Turkmenistan | Freedom House

Nations in Transit



Nations in Transit 2003

2003 Scores

Democracy Score
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Electoral Process
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Society
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Independent Media
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Judicial Framework and Independence
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


(1 = best, 7 = worst)


(1 = best, 7 = worst)


With each passing year under strongman Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan increasingly resembles a land that time forgot. In an unforgiving corner of the world where autocrats hold sway, President Niyazov's regime is arguably the most repressive. In a throwback to medieval times, the average Turkmen is more of a subject than a citizen with rights and a voice in political life.

As president for life, Niyazov runs Turkmenistan as a Soviet-style, single-party state. Calling himself Turkmenbashi, or Leader of the Turkmen, Niyazov has created a personality cult unrivaled outside of North Korea. With Stalinist hubris, he has squandered untold sums by littering the landscape with grandiose monuments to himself, even as many of his fellow citizens live in poverty and basic living standards decline. Freedoms of speech and religion and other fundamental rights are trampled with impunity. Most opposition figures are either locked up or live in exile abroad.

In a positive move, Niyazov scrapped Soviet-style exit visas in early 2002. Overall, however, the president gave few signs during the year that he planned to ease his iron grip over this Central Asian land. Most notably, authorities arrested several dozen people in connection with an alleged attempt on Niyazov's life in November. Among those arrested was Boris Shikhmuradov, 53, a former deputy prime minister and foreign minister who became a leading opposition figure after going into exile in 2001. Shikhmuradov was jailed for life in late December after making a televised confession that he smuggled arms, used drugs, and tried to kill Niyazov.

The circumstances surrounding Shikhmuradov's return to Turkmenistan were unclear, and the New York-based group Human Rights Watch dismissed his confession as "a Stalinist relic." Western diplomats told the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review that there was no hard evidence that a serious assassination attempt took place. Some suspect that Niyazov staged the event, which left the president unscathed, as a pretext for a crackdown.

Although Niyazov sometimes gives the appearance of being a one-man state, with television images showing cowed ministers taking his orders or even being fired, like any despot he survives in part by building allegiances and preventing potential rivals from amassing too much power. Niyazov doles out state jobs and other patronage to tribal elites in order to secure their loyalties. He also purged the intelligence service in 2002, reportedly because he doubted the loyalty of its leaders.

Meanwhile, Turkmenistan did little in 2002 to ease its self-imposed international isolation. After independence, Turkmenistan declared a foreign policy of "permanent neutrality," a status formally recognized by the United Nations. Rhetoric aside, the government in practice has shied away from cooperating on regional economic needs such as boosting trade, managing scarce water resources, and dividing up rights to oil development in the Caspian Sea. Unlike its Caspian neighbors, moreover, Turkmenistan has not signed any major international energy deals despite having huge oil and gas reserves.

Further afield, the regime has maintained fairly good relations with the United States. However, Turkmenistan offered little strategic help to the U.S. forces that ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001, unlike three other Central Asian republics that provided key logistical support--Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The government did give the United States permission to use its airspace for humanitarian aid flights and allowed UN relief agencies to ship goods across its border into Afghanistan. But Ashgabat, which had friendly relations with the Taliban, took no decisive steps to line up in Washington's camp in the campaign against terrorism.

Niyazov more recently roiled relations with regional countries by accusing Russia and Azerbaijan of collaboration in the alleged assassination attempt in November and expelling the Uzbek ambassador for purportedly protecting some of the coup plotters. Analysts say that disputes over the rights to water from the Amu Dar'ya River, which forms part of the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have contributed to tensions between the two countries.

So far, Niyazov has been able to keep his country relatively isolated, thereby avoiding the demands for reforms and openness that engagement invariably brings. This is true because his regime reaps considerable revenues from its immense natural gas reserves, estimated to be the world's 10th largest. Located along the storied Silk Road between the Orient and the West, the mainly desert land also sits astride large oil deposits.

Turkmenistan, however, has been unable to benefit fully from these riches because of a lack of export routes. Currently, the sparsely populated, landlocked country's primary means of exporting gas is through Russian pipelines that are controlled by energy behemoths such as Gazprom and Itera. Partly as a result, Turkmenistan's main gas export markets--Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus--pay either at below world market prices or through barter deals.

With neighboring Afghanistan now enjoying a semblance of peace under a Western-backed government in Kabul, Niyazov's government hopes to build a pipeline through that country that would end Turkmenistan's dependence on Russia. The leaders of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan agreed in December to build a 900-mile, $2 billion pipeline to carry gas from Turkmenistan's Dauletabad fields across Afghanistan to Pakistan. While previous plans have collapsed, the pipeline, if actually built, would open up Turkmenistan's huge gas reserves to the wider world for the first time.

Even if the pipeline is built, though, there is little reason to believe that the revenues would be used to boost the living standards of the average Turkmen. Niyazov, 62, is widely believed to personally control most revenues from the triple pillars of the economy--oil, natural gas, and cotton--which together are estimated to account for more than 80 percent of export revenues. This cash has helped foster Niyazov's personality cult. The president has spent lavishly to build statues of himself across Turkmenistan and a golden-domed palace in Ashgabat. Buildings are festooned with giant portraits or golden busts of Niyazov. Many schools, airports, and even a city are named after the president. In 2002, Niyazov proposed renaming the months of the year after himself and other renowned Turkmen.

Such moves would be comical were it not for Turkmenistan's impoverishment and economic decline. Few outside observers put much stock in government figures that show the economy growing 17-18 percent annually in recent years. Absolute poverty, as measured by the percentage of people who live on less than $2.15 per day, is only about 7 percent, according to the World Bank. However, about half the population live on less than the minimum wage, the Bank says. Basic goods, including water, energy, and bread, are free or heavily subsidized but reportedly are rationed. The education and health care systems are crumbling.

An engineer by training, Niyazov has ruled Turkmenistan since 1985, when he was appointed to head the Soviet-era Turkmen Communist Party. He has been president since independence in 1991. In 1999, Niyazov had Parliament approve a constitutional amendment that made him president for life. Although since then he has said that he will step down by 2010, Niyazov, who reportedly suffers from severe blood circulation disorders, has made few apparent preparations for his succession.

Moreover, the fallout from the regime's failure to develop sustainable economic policies suggests that it is living on borrowed time. With foreign investment down, development aid sharply curtailed, gas exports constrained by Russia, and revenues from any trans-Afghan pipeline at least a decade away, the government will have a tough time maintaining subsidies and servicing its foreign debts. Western development banks have largely stopped lending to Turkmenistan in response to the country's near complete lack of political or economic liberalization. Europe's top development bank, in an open letter to Niyazov in July 2002, described Turkmenistan as the least advanced in terms of economic reforms of the 27 post-Communist countries where the bank operates. The letter, from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), blamed the government's policies for stifling entrepreneurship, diverting capital to inefficient uses, and stunting the development of the energy sector. The letter, which announced a new strategy of more closely linking lending to the pace of reform, also urged Niyazov's government to adopt reforms in several areas. These include freeing up trade, cutting red tape, reforming the energy and agricultural sectors, and privatizing banks and the remaining medium-size state firms.

The World Bank, meanwhile, says that it cannot provide fresh loans to Turkmenistan because of the country's failure to disclose the size of its foreign debt and to meet what the Bank calls "minimum public resource management standards." The Bank says that little has come from previous initiatives in Turkmenistan. These aimed to put in place a new tax code, make the use of state funds more accountable and transparent, implement an improved public procurement law, reform energy and agriculture, and improve rural water supply and sanitation.

President Niyazov announced in October 2002 that oil and gas firms would not be privatized for at least 15 years. He hinted that the government might move ahead with privatization of textiles and agriculture but did not set out any time frames. The regime's reluctance to free up the economy suggests Niyazov's concern that any reforms will erode his tight control over society. Nearly 90 percent of workers by some estimates are employed by the state. This makes it easy for the government to keep tabs on most ordinary citizens and, since there are relatively few private employers, to link the livelihoods of officials and ordinary workers to loyalty to the regime.

Currently, Turkmenistan's private sector provides only one-quarter of economic output, according to EBRD estimates. Almost all domestic transactions and foreign trade must be registered with the State Commodity Exchange in a country where official corruption is widely considered to be rampant. The state also restricts foreign exchange transactions. Perhaps reflecting these concerns, foreign investment slumped by 25 percent in the first half of 2002, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Electoral Process: 

Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan is one of the world's last single-party states. The Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT), the successor to the Soviet-era Turkmen Communist Party, is the sole legal political party. Niyazov has faced little organized political opposition since 1990, when the government banned a party called Agzybirlik that was set up the previous year by intellectuals. Since then, the authorities have moved quickly to crush nascent stirrings of opposition. Turkmenistan's jails hold several dissidents who were convicted on trumped-up criminal charges following closed trials.

The human rights group Amnesty International appealed in 2002 for the release of political prisoner Mukhametkuli Aimuradov, who is serving a lengthy jail term after being convicted, in a closed 1995 trial, of antistate crimes, including "attempted terrorism." The London-based rights group said that Aimuradov and his co-defendant, Khoshali Garayev, might have been convicted for their links with exiled government opponents. Garayev died in custody in 1999 under "unclear circumstances," Amnesty said. Aimuradov and Garayev reportedly were arrested in Uzbekistan in 1994 by Turkmen security agents and hustled back to Turkmenistan.

Another dissident, Pirimguly Tangrikuliev, was jailed in 1999 on charges of embezzling state property after he said he would either form a political party or run in parliamentary elections as an independent. Meanwhile, the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kazakhstan in October granted political refugee status to Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, who was freed in 1999 after being jailed on charges of organizing a 1995 antigovernment protest in Ashgabat.

In addition to tossing dissidents in jail, the regime in the past has retaliated in ways that are less likely to attract international outcry. These include expelling their children from school and stripping adult relatives of their jobs, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002. Officials have also fired or threatened to fire opposition supporters from their jobs, forced them out of professional societies, and threatened to take away their homes, the report added. Numerous members and supporters of opposition groups reportedly are barred from leaving or entering Turkmenistan, according to Amnesty International.

Niyazov's security agents regularly keep watch over government officials, critics of the regime, foreign residents, and visitors, according to the U.S. State Department report. They trail people, tap their phones, and get information on them from informers. In recent years, the little overt dissent in Turkmenistan has consisted largely of courageous, though token, acts. Unknown dissidents reportedly distributed antigovernment leaflets in Ashgabat in August 2002 and the northern city of Dashoguz in October.

Turkmenistan's exile-based opposition has crystallized around two figures: the now jailed Shikhmuradov and Advy Kuliev, a former Soviet diplomat and later foreign minister of Turkmenistan who now lives in exile in Moscow. Kuliev, who left office in 1992, heads the United Turkmen Opposition, which consists largely of intellectuals, technocrats, and other dissidents who fled the country in the early 1990s. They include members of the Agzybirlik and Turkmen Communist Parties. Meanwhile, Shikhmuradov's National Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan, established in November 2001, consists mainly of former officials who worked within the system in the first decade of independence. Most, like Shikhmuradov, who defected from his ambassadorial post in Beijing in 2001, have fled Turkmenistan recently.

In this environment, Turkmenistan's postindependence elections have been shambolic. Niyazov was the sole candidate in the 1992 presidential election after the government effectively barred the opposition from mounting a challenge by announcing the vote barely one month before polling day. A fraudulent 1994 national referendum extended Niyazov's term to 2002, eliminating the need for the presidential vote scheduled for 1997.

The most recent parliamentary vote, in 1999, was "flawed seriously," according to the U.S. State Department. It was reported that Niyazov personally chose all 100 candidates and picked the winners for the 50 seats. Although some candidates declared themselves to be independents, all were in fact connected to Niyazov's DPT. The government similarly barred the opposition from contesting the 1994 parliamentary elections. The authorities further undermine the electoral process by rarely granting permits for public meetings and demonstrations. Following the November 2002 assassination attempt, Niyazov announced early parliamentary elections for April 2003.

Voter turnout figures in Turkmenistan are highly suspect. Officials claimed that 98.9 percent of eligible voters took part in the 1999 parliamentary elections and 99.8 percent participated in 1994. Belying these figures, diplomats observing the 1999 vote reported many empty polling stations. Western media noted hat low turnout early in the day forced election officials to go to private homes, hospitals, and public buildings to track down eligible voters and take their completed ballots. The government also claimed that 99.9 percent of voters approved the 1994 referendum extending Niyazov's term.

Civil Society: 

Niyazov has consolidated his grip over Turkmenistan in part by preventing the emergence of a vibrant civil society. The government tolerates only those nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on issues that do not directly challenge the regime, such as the environment, women's welfare, and youth concerns. The country lacks NGOs that work on human rights or other sensitive issues with an overt political message.

NGO leaders who cross the line into the political realm face arrest. In late December 2002, authorities arrested Farid Tukhbatullin, an environmental activist, on charges of illegally crossing the border into Uzbekistan, according to Human Rights Watch. Tukhbatullin had participated in a November conference in Moscow on the human rights situation in Turkmenistan. He is a member of the Dashauz Ecological Guardians, a local group dedicated to improving the environment in the northeastern town of Dashauz.

Turkmenistan lacks adequate laws to regulate, protect, and encourage the formation and operation of NGOs. The government briefly raised the prospect of granting NGOs more freedom to operate in 1998, when it drafted a progressive civil code that ultimately was never implemented. The code relaxed requirements for NGO registration and granted automatic registration to groups whose applications had not been acted on by the government within a certain period of time.

Although the exact number of NGOs in Turkmenistan is not clear, the database of the Washington-based Counterpart Consortium lists 138 NGOs in the country. The only officially registered NGO working on women's issues is headed by the deputy chairperson of Parliament and is dedicated to the memory of Niyazov's late mother. An unregistered group in Ashgabat tries to help battered women.

As in the Soviet era, the government controls all trade unions in Turkmenistan. The Colleagues Union is the sole legal trade union federation, and it claims a membership of 1.3 million workers. The close links among trade unions, state-owned firms, and the government severely limits the ability of workers to bargain over wages, working conditions, and other matters. Not surprisingly, strikes are extremely rare.

The quality of education in Turkmenistan is deteriorating, as schools are increasingly being used to indoctrinate students rather than teach them liberal arts, math, science, vocational skills, and foreign languages. In high schools and universities, students reportedly spend hours studying and discussing the Ruhnama, or Book of the Soul. This 400-page tome, allegedly penned by Niyazov, contains the president's biography and his version of Turkmen history, philosophy, and traditions.

Soviet-era textbooks, meanwhile, have been banned despite the lack of mainstream textbooks in the Turkmen language. Moreover, primary and secondary schooling has been reduced to a total of 9 years from 11, and higher education has been scaled back from 5 to 2 years of study plus 2 years of work.

Independent Media: 

Turkmenistan's media are among the most tightly controlled in the world. The regime owns and controls nearly all print and broadcast media and prevents news outlets from carrying criticism of Niyazov or opposition views. Niyazov reportedly names all editors personally, and he uses radio, television, and the press to help shape the cult of personality that surrounds him. The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres places Niyazov on its global list of "predators of press freedom" and calls Turkmenistan a "black hole" for information.

Similarly, the top press freedom official at the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in April that the "absolute lack of any freedom of expression" in Turkmenistan was "a situation unseen in the OSCE region since the establishment of this Organization." The official, Freimut Duve, criticized the government's confiscation of a print run of a Moscow-based paper and efforts to block certain news-oriented Web sites, such as Germany's Deutsche Welle news service. Duve, who made the charges in an open letter to the government, said that officials had seized issues of the Moscow paper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, because of an article describing the situation in Turkmenistan.

The government's crackdown on Komsomolskaya Pravda was among several measures in 2002 that further sealed off Turkmenistan's population from outside news and ideas. Cable television was banned after a Turkmen journalist fled to Moscow in July and aired footage of poverty in Turkmenistan. At year's end, reports from Ashgabat suggested that Russian and foreign language newspapers were no longer available.

The U.S.-funded Radio Liberty and the Russian Mayak radio station are among the few alternative news sources that are both regularly produced and widely available to Turkmenistan's population. Satellite television is legal but too expensive for many to afford. Programs from Russia are censored by a special commission in Turkmenistan before being aired, according to the BBC. Broadcasts containing nudity or reporting negatively on Turkmenistan usually are censored. The government also censors all domestic newspapers, with the office of the president's press secretary vetting all galleys prior to publication, according to the U.S. State Department report. Since 1998, moreover, all publishing houses and printing and copying shops have had to obtain licenses and register their equipment.

Major Turkmen-language periodicals include Turkmenistan, published six times a week; Watan, published three times a week; Galkynys, a weekly that is the mouthpiece of the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan; and Turkmen Dunyasi, a monthly that is the organ of the Ashgabat-based World Turkmen's Association. Other Turkmen-language papers include Adalat (Justice) and Edebiyat we Sungat (Literature and the Arts). The Russian-language Neytrainyy Turkmenistan is published six times a week.

State-owned Turkmen Telecom has been the sole Internet service provider since 2000, when the government revoked the licenses of all five private Internet providers. In any case, Internet access is prohibitively expensive for most Turkmen.

Freedom House's annual Survey of Press Freedom has ranked Turkmenistan's media "Not Free" since the country's independence.

Judicial Framework and Independence: 

Turkmenistan has no real rule of law or system of checks and balances, and neither the judiciary nor the Majlis, the country's 50-member Parliament, is independent. Rather than propose legislation or challenge government initiatives, members of Parliament mainly try to outdo one another in slavishly praising Niyazov.

The regime violates basic human rights with impunity. Even on paper, rights are subject to major limitations. The Constitution guarantees a wide range of rights, including freedoms of religion, expression, movement, and peaceful assembly and association and the right to own private property. At the same time, Article 19 requires that the exercise of these rights not "violate...social order, or harm national security."

More encouragingly, the Constitution also guarantees the right of privacy and protection from torture or other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment. But in practice, security forces often beat and otherwise mistreat suspects and prisoners and use force to extract confessions, according to the U.S. State Department, which has noted a decline in reports of such abuse. Political prisoners reportedly are often singled out for cruel treatment.

The top UN investigator of torture worldwide reported in March 2002 that he had sent an urgent appeal to the Turkmen authorities in 2001 on behalf of a Baptist who allegedly was beaten repeatedly by guards in a Turkmenistan labor camp. The UN special rapporteur, Sir Nigel Rodley, said in his report that Shagildy Atakov had been held since 1999 in a labor camp in the town of Seydi in northeastern Turkmenistan for allegedly making an illegal transfer of cars in 1994. Atakov was released in January 2002.

Security forces at times also use more subtle methods to punish inmates and coerce confessions from suspects. These include denying food and health care, verbally intimidating suspects, and placing them in unsanitary cells. Turkmenistan's jails are unsafe, unsanitary, and overcrowded. Disease is rampant, and food rations often are inadequate. Some prisoners have died from overcrowding, untreated illnesses, and the severe summer heat, according to the U.S. State Department.

The judiciary is largely a tool of state control, having jailed many dissidents following trials that were widely condemned abroad as being unfair. President Niyazov appoints all judges, for five-year terms, and has the power to dismiss them at will.

In the aftermath of the crackdown that followed the alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov in November 2002, the U.S. government accused Turkmenistan authorities of conducting summary trials of suspects and denying them due process. Washington also expressed concern over what it called "credible reports of torture and abuse of suspects." The conviction of opposition leader Shikhmuradov came after a trial that lasted less than one day and that took place just four days after his arrest on December 25. Moreover, Parliament intervened in the sentencing, imposing a life term after the Supreme Court had handed down a 25-year sentence. Human Rights Watch concluded that Shikhmuradov's conviction and sentencing "showed no regard for fundamental due process rights."

Showing equally blatant disregard for the rule of law, the government apparently targeted many of the individuals arrested in connection with the November event solely because they are related to exiled opposition figures, according to Amnesty International. At least 18 relatives of Saparmurad Yklymov, a former deputy agriculture minister, were reportedly detained, Amnesty said. The regime accused Yklymov, Shikhmuradov, and other leading opposition figures of hiring mercenaries to try to kill Niyazov. All told, the regime may have arrested upward of 100 people in connection with the attack, international human rights groups suggested, although officials put the number of arrests at only 48.

Ordinary criminal suspects also enjoy few rights. For example, police can make arrests without obtaining warrants. Moreover, the minimal due process safeguards that exist on paper are routinely trampled on in practice. Officials often ignore requirements that detainees be charged within 10 days of arrest and that a person accused of a crime be detained for no longer than 10 months before trial, according to the U.S. State Department. Courts appoint lawyers for indigent defendants.

Religious freedom is tightly restricted in this predominantly Muslim land. The government uses a strict law to deny registration to all religions except Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity, both of which are subject to tight regulations. Nonregistered groups, including Baha'is, Baptists, Pentecostals, Jews, and other minority faiths, are barred from or face restrictions on building places of worship, praying together in private homes, and proselytizing. Some Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other religious minorities have been detained for taking part in private prayer services or tortured for possessing religious literature, according to the U.S. State Department's 2002 global religious freedom report. The report added, however, "Since early 2002, there has been a dramatic decline in reports of government harassment of Baptists." Government authorities have also raided some private prayer services and razed or sealed some underground churches. In the past year, they have also evicted several people from their homes for holding private prayer services in them.

Minority faiths other than Russian Orthodoxy are unable to register because they cannot meet the strict requirements of the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations. The law requires a religious congregation to have 500 worshipers, each at least 18 years old, in every locale in which it wishes to register. Having 500 or more worshipers in Turkmenistan as a whole is not enough to clear the hurdle for registration.

The government also regulates the two legally registered religions, Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity, through a state-run Council on Religious Affairs. The council apparently directly controls the hiring, firing, and promotion of clergy, according to the U.S. State Department. The government also approves all new mosques and determines who participates in the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

The regime further controls organized Islamic practice with restrictions on religious education. Mosque-based imams are barred from teaching Islam to pupils, and no more than 15 or 20 students each year can study for the Islamic clergy. Clerical studies must follow a state-controlled curriculum, which is only taught by the theological faculty at Ashgabat's Turkmen State University, the U.S. State Department has noted. The regime also restricts minority religious education. Authorities in April shut down all Baha'i Sunday schools across Turkmenistan.

In another religious freedom concern, several young men have recently been jailed for refusing, on religious grounds, to serve in the military. In 2002, Amnesty International highlighted the cases of two male Jehovah's Witnesses who it said were jailed for refusing, because of their beliefs, to report for service. According to Amnesty, Nikolay Shelekhov, 21, was sentenced in July to an 18-month jail term. Shelekhov previously had been convicted in 2000 on the same grounds. Kurban Zakirov, 20, is also serving an eight-year prison term in a labor colony under particularly harsh conditions. Zakirov completed a one-year jail term in 2000 for his refusal to serve in the army before being sentenced again on the seemingly fabricated charge of attacking a prison official, Amnesty said. Another conscientious objector, Dmitry Melnichenko, an Evangelical Baptist, allegedly was beaten and subjected to electric shocks in 2001 by security officials before being sent back to his military unit.

Adding insult to injury, several Jehovah's Witnesses who were jailed for refusing to bear arms have not been released, even though they have served their full sentences for refusing to swear loyalty to President Niyazov. Ethnic Turkmen who converted to Christianity also have been harassed and mistreated by security forces. Similarly, Amnesty International said in June 2002 that at times police reportedly physically and verbally abuse religious minorities to punish them for their beliefs. In a positive development, though, the government in January 2002 scrapped the requirement that citizens seeking to travel abroad obtain exit visas. This has allowed members of unregistered religious groups to travel to other countries for religious meetings.

Women have made relatively little inroads into government, politics, and the senior ranks of state firms, in part because of traditional norms that limit their opportunity to pursue higher education and careers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that domestic violence against women is common, although no hard figures on the number of victims are available, and that sexual harassment is a problem in the workplace.

Turkmenistan's ethnic Russians and other ethnic minorities have been steadily marginalized since independence. They hold relatively few posts in government and politics, two realms where ethnic Turkmen enjoy preferences for jobs. Moreover, the top UN body investigating racial discrimination worldwide expressed concern in May 2002 over allegations of discrimination against ethnic minorities in jobs and schooling in Turkmenistan. The body, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, said that the government's policy of promoting ethnic Turkmen identity allegedly fosters discrimination against ethnic minorities.

Given their privileged position in the Soviet era, ethnic Russians in many ways have fallen the furthest among ethnic minorities in postindependence Turkmenistan in terms of their social, economic, and political status. The 1992 Constitution replaced Russian with Turkmen as the official language, and the government is pushing to have all state business conducted in the majority tongue. Some doctors, teachers, and other government workers reportedly have been dismissed for failing to learn Turkmen.

Russian is still commonly used in business, government, and everyday life, and ethnic Russians often help negotiate oil and gas contracts with Russian firms. Many Russian speakers, however, fear that they and their children will be further disadvantaged in jobs and schooling by the Turkmen-only policy in government. The government further marginalized non-Turkmen in 2001 by shutting down all major Russian-language libraries and the ballet.

Roughly 77 percent of Turkmenistan's five million people are ethnic Turkmen, with Uzbeks making up 10 percent, Russians 7 percent, and Kazakhs 2 percent, according to the most recent figures (the 1995 census). Armenians, Azeris, and other small minorities make up the remainder.

Despite constitutional guarantees of property rights, the government recently destroyed many private homes in Ashgabat, apparently as part of President Niyazov's beautification program for the capital, which included building monuments and luxury apartment buildings. Residents who had built their homes without official approval were not offered alternate accommodations, while those who had permits were offered apartments or plots of land that were often below the value of their destroyed homes, according to the U.S. State Department.


Anecdotal evidence suggests that corruption, far from being a nagging problem that crops up from time to time, is a way of life in Turkmenistan. For example, students regularly must bribe officials to gain admission to prestigious departments in universities. Although university education is tuition-free, admission to many faculties at Turkmen State University reportedly costs between $7,000 and $10,000 in bribes. Students also routinely bribe instructors for good grades. Further, incessant graft has made Turkmenistan a difficult place to work for even the most intrepid entrepreneurs, creating a drag on economic growth. "Continuous harassment by tax officials, the State Agency for Investment (SAFI), and other state organs continues to hamper private business," the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said in its July 2002 open letter to Niyazov.

The government has made few efforts to adopt anticorruption laws or create mechanisms to prevent graft. President Niyazov frequently ousts officials for alleged corruption and other wrongdoings, but this appears in reality to have more to do with power politics or the officials' inability to meet unrealistic production targets. As in the Soviet era, these unrealistic targets no doubt force many officials to cook statistics. This explains in part how the government was able to announce that the economy grew by 18 percent in the first half of 2002, a time when most other countries were struggling to slough off the effects of the global economic downturn.


More than a decade after independence, Turkmenistan remains a highly centralized state. President Niyazov generally rules by decree and personally makes most policy decisions. "In practice President Niyazov's power over the state [is] absolute," the U.S. State Department has reported.

Niyazov frequently shuffles and fires government officials, most likely to prevent politicians or bureaucrats from building independent fiefdoms within ministries, agencies, or state firms. While protecting Niyazov, the practice hampers good governance by preventing officials from developing any real job competency. Some former ministers reportedly have been banished from Ashgabat and placed under house arrest in their family homes for alleged criminal violations after being dismissed by the president.

While Niyazov enjoys absolute power in the sense of facing no real checks on his authority, his regime still depends on the loyalty of officials throughout the state hierarchy. Their allegiance is curried with patronage that is doled out along tribal lines. While many top state jobs have gone to members of his Tekke tribe, Niyazov has also handed out prestigious posts to members of other tribes. Given the state's control of the economy, this has had the effect of forcing tribes to compete against one another for economic gains and of making it tough for individuals to achieve any real economic power outside of the state.

The security services, meanwhile, crush any dissent. The main intelligence outfit is the Committee for National Security (KNB), a latter-day version of the Soviet-era KGB. However, its rank-and-file agents reportedly are disgruntled over a leadership purge that began in March 2002 when KNB head Mukhammed Nazarov was dismissed. He was later sentenced to 20 years in jail. Several dozen other KNB officers are also believed to be behind bars.

The KNB, which was formally renamed the Ministry of National Security after the purge, is now headed by Colonel Batyr Busakov, a former deputy head of the Presidential Guard. The Guard, which now appears to be the main pillar of Niyazov's security, is an elite group of around 3,000 former bodyguards and security agents. Another internal security service, the criminal police, is controlled by the Internal Affairs Ministry and works with the KNB on national security matters.

With nearly all power concentrated in Niyazov's hands, local governments have little real influence. As with central government officials, local leaders are selected by Niyazov, serve at his whim, and are reluctant to make decisions without his approval, according to the U.S. State Department. Niyazov himself conceded the impotence of local officials when he told the Moscow-based Interfax news agency in 2001 that "today nobody pays any attention to the role of self-government." He made the admission while announcing an experimental plan that would hand over more power to local officials in the Ashgabat region. Under the plan, the officials would be able to levy taxes, build roads, and pass local laws and regulations. However, they would still be answerable to Niyazov rather than to their constituents. Although the president hinted that the experiment could be expanded to other areas if it yielded better governance, there was little indication in 2002 of whether or how the plan was actually being implemented.