,

Patnaik, A., 'Nations, Minorities and States in Central Asia', MAKAIAS, 2003.

Shashenkov, M., Security Issues of Post-Soviet Central Asia, London, Brassey's, 1992.
'Turkmenistan: The Making of a Failed State', April 2004, International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, retrieved 18 January 2007,

'Vetting, Turkmen-Style: Employment policy in Turkmenistan accused of being racist and discriminatory', News Briefing Central Asia, 25 November 2005, Institute of War and Peace Reporting, retrieved 18 January 2007,

Russians and Ukrainians

'Assessment for Russians in Turkmenistan', 31 December 2003, Minorities at Risk, Center for International Development and Conflict Management, retrieved 18 January 2007,

'Comments for Consideration by the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) Related to the Initial Report of the Government of Turkmenistan', 1 April 2005, Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, retrieved 18 January 2007,$file/CERD- shadowreportOSI.pdf

Laitin, D., Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the near Abroad, Cornell UP, 1998.

Muradov, A., Tough Choices for Turkmenistan's Russians, Reporting Central Asia, 9 May 2003, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, retrieved 18 January 2007, p=rca&s=f&o=176383&apc_state=henirca2003

'Russian Losing Ground', News Briefing Central Asia, 16 November 2006, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, retrieved 18 January 2007,

Shoumikhin, A., 'Russians in Central Asia and the Caucasus: An Uncertain Future', Perspectives on Central Asia, Volume II, Number 9, December 1997, The Eisenhower Institute, retrieved 18 January 2007, http: //

'Turkmenistan: Focus on the Russian minority', 19 June 2003, IRIN News, retrieved 18 January 2007, %20SelectCountry=TURKMENISTAN

Ziegler, C., 'The Russian Diaspora in Central Asia: Russian Compatriots and Moscow's Foreign Policy', Winter 2006, Demokratizatsiya, retrieved 18 January 2007, 537301/pg_1


Allworth, E., The Modern Uzbeks: From the 14th Century to the Present, Hoover Institution Press, 1990.

Brown, B., The Uzbeks of Turkmenistan: Potential for Conflict?, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: Newsline, 20 September 2002, Hellenic Resources Institute Inc., retrieved 18 January 2007,

IWPR staff in London, 'Turkmenistan's 'Foreign' Uzbeks', Reporting Central Asia, 24 June 2004 Institute for War and Peace Reporting, retrieved 18 January 2007, p=rca&s=f&o=175862&apc_state=henirca2004

Seidov, S., Turkmenistan: Uzbek Blues, Reporting Central Asia, 19 April 2002, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, retrieved 18 January 2007,

Sulaimon, D., The authorities of Turkmenistan break up mixed families and deport Uzbek women,20 October 2006, Ferghana.Ru, retrieved 18 January 2007,

'Uzbek Schools', 20 May 2005, Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, Vienna, retrieved 18 January 2007,

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