What is the first thought that comes to your mind when you hear the word Turkmenistan? Is it “Gee, I don’t even know where it is”? Or if you know the location do you have questions? “Does your country harbor terrorists? Does you country have roads? Are all women covered in your country? Does your country chop off peoples’ hands for robbery?”
The history of Turkmenistan indicates that the Turkmens were nomadic people who lived on their own, never trying to conquer any land. In the 8th century Turkmens were forced to accept Islam by the Arabs. The Muslim influence lasted till the late 18th century. In the early 19th century Russians invaded the Turkmen lands, and Turkmens were forced to join the Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics. Then in 1925 Turkmens formed the Republic of Turkmenistan. It is bordered on the south by Afghanistan and Iran, on the north by Kazakhstan, on the northeast by Uzbekistan, and on the West by the Caspian Sea.
At present it is an independent and neutral country. It has a population of less than 5 million, and a land size slightly large than California. It is oil rich country with about 100 trillion cubic meters of oil reserves, and it’s a 10th largest cotton producer in the world.
During my stay in Colorado, I’ve noticed that very few people know about my country. I’ve witnessed quite often that about people I talk to have misconceptions about Turkmenistan. Probably about 80% of the people I’ve talked to have some kind of misconception. The most common misconception they have is viewing Turkmenistan as a Muslim state. Whenever I tell them about the location of Turkmenistan, they start thinking of a Muslim ruled state; a state that doesn’t allow women to dress openly, that chops off peoples’ hands for robbery. There are many questions they might want to ask of a person representing an uncivilized Muslim state. But Turkmenistan is completely different
from what most people think. Even though Turkmens were forced to receive Islam as their primary religion, they didn’t fight for Islam. The respected elders of the Turkmen community tried to inspire people to defend their country, rather than defend their religion. In their poems they talked about Heaven as something that no one has seen, or been inside, and that they would rather stay on earth instead of going to Heaven. Another example of this could be a Turkmen mythical story, almost like of venerable Bede’s “Beowulf”. But unlike Bede’s writing in which he describes monster Grendel as something God has sent, the Turkmen story called “Gorogly (son of the grave)” has no mention of a God who is in charge of everything that is happening on earth. It does have some creatures like dragons and monsters with one eye. The main point of the story is not to inspire people to believe in God, but to awaken their patriotic feelings.
On the other hand I would be wrong to say Turkmenistan doesn’t interact with its neighbors. We have 125 diplomatic missions abroad including 2 consulates in Afghanistan. We import gas and electricity to Iran and Afghanistan. All these relationships are based on mutual economic benefits only. Turkmenistan receives some help in training of its military personnel from Pakistan. The United Nations allows this type of basic training for a neutral country. The training is meant only for defense of a country, not an attack or spying on any country.
Another misconception, mainly held by people with a higher level of awareness about current events in the area, is that Turkmenistan doesn’t allow the U. S. military to use its air space or territory for retaliation against Afghanistan, even though Turkmenistan would be the second best place to carry out U. S. attacks, after Pakistan. The rules set by United Nations on neutrality status don’t allow Turkmenistan’s territory to be used for military actions. It can only be used for humanitarian aid. Turkmenistan is allowing humanitarian aid to pass through its territory, it is allowing airplanes of humanitarian aid to land and take off from its airport.
Another misconception that I have a hard time explaining is that Turkmenistan is not Russia, even though it used to be part of the Soviet Union for 70 years. When I tell people that Turkmenistan was part of the Soviet Union, they still think of Turkmenistan as Russia, and therefore I am usually asked a questions that they would ask a native Russian. “Does your country have nuclear bombs? Why were you guys making nuclear weapons against the United States? Were your parents Communists?” I have to explain that Turkmenistan doesn’t have any nuclear weapons because Russia reclaimed all of its nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In answer to the question of whether my parents were communists or not, I just say that the all people in the Soviet Union were communist, and citizens of that country had no other choice but to be one. People were prosecuted for having different ideas or beliefs about the government during the Soviet era. Of course the Soviet Union made nuclear weapons against United States, because the United States built the same weapons against the Soviet Union. Was the United States the biggest enemy of the Soviet Union, or was it the other way around? Or was it both ways at once? In the Cold War, the KGB of the Soviet Union and the CIA of the United States both spied on each other, and unfortunately the practice is still continuing. But this time the practice is just between Russia and the United States. As a neutral country Turkmenistan is not involved in it. The United Nations knows all the military power Turkmenistan has. It would be naive to believe that neither the United States nor Russia have spies in Turkmenistan, but it seems to me very unlikely that Turkmenistan has spies in the United States. Of course that is only my own opinion, based largely on the fact that I’m not a spy myself. (Only a few people have asked me whether I am, but sometimes I think more people wonder about it.)
Turkmenistan is a country with an annual growth of 9% in the Gross Domestic Product over the past 10 years. Economically Turkmenistan still relies heavily on Russia because of the industry of gas exportation. The only gas pipelines that were built during the Soviet era passed through Russia, and Turkmenistan has to rely only on those pipelines now. But if the war in Afghanistan will stop, a new pipeline will be built through Afghanistan to Europe. This pipeline would be the most beneficial for Turkmenistan.