Since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkmenistan has been one of the most isolated countries in the world. Selling natural gas from the country's abundant supply to Russia allowed former dictator Sapamurat Niyazov to supply the Turkmen populace with basic goods and services even as he denied them fundamental political and economic freedoms.
Niyazov also kept the country largely cut off from the rest of the world, making it easier for him to perpetuate the personality cult that characterized his presidency. A party bureaucrat, he adopted the name "Turkmenbashi" (leader of all Turkmen) a year after he was elected president in 1992. He renamed cities, airports, and even months of the year after himself and his family members. Niyazov also made his book Ruhnama--a combination of moral teachings and revisionist history--the principal text at all levels of education.
Since Niyazov's death in late 2006, his successor, Gur-banguly Berdimuhamedov, has shown only modest signs of liberalizing the country's autocratic political system. However, he has begun cultivating relations with other trade partners. This is largely out of necessity, as Russia sharply curtailed its gas imports from Turkmenistan in 2009. As a result, countries in the East and the West began jockeying for a share of the country's substantial oil and gas reserves. This year, both China and Iran are likely to import more Turkmen gas than Russia, and European Union leaders are eager to ratify a trade agreement with Turkmenistan as well.
One result of Turkmenistan's trade expansion is that the international community has begun to learn more about the country and its people. Foreign journalists are somewhat less restricted than in the past. In 2009, Gallup was able to conduct the first fully representative survey of residents in Turkmenistan since the Soviet era. In order to conduct the research, it was necessary to avoid questions regarding political freedoms and satisfaction with governing institutions. Nonetheless, the survey results offer a rare glimpse of the historically secluded Turkmen population.
First, Turkmen overwhelmingly say they are satisfied with their standard of living, and relatively few are deprived of basic necessities. This is largely due to the government's ability to heavily subsidize the provision of electricity, water, healthcare, and even fuel for driving. As in several Persian Gulf countries, the population's reliance on the government's largesse may well insulate Turkmen leaders from the demands for political reform that have arisen in other former Soviet states--including Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan--and this year have swept through much of the Middle East.
Living Standard: Satisfaction
Are you satisfied of dissatisfied with your standard of
living, all the things you can buy or do?
United States 75%
Note: Table made from bar graph
While prospects for democratization in Tuekmenistan seem dim in the short term, it also appears similarly unlikely that fundamentalist Islamic groups could gain influence in the country, as they have in neighboring countries such as Uzbekistan. Though the vast majority of Turkmenistan's predominantly Muslim population says religion is an important part of their daily lives, Turkmen Muslims are very moderate in their religious practices, even relative to other Central Asian countries. They tend to be less likely than Muslims in most other central Asian countries to adhere to traditional Islamic practices, such as avoiding alcohol or pork.
Finally, the Turkmen state has been expanding trade relations with China and Iran rather than Western countries that would exert pressure to improve its human rights record; but this is not due to anti-Western sentiment within the Turkmen population. …