Saturday, May 16, 2020

Tribalism Undermining Stability in Turkmenistan, Saparmuradov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 14 – Under the totalitarian rule of Gubanguly Berdimuhamedow, there is no opposition in Turkmenistan at the present time, Turkmen émigré Maksat Saparmuradov says; but there is something that constitutes a far greater danger the regime: tribalism and the resentment of other family groups to the Teke tribe the current regime is based on.

            And those tribal divisions, in combination with general dissatisfaction with the current regime because of increasing poverty and even hunger, are reducing the oppositions the current president has to maintain himself and his family and tribe in power into the future, the opposition leader says (

            The current president like his predecessor is a Teke, but “here is it important to understand that the Turkmens do not have a nationality: this is a Soviet definition. The Turkmens are a nation of tribes.”  Prior to 1917, “each Turkmen tribe had its own space, its own territory, and violations of the borders of others occurred only through attacks,” Saparmuradov says.

            “With the establishment of Soviet  power,” these geographic borders began to disappear, but the identities of the members of the tribes did not lessen, at least in part because Moscow followed the tradition of appointing a member of one tribe to head the republic and then allowing him to build his power by using only members of his group. That tradition has continued.

            According to the émigré leader, “’the nation of tribes’ consists of sub-ethnos groups so different from one another that it is possible to speak about each of them in principle as a small independent ‘people.’” Preventing them from acting on those identities explains Ashgabat’s authoritarianism but it also explains why changes will eventually come and be quite radical.

            He points out that there are “about 30 tribes” which unite within themselves “more than 5,000 family groups.” The Teke are only one, and because of Ashgabat’s policies of supporting that tribe, others are angry and want change. The big question now is whether enough tribes can come together to challenge the Teke and thus the current regime.

            In the worst case, Saparmuradov suggests, this could lead to even harsher repression to save the current regime, its replacement by representatives of another tribe prepared to rule in the same way over all the others, or the disintegration of the country into pre-existing tribal areas of one kind or another.

But there is also a chance that with the establishment of a parliamentary form of government, the various tribes could lead to work together, completing the task of forming a Turkmen nation rather than freezing the country for another generation into one in which the members of one tribe rule over all the rest.
            Because the situation in Turkmenistan is so dire that even some members of Berdimuhamedow are worried (туркменистан-на-горизонте-еще-более-трудные-времена), a tribe-driven change in the country may be far closer than many people there or analysts elsewhere imagine or want.

            And the prospects that it could make the situation worse rather than better at least in the short term are real, given that, again according to Saparmuradov, Afghan and Islamist groups are recruiting Turkmen immigrant workers in Turkey who are now without jobs (

            At least some of these people may soon return home and become foot soldiers for one or another tribe in opposition to the Berdimuhamedov regime, increasing the likelihood of both repression and collapse in the most closed off country in the post-Soviet space. 

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