Country, Central Asia.
Area: 188,500 sq mi (488,100 sq km). Population (2005 est.):
4,833,000. Capital: Ashgabat. Turkmen make up three-fourths of the
population, with small groups of Uzbeks, Russians, Kazakhs, and Tatars.
Language: Turkmen (official). Religions: Islam (predominantly Sunni);
also Eastern Orthodox. Currency: manat. There are some hills and low
mountains. About nine-tenths of Turkmenistan is desert, chiefly the
Karakum. The main rivers are the Amu Darya and Morghāb. Many irrigation
canals and reservoirs have been built, including the Karakum Canal,
which runs 870 mi (1,400 km) between the Amu Darya and the Caspian Sea.
The country’s chief products are petroleum and natural gas, cotton,
silk, carpets, fish, and fruit. It is a republic with one legislative
house; its head of state and government is the president, assisted by
the People’s Council. The earliest traces of human settlement in Central
Asia, dating to Paleolithic times, have been found in Turkmenistan. The
nomadic, tribal Turkmen probably entered the area in the 11th century
ad. They were conquered by the Russians in the early 1880s, and the
region became part of Russian Turkistan. It was organized as the Turkmen
S.S.R. in 1924 and became a constituent republic of the U.S.S.R. in
1925. The country gained full independence from the Soviet Union in 1991
under the name Turkmenistan. It experienced years of economic difficulty
until oil and gas production was more fully developed and was subject to
the highly authoritarian rule of Saparmurad Niyazov.
Official name Türkmenistan (Turkmenistan)
Form of government1 unitary single-party2 republic with one legislative
body (Mejlis/Assembly; 1253)
Head of state and government President
Official language Turkmen
Official religion none
Monetary unit manat4 (m)
Population estimate (2008) 5,180,000
Total area (sq mi) 188,500
Total area (sq km) 488,100
1Implementation status of new constitution adopted on Sept. 26, 2008,
unclear in November 2008.
2Single party in practice if not in principle.
3125 seats per elections of Dec. 14, 2008.
4The manat is to be redenominated on Jan. 1, 2009. As of this date
1,000 (old) manat equal 1 (new) manat.
country of Central Asia. It is the second largest state in Central
Asia, after Kazakhstan, and the southernmost of the region’s five
republics. The country is bordered by Kazakhstan on the northwest,
Uzbekistan on the north and east, Afghanistan on the southeast, Iran on
the south, and the Caspian Sea on the west. After Kazakhstan,
Turkmenistan is the least densely populated of the Central Asian states.
Much of its waterless expanse is inhospitable to plant and animal life.
Except for oases in narrow strips dotted along the foothills of the
Kopet-Dag Range and along the Amu Darya, Morghāb, and Tejen rivers,
deserts characterize its sunbaked, sandy terrain. From 1925 to 1991
Turkmenistan was the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, a constituent
(union) republic of the Soviet Union; it declared independence on Oct.
27, 1991. The capital is Ashgabat (Ashkhabad), which lies near the
southern border with Iran.
Deserts occupy nine-tenths of Turkmenistan’s territory. The Karakum
is one of the world’s largest sand deserts, taking up the entire central
part of Turkmenistan and extending northwest into Kazakhstan.
Topographically, four-fifths of Turkmenistan consists of the southern
part of the Turan Plain. Mountains and foothills rise mainly in the
southern part of the republic, the Kugitangtau and Kopet-Dag ranges
being spurs of the Pamir-Alay mountain ranges. The Kopet-Dag is
geologically young, its instability indicated by intermittent
earthquakes of great destructive force.
Turkmenistan’s main rivers are the Amu Darya (ancient Oxus River),
which flows along its northeastern border toward the Aral Sea, and the
Tejen, Morghāb (Murgab, or Murgap), and Atrek; there are also numerous
small mountain rivers. However, the geographic position of the rivers
and the direction of their flow do not coincide with the location of
cultivable lands; the most fertile—and still insufficiently used—lands
lie chiefly in the south, northeast, and west, whereas the principal
rivers run mostly in the east. The Karakum Canal, completed in 1967, is
one of the world’s largest irrigation and shipping canals. The water
lost from these canals through irrigation and from evaporation in the
arid climate contributes to the shortfall of the Amu Darya and other
streams in their lower courses.
Turkmenistan’s position deep inside Asia and the character of its
relief are responsible for a strongly continental climate, which
exhibits great fluctuations in temperatures during the day and the year.
The average annual temperature is 57°–61° F (14°–16° C), but this figure
masks an extremely wide range. The temperature seldom falls below 95° F
(35° C) during summer days, and the absolute maximum high temperature in
the southeast Karakum reaches 122° F (50° C) in the shade. By contrast,
in winter the temperature in Gushgy, in the extreme south on the border
with Afghanistan, drops to −27° F (−33° C). Precipitation occurs mainly
in the spring and ranges from about 3 inches (80 millimetres) per year
in the northwest desert to as much as 12 inches in the mountains.
Plant and animal life
Except in the oases and mountain valleys and plateaus, the
vegetation is of a pronounced desert character. In the mountain valleys
of the Kopet-Dag, wild grapes, almonds, figs, and walnuts are found,
while juniper and pistachio trees grow on the open slopes. On the
riverbanks and islands of the Amu Darya stand tugai (dense floodplain
forests) of black poplar, willow, reed, and cane.
The desert is home to foxes, wildcats, gazelles, and tortoises, while
the mountains support goats, cheetahs, lynx, snow leopards, and
porcupines. Jackals, wild boars, various species of birds, and the rare
pink deer inhabit the tugai; wild donkeys roam the Badkhyz and Garabil
plateaus in the southwest. Vast flocks of ducks, geese, and swans make
the east coast of the Caspian Sea their winter home. In the Caspian,
fishermen find abundant herring, sprat, roach, and sturgeon; before it
became heavily polluted, the Amu Darya supplied edible carp, barbel, and
There is much variety in the different regions of Turkmenistan, but
two broad divisions may be seen: an oasis region—characterized by
adequate water supply, cultivated lands, and developed industry—composed
of the Kopet-Dag and other oases; and a desert region, subdivided into
western Turkmenistan, with a well-developed industrial base, and the
Karakum, with cattle raising and deposits of natural gas and oil.
The Kopet-Dag oasis stretches along the northern foothills of the
Kopet-Dag Range, the slopes of which offer large areas for nonirrigated
farming; both the mountains and foothills are also rich in mineral
resources. The economic and cultural centre of the oasis is the capital
city of Ashgabat. The development of the capital has stimulated
industry, turning an agrarian oasis into the industrial-agrarian core of
The Morghāb oasis is famous for its fine-staple cotton, silk,
handmade carpets and rugs, and Karakul sheep. The Morghāb River, the
lower reaches of which are crossed by the Karakum Canal, can supply more
water for irrigation. Mary (formerly Merv) is the centre of the oasis
and the surrounding region.
Separated from the Morghāb by a stretch of the Karakum, the Tejen
oasis formed along the Tejen River. Before the construction of the
Karakum Canal, only small areas of wheat, barley, and melons could be
cultivated because of the scarcity of water. After the oasis was crossed
by the canal, however, and the Hauz-Khan Reservoir built, large areas
were irrigated, thus making possible the cultivation of long-staple
cotton and the construction of cotton-processing plants. The economic
and cultural centre is the town of Tejen.
The middle Amu Darya oasis, in contrast to other oases, stretches
almost without interruption for hundreds of miles and is almost entirely
cultivated. The Amu Darya waters are very rich in silt, an excellent
natural fertilizer. Raising of cotton and silkworms has long been
widespread in that area, which is also an important producer of kenaf
and other fibre crops. The adjoining deserts provide fodder for Karakul
sheep. Industries processing agricultural products and mineral raw
materials have been developed in the oasis as well. The economic and
administrative centre of the oasis and the region is Chärjew
(Chardzhou), the second largest city and industrial centre in
The lower Amu Darya oasis lies in the ancient delta of the Amu Darya
and was long one of the most important agricultural regions of the
republic. The oasis is cut by a dense network of old riverbeds as well
as by irrigation channels and ditches beginning in neighbouring
Uzbekistan. Reductions in the lower Amu Darya’s flow threaten to impair
this oasis’s agricultural output, however.
The desert of western Turkmenistan is an enormous and almost
waterless expanse, but its mountainous part, which is an eastern
continuation of the Caucasus Mountains, has mineral and fuel resources.
The latter’s deposits of oil, rock salt, and common lake salt are of
great importance. Western Turkmenistan is one of the most industrially
developed regions of the republic, emphasizing oil extraction and
refining, chemical and mining industries, and fisheries and fish
processing (along the Caspian Sea). The rural population is engaged
mostly in raising sheep, goats, and camels.
The Karakum and the other featureless deserts enter, in part, all the
above-mentioned areas. They are distinguished by the same desert
landscape, lack of surface water, exceptionally meagre precipitation,
and high summer temperatures. At the same time the desert is a zone of
fuel and mineral resources, and its richest pastures can be used
year-round for sheep, goats, and camels.
The Turkmens are a Muslim people who speak a language belonging
to the southwestern, or Oğuz, branch of the Turkic linguistic group.
Turkmens make up some three-fourths of the republic’s population, up
from about two-thirds in 1970, owing largely to a relatively high birth
rate. There are smaller numbers of Russians, Uzbeks, Kazaks, and Tatars.
The population is distributed unevenly, with few people in the
Karakum Desert and mountain regions but large numbers in the oases. With
the development of the Turkmenistan economy during the Soviet period,
many non-Turkmen skilled workers and scientific and technical
intelligentsia immigrated to the republic.
About two-thirds of the ethnic Turkmen population lives in rural
settlements and villages. The urban population consists mainly of
outsiders, those from Russia being concentrated in the principal urban
For centuries the Turkmens were divided into numerous tribes and
clans, the largest being the Tekke, Ersari, and Yomut. Prior to the
Russian Revolution most of the Turkmens were pastoral nomads, though
during the 18th and 19th centuries many had settled in the oases and
become agriculturalists. Their tribal organizations and loyalties were
strong. They had always been warlike and had commonly hired themselves
out as mercenaries to various rulers in Central Asia and Iran.
Turkmenistan’s incorporation into the Soviet Union had the effect of
bringing greater unity to the Turkmen tribes and of giving them the
beginning of a sense of nationhood.
Turkmenistan specializes in cotton growing and in the extraction
of oil and natural gas. Turkmenistan’s underground resources in the
western plain and those underwater along the Caspian Sea include
extensive reserves of oil and natural gas, as well as deposits of
mirabilite, iodine, bromine, sulfur, potassium, and salt. The mountains
and foothills contain dolomites and marl, which are used for fertilizing
The cultivation of fine-staple cotton and the raising of Karakul
sheep, horses, and camels contribute most to the agricultural economy.
The Karakul breed accounts for seventh-tenths of all sheep in the
republic. There are several prized varieties of Karakul pelts: the
glistening black arabi, the golden sur, and the silver-gray shirazi. The
Akhal Teke and Yomut breeds of horses deserve their fame as handsome,
fleet animals with great endurance. Arabian dromedary (one-humped)
camels are indispensable in desert areas for transporting sheepherders,
for drawing water from deep desert wells, and as a source of wool, milk,
Turkmenistan leads Central Asia as a producer of silkworm cocoons,
primarily from the middle Amu Darya oasis. The lower Amu Darya oasis,
lying in the Amu Darya delta, long supported one of the most important
agricultural zones in Turkmenistan. The warm climate there grows
medium-staple cotton, alfalfa (lucerne), sweet sorghum, beans, kenaf,
sesame, grapes, vegetables, and melons, and nurtures cattle and
silkworms. Serious problems, however, threaten the prosperity of this
region. The disastrous decline in the Amu Darya’s outflow, the effects
of extreme pollution from pesticide and chemical runoff, and soil and
water salinization resulting from the desiccation and shrinkage of the
Aral Sea threaten to ruin the Amu Darya delta as an agricultural
producer for Turkmenistan.
In less-populated western Turkmenistan, people raise sheep, goats,
and camels and cultivate some grain and melons. In the south, near
Tejen, lies the Badkhyz Nature Reserve with its pistachio woodlands.
Pistachios also grow in the Gushgy district, watered by a tributary of
the Morghāb River, at Turkmenistan’s southernmost point.
The radical reconstruction of the republic’s economy was completed
by 1930. Old branches (cotton ginning, oil pressing, and carpet making)
were retained, and new ones (heavy and light industry, such as food
Petroleum deposits and the associated oil industry are centred in the
Caspian plain in western Turkmenistan and in the offshore oil fields to
the west of the Cheleken Peninsula in the Caspian Sea. Turkmenistan oil
is of a very high grade, both as a fuel and as a raw material for
chemical production. A network of pipelines links natural gas deposits
in western Turkmenistan with Ashgabat, Türkmenbashy (Krasnovodsk),
Cheleken, and the central regions of the republic.
Significant in the chemical industry are the Chärjew superphosphate
plant, mirabilite from the vicinity of the Garabogazköl
(Kara-Bogaz-Gol), sulfur from Gaurdak, iodine and bromine factories on
the Cheleken Peninsula, and the production of detergents at the
Turkmenbashi oil refinery. Thermal power stations using liquid fuel
operate at Nebitdag, Ashgabat, Büzmeyin (Bezmein), and Türkmenbashy,
while a station at Mary burns natural gas. Hydroelectric plants include
the Hindu Kush plant, as well as plants at Kaushtubent and at the
Dashköpri Reservoir on the Morghāb River.
The republic’s engineering and metal-processing enterprises include
shops for repairing diesel locomotives, railcars, and agricultural
machinery. Plants in Ashgabat and Mary produce oil-field and refinery
Silk-winding and silk-weaving mills, as well as cotton, cotton-wool,
and worsted mills are important. Artificial furs, leather footwear, and
sewn goods also are produced. Domestic industries, especially carpet and
rug making, occupy an important place in the republic’s economy. Turkmen
carpets and rugs, long renowned for their durability and unique designs,
are exported to more than 50 countries. Among Turkmen carpets well-known
in the West are those made by the Tekke, Yomut, Salor, and Ersari
Turkmens and called by those names. The food industry’s most important
branches include those producing vegetable oil, processing fish and
meat, grinding flour, and making wine. Turkmenistan exports oil, butter,
wine, fish, and salt to nearby countries.
A railway and pipeline project to connect Turkmenistan with Iran was
under construction during the 1990s. These facilities can provide the
country with its first direct outlets for large-scale exporting to the
Middle East and the West; a natural gas pipeline is planned that will
extend through Iran and Turkey to the Mediterranean.
The great dispersion of the towns in Turkmenistan requires extending
rail lines to serve a scattered population efficiently, but the existing
communications system falls far short of achieving that goal. A main
trunk railway connects Türkmenbashy via Ashgabat and other towns with
Tashkent in Uzbekistan, throwing off branch lines from Mary to Gushgy
and from Nebitdag to Vyshka. Another line extends from Chärjew along the
Amu Darya as far north as Qŭnghirot (Kungrad) in Qoraqalpoghiston
(Karakalpakstan). However, trucks now carry most of the country’s
internal freight, and such traffic is developing more rapidly than rail
Water transport includes a merchant fleet and a ferry plying the
Caspian Sea between Türkmenbashy and Baku in Azerbaijan. Air service
from Ashgabat to Baku and Tashkent has been reduced since 1991.
Administration and social conditions
Turkmenistan adopted a new constitution in 1992, replacing the
Soviet-era constitution that had been in effect since 1978. The new
constitution established legislative, executive, and judicial branches
of government, dominated by a strong executive. The president, the head
of state, was to be elected for a maximum of two consecutive five-year
terms, but Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurad Niyazov, extended
his term to 10 years in a 1994 referendum. A powerful People’s Council
(Khalk Maslahaty)—made up of the president, members of the parliament,
regional representatives, chairmen of the high courts, the cabinet, and
other officials—had the authority to call national referenda, plan
economic and social policy, and declare war.
After the death of Niyazov in 2006, his successor, Pres. Gurbanguly
Berdymukhammedov, led efforts toward political reform. In September 2008
the Khalk Maslahaty accepted a new constitution that established a
multiparty system and saw to the council’s own dissolution. Under the
2008 constitution, the powers previously held by the council are now
divided between the president and an expanded unicameral parliament
(Mejlis), whose 125 members are elected by territorial districts to
five-year terms. The president is elected by direct popular vote to a
five-year term, is empowered to appoint governors and mayors, and may
dissolve the legislature only in the event that the Mejlis is unable to
select a speaker.
Turkmens received their education from traditional Muslim schools in
Bukhara and Khiva until the collapse of those khanates in 1920. There
was also a scattering of New Method schools established by Muslim
reformers (Jadids) early in the 20th century in such towns as Kerki and
Chardzhou (now Chärjew). Only after 1928 did the Soviet school system
begin to displace these Muslim educational institutions, with the result
that literacy rates remained low for many years. By the 1960s and ’70s
several higher educational institutions functioned in the republic—the
Turkmen State University in Ashgabat, a teachers college, and medical,
polytechnic, and agricultural institutes. The Turkmen Academy of
Sciences was founded in 1951 and directed from Moscow until the late
1980s. Then, as now, education was provided tuition-free to students,
and those selected for higher education received stipends from the
republic’s budget. The recent lapse of communist ideology and the rising
demands for freer speech and press have affected the educational system
of Turkmenistan. All curricula and publications previously dominated by
the Communist Party’s censorship and propaganda now require thorough
editorial change. The designation of Turkmen as the state’s official
language also has necessitated reorientation in instruction, curricula,
and teaching materials.
The widespread Turkmen traditional practice of composing poetry
orally gave way, after printing became well established in Turkmen
centres in the 1920s, to writing and to the dissemination of verse and
prose in book form. Although written Turkmen literature dates at least
to the 18th-century poet Mahtum Quli (Magtim Guli), it underwent a burst
of growth when the literary publications of the new republic began to
appear in the late 1920s and ’30s. Outstanding graduates of Bukharan
seminaries such as Abdulhekim Qulmuhammed-oghli (d. c. 1937) brought
about a renewal of intellectual and cultural life in Soviet
Turkmenistan. Qulmuhammed-oghli served in the anti-Soviet Basmachi
resistance movement, later became a communist nationalist, and
influenced younger intellectuals through his activities as a writer,
editor, researcher, and cultural organizer. All such efforts came to an
end in the 1930s when the purges instigated by Soviet leader Joseph
Stalin and carried out locally by Russian and Turkmen communists
destroyed this small core of outstanding intellectual leaders, including
Qulmuhammed-oghli. After that, Soviet-educated intellectuals dominated
cultural life. Among these figures, Berdi Kerbabayev attained some
renown for his novel Aygïtlï ädim (1940; The Decisive Step) and a later
novel, Nebit-Dag (1957), as well as plays, poems, and translations.
Though the authoritarian government remains hostile to competing
ideologies that lay claim to the loyalty of the population, the fervent
young followers of the imams and ishans (Muslim religious leaders)
attract some followers to a much closer attachment to the Islāmic
heritage as well as lifestyle.
The Turkmen-language literary publications that appeared in Soviet
Turkmenistan in the late 1920s and ’30s first used a modified Arabic
script, then a modified Roman alphabet, and finally a modified Cyrillic
alphabet. After independence Turkmen writers, religious leaders, and
educators entered a debate over their alphabet; though many wished to
return to the Arabic writing system, Turkmenistan adopted a modified
A studio in Ashgabat produces films, and television stations transmit
from the capital and from Türkmenbashy. Until recently, most
broadcasting and films employed the Russian language rather than
Turkmen. Broadcasts in Turkmen are often translations of programs that
originated in Russian and other languages.
Viktor Borisovich Zhmuida
It is possible to follow the development of human habitats in
southern Turkmenistan from Paleolithic times to the present. Some of the
earliest traces of agriculture in Central Asia were discovered some 20
miles (32 km) north of Ashgabat in the Neolithic Jeitun civilization,
which may be dated to the 5th millennium bc. The Jeitun civilization was
followed by a series of other Neolithic cultures, and a cultural
unification of southern Turkmenistan occurred in the Early Bronze Age
(2500–2000 bc). During the course of the following half millennium, some
urban centres were created; the ruins of Namazga-Tepe cover
approximately 145 acres (60 hectares). From about the mid-3rd century bc
to the Sāsānian conquest in the 4th century ad, Turkmenistan formed part
of the Parthian empire (see Parthia).
Into this land came, probably in the 11th century, the Turkmens,
strangers as it were, with no links to any previous civilization of the
region. Contemporary historians did not distinguish them from the Oghuz,
a loose confederation of Turkic tribes present in the region since the
9th century. Turkmens came under the rule of the Seljuq dynasty
(1038–1194) of Oghuz tribes, and they weathered the Mongol invasions
(13th century) quite well; the southern tribes became part of the
Il-Khanid empire, and the northern tribes belonged to the Golden Horde.
One of the Turkmens’ principal occupations for centuries after the
decline of Mongol rule was robbing passing caravans.
Until 1924 the Turkmens never experienced even nominal political
unity. Their organization was exclusively tribal, and the tribes were
either nomadic and independent or subject to neighbouring Persia or to
the khanates of Khiva and Bukhara. During the 16th and 17th centuries
the Chaudor tribe led a powerful tribal union in the north, while the
Salor tribe was dominant in the south. During the 17th and 18th
centuries the ascendancy passed to the Yomuts, Tekkes, Ersaris, and
Saryks, who began to move out of the desert into the oases of Khorezm
and to the Atrek, Tejen, and Morghāb rivers and to adopt a settled way
of life. There was bitter rivalry among the tribes, particularly between
the Tekke and Yomut, while the Goklans, inhabiting part of the Khiva
oasis, were opposed to both. Thus, while the Tekkes were the principal
opponents of the Russian invasion in the 1860s and ’70s, the other
tribes either failed to support them or helped the Russians.
The first notable Russian expedition under Prince Aleksandr
Bekovich-Cherkasski in 1717 met with failure; however, in 1869 a Russian
military force landed on the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea and
founded the port of Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi). In 1874 the
Transcaspian military district was established, and in 1881 this
district became the Transcaspian province, which in 1899 was made part
of the governorate-general of Turkistan. There was fierce resistance to
Russian encroachment, but this was finally broken by General Mikhail
Dmitriyevich Skobelev at the Battle of Gök-Tepe (now Gökdepe) in 1881.
The Turkmens took an active part in the revolt of 1916 against Russian
rule, particularly in the town of Tejen, where many Russian settlers and
officials were murdered.
After the Russian Revolution, during the Civil War (1918–20),
Turkmenistan was the scene of sporadic fighting between the Social
Revolutionary Transcaspian Provincial Government and the Bolshevik
troops trying to penetrate from Tashkent. The Social Revolutionaries
were for a time supported by a small British force of 1,200 men with its
headquarters in northeastern Iran. The British force was withdrawn in
April 1919, and Red troops captured Ashgabat in July 1919 and
Krasnovodsk in February 1920. Bolshevik rule was thereafter established.
Until 1924 the Transcaspian (after 1921 called the Turkmen) province
formed part of the Turkistan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, while
the remaining districts of Turkmenistan were embodied in the Bukharan
and Khorezmian Soviet Socialist republics formed in 1920. The Turkmen
S.S.R. was formed in 1924 out of the Turkmen province, together with the
Turkmen rayony (sectors) of the former Khorezmian Republic (Tashauz [now
Dashhowuz], Takhta [now Tagta], Ilyata, Kunya-Urgench, and Porsa) and of
the Bukhara Republic (Chardzhou, now Chärjew, Kerki, and part of
Sherabad). It formally became one of the U.S.S.R.’s constituent
republics in 1925. During the Soviet period Turkmenistan benefited from
educational and health care modernization but experienced political
The republic declared independence on Oct. 27, 1991, and adopted the
name Turkmenistan. In the early years of independence, a corrupt regime
led by the dictatorial rule of Saparmurad Niyazov failed to improve the
quality of life for the population, despite the interest of foreign
investors in Turkmenistan’s natural gas resources. During the course of
Niyazov’s rule, his primary interest proved to be propagating an
elaborate personality cult. In addition to declaring himself president
for life, Niyazov pursued a number of extravagant projects to this end.
Atop a monument called the Neutrality Arch, a gold statue in his
likeness—one of the many such statues and portraits scattered throughout
the country—was designed to rotate to continuously face the Sun. He
called for a “Golden Age Lake” to be constructed in the desert at a cost
of more than $6 billion, and his semiautobiographical Rukhnama (“The
Book of the Soul”) was established as required reading in all of
Turkmenistan’s schools, even forming a part of driver’s exams. He
renamed days of the week, months of the year, a crater on the Moon, a
breed of horse, a canal, a city, and a wide range of ideas and places
after himself and members of his family. A large proportion of state
money—at the beginning of the 21st century, estimated at more than half
of the country’s gross domestic product—was funneled off to a special
presidential fund; much of this revenue was to subsidize special
construction projects emphasizing the president’s prestige. This
systematic diversion of revenue, as well as various “reforms,” resulted
in a crippling decline in education and health care services.
In late 2006, after more than two decades of rule, Niyazov died
suddenly of heart failure. Fears that the absence of a designated
successor would threaten the country’s stability were not immediately
realized, though the naming of former minister of health Gurbanguly
Berdymukhammedov as acting president—a departure from the dictates of
the country’s constitution—was greeted with some surprise. The country’s
first (at least nominally) contested elections were held in February of
the following year, and, amid widespread criticism that they were marred
by fraud, Berdymukhammedov was declared the winner and was formally
inaugurated as Turkmenistan’s president.
Early in his presidency, Berdymukhammedov took steps toward
dismantling the vestiges of Niyazov’s personality cult and reversing
some of his controversial orders. Adjustments included ending bans such
as those on ballet and opera, reversing Niyazov’s decree renaming the
days of the week and months of the year after himself and members of his
family, and ordering that the Neutrality Arch, with its large gold
effigy, be moved from the capital’s centre to its southern reaches.