Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Overview: Turkmenistan’s government nominally has three independent branches. However, after winning an uncontested presidential election in 1992 President Saparmurad Niyazov effectively dominated governance in all branches and at all levels until his death in late 2006. Political opposition reportedly is nearly non-existent. Harsh, arbitrary punishment of administrative “mistakes” and unforeseen shifts in top government positions have discouraged competent individuals from seeking government appointments.

Executive Branch: The sudden death of Saparmurad Niyazov in December 2006 left no mechanism or viable candidates to replace a leader who for 15 years had monopolized every phase of executive power in his country’s government. However, an ad hoc constitutional amendment allowed Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, an obscure former dentist, to run in and win a special presidential election in February 2007. Akmurad Redzhepov, head of Niyazov’s security service, reportedly was the power behind the new regime. The constitution of 1992 calls for the president to be elected directly to a maximum of two five-year terms. However, since the parliament named him president for life in 1999, Niyazov no longer was required to stand for re-election. He also sat as head of government (prime minister, heading the Council of Ministers), commander of the armed forces, and chairman of the parliament. Niyazov appointed all members of the Council of Ministers and national judiciary, as well as chief executives of local and regional jurisdictions. In 2006 the Council of Ministers, which is entrusted with day-to-day governance, included 21 ministers and the chairman of the Central Bank. The only ministries with significant power were those of defense, national security, and justice, all of which are important instruments of domestic repression or national security. A Council of Elders, including representatives of Turkmenistan’s five tribal confederations, nominally provides advice to the president.

Legislative Branch: After the parliamentary elections of 1999, the Majlis (parliament) received nominal new powers, including a mandate to form committees examining a wide range of public policies. However, because all members of that body were from Niyazov’s party, this mandate was meaningless, and the Majlis has been a rubber-stamp body. One-party Majlis elections also were held in 2004. In 2003 an arbitrarily ratified constitutional amendment effectively replaced the Majlis as the chief legislative body with the Khalk Maslakhaty (National Council), a 2,507-member, unicameral body that previously had exercised vague executive, judicial, and legislative powers. Only 65 of that body’s members are popularly elected; the remainder are ex officio members or are appointed by the president, who also is presiding officer. The Khalk Maslakhaty, which now sits continuously, received the power to dissolve the Majlis and to make constitutional law. After the death of Niyazov, the Khalk Maslakhaty nominated the six candidates eligible for election as the new president.

Judicial Branch: The only national court is the Supreme Court, whose 22 members are appointed by the president without legislative review to five-year terms. The president also has the authority to dismiss any judge. There is no constitutional court.

Administrative Divisions: Turkmenistan is divided into five provinces, which in turn are divided into a total of 50 districts. The city of Ashgabat has the status of a province.

Provincial and Local Government: Governors of the provinces are appointed by the president. District heads, known as hekims, are appointed by the governors. Local and provincial councils are elected directly. Although the districts send representatives to the Khalk Maslakhaty, they have no power because of the dominance of the president over that body. Continuing a long-standing trend of arbitrary dismissals, in 2006 President Niyazov replaced all five provincial governors, citing recent agricultural failures.

Judicial and Legal System: Although the constitution calls for an independent judiciary, in practice the judicial branch is under the control of the president because of his authority to appoint and dismiss judges. Below the national level are five provincial courts and a separate court for the city of Ashgabat. Within the provinces are a total of 61 district and city courts. Civilian courts also hear criminal cases against members of the military. The decisions of lower courts may be appealed at the next level. The procurator’s office conducts all criminal investigations. Although the constitution states the right to counsel, few lawyers are available to represent defendants.

Electoral System: Elections nominally are organized by the Central Election Commission, a rubber-stamp organization whose members are named by the Khalk Maslakhaty. In the presidential election of 1992, no opposition candidates were allowed to stand; in 1997 the presidential election was canceled by referendum; and in 1999 the parliament declared Niyazov president for life. Nevertheless, Niyazov had promised a new presidential election by 2010, in which he would not run. In the local elections of 2003 and 2006, all candidates were nominated by Niyazov’s administration or by the Ministry of National Security. In February 2007, a special election chose a successor to Niyazov.

Political Parties: The only legal party is the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, which evolved from the Soviet-era Communist Party of Turkmenistan. Because of Niyazov’s complete dominance of political life, the Democratic Party had little significance. The two major opposition parties were forced into exile in the early 1990s. In the mid- and late 1990s, some large-scale protests were stimulated by specific events. Some small underground political groups exist in Turkmenistan, and in 2003 four opposition parties in exile formed the Union of Democratic Forces, which is based in Vienna. The National Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan remained in opposition after the arrest of its leader, Boris Shikhmuradov, for complicity in the 2002 assassination attempt on the president.

Mass Media: The Niyazov regime concentrated heavily on gaining full control of the media. The government funds nearly all newspapers, and criticism of the president is absolutely forbidden. State licensing policy effectively eliminates all outlets not reflecting official views. To avoid reprisal, domestic and foreign journalists engage in self-censorship. In 2003 the newspapers with the largest circulation were Adalat (Justice), Mugallymlar gazeti (Teacher’s Newspaper), Neytral’nyy Turkmenistan (Neutral Turkmenistan), Turkmenistan, and Vatan (Fatherland). Most newspapers appear weekly or three times weekly. The only domestic news agency is the Turkmen State News Service; the Anadolu Agency of Turkey maintains an office in Ashgabat. Broadcasting is under the full control of the National Television and Radio Company of Turkmenistan, which operates four national television channels. No recent information on radio stations is available.

Foreign Relations: The strict neutrality policy of the Niyazov regime limited Turkmenistan’s foreign relations except when natural gas and oil were concerned. Increased Western attention to the region following the September 11, 2001, attacks has not appreciably reduced Turkmenistan’s isolation. Because the main prerequisite for foreign relations has been the maintenance of primary routes and markets for fuel exports, Russia and Ukraine are important partners. In the early 2000s, Belarus and Turkey also established significant trading relationships with Turkmenistan. Despite Iran’s international isolation, Turkmenistani policy makers have seen that country as an important partner and counterweight to Russia. Relations with Azerbaijan are strained because of differing approaches to ownership of Caspian Sea resources, and Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have long-standing differences over their respective treatment of the other country’s minority populations and over Uzbekistan’s moves toward regional dominance. Relations with Afghanistan have gained importance in the early 2000s with the prospect of a trans-Afghan pipeline moving Turkmenistani gas to markets in India and Pakistan. After September 11, Turkmenistan offered humanitarian but not military aid to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, rejecting what was considered a good opportunity to expand U.S. relations. Beginning in 2005, China and Turkmenistan intensified their economic, cultural, and geopolitical relationship, most notably with new agreements in the natural gas sector. China has supported Turkmenistan’s policy of neutrality on international issues. Turkmenistan’s political climate and human rights record have discouraged Western countries from seeking new relations.

Membership in International Organizations: Turkmenistan is a member of the following international organizations: the Asian Development Bank, Commonwealth of Independent States, Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Industrial Development Bank, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Finance Corporation, International Labour Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Organization for Migration (observer status), International Telecommunication Union, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Partnership for Peace (of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), United Nations, United Nations Committee on Trade and Development, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Universal Postal Union, World Customs Organization, World Federation of Trade Unions, and World Health Organization.

Major International Treaties: Among the multilateral treaties to which Turkmenistan is a signatory are the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, Geneva Conventions (1949), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (including the Kyoto Protocol).


Armed Forces Overview: When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Turkmenistan inherited the largest armed force in Central Asia. However, since that time neutrality and isolationism have dominated Turkmenistan’s defense doctrine, and the armed forces have been neglected. After a gradual withdrawal of Russian commanders from Turkmenistani units in the 1990s, no Russian or other foreign troops remain in Turkmenistan. The armed forces depend on a high percentage of increasingly outmoded, Soviet-era equipment, however; in the 1990s, Russia provided re-supply of some military matériel. In 2006 the army had about 21,000 active personnel, the air force had 4,300, and the navy had 700. A coast guard has been in the planning stage since the mid-1990s. The military is believed to be a very corrupt organization.

Foreign Military Relations: A 1992 bilateral treaty named Russia as guarantor of Turkmenistan’s security and provided for command of the armed forces to gradually shift from Russian to Turkmenistani officers. That process concluded with the withdrawal of the last Russian border forces in 1999. In a move to balance Russian influence, Turkmenistan established an agreement for limited military cooperation with China in 1999. To maintain its neutrality, Turkmenistan consistently has refused to join multilateral military groupings of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), although it participates in the Caspian Sea Flotilla with Russian and Kazakhstani naval forces. In late 2001, Turkmenistan allowed the passage of humanitarian but not military supplies for the U.S. campaign in neighboring Afghanistan. In the early 2000s, the United States provided equipment and training to Turkmenistani border guard personnel.

External Threat: Although relations with neighboring Uzbekistan are strained, in 2006 Turkmenistan was under no credible military threat.

Defense Budget: In the early 2000s, Turkmenistan made significant increases in annual defense expenditures. Between 2003 and 2005, the defense budget increased from US$83 million to US$173 million.

Major Military Units: In 2006 Turkmenistan’s army, posted in five military districts, had three active motorized rifle divisions, one artillery brigade, one multiple rocket launcher regiment, one antitank regiment, one engineer regiment, two surface-to-air missile brigades, and one independent air assault battalion. The air force had two aviation squadrons and one transport squadron. A small naval base operated from Turkmenbashi.

Major Military Equipment: In 2006 much of Turkmenistan’s military equipment was Soviet-era matériel that was in storage. The army had 702 main battle tanks, 170 reconnaissance vehicles, 942 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 829 armored personnel carriers, 269 pieces of towed artillery, 40 pieces of self-propelled artillery, 97 mortars, 65 multiple rocket launchers, 100 antitank guided weapons, 72 antitank guns, and 70 antiaircraft guns. The air force had 89 fighter planes active, 200 fighter planes in storage, and 50 surface-to-air missiles. The naval force on the Caspian Sea had five boats.

Military Service: Men are eligible for conscription at age 18. The period of active service is 24 months. Although Turkmenistan announced plans to end conscription in 2005, compulsory military service has proved an efficient way of limiting youth unemployment. Bribery of draft officials is common.

Paramilitary Forces: Turkmenistan has three types of paramilitary forces: the border guard, the national guard, and the internal troops of the Ministry of National Security. The number of personnel in each is not known. Three new border guard units were formed in 2001.

Foreign Military Forces: No foreign military forces were stationed in Turkmenistan in 2006.

Military Forces Abroad: No Turkmenistani military personnel were stationed abroad in 2006.

Police: The criminal justice system of Turkmenistan essentially retains the structure of the Soviet system. The Ministry of National Security has most of the same functions as the Soviet-era Committee for State Security (KGB). The chief responsibility of security forces is to ensure that the government remains in power, using whatever social controls and repressive measures are necessary. The Ministry of Internal Affairs directs the operations of police departments, which cooperate closely with the forces of the Ministry of National Security on matters determined to affect national security. Personnel numbers for the police and security forces are not known.

Internal Threat: In the early 2000s, the volume of narcotics trafficking, mainly in heroin, from Afghanistan through Turkmenistan increased significantly, in part because Turkmenistan’s long borders are poorly controlled. Opposition groups in exile accused the Niyazov government and its Ministry of National Security of involvement in arms and drug trafficking operations, which are known to rely on the corruption of local officials and police. The presence of narcotics also has increased the incidence of related crimes and drug addiction. Turkmenistan has a low rate of violent crime, but in the early 2000s common street crime increased.

Terrorism: Although the government has used the threat of terrorism to justify repressive policies, there is no record of a terrorist presence or of terrorist acts committed in Turkmenistan.

Human Rights: Turkmenistan’s prisons are badly overcrowded, and disease, particularly tuberculosis, is rampant. Detainees and prisoners frequently are tortured. The only political party allowed to register with the government is the ruling Democratic Party, and authorities do not grant permits for public assemblies. In 2003 a new law required that all associations register with the Ministry of Justice. That law also prohibits the operation of unregistered public associations and requires that all foreign assistance be registered with the Ministry of Justice. In 2003 a new law on religion added restrictions on religious practice and criminalized unregistered religious activity. Even before the new law, only Islam and Russian Orthodoxy had status as registered religions. During the Niyazov regime, all Muslim religious ceremonies were obligated to recognize Niyazov and quote from his spiritual code, Ruhnama, which had equal status with the Quran. Raids have shut down worship services of Protestant groups, Shia Muslims, the Armenian Apostolic Church, Bah’ai Muslims, Jews, and other groups.

Due process, nominally guaranteed by the constitution, rarely is observed, and few defense lawyers are available. No warrant is required for an arrest. In 2002 a wave of political repression, including further negligence with regard to fair-trial standards, followed an alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov. In 2003 a new treason law interpreted a wide variety of activities as punishable by life in prison. The state controls publishing and broadcasting licenses, and the Niyazov administration is the sole source of information about government activity. In 2004 two new monitoring agencies further extended government media control, and journalists have been arrested or beaten.

Index for Turkmenistan:
Overview | Government


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