Tribal social structure in the Turkmen community has unique and interesting features. Throughout history, the Turkmen tribes and even clans have always been recognized from each other by distinct identities; at the same time, at times they have been united against a foreign enemy, and have shown a single identity beyond the tribal framework.
Tribal Identities: Past and Present
The number of Turkmen tribes and the population of each of them are listed differently in various historical sources. However, Arminius Vambery’s report which is also in accordance with the ancient narrative of Toghoz- Oguz (nine Oguz tribes), is considered by most experts in this field to be closer to reality. According to the travel accounts of Ibn Sayah and a Hungarian linguist, the Turkmen tribes historically known in the nineteenth century included: Teke, Yomut, Arsary, Googlan, Ali illi, Salur, Saryq, Chowdur and Qara.
Today, Teke and Yomut are the two important and populated tribes of Turkmenistan. Of course, other tribes, especially Arsary and Salur, have maintained their more or less coherent presence in different parts of the country, however, their political capacities, compared to those of the two major tribes, do not seem so remarkable. As mentioned, in the Turkmen territory, each tribe can be identified by a specific local belonging. This special dispersion of tribal population has continued to this day. The Ahal province is the historical and current home of the Teke clans, and the Balkan province is the gathering place and residence of the Yomut clans.
After independence and in the framework of official promotional campaigns, tribalism was excluded, and the national identity of the Turkmen people was greatly emphasized upon, as far as Niyazov, in formal and informal forums, repeatedly called himself an orphan who was raised in an orphanage without any tribal affiliation. In the official promotional campaigns of the political system of Turkmenistan, any Turkmen individual was considered valuable and equal with the people of other tribes by himself and regardless of tribal considerations. While before independence, local party leaders were necessarily elected from the local people of the same tribe due to the territorial attachment of each tribe, in the early days of getting independence, and possibly under the influence of the promotional space, all tribes obeyed the leadership of one person from a certain tribe (Teke), and the predicted crisis of tribal conflicts did not occur.
However, observers and researchers will possibly get it wrong, if they judge [the situation] by the formal atmosphere of this country, because despite much official promotion, the identification and differentiation of citizens based on tribal identity, either by people or the state, is still continued. Turkmen people show little interest in talking about and answering questions related to this issue, however, the fact that people of a specific tribe or clan live in a special part of cities along with the tangible evidence of the presence of a difference in the quality of interactions based on tribal distinctions reflect the continuing importance and salience of this social feature. In cities, the separation of residential neighborhoods has been mostly based on the tribes and clans of the inhabitants, and each village is the residence of a tribe or a specific clan of a tribe.
Social Forces Understanding and Struggle in the Turkmen Community
The capital of Turkmenistan in the Ahal province is the historical residence of the Teke tribe. Ahal is the most populous province and also the gathering place for different welfare, economic and industrial facilities. Niyazov, despite his claims of having no tribal affiliation, was from the Teke tribe, and Berdimuhamedov was also from the same tribe. Most of Vice Presidents and the majority of cabinet members are also from this tribe. Speaker of the Parliament, the heads of security and judicial institutions, except for a few and limited times, have all been from the Teke tribe. Teke has been the most populous tribe living in the country, and this fact can be easily seen that the circulation of the political elites in Turkmenistan is monopolized by the members of this clan.
The Balkan province is located in west Turkmenistan, adjacent to the Caspian Sea. This province is known to belong to the Yomut tribe, because most of the Yomut population is gathering in this place. The importance and sensitivity of this feature of the Balkan province become clearer when we remember that this province is neighboring the Turkmen settlement regions in Iran who are also more from the Yomut tribe. This geopolitical feature exists in addition to the cleavages between this region and the resident tribe and other regions and tribes of Turkmenistan.
Social Cleavages after Independence
Possible differences in the level of welfare and social facilities in different regions of each country is not a new and far-fetched phenomenon. Therefore, if this difference is in compliance with other aspects of differentiation, it can provide the ground for unpredictable problems. In other words, it is not just a specific cleavage, but the concentration of various aspects of cleavages which will result in a crisis. The Balkan province is different from the Akhal province in terms of economy, and their financial facilities and the distribution of resources are not comparable with each other as well. This is despite the potential capacities of the Balkan province, including the place for the only commercial port (Turkmenbashi), unique underground resources, crude oil reservoirs and manpower. Socially and culturally, the Yomut people of the Balkan province are proud of their poets and intellectuals, and have always considered their culture and literature superior than those of the Teke.
The center of the Basmachi movement in Turkmenistan is the lands which have formed the Balkan province today. Ghorban Mohammad, known as Junaid Khan, was one of the heads of the elders of the Naqshbandi, and from the Yomut tribe. The Yomut people are known to be warriors, and according to travelers and historians, they have been proud of their liberty, and have never been willing to accept the supremacy of another leader or tribe. Thus, in the aftermath of independence, people of this tribe, though had lost many of their tribal characteristics due to the promotion of the communist system, they were faced with a political system which was claiming to be the Turkmen nationalist, on the one hand, and advanced the political supremacy of the Teke tribe, on the other hand.
The political system under Niyazov could absorb some of the Yomut elites in its structure, but this trend did not last long, and none of these elites had a long political life. The desire of the Yomut tribe for political participation and contribution has not received a satisfactory answer from the power structure of Turkmenistan. There is no doubt that the political supremacy of the Teke tribe is reinforced by the support of people from this populous tribe. Equally, the cleavages between the power structure and political force of other tribes have become wider and deeper. One of the manifestations of these cleavages is the composition of the range of opponents and the political opposition in Turkmenistan.
Social Context for Violence and Political Instability in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan is considered as a state with rentier economic structure. Revenues from selling natural resources allowed the Turkmen government to show a better resistance in times of economic turmoil since the independence, and could meet the minimum demands of its citizens. Rentier incomes allowed Niyazov to rebuild Ashgabat, the capital city, as a modern city with an eye-catching architecture by spending exorbitant cost. A city that over a little time, all its passages and places were filled with the “Turkmenbashi” sculptures. But despite the pageantry, some people were still observing the strong presence of poverty, discrimination and suppression under the white architecture of Ashgabat and behind the magnificent sculptures of the President in various cities of Turkmenistan.
Despite appropriate capabilities, there are significant differences between the Ahal province where the Teke tribe resides and other provinces, especially the western province of Balkan, in terms of welfare and distribution of facilities. This difference, from the Yomut’s view living in this province, is the consequence of the tribal approach of the government and the exclusive political supremacy of the Teke tribe over Turkmenistan. The sociological study of the opposition also shows a meaningful relationship between the tribal origin and the supporting/ opposing interaction of the political elites with the ruling system of this country. Thus, it seems that the lack of appropriate mechanisms to respond to the tribes’ desire to participate [in the politics], and the existing political rigidity in Turkmenistan will provide the ground for breaking the stability and security in this country.
The Turkmen political opponents have so far, with the feature of tribal distinctions, either held street protests, or planned and taken action to physically remove the President. The failure of these opponents to achieve their goals is neither the result of removing reasons for dissatisfaction, nor that these protests are elitist in nature, but it results from the capabilities of the security organization of the country. This security capability is known to be the legacy of the communist system, on the one hand, and it relies on the financial strength of the ruling system, on the other hand.
In terms of the relationship between this social background and the context for the rise of violence and political instability, it is necessary to consider two complementary aspects for the development of this type of behavior. One aspect focuses on the necessary causes of violence in human societies, and the other aspect pays attention to the fact that these causes are final. In other words, violence and instability necessarily occur based on the aggregated causes that lead to a synergistic situation, and in this case, no force can stop the emergence of conflict and violent behavior by individuals or human groups. Accordingly, the inhibition of violence and conflict is more difficult than [inhibiting] any other human actions, and has always been associated with less confidence to predict when and where it takes place. Understanding the nature of group violence and conflicting behavior is based on understanding its nature as a social action, on the one hand, and understanding this behavior as a response to the social environment, on the other hand.
In Turkmenistan, it has turned out that so far all predictions based on the rise of violence and political instability have been very uncertain, but this does not mean that there are no grounds for them. There are the necessary causes for violence in the Turkmen society, and social groups have also enough reasons for behaving violently against the ruling political system and tribal groups backing it. The presence of any complementary and effective stimulus as the final cause of this behavior can turn this country into a new center of group violence and conflict in the region. Stimuli which can either come from within the community, or come from a source outside of Turkmenistan. Complementary causes that can either result from the tribe or ethnicity, or result from the sect or religion.
Behrouz Ghezel, a PhD candidate in Central Asia and Caucasus Studies at University of Tehran, is the fellow at IRAS.
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