About half of the Turkmenistan population lives in rural areas and half in cities. Much more significant than the difference between town and country, however, is still the membership of the Turkmenistan tribes. Origin plays such an important role that the vast majority of Turkmens have known their family tree by heart for at least three, mostly four or five generations and can explain it at any time. The differences between the tribes manifest themselves externally, for example, in different items of clothing, carpet patterns and dialects. The population of Turkmenistan does not consist exclusively of Turkmen.
Although Turkmenistan is ethnically more homogeneous than the other Central Asian republics, there are also some larger ethnic minorities here. In addition to the approximately 80 to 90% Turkmens, as a result of the demarcation of the border at the beginning of the 1920’s, the Uzbeks are still a strong minority (currently between 6 and 9% of the total population, locally over 70% and, according to official information, less than 4.5%). Almost all Uzbeks live along the Amu Darya in the north of the country and here mainly in the fertile Khorasam oasis.
At the time of independence, about 10% of the country’s population was of Russian origin. In the meantime, however, their share has fallen to less than 5% – according to some data, less than 1.5% of the population is currently of Russian descent. Most of the remaining Russians live in the capital.
In addition, there are Pashtun and various Iranian population groups in some villages in the south of the country (including two settlements with aimaks in the south-east), three villages with a significant Baloch minority in the vicinity of Mary and Armenians in the city of Turkmenbashi. However, the proportion of these groups in the total population of the country is less than one percent.
In the course of the nationalization policy, President Berdimuhamedow suggested the targeted resettlement (see History and State, International Behavior) of thousands of Uzbeks from the traditional oasis settlements near the border to desert regions further south. This measure, officially presented as reclaiming land, was strongly condemned internationally. Nonetheless, such measures are being pursued to the present day. Minority rights are only (temporarily) respected in Turkmenistan if this respect is of direct interest to the state. In principle, there is no reliable protection for religious, ethnic and other minorities, and for the most part these are actively marginalized and discriminated against by the state.
The state language, Turkmen, is spoken by the majority of the Turkmenistan population and the small minorities, while the Russian and Uzbek minorities in particular continue to speak their respective languages, at least in private, and most of them do not speak Turkmenistan at all. Conversely, the government pursues a language policy that is strictly oriented towards Turkmen. For example, other languages are no longer taught in schools or are only taught to a very limited extent. In addition, holders of official positions must demonstrate their ability to speak fluently in Turkmen.
The most important tribe for the power politics of the Turkmenistan government are the Akhal-Tekke. This dominance can be traced back to the early days of the Russian conquest. Previously not hierarchically structured and involved in endless, sometimes very bloody tribal battles, the Akhal-Tekke benefited from the fact that the provincial and later republic capital Ashgabat was founded in their tribal area. It is true that the Soviet government endeavored to ensure that all tribes were taken into account in order to allocate posts on an equal footing. In fact, this parity was never reached. Between 1948 and 1991 about 50% of all party secretaries, chairmen of the Council of Ministers and chairmen of the Supreme Soviet came from Akhal Province (Welayat) – and thus largely from the Akhal-Tekke tribe.
This dominance has been reinforced since independence by the fact that the last chairman of the Supreme Soviet and first President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurad Niyazov, was also an Akhal-Tekke. A clear preference for the Akhal-Tekke was evident in his post policy. Contrary to the official rhetoric of the unity of the Turkmenistan nation, a clear awareness of the primacy of tribal identities is expressed here. However, President Niyazov relied, at least in part, on members of other tribes.
President Berdimuhamedow also belongs to the Akhal-Tekke tribe and prefers them when assigning posts. In doing so, it ignores the other tribes even more clearly than its predecessor. Already during his first years in office he filled almost all positions within the government system with members of the Akhal-Tekke and disempowered the remaining members of other tribes. This is particularly evident in the oil and gas sector, which in Soviet times and under President Niyazov was largely administered by members of the southern Yomut. Over the decades, they were able to build up powerful patronage networks that President Niyazov knew how to integrate to stabilize his power. Here, too, President Berdimuhamedov implemented an achalation process that culminated in the disempowerment of the Minister for Oil and Gas Reserves.replaced by an Akhal-Tekke. As a demonstration, President Berdimuhamedow had the headquarters of the state oil and gas company Turkmennebit moved from the Balkans province (the tribal area of southern Yomut) to Ashgabat. The unambiguous preference for Akhal-Tekke has become so obvious that the Chargé d’affaires at the US embassy called him an ” Akhal-Tekke nationalist.”In this regard, the president is quoted as saying that the only true Turkmens belong to the Akhal-Tekke tribe. As a result of this policy, income from Turkmenistan gas exports is now almost exclusively distributed within Akhal-tekke’s internal patronage networks. This one-sided preference has let suppressed rivalries between the tribes break out again over decades and holds the potential for considerable danger in the future with regard to the maintenance of peace within the country.