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Can democracy close Turkmenistan’s tribal cracks?

Written by on Thursday, 13 December 2012
Politics and Society, Turkmenistan
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Turkmen tribes display their differences artistically. Photograph from the "Bahar Carpets" blog.

Editor’s Note: Turkmenistan’s internal tribal divisions are rarely discussed, but they are real, and can be seen even in the infrastructure of the country. NewEurasia’s Annasoltan attempts to tackle the issue. “Ultimately, [the problem is not] about nefarious machinations on the part of one Turkmen tribe against all the others,” she writes. “It’s about power, privilege, and corruption, a problem that transcends tribe.”

Turkmenistan sits on top of huge energy reserves, but also huge tribal fault lines. It’s a profoundly difficult and sensitive issue to bring up, especially as it goes to the heart of Turkmenhood.

If you look closely at the map, you can detect a certain mismatch. Mary, Lebap and Daşoguz provinces are the three main cotton-growing provinces of our country, yet the textile factories are concentrated in Ahal province. Similarly, the fish are harvest along the Caspian Sea in Balkan province and in the Amu Darya in Lebap province, but the processing facilities are also located in Ahal province. Yet, official propaganda says that new facilities are being opened all across the five provinces for the benefit of Turkmenistan’s people as a whole. It’s a carefully tailored message: the authorities are aware that high unemployment outside of Ahal province is generating widespread discontent, and that discontent is taking a tribal character, particularly in northern Dasoguz province and eastern Lebap province.


The main routes of social mobility for people in the outlying provinces are to either marry an Ashgabati, or just to get to the capital to look for work, and via that, perhaps even pack their suitcase and move onto Turkey. However, these options are unlikely, and for several reasons, much of which has to do with the city’s history. The latter option is difficult to do, since physical mobility is pretty limited in our country (still, according to an IWPR report, between 110,000 and 150,000 may have pulled it off in September 2012 alone!). The first option is also unlikely, since the majority of Ashgabatis are of the Ahal-Teke tribe, and also, because their socioeconomic status, they are disinclined to “marry down”.

The mismatch I described above originates in the combination of overly-centralized rule combined with deep-seated tribalism. Both, of course, have their roots long before the modern nation-state, centralization from the Soviet era, tribalism from even further in the past. In brief, after the complex migrations of the Turkmen tribes prior to the nineteenth century and the solidification of modern borders, the Soviets vested power in the Ahal province, and in Ashgabat in particular. Consequently, the Ahal-Teke tribesmen were, not exclusively but largely, the beneficiaries of the opportunities, both material and intellectual, afforded by the Soviet Union. The policy choices, both official and off the books, of the Niyazov and Berdimuhammedov regimes, especially the latter, have only reinforced and deepened the Soviet legacy.

Here’s an example: in official media, Ahal-Teke horses are celebrated, but not Yomut or Arsary horses. Similarly, Waharman melons, which are grown in Ahal province, are also celebrated even though there are dozens of melon types in our country.

Still, the propaganda isn’t all bunk and unfair. Some construction plans are beginning to reach the other provinces, particularly Balkan, where the Yomuts are in the majority. They are getting some new hotels and ports.

Tribalism and elections

This year’s presidential election actually provoked these issues a little bit. There were not many variables that distinguished the candidates other than their tribal affiliations — indeed, they appear to have been chosen in such a manner so as to represent the tribal topography, in order to generate a feeling of fair representation/fair chance.

At the time, I collected the following quotes from my countrymen for a post that I didn’t end up writing because I felt the issue was too sensitive to bring up. I think the last quote is really crucial, because it shows the way forward.

Anonymous #1: “For me the real issue in this election is whether there is the possibility that a candidate from Mary province and not from the Ahal province — like the incumbent president — can actually win the election. I’m curious. Because if there were free and fair elections the candidate from Mary province would win because he would be representing the Mary Teke and it is the province with the largest population and people would vote for their own candidate,” says a person who does not want to be named.

Anonymous #2: “Niyazov and Berdimuhamedov are from the same elitist Ahal-Teke tribe. But the most hard working and suffering Turkmen people live in the periphery. They are totally neglected. I would vote for a candidate who would not build the cotton factories in Ashgabat but in places where cotton is picked to be fair to the people.”

Anonymous #3: “I think it was the right decision that candidates were chosen from all the provinces. Otherwise they would all be chosen from the Ahal province, where all of the ministers and big shots have their support base. But ultimately, the issue is about free and fair elections. No matter how much sugar coating, this issue remains as before. If they were fair then candidates would not be handpicked; rather, they would emerge in a different and natural way.”

In other words, can real democracy lead the way to resolving our tribalism problem? Because, ultimately, the problem of Ahal-Teke favoritism is not about nefarious machinations on the part of one Turkmen tribe against all the others; it’s about power, privilege, and corruption, a problem that transcends tribe.

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