A primarily urban minority, most remaining Russians and Ukrainians live in or near the capital, Ashgabat, and other urban centres. While Russians and Ukrainians constituted the largest minority group at the time of independence, their numbers have decreased dramatically in two separate waves: first, immediately after independence, and then more recently in 2003 when Russians lost their dual citizenship rights. Russians and other Slavs with technical expertise in the oil and gas industries have tended to be insulated from many of the state’s discriminatory practices, though this appeared to be changing during the past decade. The Russian Orthodox Church enjoys a privileged position; alongside Sunni Islam, it was until recently one of only two officially recognized religions.
It is difficult to know the exact numbers of Russians and Ukrainians in the country: it was thought that more than 100,000 holders of Russian citizenship lived in Turkmenistan at the time of the loss of dual citizenship in 2003 and that many thousands left the country as a consequence. Most remaining Russians and Ukrainians live in or near the capital, Ashgabat, and other urban centres. However, while the results of a 2012 census have yet to be officially released, leaked excerpts apparently revealed that ethnic Russians were estimated at 5.1 per cent of the national population. These figures are significantly different from the estimates currently used by authorities, which present a considerably smaller Russian population – a picture that is likely to have been shaped by political concerns.
The presence of Russians and Ukrainians in Turkmenistan began in the early 20th century, though it is for all intents and purposes mainly a legacy of the more recent Soviet rule. Since they did not arrive as settlers in any significant numbers, most members of these Slavic minorities tended to live in the country’s cities and towns.
The independence of Turkmenistan and early signs of consecrating Turkmenistan as the ‘land of the Turkmen’, including the refusal of authorities in 1992 to recognise a Russian community organisation as unconstitutional, soon led to a wave of emigration which began in earnest in the mid-1990s. By 2003, there was thought to be only about 100,000 individuals of Russian ethnicity.
While in the initial years after independence Russian-speakers could be said to enjoy a number of privileges due to the status of their language and the positions in government and industry they traditionally occupied in the country under the Soviet regime, these were to be slowly reduced. Gradually, Russian media outlets have been shut down: Russian newspapers were banned before 2000, except for one Russian-language daily newspaper (produced by the government), and in 2000 Russian-language radio stations were, in turn, all closed. The removal of the last Russian troops from Turkmenistan in 2000 seemed to suggest that Russian authorities would no longer be able to exercise whatever influence it may have had to temper the effects of President Niyazov’s extreme drive of ‘Turkmenisation’ of the country.
A second wave of emigration occurred after President Niyazov decided in April 2003 to terminate the agreement on dual citizenship with the Russian Federation. There were no reliable figures available at the time, though Russia’s deputy foreign minister is reported to have indicated that approximately 1,500 Russians per month left Turkmenistan from April 2003 to February 2004.
The situation of Russian and Ukrainian minorities has deteriorated in the last few years for the previously relative advantages that they enjoyed as Russian-speakers, with their language – though diminishing – still widely spoken as a ‘language of inter-ethnic communication’ under the 1992 Constitution.
There continues to be no specific organization allowed in Turkmenistan to promote Russian concerns, which appear to involve demands for the right to participate in public life and the decision-making process, as well as to use the Russian language in dealings with the government, and to increase the number and access to schools teaching in Russian. There are claims also that Russians should not be excluded from jobs, both in the private and public sectors.
The Turkmenisation campaign has reached far-reaching levels in the last few years that have resulted in the now near exclusion of the Russian-speaking minority from virtually all state employment. This has been done through a number of techniques, such as not recognizing Russian university degrees for professional employment, the prohibition on employment within the government institutions for those who still hold Russian citizenship.
Though privileged in the past, the Russian Orthodox Church is also being increasingly subjected to the control of government authorities: Russian Orthodox believers are prohibited from bringing religious literature into Turkmenistan and Russian priests are consistently not allowed to enter and serve in the country. The Moscow Patriarchate Russian Orthodox Church, for example, has been denied the right to establish a diocese in Turkmenistan.
While access to information is in many ways strictly controlled in Turkmenistan, Russian-speaking urban residents are able to watch news channels broadcast from Russia via satellite television. The government reportedly appeared uncomfortable about coverage of the 2014 events in Ukraine, and in it was reported that access to the broadcasts was affected by more interference, poor signals and in some cases blackouts.
Human rights activists have estimated that about 100,000 Turkmenistan nationals of both Russian and Turkmen ethnicity also hold Russian passports, under a 1993 bilateral Agreement on Dual Citizenship. However, in autumn 2013 the State Migration Service of Turkmenistan stopped issuing new passports to dual nationals. As a result, it became impossible for them to leave the country.
Updated March 2018