The population of Turkmenistan is just under five million. Ethnic Turkmens are a large majority of the people of Turkmenistan. The 1995 census figures recorded that Turkmens comprised around 85% of the population. Uzbeks, who make up about 5% of the population, live in the border cities of Konye-Urgench, Dashogus and Turkmenabat. Russians have left in huge numbers since independence, as it becomes increasingly hard to work without speaking Turkmen. Today they make up around 4% of the population. Turkmen ethnic groups make up 85% of the population, with other groups accounting for 6% of the population.
State policy, while stressing the importance of friendship and harmony between ethnic groups, closely identifies the state of Turkmenistan with the Turkmen people. The Turkmen language is the medium of education and government, non-Turkmen cultural outlets are now rarities, and few senior government posts arc held by non-Turkmens. Significant non-Turkmen minorities remain, however, in the main towns, and Dashoguz and Lebap regions have large ethnic Uzbek populations.
The Turkmen are a Sunni Muslim people whose language, Turkmen, belongs to the southwestern, or Oghuz, branch of the Turkic linguistic group. In 1997, about 3.6 million Turkmen lived in the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan, with smaller numbers residing in neighboring countries.
About two-thirds of the Turkmen population reside in rural settlements. With the development of Turkmenistan’s economy during the post–World War II Soviet period, many non-Turkmen skilled workers and managers immigrated to the republic. The population is distributed unevenly, with few people in the Kara-Kum desert and mountain regions, but large numbers in the oases.
For centuries the Turkmen were divided into numerous tribes, the largest being the Tekke, Ersari, and Yomut. The Turkmen traditionally lacked paramount leaders and intertribal political unity. Each tribe’s elder males formed a committee that discussed matters before embarking on any significant endeavor. They chose their leaders by consensus rather than genealogy.
Prior to the Russian conquest in the late nineteenth century, most Turkmen were pastoral nomads, though during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many had settled in the oases and become agriculturalists. The men had reputations as warriors, and many served as mounted mercenaries in various Central Asian and Persian armies. The Akhal-teke breed of horse, world renowned for its beauty and swiftness, is particular to the Turkmen.