Turkmenistan became independent in 1991 with the break-up of the Soviet Union. The land is mostly desert with irrigated oases to allow for agriculture. With the Garagun Desert occupying over 80 percent of the land, the urban population makes up almost half of the total 4.9 million inhabitants.
The nation is currently trying to overcome a 50 percent decline in cotton harvests, no longer holding its previous position of 10th largest cotton exporter in the world. Other issues facing Turkmenistan that make prospects for the future bleak include a poor educational system, endemic corruption and government misuse of oil and gas reserves.
Turkmenistan, despite defining itself as a secular democracy and presidential democracy, fundamentally operates as an authoritarian state. When Saparmyrat Niyazov, the ‘President for Life,’ who had dominated decision-making and consolidated state control over the judiciary, died in 2006, the first multicandidate elections were held in which participation was high. These elections were, however, rejected as they failed to meet international standards. Currently independent political activity and opposition candidates are not allowed.
A country with an authoritarian government and a tribal social structure, economic reform has been extremely cautious in Turkmenistan. There are few goals for privatisation, with the inefficient economy instead relying on cotton and natural gas exports. This has caused problems in recent years, as there has been a lack of adequate export routes for natural gas. This was exacerbated by a contract dispute with Russia, which stopped a key export route. Turkmenistan is focussing on export diversification and with new pipelines to China and Iran and the possibility of moving into the European market, which could lead to economic development. In spite of these prospects, without market-oriented reforms 30 percent of the population remain below the poverty line and unemployment is notably high at 60 percent.
Turkmenistan was recognised as permanently neutral by the United Nations in 1995 and has more recently been cooperating to transfer humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. It does, however, have a poor human rights record with discrimination against women and extensive regulations imposed on religious groups, and remains on the Tier 2 Watch List of the US State Department with regards to human trafficking.