It is finally known how many people live in Turkmenistan.
Or, at least, how many people the government says live there.
At a Cabinet meeting on July 14, the head of the State Statistics Committee, Dovletgeldi Amanmukhammedov, unveiled long-delayed census data to claim that the country has a population of around 7 million. Of those, more than 1 million are said to live in the capital, Ashgabat. Almost 53 percent of Turkmens live in rural areas, census data showed.
As Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan notes in laying out the information, Amanmukhammedov made demographic comparisons with figures from the 2012 census data. That is intriguing because those numbers were never published for some mysterious reason.
The received wisdom is that the authorities were simply too embarrassed to reveal how many people have been fleeing the country to seek a better life elsewhere.
In July 2021, RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, published a report that it said was based on information provided by three well-positioned sources that put the population at no higher than 2.8 million. This number appeared to speak of a demographic collapse exacerbated by sluggish birth-rates, increased mortality, and high levels of outward migration.
These two pictures of the situation could not be more different.
Azatlyk, however, is sticking to its story. In an article published after the census figures were made public, the broadcaster cited “a source close to the government” as saying the the population is probably no more than 4 million-strong.
“The census itself was very primitive, they did not adhere to generally accepted instructions and recommendations on how to conduct a census. There were many egregious cases in which, when they did not find the members of a household, they asked neighbors about them,” the source said.
Because the country is so secretive and closed off to the world, there is little way of knowing with certainty either way.
A rare, homeopathy-sized dose of criticism on this point arrived last week from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s representative on media freedom, Teresa Ribeiro, who wrapped up a visit to Turkmenistan on July 10. In talking to Turkmen officials, Ribeiro “highlighted restrictions on the free flow of information, both online and offline, along with limited access to information in the country.”
In trying to sell her interlocutors on the idea of a slightly free media, Ribeiro couched her remarks in the kind of security-focused language that authoritarian governments normally deploy to justify censorship.
“I appreciate Turkmenistan’s commitment to multilateralism and to the OSCE in particular in its wish for peace and security. I would like to highlight the importance of free and independent media as a tool in achieving this goal,” she said.
Ribeiro wasted her breath. Her views will be ignored and the OSCE’s team in Ashgabat can now return to its normal duties of doing little to nothing at all.
The most common way to get some sense of how the country is being run is from reading tea leaves.
At the July 14 Cabinet meeting, which also served in effect as a mid-year progress check, President Serdar Berdymukhamedov fired numerous senior officials for “shortcomings in [their] work.”
Casualties included Energy Minister Khadzhimuhammet Rejepmuradov, (who will be replaced by this deputy, Annageldi Saparov), Agriculture and Environmental Protection Minister Allanur Altiyev, whose now-former ministry has been split into two, and Physical Culture and Sports Committee chairman Gulmyrat Agamyradov.
Another notable name to go was Nyyazly Nyyazlyev, the chief of state chemicals company Turkmenkhimiya, who has over his time in that job received a comically large number of “last warnings.”
This round of firings reflects evident problems in the areas of governance and life that are most dear and important to the Turkmen leadership: energy, industry, farming and sport. Ashgabat also pretends to be concerned about the state of the environment – a PR-fueled stance that has been utterly undermined by the situation around methane emissions – so the move to create a ministry dedicated exclusively to environmental protection feels like a natural one.
In another sign of a tilting of the tiller, the parastatal Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, or UIET, convened on July 12 for an extraordinary meeting to elect a new chairman, Nokerguly Atagulyev.
The UIET is positioned as a statist incubator for Turkmenistan’s future entrepreneurial sector. So many private companies of note exist by means of its largesse that it makes it difficult to understand where the state economy ends and the private economy begins.
There is furthermore a self-serving coziness about its role. The outgoing head of the union, Dovran Khudaiberdyev, in May 2020 took over from Alexander Dadayev, who was nicknamed “Berdymukhamedov’s wallet” for the fact that many UIET contracts were handed to the relatives of then-President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the father of the incumbent.
Another fresh private sector-relevant appointment is that of Mergen Gurdov as chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The last that Gurdov had been heard of was in October 2020, when he was fired as head of the State Migration Service and reportedly then subjected to a corruption investigation. A department with the power to delay the issuance of passports and let people out of the country is endowed with obvious revenue-making capabilities, so the reputed allegations of graft seemed natural. It seems, though, that Gurdov has been given another chance at life, possibly after paying his dues.
It speaks to the fiscal nature of the work at the State Migration Service that management there seem to routinely end up working in areas of finance and business. On July 17, President Berdymukhamedov appointed Amanmuhammet Sazakov as chair of the service. He replaces Batyr Volsakhatov, who will now take on an entirely different set of tasks as chairman of the state commodity exchange.
That Volsakhatov has been given this sinecure instead of the boot indicates that the national leadership is satisfied with what the public will see as his disastrous performance. It is formally the State Migration Service that is responsible for the chronic delays in the issuing of travel passports, but it looks like the inability of Turkmens to leave the country suits the government just fine.
One notable person that was unable to leave the country recently is the wife of the mufti of Turkmenistan, Yalkap Khodjagulyev. The issue has nothing to do with passports, though.
As Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news reported on July 17, Khodjagulyev has fallen out of favor with ex-president and now-National Leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov over shenanigans around the high-ranking delegation that performed the hajj to Mecca last month.
According to Turkmen.news sources, Khodjagulyev had the notion of using the flutter around the pilgrimage, which was led by Berdymukhamedov himself, to take along his wife, a fact that he hoped would go unnoticed. Alas, Berdymukhamedov, ever the micro-manager, caught wind of this and was livid. Khodjagulyev was ordered while in Mecca not to leave his hotel room, leaving the job of reciting prayers to a community elder, who fumbled his lines. Indeed, Khodjagulyev could not be seen in TV footage of the whole hajj jaunt.
Khodjagulyev, who has been in his post since August 2019, can now expect to be replaced. This will be quite the blow since the privilege of being able to handpick who does or does not get to perform the hajj is a lucrative money-earner.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.