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History & Background

Turkmenistan was known for most of its history as a loosely defined geographic region of independent tribes. Now it is a landlocked, mostly desert, nation of about 4.2 million people (the smallest population of the Central Asian republics and the second-largest landmass). The country remains quite isolated on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, largely occupied by the Qizilqum (Kyzyl Kum) Desert. Many believe traditional tribal relationships still form a fundamental basis for Turkmen society, and telecommunications service from the outside world has only begun to have an impact. Like the Kazaks and the Kyrgyz, the Turkmen peoples were nomadic herders until the second half of the nineteenth century when the arrival of Russian settlers began to deprive them of the vast expansion needed for livestock.

Today's Turkmen territory was part of the ancient Persian Empire until the forth century B.C. when Alexander of Macedonia took over the territory. Parthians gained control after the Macedonian Empire crumbled and established their capital at Nisa. Another Persian dynasty, the Sassanids, gained control in the third century, but it was invaded in the fifth century by the Turks. Mongol invasions took place in the tenth century, and Turkmen trace their history from this time when Islam was first introduced. Seljuk Turks seized control in the eleventh century. The Mongol ruler Genghis Khan seized power in the thirteenth century. Between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, the whole region was Islamized. Mongols continued to rule until the Uzbek invasion.

The Turkmen people exercised opposition to the Czarist forces in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but were defeated and became part of what was called the Transcaspian Region in 1885. The Bolsheviks attempted to dominate the area but met with much opposition, producing years of political disorder. This ceased in 1924 when the Red Army took control of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, and the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic was established. During the next 60 years despite religious and political repression, limited advances were made under the Soviet system, especially in the health and social areas. However, Turkmenistan was a relatively neglected republic in the Soviet block. Very few investments were made in industry, and the development of the infrastructure was somewhat neglected. The under-representation of the Turkmenistan republic in the Soviet Communist party and the periodic purging of the Turkmenistan Communist party continued throughout this period. In 1985 Saparamurad Niyazov became the Turkmenistan Communist party leader, and in 1991 he became president of newly independent Turkmenistan.

In 1990 Turkmen was declared the official language of the country, and the transition from Russian to Turkmen was to be completed by January 1, 1996. However, given the ethnic diversity of the country and the lack of updated technical vocabulary in the Turkmen language, Russian is still commonly used by many people, including Turkmen, in urban areas. In May 1992, it was announced that Turkmenistan would change to a Latin based, Turkish modified script. This is the third type of script adopted by the country. In 1929 Arabic script was altered to Latin. As a result of Soviet influence, Latin script was exchanged for Cyrillic script in 1940.

During the 75 years of Soviet domination, Turkmenistan was completely dependent on the USSR for energy resources, educational materials, banking, postal services, and all major planning and administrative activities. Since declaring its independence, the Republic of Turkmenistan has been working to establish institutional and economic stability. Turkmen nationalism and a reawakening interest in Islam is slowly taking place as traditional beliefs and ways of life are being encouraged, and a new national identity is emerging after the dissolution of Communist rule. The introduction of several foreign influences after decades of isolation adds to the changing social structure of Turkmenistan.

Living Standards: Although living standards have not declined as sharply in Turkmenistan as in many other former Soviet republics, they have dropped in absolute terms for most citizens since 1991. The availability of food and consumer goods also has declined at the same time that prices have generally risen. The difference between living conditions and standards in the city and those in the villages is immense. Aside from material differences such as the prevalence of paved streets, electricity, plumbing, and natural gas in the cities, there are also many disparities in terms of culture and way of life. Thanks to the rebirth of national culture, however, the village has assumed a more prominent role in society as a valuable repository of Turkmen language and traditional culture.

Most families in Turkmenistan derive the bulk of their income from state employment of some sort. As under the Soviet system, wage differences among various types of employment are relatively small. Industry, construction, transportation, and science have offered the highest wages; health, education, and services, the lowest. Since 1990 direct employment in government administration has offered relatively high wages. Agricultural workers, especially those on collective farms, earn very low salaries, and the standard of living in rural areas is far below that in Turkmen cities, contributing to widening cultural differences between the two segments of the population.

In 1990 nearly half the population earned wages below the official poverty line, which was 100 rubles per month at that time. Only 3.4 percent of the population received more than 300 rubles a month in 1990. In the three years after the onset of inflation in 1991, real wages dropped by 47.6 percent, which caused a decline in the standard of living for most citizens.

Government & Politics: The post-Soviet government of the Republic of Turkmenistan retains many of the characteristics and the personnel of the communist regime of Soviet Turkmenistan. The government has received substantial international criticism as an authoritarian regime centering on the dominant power position of President Saparmyrat Niyazov. Nevertheless, the 1992 constitution does characterize Turkmenistan as a democracy with separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. According to a law passed in December 1992, all permanent residents of Turkmenistan are accorded citizenship unless they renounce that right in writing. Dual citizenship is held by Turkmenistan's 4,000,009 ethnic Russians. Turkmen President Saparmyrat Niyazov announced on 18 February 2001 that he would be stepping down in 2010 because after 70 "age takes its toll."

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