Turkmenistan became a part of the Soviet Union in 1924 and then
gained independence in 1991 when the large communist empire broke up.
For much of its independence, Turkmenistan remained a closed society. A
one-party state, it was ruled by the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan
and led by the late president Saparmurat Niyazov until his death in
Niyazov maintained an authoritarian state with a cult-like status. The citizens of the country were forced to take spiritual guidance from Niyazov’s book, Ruhnama, a collection of thoughts on the country’s culture and history. The book became the basis for civic school education. Niyazov’s intent was to replace the influence of the Koran, since Turkmenistan is 89 percent Muslim. Turkmenistan’s two main minority groups – Uzbeks and Russians – faced the brunt of the strict censorship, travel restrictions and human rights abuses the authoritarian government promoted.
After Niyazov’s death, his personal dentist and the former health minister, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, was elected as a president in a February 2007 election many believe was rigged. Only candidates from the ruling party could contest, and exiled opposition leaders were banned from participating in the process. Berdymukhamedov plans to continue the policies of the late leader, but he has also indicated some reforms, including unlimited access to the Internet, improved education and higher pensions.
2008, Turkmenistan adopted a new constituion that almost doubled the
size of parliament and gave it governing power; eliminated the People's
Council, a legislative body whose members were picked by Niyazov; and
allowed for more political freedom in general.
With no foreign investments, Turkmenistan remains a poor nation. Though home to plentiful oil deposits and the world's fifth largest natural gas reserves, a lack of export routes and disputes with foreign nations have kept Turkmenistan from profitting from its natural resources. Economic crises have resulted in across the board cuts that include the withdrawal of state funding for local hospitals in December 2004, leading to closures. There were severe food shortages, and the poor wheat harvests in 2005 and 2006 led to bread shortages.
Sources: BBC, International Crisis Group, CIA World Factbook.