Turkmenistan country profile - Overview

  • 19 May 2015
  • From the section Asia
Map of Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is made up mainly of desert and has the smallest population of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

The government is autocratic, but the strict isolation imposed by eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov has lifted somewhat after his death.

The country says it has the world's fifth largest estimated reserves of natural gas.

Despite its gas wealth, much of Turkmenistan's population is still impoverished. After independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 the country entered a period of isolation that has only recently begun to end.

It is a one-party state dominated by the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, which was led by the President Saparmurat Niyazov until his death in December 2006.

The late leader styled himself Turkmenbashi, or Father of the Turkmen, and made himself the centre of an omnipresent personality cult. Mr Niyazov, who made himself president for life in 1999, spent large sums of public money on grandiose projects while heavily cutting social welfare.

His influence spread into every area of life in the republic. Turkmens were even expected to take spiritual guidance from his book, Ruhnama, a collection of thoughts on Turkmen culture and history.

His successor, Kurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, has diluted much of the cult of personality established around Niyazov, but his own promises of political reform in the country remain largely unfulfilled.

Turkmenistan is the most ethnically homogeneous of the Central Asian republics. There are some Uzbeks in the east, as well as small populations of Russians, Kazakhs, Tatars and others.

Image caption Late President Niyazov styled himself as Father of the Turkmen

In contrast to other former Soviet republics, it has been largely free of inter-ethnic hostilities. However, strong tribal allegiances among the Turkmen can be a source of tension.

With foreign investors keeping away, the Turkmen economy remains underdeveloped.

The country has been unable to benefit fully from its gas and oil deposits because of an absence of export routes and a dispute between the Caspian Sea littoral states over the legal status of offshore oil.

Turkmenistan produces roughly 70 billion cubic metres of natural gas each year and about two-thirds of its exports go to Russia's Gazprom gas monopoly. A protracted dispute between the two countries over the price ended in September 2006 when Gazprom agreed to pay 54% more.

Turkmenistan has since made efforts to break out of Russia's hold on its exports. It has opened major gas pipelines to China and Iran, and has been involved in talks on various pipeline projects to deliver its gas to Europe.

Image caption Turkmen women prepare a sweet dish during a national holiday celebrating melons

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