Turkmenistan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


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Despite its geographical proximity to Afghanistan, Turkmenistan's official political neutrality precluded overt cooperation with the U.S.-declared war on terrorism following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. While granting permission for his country to be used as a base for humanitarian aid purposes, President Saparmurat Niyazov steadfastly refused to allow the coalition to use Turkmenistan to conduct military strikes against the Taliban. Niyazov's isolationist and frequently bizarre policies continued throughout 2001, including introducing further restrictions on the activities of foreigners and banning various art forms deemed to be alien or offensive to the country's Turkmen culture.

The southernmost republic of the former Soviet Union, Turkmenistan was conquered by the Mongols in the thirteenth century and seized by Russia in the late 1800s. Having been incorporated into the U.S.S.R. in 1924, Turkmenistan gained formal independence in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Saparmurat Niyazov, the former head of the Turkmenistan Communist Party, ran unopposed in elections to the newly created post of president in October 1990. After the adoption of a new constitution in 1992, Niyazov was reelected as the sole candidate for a five-year term with a reported 99.5 percent of the vote. The main opposition group, Agzybirlik, which was formed in 1989 by leading intellectuals, was banned. Niyazov's tenure as president was extended for an additional five years until 2002 by a 1994 referendum, which exempted him from having to run again in 1997 as originally scheduled. In December 1994 parliamentary elections, only Niyazov's Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT), the renamed Communist Party, was permitted to field candidates.

In the December 12, 1999, elections to the National Assembly (Mejlis), every candidate was selected by the government and virtually all were members of the DPT. According to government claims, voter turnout was 98.9 percent. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which cited the lack of provisions for nongovernmental parties to participate and the executive branch's control of the nomination of candidates, refused to send even a limited assessment mission. In a further consolidation of Niyazov's extensive powers, parliament unanimously voted in late December to make him president-for-life. With this decision, Turkmenistan became the first Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) country to formally abandon presidential elections. However, in February 2001, Niyazov announced that a presidential poll would be held in 2010, although he claimed that he would not run.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Niyazov announced that the United States could not use his country for military strikes against the Taliban, although Turkmenistan would serve as a base for humanitarian aid. Ashgabat cited the country's official political neutrality as a reason for not participating in the U.S.-led campaign. However, Turkmenistan had maintained good relations with the Taliban in recent years in an attempt to secure safe energy export routes through Afghanistan to destinations including India and China.

Already one of the most closed societies in the world, Turkmenistan took steps throughout 2001 to isolate itself further from the international community through restrictive and often bizarre decrees. President Niyazov announced in April that ballet and opera would be banned as art forms alien to Turkmen culture, while books "misrepresenting" Turkmen history have been removed from libraries and destroyed. A presidential decree in June would require foreigners to pay $50,000 to marry Turkmen citizens, ostensibly to provide financial support to children in the event of divorce and to protect women from abusive relationships. In September, Niyazov reportedly had completed writing the Rukhname, a book meant to serve as a spiritual guide for the nation. These moves followed two decrees in 2000 creating a council to monitor all foreign nationals traveling or living in the country and forbidding Turkmen citizens from holding accounts in foreign banks.

Despite the country's wealth of natural resources, there have been few reforms of the Soviet command system, and the majority of citizens live in poverty. The economy suffers from low levels of gross domestic product (GDP) and major industries remain state owned. Turkmenistan has struggled to bring its energy resources to foreign markets in the face of limited export routes and nonpaying customers. Plans to build a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which would extend from Turkmenistan through Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey, continued to be delayed for various political and economic reasons.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Turkmenistan cannot change their government democratically. President Saparmurat Niyazov enjoys virtually absolute power over all branches and levels of the government. He has established an extensive cult of personality, including the erection of monuments to his leadership throughout the country. In 1994, he renamed himself Turkmenbashi, or leader of the Turkmen. The country has two national legislative bodies: the unicameral National Assembly (Mejlis), composed of 50 members elected in single-mandate constituencies for five-year terms, which is the main legislature; and the People's Council (Khalk Maslakhaty), consisting of members of the assembly, 50 directly elected representatives, and various regional and other executive and judicial officials, which meets infrequently to address certain major issues. Neither parliamentary body enjoys genuine independence from the executive. The 1994 and 1999 parliamentary elections were neither free nor fair.

Freedom of speech and the press is severely restricted by the government, which controls all radio and television broadcasts and print media. Reports of dissenting political views are banned, as are even mild forms of criticism of the president. Subscriptions to foreign newspapers, other than Russian ones, are severely restricted. Foreign journalists have few opportunities to visit Turkmenistan and are often limited to certain locations. Only the state-owned Turkmentelekom is permitted to provide Internet access.

The government restricts freedom of religion through means including strict registration requirements. Only Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians have been able to meet the criterion of having at least 500 members. Members of religious groups that are not legally registered by the government, including Baptists, Pentecostals, and Baha'is, are frequently harassed or attacked by security forces. In May, a Baptist, Dmitri Melnichenko, was reportedly called up for military service. He was subsequently detained and tortured for refusing to carry arms or to swear an oath of military allegiance on the grounds of being a conscientious objector. Since independence, Turkmenistan, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, has enjoyed a modest revival of Islam.

While the constitution guarantees peaceful assembly and association, these rights are restricted in practice. Only one political party, the Niyazov-led Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, has been officially registered. Opposition parties have been banned, and virtually all of their leading members face harassment and detention or have fled abroad. Social and cultural organizations are allowed to function, but often have difficulty registering. The government-controlled Colleagues Union is the only central trade union permitted, and there are no legal guarantees for workers to form or join unions or to bargain collectively.

The judicial system is subservient to the president, who appoints and removes judges without legislative review. The authorities frequently deny rights of due process, including public trials and access to defense attorneys. There are no independent lawyers, with the exception of a few retired legal officials, to represent defendants in trials. Police abuse of suspects and prisoners, often to obtain confessions, is reportedly widespread, and prisons are overcrowded and unsanitary. The security services regularly monitor the activities of those critical of the government.

Citizens are required to carry internal passports for identification. Although residence permits are not required, place of residence is registered in passports. Obtaining passports and exit visas for foreign travel is difficult for most nonofficial travelers and allegedly often requires payment of bribes to government officials. Since the October 7 launch of the U.S.-led air strikes against the Taliban, Turkmenistan has increased security along its previously poorly guarded border with Afghanistan, effectively limiting freedom of movement for those who live in the border region.

A continuing Soviet-style command economy and widespread corruption diminish equality of opportunity. As part of Niyazov's alleged anticorruption campaign, officials accused of corruption are publicly berated by the president, dismissed from their positions, or forced to leave the country. As a consequence, the government has undergone a rapid turnover of personnel, including the July dismissal of Foreign Minister Batyr Berdiev for alleged persistent drunkenness, which many observers attribute to Niyazov's fear of the development of political rivals within his government. Traditional socialreligious norms mostly limit professional opportunities for women to the roles of homemaker and mother, and anecdotal reports suggest that domestic violence is common.