Known for its autocratic government and large gas reserves, Turkmenistan also has a reputation as an island of stability in restive Central Asia.
Despite its gas wealth, much of Turkmenistan’s population is still impoverished. After independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 the country entered a period of isolation that has only recently begun to end.
Turkmenistan produces roughly 70 billion cubic metres of natural gas each year and about two-thirds of its exports go to Russia’s Gazprom gas monopoly.
The government has sought out gas deals with several other countries, including China and neighbouring Iran, however, to reduce its dependency on Russia.
President: Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov
Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has ruled Turkmenistan since 2007, winning two five-year terms in elections widely dismissed by international monitors as undemocratic.
Despite his authoritarian reputation, he is also viewed as a reformer, especially compared to his predecessor, Saparmyrat Niyazov – an eccentric and erratic ruler who spent the country’s gas earnings on vanity projects and renamed the months of the year after himself and his mother.
Soon after coming to power, he started reversing some of President Niyzov’s decisions: he restored pensions to more than 100,000 citizens and dismantled aspects of his predecessor’s personality cult.
But he has introduced the beginnings of his own. Already, a new mosque was named after him in 2009.
The Turkmen government has an absolute monopoly of the media. The authorities monitor media outlets, control printing presses, block websites, monitor internet use and lay down editorial policies.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says a 2013 media law which bans censorship, is a “complete fiction”. The watchdog says independent journalists work in secret, reporting for outlets based abroad.
An “atmosphere of fear” prevents reporting of negative news, says Freedom House.
The state controls internet access, which is prohibitively expensive for most citizens. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LiveJournal are blocked, as are foreign news and opposition websites. RSF lists Turkmenistan as an “Enemy of the Internet”.
Some key events in Turkmenistan’s history:
6th century BC – Area of what is now Turkmenistan forms part of the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great.
1881 – Area of present-day Turkmenistan incorporated into Russian Turkestan after Battle of Gok Tepe.
1925 – Turkmenistan becomes a fully-fledged constituent republic of the USSR. It does not gain independence until 1991.
2009 December – Pipeline opened for gas exports to China, breaking Russia’s stranglehold on Turkmenistan’s energy reserves.
2011 December – Transparency International names Turkmenistan as joint third most corrupt country in the world.
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