Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 May 2016, 08:28 GMT

State of the World's Minorities 2006 - Turkmenistan

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 22 December 2005
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2006 - Turkmenistan, 22 December 2005, available at: [accessed 25 May 2016]
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.

Turkmenistan's minorities are, proportionally speaking, less numerous in this often forgotten part of Central Asia, with Turkmens representing more than three-quarters of the entire population of the country. The Russian language still has a prominent position in political and elite circles, but it is increasingly supplanted by the Turkmen language. Religious minorities, however, are severely hampered through a series of legal restrictions to freedom of religion. 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. Amnesty International has reported that religious minorities are often harassed and even tortured by the police. State authorities justify the need for this legislation on the basis of the fight against terrorism and for reasons of security. The real motive has more to do with realpolitik: it is one of the tools used by President Saparmurad Niyazov – also known as the 'Father of Turkmens' – 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).

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.

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. 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.

Reports in 2004 indicate a gathering move by the government to close minority ethnic and cultural centres. It is reported that no teaching will be permitted in minority languages from 2005; education is to be conducted in Turkmen only, with the exception of one official Russian-language school in Ashgabat (Human Rights Watch, Turkmenistan: Human Rights Update, May 2004). There is also still a flow of ethnic minorities leaving Turkmenistan in 2004–5 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 flyover 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 (CERD/C/60/C0/15).

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