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Turkmenistan declared i ndepende nce from the Soviet Union on October 27, 1991. The president of Turkmenistan, the former communist insider Saparmurat Niyazov, used the Turkmen title Turkmenbashi: Leader of the Turkmen. Remarkably, however, Turkmenistan was until recently a collection of fragmented, interwarring tribes divided by dialect, ancestry and geography.
The environment of Turkmenistan, mainly a vast, untamed steppe in the heart of Central Asia, encouraged semi nomadic lifestyle that was not territorially defined. Trained and disciplined in war and eager to seize booty, it was the Turkmen, along with other steppe peoples to the East like the Mongols, who rained down from the East, conquering large swaths of territory in the Middle East and Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages. In this sense, the environment of Turkmenistan, the vast, dramatic and forbidding steppe and the need for open pasture and freedom of movement, has had a very significant impact on the social and historical identity of Turkmen. Today in contrast, most Turkmen today are settled in cities or on cultivated land. They participate in the growing industrial and gas sector, or cultivate cotton. Nevertheless, there remains a significant minority who live an almost exclusively nomadic life. They are often held with the highest respect and are considered “more Turkmen” by the rest of the population.
The forced cultivation of cotton, a single cash crop, was to benefit of the ruling elite in Moscow and their representatives in Ashgabat, the main city in Turkmenistan. Cotton, of course, was impossible to eat. This made Turkmen farmers and former nomads dependent on the central power for their food supply, leading to periods of famine and starvation. Moreover, the Soviet authorities often set the price for cotton artificially low, preventing the Turkmen from taking advantage of cotton as a source of economic growth.
Although it could be argued that the nomadic lifestyle of the Turkmen and the people of the steppe in Central Asia have had a long-term, millennial impact on the environment, preventing reforestation, and causing possible damages from long-term overgrazing, major economic projects with immediate environmental consequences have only been implemented very recently. Turkmenistan is in the process of signing contracts for Caspian Oil lines that will link the Oil of the Caspian Sea on the Western side of Turkmenistan, with China, a vast country thirsty for cheaper oil to fuel economic expansion. New damns are being built on fragile and usually temperamental rivers to fuel a plan of industrial and economic expansion orchestrated by the central authority. As Turkmenistan transitions rapidly into a settled, industrial economy, the traditional relationship between Turkmen society and the environment will need to be reconsidered. Although the political situation in Turkmenistan is fairly totalitarian and centralized, it is possible that the nationalist character of Turkmenistan’s steppe tradition, the closeness to the land and the interest in preserving identity, will help prevent an over-zealous exploitation of resources.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan sit on large reserves of oil and natural gas reserves yet both countries face challenges in getting those reserves to world markets. Neither country prefers to export their resources through Russian-controlled pipelines, and so each must seek to obtain capital and political support for pipelines either through Iran or through Turkey.
- Jacob Black-Michaud, Sheep and Land: The Economics of Power in a Tribal Society (Cambridge University Press, 1986);
- Adrienne Edgar, Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan (Princeton University Press, 2004);
- Robert Lewis, , Geographic Perspectives on Soviet Central Asia (Routledge, 1992);
- Oliver Roy, The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations (I.B. Tauris, 2000).