The territory of Turkmenistan has been populated since ancient times,
as armies from one empire to another decamped on their way to more prosperous
territories. Tribes of horsebreeding Turkmen drifted into the territory
of Turkmenistan from ancient times, possibly from the Altay Mountains,
and grazed along the outskirts of the Karakum Desert into Persia, Syria,
Alexander the Great conquered the territory in the 4th century B.C.
on his way to India. One hundred fifty years later the Parthian Kingdom
took control of Turkmenistan, establishing its capital in Nisa, an area
now located in the suburbs of the modern-day capital of Ashgabat. In the
7th century A.D. Arabs conquered this region, bringing with them the Islamic
religion and incorporating the Turkmen into Middle Eastern culture. It
was around this time that the famous "Silk Road" was established as a major
trading route between Asia and Europe.
In the middle of the 11th century, the powerful Turks of the Seldjuk
Empire concentrated their strength in the territory of Turkmenistan in
an attempt to expand into Afghanistan. The empire broke down in the second
half of the 12th century, and the Turkmen lost their independence when
Genghis Khan took control of the eastern Caspian Sea region on his march
west. For the next 7 centuries, the Turkmen people lived under various
empires and fought constant intertribal wars amongst themselves.
From the 16th century on, Turkmen raiders on horseback preyed on passing
caravans, pillaging and taking prisoners for the slave trade. After kidnapping
Russians from the expanding Tsarist Empire, the Turkmen fell into trouble.
Russia sent forces to Turkmenistan, and in 1881 fighting climaxed with
the massacre of 7,000 Turkmen at the desert fortress of Geok Depe, near
modern Ashgabat; another 8,000 were killed trying to flee across the desert.
By 1894 imperial Russia had taken control of Turkmenistan. The October
Revolution of 1917 in Russia and subsequent political unrest led to the
declaration of the Turkmen Republic as one of the 15 republics of the Soviet
Union in 1924. At this time the modern borders of Turkmenistan were formed.
The Turkmen Republic was under full control of Moscow, which exploited
its raw materials resources for the purposes of the Soviet Union. Sovereignty
was only a formality, since Russia ultimately ruled all Soviet states.
Following the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union,
Turkmenistan declared its independence on October 27, 1991. Saparmurat
Niyazov became the first president of the new republic and still remains
the supreme decisionmaker. On December 28, 1999, Niyazov's term was extended
indefinitely by the Mejlis (parliament), which itself had taken office
only a week earlier in severely flawed elections that included only candidates
hand-picked by President Niyazov. Independent political activity is not
allowed in Turkmenistan, and no opposition candidates are allowed. The
Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT) is the only legal political party.
Political gatherings are illegal unless government sanctioned, and the
citizens of Turkmenistan do not have the means to change their government
While the constitution provides for freedom of the press, there is virtually
no freedom of the press or of association. The government has full control
of all media and has recently moved to restrict foreign newspapers. International
satellite TV is available. On November 25, 2002, an armed attack against
President Niyazov's motorcade was made. The Government of Turkmenistan
moved quickly against perceived sources of opposition. There were widespread
reports of human rights abuses committed by officials investigating the
attack, including torture and punishment of families of the accused. The
Government of Turkmenistan denied the charges, but refused to allow independent
observers at trials or to accept a mandatory OSCE fact-finding mission.
It has instituted new measures to stifle dissent and limit contact with
the outside world.