Capital: Ashgabat
Area: 488,100 km˛
Population: 4,518,268 (July 2000 est.)
Language(s): Turkmen 72%, Russian 12%, Uzbek 9%, other 7%
Religion(s): Muslim 89%, Eastern Orthodox 9%, unknown 2%
Ethnic Groups: Turkmen 77%, Uzbek 9.2%, Russian 6.7%, Kazakh 2%, other 5.1%
Currency: 1 Turkmen manat (TMM) = 100 tenesi
System of Government: Republic

The Turkmen evolved from Oghuz tribes which settled in the region of present-day Turkmenistan in the 8th and 9th c. The Oghuz tribes established trading, religious and cultural contacts with the Perso-Arabic, Islamic empire to the south. Towards the end of the 10th c., they converted to Islam (Sunni branch), and were for the first time referred to as Turkmen. In the 11th c., Oghuz Turkmen tribes dominated by the Seljuk clan entered the Caucasus region, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor in search for fresh pasturage. They defeated a Byzantine army, moved through Iran and into Anatolia and occupied much of the central Anatolian Plateau. One Oghuz tribe under a certain chieftain Osman in the 13th c. established the sprawling Osmanli (Ottoman) empire, which lasted into the 20th c. Only two other Oghuz-Turkmen states were established; the Kara Koyunlu ("Black Sheep" Turkmen, existing from 1378 to 1469) and the Ak Koyunlu ("White Sheep" Turkmen, 1387-1502), both centered in Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia. The Oghuz-Turkmen tribes which remained in Central Asia established themselves in the Transoxiana region in the 11th and 12th c., retained their tribal customs, and came to form the basis of the Turkmen nation.

The Mongol Golden Horde conquered the territories around Khwarizm in the Transoxiana region. The various Turkmen tribes came under various Mongol rulers. It was during the Mongol period that the term "Oghuz" was finally discontinued. The Turkmen had long ago converted to Islam, and little was left of the original shamanism.

After the break-up of the Mongol Empire in Central Asia in the 14th c., southern Turkmenistan came under the vast Timurid empire, built by the great conquerer, Timur Lenk. Turkmen rulers for a while controlled the Azerbaijan region, and later also northwestern Persia. The last Timurid Shah died in 1469, 2 years after the death of Jehan Shah, the last great Black Sheep Turkmen ruler in northwest Persia.

In the 16th c., many Turkmen in the south converted to Shia Islam and fought for the Sufi Safavid Persian empire of Shah Ismail. At the same time, Turkic Uzbeks were pressing southward into the plains of Transoxiana. Turkmenistan, the frontier territory between Safavid Persia and the Uzbek Khanates, became the scene of almost constant warfare between the 16th and 18th c. For the first time, the territories of the Turkmen tribes became relatively clearly defined, and during this long period, the Turkmen became ingenious at vacillating between the conflicting parties. They were able to maintain their independence, but it was not until the 19th c. that they began the arduous process of unifying under a central government in the face of Russian expansionism from the north.

The rivalry between Russia and the British who were expanding northward from India into Afghanistan, over southern Central Asia, had destabilized the nascent Turkmen state. The Russians conquered Tajikistan and the Uzbek Khanates by 1876, and began their conquest of the Turkmen in 1877. After one of the bloodiest campaigns of Russian colonial history, by 1884 they had subdued the Turkmen.

In 1899, Turkmenistan became part of the Russian Governor-Generalship of Turkestan, which had been established in Transoxiana in 1867. The Russians started using canals to the Aral Sea to irrigate salvageable parts of the desert, and started to grow cotton in Turkmenistan. With cotton came growing Russian influence.

In 1916, as the Russian Army in the First World War was desperate for more troops, the Russians for the first time introduced general military conscription among the Steppe peoples of Central Asia. This spurred a general revolt, in which the Turkmen also took part. As the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Civil War started in 1917, the Turkmen were still suffering from the consequences of the 1916 Revolt. The Russians in Turkmenistan were divided between the revolutionary factions, some joining the Whites, some the Reds. In the meantime, a Turkmen national movement was developing, and a Provisional Turkmen Congress was set up in Ashkhabad. Efforts were made to build a national armed force, but it was immediately suppressed by the Bolsheviks. Instead, the Turkmen made common cause with the Whites. In 1918, the Whites, with the support of the Turkmen, established the Provisional Revolutionary Government of Transcaspia, guaranteeing Turkmen representation. This government was hard-pressed, and eventually began recruiting Turkmen into its army. This caused widespread desertions to the Bolsheviks. The Transcaspian government then turned to the British for help, and the British Military Mission in northeastern Persia sent 1000 troops. They were withdrawn in the summer of 1919, and Ashkhabad fell to the Bolsheviks. Some of the Turkmen forces continued to fight the Bolsheviks in the desert, in the Turkmen's version of the Basmachi Revolt.

In 1921 a Turkmen region was established as part of Soviet Turkestan (Central Asia), but already in 1924, the Soviets started to split up this unit to create national homelands. The first ones to be established were the Uzbek and the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republics. Turkmen nationalist movements were still operating, with goals of establishing an independent Turkmenistan, if necessary with British help. Several bloody Turkmen revolts against collectivization around 1930, and the discovery by the Soviets of another subversive Turkmen organisation, Turkmen Azatlygi (Liberty), brought about large-scale purges and persecution of Turkmen political and cultural leaders. From 1934 to 1939 almost a whole generation of intellectuals was liquidated. Purges took place again in 1946-48 and in 1959 over "nationalist deviationism". The Soviets continued and accelerated the tsarist policy of developing Tukmenistan for cotton production, with the help of water from the canals to the Aral Sea, thus contributing to the ecological disaster of the Aral Sea area.

In the Glasnost and Perestroyka period, Turkmenistan received greater autonomy, and more land was allocated for foodcrops and livestock breeding, at the expense of cotton. Turkmen culture and society received growing attention, and Turkmen nationalism grew strong. Following the collapse of the coup against Gorbachov in August 1991, the independent republic of Turkmenistan was proclaimed.

Source: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs [NUPI] - Centre for Russian Studies
Photos: Tourism and Development Magazine, Turkmensayakhat State Tourism Corporation of Turkmenistan

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