Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most closed and repressive countries–a small nation of approximately 5 million people, though recent estimates are much lower. It is located in Central Asia and is bordered by the Caspian Sea to the west, Iran and Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the east, and Kazakhstan to the north.
In 2020, Freedom House ranked Turkmenistan second to last among the world’s nations in terms of civil liberties and political rights, just below North Korea and above only Syria. Turkmenistan is a country with no freedom of the press, an authoritarian government, and a president who is quickly building a cult of personality rivaling that of the previous “President for Life,” Niyazov, who died suddenly of a heart attack in December 2006.
In 2003, the government rewrote its law on NGOs, effectively making it impossible for civil society organizations to function in the country. Simultaneously, it required all existing NGOs to re-register with the authorities. Virtually every civil society organization found its re-registration denied, resulting in the gutting of this sector. At present, around 100 NGOs are registered with the government of Turkmenistan, and almost all of them are government-organized nongovernmental organizations or GONGOs. A few brave individuals continue to work as civil society activists, but they have been forced to operate underground, anonymously, and with extreme caution. In recent years, under the leadership of President Berdymukhamedov, the government has cracked down on environmental and other activists, arresting and imprisoning them, and making it impossible to work openly inside the country.
Turkmenistan is rich in hydrocarbons, the export of which accounts 25% of the country’s GDP. Turkmen citizens do not benefit from the sale of natural gas and oil and suffer from food shortages and poverty. The country’s profits from the sale of hydrocarbons are spent by the president, his family, and a small group of elites in his closest circle.