Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turkmenistan: Living on the Margins

Repressive cultural and language policies drive Kurds to contemplate emigration.
By IWPR staff

Travel to Kiyoshi, a sleepy southern suburb of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, and everything looks different from the rest of the city – from the houses to the way people dress. Women go about their daily business dripping with gold jewellery, while the men while away the warm evenings playing chess and sipping strong black tea in quiet courtyards.


The people here are Kurds, quite distinct in language and culture from their Turkmen neighbours. Although they might seem out of place so far from the Kurdish homelands of western Iran, northern Iraq and southeast Turkey, they have been living in this region for hundreds of years.


But now they say their culture is under threat because of the Turkmen government's refusal to tolerate alien cultures.


The community here is descended from Kurds resettled along Iran's northeastern border in the 17th century by Shah Abbas, and a second wave, which came in the 1740s under Nadir Shah. The Iranian rulers' main aim was to use the warlike Kurdish tribes as a line of defence against Turkmen raiding parties. But it also served to weaken the Kurds in their western homeland.


Over time, and especially as 19th century Russia strengthened its grip on Central Asia and the Turkmen raids stopped, groups of Kurds began moving into what is now Turkmenistan. There are now perhaps 4,500 in a country of nearly five million. Most still live in tight-knit communities in border areas, while some have formed a community in Ashgabat, which is only 45 kilometres from Iran.


The Kurds have maintained a separate ethnic identity, language and traditions, and recall the advances made under Soviet rule, such as the provision of Kurdish language schools and newspapers.


Even now, it all seems very traditional. "We spoil a girl with gold jewellery from birth,” said Egesh, a young woman, when asked why the Kurdish women were carrying so much wealth about with them. "They're usually family treasures which get handed down from one generation to the next.”


But since Saparmurat Niazov transformed himself from a Soviet functionary into the unchallenged president of an independent state and declared himself Turkmenbashi, Leader of the Turkmen, ethnic minorities including substantial numbers of Russians, Uzbeks and Kazaks have found that cultural diversity is not welcome.


Schooling in their languages has been cut back to near-zero, they are forced to subscribe to Turkmenbashi’s grand vision – as set out in his book the Ruhnama, mandatory reading on schools, universities and even mosques. And like all citizens of the country they find it increasingly difficult to travel outside the country.


"It's not at all the same as it was,” said an elder in Kiyoshi. “In earlier times, say 15 years ago, our community really could pride itself on its unique ethnic identity…. But later they banned the gatherings and the music, and they closed our library. The young folk are now completely forgetting the language and our national traditions.”


A community leader went further, saying, "The Turkmen authorities have been and are still pursuing a policy of nationalistic sadism towards ethnic minorities. Any display of ethnic awareness… results in aggression and repression.”


Education and in particular Kurdish language teaching are in decline, many say.


“In Turkmenistan….the general cultural and educational standards are at an extremely low ebb among the Kurds,” said a man living in Kiyoshi. "Until 1995 there were libraries, cultural centres, and schools where Kurdish was the teaching medium. But now the centres and schools are all shut.”


The loss of mother tongue is a concern for many in the Kurdish community. Like other minorities, the Kurds have been hit by the president's requirement that minorities learn Turkmen and study the Ruhnama almost to the exclusion of conventional teaching materials.


“Kurds mostly speak their own language at home. You won’t hear it on the streets. The young people mostly don’t remember the finer points, the turns of phrase of their own language,” said the man.


The issue of reopening Kurdish schools, or at least arranging special classes within mainstream schools, has been raised with the education authorities time and again. But that now seems impossible since after Turkmenbashi started closing schools used by much bigger minorities such as the Russians and Uzbeks.


When the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination discussed the situation in Turkmenistan in August, it concluded by urging the government “to respect and protect the existence and cultural identity of all national and ethnic minorities within its territory”.


The UN body voiced particular concern at the consistent reports it was receiving about “the policy of ‘Turkmenisation’… implemented through various measures in the field of employment, education and political life”.


In contrast, the report that Turkmen foreign minister Rashid Meredov presented to the body concluded that there is no discrimination on ethnic grounds.


Yet, in this Kurdish community, people relate personal experiences of discrimination on both ethnic and religious grounds.


"I was sacked from the sewing factory in 2003, in the first wave of [public sector] cuts, even though I speak Turkmen fluently,” said a former engineer. “It's just that I'm a Kurd and they don't like us here much. Now I work in a neighbour's kiosk… selling mineral water."


Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims like the majority Turkmen, so are free to attend mosques. But the smaller groups who are Shia Muslims, Christian, or members of the Yezidi and Ahl-e-Haq (or Ali Illahi) faiths told IWPR they face suspicion and harassment from the authorities.


As in the rest of Central Asia, many people here – often women - survive by working as “shuttle traders”, making trips abroad to sell locally-made items and buy foreign goods to bring back. Iran and Turkey are two important destinations for traders from Turkmenistan, but Kurds who engage in the trade say they face special problems from suspicious authorities.


The reason authorities look askance at Kurds making such trips appears to come down to a suspicion that they are ultimately “foreigners” who might have connections to the Kurdish communities of Iran and Turkey. To the traders, this seems somewhat absurd since the Khorasan and Turkmenistan Kurds were separated from their ethnic kin further west centuries ago.


One of them said, "We have problems as soon as there's some uprising by Kurdish separatists in Turkey. I've been called in and questioned by the police many times. They ask where I'm flying to, why I’m going, whether it’s just for business, and whether I know any Kurds in turkey or have relatives there. Some women have been taken off flights…if they object they're told they will be charged with belonging to an international terrorist organisation.


“It's comic - we're a world away from politics, and we're just suffering because we're Kurds.”


Other Central Asian republics, whose Kurdish communities date from more recent, Soviet-era population shifts, allow them a greater measure of cultural freedom.


"It's only in Turkmenistan, where Kurds have lived for four centuries, that the authorities won't recognise our existence,” said an elderly woman.


“Many of our relatives are weighing things up and moving elsewhere [to other countries] in search of a better life for their families. But they’ll really be strangers there, too.”


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