Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Turkmen (official since 1990), Russian, Uzbek
Main religions: Sunni Islam, with elements of Sufi mysticism, Orthodox Christianity. No official figures are available, but estimates suggest that 85 per cent are Sunni Muslim, 9 per cent Russian Orthodox with smaller numbers of Shi’a Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews and Evangelical Christians.
It remains difficult to access information about minority issues in Turkmenistan because of the lack of press freedom and restrictions on civil society. Until recently there was no up-to-date disaggregated national data available on the demographic composition of the population, with most population figures extrapolated from a mid-1990s census. The government, while refusing to issue publicly available data, has produced different estimates on the population to encourage investment: for example, reportedly inflating the proportion of ethnic Uzbeks in the country to encourage Uzbekistan to invest in its mining sector.
However, while the results of a 2012 census have yet to be officially released, leaked excerpts apparently revealed that the Turkmen majority made up 85.6 per cent of the population, significantly lower than previous estimates, while ethnic Uzbeks made up 5.8 per cent and ethnic Russians 5.1 per cent of the national population respectively. These figures are significantly different to the estimates currently used by authorities, which present a significantly larger Uzbek population and a considerably smaller Russian population – a picture that is likely to have been shaped by political concerns.
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 converted to Islam earlier than other nomadic Central Asian groups (in the twelfth century) and have had relatively little to do with their neighbours.
The Kazakh minority in Turkmenistan numbered around 90,000 in 1995, but many have taken advantage of Kazakhstan’s Oralman return scheme, which supports ethnic Kazakhs abroad voluntarily repatriating to the country.
There are estimated to be approximately one thousand Jews, 20 per cent of whom are descendants of Iranian Jews who migrated during the 19th century; the majority are Ashkenazi Jews who moved to Turkmenistan during the Soviet period. There is also a small Bukharan Jewish community. The population is less than half the size of what it was in 1989. The only synagogue was converted into a gymnasium during the Soviet period and has not been restored to its original function.
Updated March 2018.
Turkmenistan, an authoritarian one-party state characterized by the suppression of virtually all opposition to its regime, continues to be an inhospitable environment for its minority populations. Indeed, in a context of strong ethnonationalism and widespread religious intolerance towards a variety of non-Sunni Muslim faiths, minority groups continue to be sidelined from many educational, training, employment and political opportunities.
This is a result in large part of the government’s continuing policy of ‘Turkmenization’, which sets out preference for persons of Turkmen origin, especially in the field of education and employment. The authorities have not undertaken measures to prevent these practices nor to improve the situation. Turkmenistan’s ethnic minorities include the Kazakh, Russian and Uzbek populations, as well as the ethnic Baluch community, which remains at particular risk of forced assimilation. Human rights organizations have reported children from ethnic minorities being denied the opportunity to study in their own languages due to the steady closure of schools and reduced resources. Some minorities also struggle to secure formal legal recognition despite being based long-term in the country, creating further difficulties for them when accessing public services and other rights.
Human rights activists, including minority representatives, who have publicly taken steps to counter official persecution or discrimination have typically faced harsh punishments as a result. One example is Mansur Mingelov, a Baluch human rights activist who began a hunger strike in May 2014 to protest a sentence widely condemned as unfair. Mingelov had been arrested in 2012 and convicted to 22 years in prison for alleged drug and child pornography offences after documenting evidence of police torture against ethnic Baluch. Being in a critical condition, he reportedly ended his hunger strike in June 2014 after a number of Turkmen officials visited him in the Seidi labour camp, and his treatment improved. Nevertheless, as of late 2017, Mingelov was still serving his sentence in prison.
A largely Sunni Muslim country, Turkmenistan has long been intolerant towards its religious minorities, including Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as Shi’a Muslims. Ethnic Turkmen converts to Protestantism and other Christian denominations are reportedly even more likely to be exposed to harassment from the state than those from minority ethnic groups. Some have been arrested for their beliefs. Authorities have also created considerable barriers for official registration of religious organizations, intensified by the passing of a new law on religion in April 2016 that increased the registration criteria for religious groups, including raising the minimum number of founders required – reportedly from 5 to 50 adults. Unregistered groups cannot rent, build or purchase places of worship, and even registered groups struggle to get official permits.
Updated March 2018.
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 Karakum Desert covers over 80 per cent of the country, occupying the entire central region. It is a rugged and mountainous country which 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 the 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.
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. Freedom of expression was essentially non-existent: there are consistent and continuing reports of the arbitrary arrests and detention, abuse, and torture of government critics, dissidents, journalists and human rights advocates.
This situation persisted even after the demise of President Niyazov in December 2006. He was subsequently replaced by Kurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, who continued to follow Niyazov’s policies. This has included severe repression of freedom of speech, political opposition and the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities.
Despite hopes of reform after the death of President Niyazov in 2006, Turkmenistan remains an authoritarian and repressive one-party state, with many aspects of Niyazov’s personality cult replicated by his successor, Kurbanguly Berdymuhamedov. In 2017, Berdymuhamedov was reelected to a third term in office after receiving 97.7 per cent of the vote. All forms of political opposition continue to be fiercely suppressed, with human rights activists, journalists and community representatives harassed, intimidated and imprisoned. There are no domestic or international human rights groups operating freely in Turkmenistan, besides state-controlled organizations such as the National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights. In 2017, Yazdursun Gurbannazarov was elected ombudsperson, after enabling legislation entered into force; it is unclear whether the position will have any real mandate.
Political participation among minority ethnic communities remains severely constrained in Turkmenistan, particularly at the senior level. Heads of regional and district administrations are typically all ethnic Turkmen, and even in predominantly national minority areas, persons from these minorities only occupy low-ranking posts.
Meanwhile, in spite of specific legislative provisions, the possibilities for ethnic minorities to study in their mother tongues are limited. It is reported that the country’s few remaining Russian-language schools are in great demand, with parents paying large bribes to administrations or local education authorities for admission.
Updated March 2018.
National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (US)
Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (Austria)