Turkmenistan's Journey: Nomadic Roots to Neutrality Policy

Turkmenistan's Journey: Nomadic Roots to Neutrality Policy
Image Source: Google, Image By: Wikimedia Commons

Turkmenistan is a country in Central Asia, surrounded by Kazakhstan to the northwest, Uzbekistan to the north, east, and northeast, Afghanistan to the southeast, Iran to the south and southwest, and the Caspian Sea to the west. Turkmenistan has around seven million people, making it one of the least populated countries in Asia. Turkmenistan boasts some of the world's largest natural gas reserves, representing 5.51% of the global total. On September 27, Turkmenistan celebrates its Independence Day, and on December 12, 1995, it was recognized as a permanently neutral State by the UN General Assembly.

Turkmenistan has a long history of being a crossroads for different empires and cultures. Merv, an ancient city in Central Asia, was once among the largest cities globally, a crucial stop on the Silk Road, and a significant city in the Islamic world. It became part of the Russian Empire in 1881, and later, in 1925, a constituent republic of the Soviet Union. It became independent in 1991 after the Soviet Union dissolved.

However, Turkmenistan faces criticism for its restricted media freedoms and the establishment of democracy in the country. It is known for having the world's fifth-largest natural gas reserves. For many years, the government provided its citizens with free electricity, water, and natural gas. Turkmenistan is one of six independent Turkic states, with the majority of its land covered by the Karakum Desert. Additionally, it holds observer status within the Organisation of Turkic States and the Türksoy community.

The Turkmen Legacy: Tracing Back to Nomadic Oghuz Tribes

According to historical accounts, the Turkmen people can be traced back to a confederacy of nomadic tribes known as the Oghuz. These Oghuz tribes initially lived in areas that are now part of Mongolia and southern Siberia approximately around 2000 BC.

As time passed, these Turkic-speaking Oghuz tribes began to migrate into Central Asia. Their movement was particularly notable in the region around the Syrdariya River, which is located in modern-day Central Asia. During this migration, they gradually expanded to the west and north, which means they moved towards regions that are now parts of present-day Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and beyond.

As they traveled and settled in new areas, they interacted with and incorporated other ethnic groups such as Iranians and Turks into their communities and cultures, leading to a rich and diverse heritage for the Turkmen people.

Turkmenistan's Journey: Nomadic Roots to Neutrality Policy
Image Source: Google, Image By: Flickr

The arrival of Arab forces and the spread of Islamic culture:

In the late 7th and early 8th centuries, Central Asia came under Arab control through a series of invasions. It was divided into provinces known as Mawara'un Nahr and Khorasan within the Islamic Caliphate. This conquest introduced Islam to the people of Central Asia. Merv, a city in the region, became the capital of Khorasan, and the Arabs, led by Qutayba ibn Muslim, expanded their rule into areas like Balkh, Bokhara, Fergana, Kashgaria, and even ventured into China.

In 748, Abu Muslim declared a new Abbasid dynasty in Merv and aimed to conquer Iran and Iraq, establishing Baghdad as the new capital. However, this move was met with resistance, including a famous confrontation with a goldsmith who challenged his actions. Merv also became a center for heretical teachings by figures like al-Muqanna, "The Veiled Prophet of Khorasan."

Between 821 and 873, the Tahirids ruled present-day Turkmenistan. Later, the Saffarids ended Arab rule in Central Asia. Merv, like other cities in the region, thrived as a hub of learning during this time, with scholars studying various subjects. The Samanids took control but weakened in the 10th century, leading to the rise of the Ghaznavids, who were eventually challenged by the Seljuks in the 11th century, marking a shift in power in present Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan's Journey: Nomadic Roots to Neutrality Policy
Image Source: Google, Image By: Flickr

Survival and Resilience: Turkmenistan's Rebirth after Mongol Massacre

In 1157, the Seljuk dynasty's rule ended in Khorasan, and the Turkic rulers from Khiva took control of Turkmenistan. However, in 1221, a devastating invasion by Mongol warriors, led by Genghis Khan, swept across Central Asia from eastern Asia.

Under Genghis Khan's command, the Mongols conquered Khwarezm and razed the city of Merv to the ground. The Mongol leader ordered a massacre of Merv's people and the destruction of farms and irrigation systems, which ended Iranian influence in the region's towns and farming communities. Surviving Turkmen fled north to the plains of Kazakhstan or west to the Caspian Sea shores.

After the Mongol Empire's division, Turkmenistan came under the Chagatai Khanate's rule, except for its southernmost part, which belonged to the Ilkhanate. In the 14th century, small semi-independent states emerged under tribal chiefs. Amir Timur, also known as Tamerlane, conquered Turkmen states in the 1370s, establishing the short-lived Timurid Empire. However, the Turkmen regained their independence after Timur's death in 1405.

Russian Expansion and Geopolitical Competition:

In the 18th century, Turkoman tribes had contact with the Tsarist Empire. The Russians started moving into the area around 1869 when they established the Caspian Sea port of Krasnovodsk, now known as Turkmenbashy. They claimed their presence was to address issues like Turkmen slave trade and banditry. Some Turkmen tribes, especially the Yomut, had supported the Khivan Khan, which also led to Russian raids into Khwarazm, causing significant casualties. The Battle of Geok Tepe in 1881 resulted in General Skobelev massacring 7,000 Turkmens. In 1894, Imperial Russia controlled most of Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan's Journey: Nomadic Roots to Neutrality Policy
Image Source: Google, Image By: Wikimedia Commons

During the aftermath of World War I and the Russian October Revolution in 1917, the situation in the region around Turkmenistan and Persia (modern-day Iran) was complex. The Ottoman Empire, which was allied with Germany during World War I, had collapsed, and the British Empire, which was on the side of the Allies, sought to exert influence in the region.

The British had interests in maintaining order and preventing the spread of Bolshevism in the region. They often supported anti-Bolshevik and anti-Soviet groups, including those in Trans-Caspia (part of which is now Turkmenistan). In this context, General Wilfrid Malleson led a small British force from Meshed in Persia into parts of southern Turkmenistan, including Ashgabat, in 1919.

It's important to note that the Persian government of the time was weak and did not have full control over its territory. The British, in some cases, operated with a degree of autonomy in the region. The British and Russian Empires had their spheres of influence in different parts of Central Asia, but they did not compete for control over Turkmenistan itself.

From 1924 to its independence in 1991, Turkmenistan was under Russian and later Soviet rule. During this period, it was known as the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, an integral part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet government implemented centralized planning, industrialization, and collectivization of agriculture, transforming Turkmenistan's largely agrarian economy. Turkmen culture and identity experienced suppression and Russification policies. In 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan declared its independence.

Turkmenistan's Journey: Nomadic Roots to Neutrality Policy
Image Source: Google, Image By: Wikimedia Commons

Turkmenistan's Neutrality and Energy Diplomacy:

Russia had a significant influence on Turkmenistan, particularly in the energy sector, due to its role in the export of Turkmen natural gas and historical ties dating back to the Soviet era. China was also an important economic partner for Turkmenistan, especially in infrastructure development and natural gas exports. Furthermore, Turkmenistan has significant cultural and economic connections with Iran and Turkey due to shared Turkic and Persian-speaking populations. However, Turkmenistan maintained a policy of neutrality and sought to balance its relations with various countries.

Turkmenistan pursues a policy of permanent neutrality, as recognized by the United Nations, aiming to avoid involvement in military alliances and conflicts. It prioritizes maintaining friendly relations with neighboring countries in Central Asia and the wider international community. Turkmenistan's foreign policy also focuses on energy diplomacy, leveraging its vast natural gas resources for economic cooperation and partnerships with global energy markets.


Turkmenistan has a rich history, marked by nomadic origins, Arab conquests, Mongol invasions, and Russian influence, culminating in independence in 1991 after the Soviet era. Notably, Turkmenistan follows a policy of permanent neutrality, prioritizing amicable relations with its Central Asian neighbors and employing energy diplomacy to harness its abundant natural gas reserves in the global arena.