The size of the current population residing within Turkmenistan is once more being hotly debated, with the next countrywide census slated for a somewhat distant 2022. Strangely, the country is already being readied for the event, with perhaps such an ample length of time allowing for President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow to get his excuses in early, and to ensure the outward flow of citizens to be nipped in the bud.
When secession from the former Soviet Union had been achieved Turkmenistan’s population figure was approximately 3.7 million, which presumably just considered those who remained within its borders and not citizens who had managed to flee the overarching Soviet system.
A 20% spike in population barely half a decade after achieving independence is in my view a credible figure, which allows for repatriation from other regions of the Soviet Union of those, and their families, perhaps exiled under previous regimes, and those returning from overseas to live in a country now free to determine its own destiny. My view is though that such an influx wouldn’t immediately improve Turkmenistan’s birth rate, with many returnees potentially being of older generations.
In March 2006 and 9 months before the death of its first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s population was said to have peaked at 6.79 million, a barely believable increase in 3 million in the space of 15 years. Even allowing for the return of those in self-imposed exile or that not of their own choosing, any subsequent increase in birth rate, which, as previously mentioned would have suffered a time lag because of the age of many returnees, it is highly unlikely that Turkmenistan’s population ballooned by 45-50% between the period of secession and Niyazov’s death in 2006.
Most in the Soviet Union’s former ‘stans’ will have harboured high hopes for the perceived freedoms attached with being unyoked from Moscow, but history always suggests that being careful of what you wish for should always be factored into the initial euphoria attached to achieving independence.
The 90’s was a decade of incredible upheaval within the former Soviet Union, its constituent parts no longer ‘guided’ by an uncompromising overlord intent on, in the main, with respecting the identity of individual republics but not countenancing any insubordination towards or thoughts of independence away from Moscow. In what was a far from ideal system jobs and housing were though a given, even if one had little choice on where to live and work.
Independence quite often came at a price, not only throughout the republics but also within Russia itself. Self-determination allowed anyone with charisma and chutzpah to propel themselves forward as the political strongmen needed to stabilise now independent republics through euphoric but turbulent transitional periods. Writ large into the tacit manifestos of many would-be and eventual presidents were what they could extricate for themselves, in particular natural resources and utilities, once notionally owned by all under a specious Communist system but in actuality rigidly controlled and jealously guarded by the state. The rise of the oligarch was in many ways the back door for presidents to hive off the family silver to those from whom kickbacks would be expected. Almost overnight a system built on stringent state control became available to the highest bidder.
A self-styled charismatic political strongman, incumbent Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow has done much to live up to the archetypal image of a post-Soviet era dictator. Dressing up his unfettered whims and fancies as being for the good of the country, Arkadag* has turned parts of Turkmenistan into a theme park that nobody will ever use, quite simply because he can, at all times with the country’s chequebook in his back pocket.
Although pursuing a rather specious policy of neutrality with the wider world, Berdymukhamedow is instead isolating his country and attempting to insulate his actions from international condemnation. It is therefore with some irony that whilst the president shows off a Turkmenistan resplendent with infrastructure and facilities that only he could have conceived and brought to fruition, there is little desire to justify their need and cost to a world to be impressed, but kept at arm’s length. Whether he can see it himself, or if in fact Berdymukhamedow cannot grasp what those looking from the outside in have long since realised, is that far from making grand material statements that give the correct impression of Turkmenistan he is merely a deluded fanatic, where substance is in short supply on scratching a very Potemkin-esque surface.
It should not be forgotten that without Turkmenistan’s hydrocarbon riches that none of this would have been possible. Despite man’s inherent love of power it is unlikely that Niyazov and Berdymukhamedow, his former dentist, would have jostled for power had Turkmenistan been akin to Yemen, rather than a scaled-down United Arab Emirates, albeit without a Sovereign Wealth Fund(SWF) for when the taps eventually run dry.
With such an abuse of power and profligacy of Turkmenistan’s dwindling wealth it is hardly surprising that a more accurate figure of 5.4-6.2 million citizens has reportedly dropped to 3.6 million under the Berdymukhamedow presidency. For those that can escape, through remittance work and studying overseas the nightmare is though far from over. With assistance from state-of-the-art German surveillance equipment Turkmenistan is now able to spy on its citizens wherever they may be, in the home or university dormitory.
It is unclear, if the family’s left behind by those fleeing the country suffer the consequences, a la North Korea, but the toll on the lives of people who remain in the country and those not within the president’s select coterie from an endemic lack of basic foodstuffs and the forced labour within the country’s cotton fields is without question. The construction of expensive, white elephant stadia, a falcon-shaped airport terminal building, Jack Nicklaus-endorsed golf course and the president’s weakness for statuary are categorically not for the benefit of the Turkmen people, but the president living out his fantasies with someone else’s money.
Whilst it is perhaps naive to assume the Soviet-published figure of Turkmenistan’s population prior to independence was accurate, the numbers released from subsequent censi are more telling, if only for their obvious fabrication. There is little to be gained from inflating the size of population, unless it is to dispel facts, not rumours, that all is far from well within Turkmenistan. Should though Berdymukhamedow decide to grossly exaggerate the number of those living within his country for his own agenda, this could precipitate the construction of a fresh round of fantasy projects designed to cater for an ever-grow(n)ing population. Despite the lavish avian-influenced Ashgabat Airport this remains a ‘look but don’t touch’ facility, from where many are prevented from leaving and few encouraged to arrive. More a case of build it and they will try to leave, not come.
Pursuing a course of neutrality is in effect designed to prevent those from the outside in meddling with the affair of Turkmenistan, or to be exact those of Berdymukhamedow. It is then somewhat baffling that the president underestimates the power of Social Media and the Internet, notwithstanding the difficulty to access both within the country. On the one hand he wishes to isolate his country and prevent rightful condemnation of his administration, but at the same time cannot resist trumpeting about his latest architectural achievement, designed to impress the outside world and futilely sate his gluttonous ego.
Such are the conditions on the ground in modern day Turkmenistan that the forthcoming census, albeit two years hence, and its published findings will be given little in the way of credence. There are, after all, few if any positives for the Berdymukhamedow presidency if 30% of the population have vanished during his reign. A position of neutrality/isolationism does though prevent the accusation of foreign meddling and undermining from the outside of the census process. It is therefore expected that Turkmenistan’s depleted population will once more see a ‘rise’ in size come 2022.
*Arkadag translates as protector in the Turkmen language.
Source material and further information:
Trend News Agency: https://en.trend.az/casia/turkmenistan/3182249.html
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: http://www.rferl.org/a/how-many-people-live-in-turkmenistan-the-official-figure-is-hard-to-believe/30393686.html