Turkic-speaking Oghuz tribes migrated from Mongolia into present-day Central Asia around the eighth century AD. These Oghuz formed the ethnic foundation of the current Turkmen people as part of a strong confederation of tribes. The term “Turkmen” was originally given to Oghuz tribes that embraced Islam and started to dominate present-day Turkmenistan in the 10th century. They were subject to the Seljuk Empire, which was made up of Oghuz tribes residing in modern-day Iran and Turkmenistan. When Turkmen troops in the service of the empire moved westward into present-day Azerbaijan and eastern Turkey, they played an essential role in the development of Turkic culture.
Turkmen and other tribes toppled the Seljuk Empire in the 12th century. The Mongols took over the more northern regions where the Turkmens had lived in the next century, dispersing the Turkmens southward and leading to the creation of new tribal groupings. The nomadic Turkmen tribes, who remained fiercely autonomous and frightened their neighbors, saw a succession of splits and confederations during the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. By the 16th century, the majority of those tribes were nominally controlled by two sedentary Uzbek khanates, Khiva and Bukhoro. Turkmen troops played a significant role in Uzbek armies during this time period. Raids and rebellions by the Yomud Turkmen tribe culminated in their dispersion by Uzbek authorities in the nineteenth century. “Prior to the Russian invasion, the Turkmen were renowned and dreaded for their participation in the Central Asian slave trade,” writes Paul R. Spickard.
Late in the nineteenth century, Russian troops started to conquer Turkmen land. The Russians ultimately defeated the Uzbek khanates from their Caspian Sea stronghold at Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi). The last major resistance in Turkmen territory was defeated in the Battle of Geok Tepe in 1881, and Turkmenistan was annexed into the Russian Empire soon afterwards, along with adjoining Uzbek territory. The Russian Empire’s involvement in World War I reverberated in Turkmenistan in 1916, when an anti-conscription rebellion swept much of Russian Central Asia. Although the 1917 Russian Revolution had minimal direct effect, Turkmen troops joined Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks in the so-called Basmachi Rebellion against the newly established Soviet Union in the 1920s. The Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic was established in 1924 from the tsarist region of Transcaspia. By the late 1930s, Soviet agricultural restructuring had decimated what remained of Turkmen nomadic life, and Moscow had taken control of political life. Over 110,000 people were murdered in the Ashgabat earthquake of 1948, accounting for two-thirds of the city’s population.
During the following half-century, Turkmenistan fulfilled its assigned economic position inside the Soviet Union while being mostly unaffected by significant global events. Even Russia’s big liberalization movement, which rocked the country in the late 1980s, had little effect. However, in 1990, Turkmenistan’s Supreme Soviet proclaimed statehood in reaction to perceived abuse by Moscow. Despite the fact that Turkmenistan was ill-prepared for independence and communist leader Saparmurad Niyazov wanted to maintain the Soviet Union, the disintegration of that state compelled him to hold a nationwide referendum in October 1991, which supported independence. The Soviet Union ceased to exist on December 26, 1991. Niyazov remained Turkmenistan’s president, replacing communism with a distinct form of autonomous nationalism bolstered by a widespread cult of personality. A referendum in 1994 and legislation in 1999 eliminated additional requirements for the president to run for re-election (although he completely dominated the only presidential election in which he ran in 1992, as he was the only candidate and no one else was allowed to run for the office), effectively making him president for life. During his presidency, Niyazov often cleansed public officials and dissolved groups considered dangerous. Turkmenistan has maintained a neutral stance on virtually all international matters during the post-Soviet period. Niyazov refused to join regional groups such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and in the late 1990s he maintained contacts with both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s major adversary in Afghanistan. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, he provided little assistance to the military fight against the Taliban. An claimed murder attempt on Niyazov in 2002 triggered a fresh round of security restrictions, dismissals of government officials, and media restrictions. Niyazov blamed the assault on fugitive former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov.
Between 2002 and 2004, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan experienced significant tensions as a result of bilateral disagreements and Niyazov’s insinuation that Uzbekistan was involved in the 2002 murder attempt. A series of bilateral accords signed in 2004 restored cordial relations. Only Niyazov’s party was represented in the parliamentary elections held in December 2004 and January 2005, and no foreign observers were present. Niyazov used his dictatorial authority in 2005 by shutting all hospitals outside of Ashgabat as well as all rural libraries. The trend of arbitrary policy changes, reshuffling of senior officials, declining economic production outside the oil and gas industry, and isolation from regional and global organizations accelerated in 2006. Turkmenistan made major overtures to just a few countries, including China. Niyazov’s untimely death at the end of 2006 created a total power vacuum, since his cult of personality, in contrast to that of previous North Korean President Kim Il-sung, had prevented the appointment of a successor. The extraordinary presidential election conducted in early February 2007 was won by Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who was appointed temporary head of government. He was re-elected with 97 percent of the vote in 2012.