Trans Eurasia travel

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Ethnic Groups

Turkmenistan is largely homogenous, with 85% of the population classified as Turkmen. Other groups include Uzbeks (5%) and Russians (4%), and another 6% are Armenian, Kazakh, Tatar, and Ukrainian.

Ethnic Turkmen trace their origin to the mythical warrior Oghuz Khan, and are descendants of the Oghuz tribe. They are subdivided into tribes, and the two largest are further subdivided into regional branches that have little in common. The largest of these is the Teke. The Akhal Teke inhabit the Akhal region. This populous southern region of the country includes Ashgabat, the capital. The Mary Teke, traditional rivals of the Akhal, occupy the Mary region, which borders Iran and Afghanistan. The Yomut are similarly divided; the Western Yomut inhabit the Balkan region, bordering the Caspian Sea and Iran. By contrast, the northern Yomut predominate in the Dashoguz region bordering Uzbekistan. The Turkmen largely follow the Sunni branch of Islam. They do not require women to wear a veil or to be secluded. Because of the economic structure, women were central players and, therefore, enjoyed more benefits. This tradition made the Soviet imposition of gender equality less radical and more easily adaptable to Turkmen society.

Thousands of Russians relocated to Turkmenistan during the years of Soviet control. Many of them were brought in to fill administrative and other government positions. They became the upper class of the nation. But following independence, Turkmen regarded them as outsiders. Many held dual citizenship and were not welcomed by the new government. In 2003, President Niyazov eliminated dual citizenship, and many ethnic Russians returned to Russia. Turkmenistan has increased its animosity to ethnic Russians by banning Russian media, removing Russian studies and Russian language from its educational system, and refusing to recognize degrees from Russian universities or institutions.

The Kazaks are also a Turkic-language Muslim group. Formerly nomadic like the Turkmen, about 30,000 remain in the country. They live primarily in the areas bordering Kazakhstan. Their population is dwindling, by as much as two-thirds in recent years. Some villages that once housed many ethnic Kazaks now have few to none. Many ethnic Kazaks are choosing to emigrate to Kazakhstan. Recent estimates are that the population of Kazakhstan has swollen by nearly 700,000 from the migration. The Kazak language, like Russian, has been banished from Turkmenistan’s schools, which now teach only in Turkmen. During recent years, non-Turkmen have been pushed out of power positions and have felt the sting of a hostile society.

Ethnic Uzbeks primarily occupy the region near the border with Uzbekistan. Relations between the majority Turkmen and Uzbeks have been strained. In 2006, the government closed all Uzbek language schools and shut down the only Uzbek-language newspaper. In 2008, many ethnic Uzbeks were deported, which divided some families because not all members could obtain passports. A large number of Uzbeks still have only temporary residence and are at constant risk of deportation. They also bridle at the requirement that they must give up their native dress in favor of the Turkmen costume. Uzbeks feel there is a systematic attempt to destroy their language and culture.