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National Identity and Political Legitimacy in Turkmenistan*

  • Shahram Akbarzadeh


This paper traces political events and modes of generating legitimacy in Turkmenistan since the Soviet collapse. The emphasis here is on state policies and social movements that relate to “nation building” for their contribution to political legitimacy. The extent of nation-building success is not an immediate subject of inquiry, for this paper is not about public perception and bottom-up response to state policies, but the reverse. It is certain that state-sponsored proclamations and nationalist ideas espoused by the intelligentsia do not always find resonance among the national population at large. However, attention given to social movements in this paper may compensate for this shortcoming in a small way. It must be stated that social movements in Turkmenistan, and Central Asia, as a whole, have been top heavy. They were principally initiated and steered by the urbanized intelligentsia. The extent of mass involvement in such movements is suspect and hard to gauge.



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1. For example Ak-Mukhammed Velsapar, a writer and a leading member of Agzybirlik, wrote a damning article on the high infant mortality rate in Turkmenistan and demanded immediate measures to improve general health conditions in the republic, “Tarn, gde ne vyrastet posokh …” [The place where nothing grows], Moskovskie Novosti , 8 April 1990.

2. In an underground publication, Agzybirlik committed itself to the Muslim traditions of Turkmenistan in its program (III. Civic Responsibilities, article 5), “Agzybirlik” Khalq Khereketi (Programma ve buzgunnama) [“Agzybirlik” Popular Movement—program and aims] (Ashgabat, 1991).

3. Konstitutsiya Turkmenistana , (Ashgabat: RIPO, 1992).

4. Database compiled for the project Leadership Politics in the Post-Communist Transition , ARC-funded project, La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia, 19931996.

5. Turkmenskaya Iskra , 23 June 1992, p. 1.

6. Turkmenskaya Iskra , 4 January 1994, p. 2.

7. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Daily Digest , 17 January 1994.

8. “Okonchatel'noe reshenie primet s'ezd” [Final decision will be taken by the congress], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 20 November 1991, p. 1.

9. Turkmenskaya Iskra , 16 December 1991, p. 1.

10. Interview with Ugulkurban Azimova, secretary of the DPT, Ashgabat on 8 August 1995; Onjuk Musaev (first secretary of the DPT) believes that “45 deputies to the Mejlis (95%) are DPT members.” See “Nash serdar—znamya Turkmenistana” [Our leader is the banner of Turkmenistan], Turkmenskaya Iskra, 15 February 1995, p. 2.

11. “Territoriya Geok-Tepinskoi kreposti-zapovednaya zona” [The territory of Gok-tepe fortress is a protected zone], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 15 January 1992, p. 1.

12. Turkmenskaya Iskra , 24 January 1994, p. 2.

13. Turkmenskaya Iskra , 21 February 1994, p. 2.

14. “Aktual'nyi dialog: Saparmurat Turkmenbashi—chitateli ’Turkmenskoi iskry”‘ [Current dialogue: Saparmurat Turkmenbashi is a reader of Turkmenskaya Iskra], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 22 December 1994, p. 1.

15. “Zasedanie kabineta Ministrov Turkmenistana” [Meeting of the cabinet of Ministers of Turkmenistan], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 28 February 1995, p. 1; “Zerno i produkty iz Rossii” [Grain and goods from Russia], Turkmenskaya Iskra, 5 May 1995, p. 1.

16. Turkmenskaya Iskra , 26 May 1992, p. 1; see presidential decree: Ukaz ob ustanovlenii ezhegodnogo prazdnika “Den” vozrozhdeniya i edinstva' [Decree on the establishment of the annual holiday “Day” of revival and unity].

17. Turkmenskaya Iskra , 5 March 1994, p. 1.

18. “Slovo Prezidenta- zakon” [President's word is the law], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 25 July 1994, p. 1.

19. Interview with Sultan-Murat Ataev, head of organization and political work of the Politsoviet of the DPT, Ashgabat, 9 August 1995.

20. “Vsenarodnyi prazdnik v Turkmenistane” [All-peoples' holiday in Turkmenistan], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 19 February 1994, p. 2.

21. “Zakon ob okhrane pamyatnikov istorii i kul'tury Turkmenistana” [Law on the protection of the historical and cultural monuments of Turkmenistan], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 6 March 1992, p. 1.

22. Konstitutsiya Turkmenistana , (Ashgabat: RIPO, 1992).

23. Interview with Onjuk Musaev, first secretary of the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, 26 October 1992.

24. N. Dovgoryat, “Glavnoe-stabil'nost' i mir” [The main issue is stability and peace], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 7 July 1992, p. 1.

25. “Ukaz Prezidenta Turkmenistana o sozyve khalk maslakhaty” [Decree of President of Turkmenistan on the convention of khalq maslehaty], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 23 June 1992, p. 1.

26. Interview with Vladimir Kadyrov, chairman of the Mejlis Committee on Legislation, Ashgabat, 8 August 1995.

27. Interview with Sultan-Murat Ataev, member of the Polit-soviet of the DPT, Ashgabat, 9 August 1995.

28. “Obrashchenie stareishin Turkmenistana—uchastnikov 5-go Maslakhata stareishin k narodu Turkmenistana” [Appeal of elders of Turkmenistan, participanting in the 5th assembly of elders, to the people of Turkmenistan], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 13 September 1994, p. 1.

29. Turkmenskaya Iskra , 17 January 1994, p. 1.

30. “Sostav natsional'nogo soveta Dvizheniya natsional'nogo vozrozhdeniya” [Composition of the national council of the Movement for national revival], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 19 January 1994, p. 1.

31. “Postanovlenie o sozdanii natsional'nogo upravleniya po okhrane, izuchaniyu i restavratsii pamyatnikov istorii i kul'tury respublika Turkmenistana” [Resolution about the formation of national management for the protection, study and preservation of historical and cultural monuments in the republic of Turkmenistan], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 30 July 1994, p. 1.

32. “Na zemle ottsov” [On the land of our fathers], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 26 October 1991, p. 1.

33. Kh. Ataev, Turkmeny zarubezhnogo vostoka [Turkmens of foreign east] (Ashgabat: “Turkmenistan”, 1993); Marat Durdyev and Shokhrat Kadyrov, Turkmeny mira [Turkmens of the world] (Ashgabat: Kharp, 1991); Marat Durdyev, Turkmeny kitaya [Turkmens of China] (Ashgabat: Turkmenskaya Akhaltekinskaya Assotsiatsiya, 1992); Turkmeny Tsenral'noi Azii [Turkmens of Central Asia] (Ashgabat: Yurt, 1993).

34. Interview with Mukhammet Aidogdyev, deputy head of the World Turkmen Humanitarian Association, Ashgabat, 9 August 1995.

35. Turkmenskaya Iskra , 11 June 1992, p. 1.

36. Database compiled for the project Leadership Politics in the Post-Communist Transition , (ARC funded project, La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia, 19931996.

37. “Saparmurat Turkmenbashi: ’Kazhdyi na svoem rabochem meste dolzhen trudit'sya prilezhno, chestno”‘ [Saparmurat Turkmenbashi: “Everyone at one's workplace must toil diligently, honestly”], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 13 December 1994, p. 1.

38. K. Ballyev and K. Kakabaev, “Bol'shoi gosudarstvennyi sovet” [The great government council], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 1 August 1994, p. 1.

39. “S velikoi gordost'yu za lyubimuyu Rodinu” [With great pride for our beloved motherland], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 11 November 1994, p. 1.

40. “Informatsionnoe soobshchenie o zasedanii Medzhlisa Turkmenistana” [Information communication about the meeting of the Mejlis of Turkmenistan], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 24 September 1994, p. 1.

41. “Obrashchenie stareishin Turkmenistana—uchastnikov 5-go Maslakhata stareishin k narodu Turkmenistana” [Appeal of elders of Turkmenistan—participants in the 5th assembly of elders to the people of Turkmenistan], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 13 September 1994, p. 1.

42. See for example a production by the Turkmen Academy of Sciences, A. Karryev et al., Istoriya Turkmenistana [History of Turkmenistan] (Ashkhabad: Izdatel'stvo Turkmenistan, 1966).

43. The Parthian empire (second century BC to third century AD) extended from the Amudarya River in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south and incorporated most of present-day Afghanistan and eastern Anatolia. This empire was established by Aryan nomads in the province of Parthia. They spoke Argan, an Indo-European language. The ethnological roots of the Turkic population of the present-day Turkmenistan are not certain. But most scholars assume a link between the Turkic tribes of Mongolia, collectively known as Oghuz, in the fifth century and the Oghuz tribes that began to move down to the steppeland of present-day Turkmenistan in the sixth century and onwards. However, the Oghuz of Turkmenistan may not be linear descendants of the Mongolian Oghuz. For detailed studies see Denis Sinor, The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Edgar Knobloch, Beyond the Oxus: Archaeology, Arts and Architecture (London: Ernest Benn, 1972); William McGovern, Early Empires of Central Asia (Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 1939).

44. See Turkmenskaya Iskra, 1 , 8, 12 and 13 July 1994; Kh. Yusupov, “Nekropol' Khorezmshakhov” [Necropolis of Khorezmshahids], Turkmenskaya Iskra, 5 September 1994, p. 2.

45. Burkhanov, Albert, “Nisa. Vstrecha tsvilizatsii” [Nisa. The meeting place of civilizations], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 11 July 1994, p. 2.

46. Durdyev, Marat, “Parfyanskaya Nisa” [Parthian Nisa], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 16, 30 January, 6, 13 March, 24 April and 15 May 1995, p. 2.

47. Durdyev, Marat, Turkmeny (Ashkhabad: Kharp, 1991).

48. Interview with Marat Durdyev, Ashgabat, 10 August 1995.

49. Marat Durdyev rejects the Oghuz origin of Turkmens and traces Turkmens to the Iranian people of Parthia, diluted through the years by waves of nomadic migration from the east; Ibid. For a critique of his views see David Christian, “Marat Durdyiev and Turkmen Nationalism”, in Aleksandar Pavkovic et al., eds, Nationalism and Postcommunism (Sydney: Dartmouth, 1995).

50. Turkmenbashi, Saparmurat, Address to the Peoples of Turkmenistan, 1994 , p. 37.

51. Interview with Uraz-Fulat Akaev, History Institute of the Turkmen Academy of Sciences, Ashgabat, 7 August 1995.

52. Interview with historians Annadurdi Orazov and Ya. Orazklychev at the Institute of History, Turkmen Academy of Sciences, Ashgabat, 3 August 1995.

53. Gapurov, Muhammadnazar, first secretary of the CPT, 1969–1985, wrote about the close relationship between Russians and Turkmens, paying homage to Russians who brought industry and “progressive thought” to Turkmens. He mentioned nothing about the battle of Gok-tepe. Polveka v sem'e edinoi [Half a century in a united family] (Ashkhabad: Izdatel'stvo Turkmenistan, 1974), p. 38.

54. Interview with Ya. Orazklychev, head of the Department of Independence and History, Ashgabat, 3 August 1995.

55. N. Aleksanyants, “Istoriya Turkmenistana: novyi vzglyad” [History of Turkmenistan: new perspective], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 3 December 1994, p. 2.

56. Interview with Seyitniyaz Atayev, Chairman of Council for Veterans of War and Labour in Turkmenistan and member of Yaqshular Maslehaty , Ashgabat, 10 August 1995.

57. Shokhrat Kadyrov argues that administrative boundaries often correspond with tribal “territory,” hence: the Akhal-Teke tribe in the Ashgabat velayat; the Mary-Teke in the Mary velayat; the western Yumot in the Krasnovodsk velayat; the northern Yumot in the Tashauz velayat; and the Ersari in the Charjou velayat. See his Turkmenistan v XX veke (probely i problemy) [Turkmenistan in the 20th century—deficiencies and problems] (Bergen, Norway, 1996), p. 111.

58. Interview with Shokhrat Kadyrov, independent ethnographer and author, Ashgabat, 27 October 1992.

59. Turkmenbashi, Saparmurat, Address to the Peoples of Turkmenistan, 1994 , p. 6.

60. Interview with Seyitniyaz Atayev, 10 August 1995.

61. Turkmenskaya Iskra , 4 April 1994, p. 2.

62. Gapurov, M., “Ideologicheskuyu rabotu-na uroven' sovremennykh trebovanii partii” [Ideological work is on the level of contemporary demands of the party], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 3 April 1973, pp. 12.

63. President Niyazov described his attitude to Islam and secularism. Thus: “Islam defines social life in Turkmenistan. Yes, the great majority of Turkmens are Muslims. But Islam is not raised to the level of state politics. Church and state are separate in Turkmenistan.” “Na ‘Mersedese’ cherez barkhany ne proidesh”' [A Mercedes cannot drive over sand-hills], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 5 November 1992, p. 2.

64. The following month the Russian-language republican daily carried a full-page summary on the importance of haj in Islam. “Na svyashchennoi zemle mekki i mediny” [On the holy land of Mecca and Medina], Turkmenskaya Iskra, 29 May 1992, p. 4.

65. Turkmenskaya Iskra , 26 May 1992, p. 1.

66. “Kurban bairam-prazdnik narodnyi” [Kurban bairam is the people's holiday], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 14 June 1992, p. 1.

67. Kurbanova, A., “Ot vorot mira- k domu soglasiya” [From the gates of peace to the house of consensus], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 22 June 1992, p. 2.

68. Interview with Allamurat Muradov, manager of Gengesh for Religious Affairs attached to the Office of the President, Ashgabat, 7 August 1995.

69. “Prezident Turkmenistana prinyal uchastie v otkrytii novoi mecheti” [President of Turkmenistan took part in the opening of a new mosque], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 25 October 1994, p. 1.

70. “Soveshchanie kaziata Turkmenistana” [Meeting of the kaziyat of Turkmenistan], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 3 February 1994, p. 1.

71. Interview with Allamurat Muradov, Ashgabat, 7 August 1995.

72. Oveznepesov, S. “Svobodny v vybore religii” [Freedom in the choice of religion], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 3 June 1995, p. 2.

73. “Zaregistrirovan Kaziat” [Kaziyat registered], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 3 June 1992, p. 1.

74. Turkmenskaya Iskra , 3 June 1992, p. 1.

75. “Turkmenistan ne budet ni kommunisticheskim, ni islamskim” [Turkmenistan will not be Communist, nor Islamic], Turkmenskaya Iskra , 24 February 1992, p. 1.

76. Turkmenskaya Iskra , 21 April 1994, p. 1.

77. Turkmenskaya Iskra , 22 June 1995, p. 1.

78. For Ernest Gellner's account of the predisposition of republican leaders to nationalism in the wake of the Soviet collapse, see “Nationalism in the Vacuum”, in Alexander J. Motyl, ed., Thinking Theoritically about Soviet Nationalities (New York: Columbia, 1995).

The author wishes to thank John Miller, Reader in Politics at La Trobe University, for his thoughtful and stimulating comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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National Identity and Political Legitimacy in Turkmenistan*

  • Shahram Akbarzadeh


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