Turkmenistan consists of 95 per cent desert and is, following established geographical standards, in the middle of nowhere. Still, Russia took control of it in the 19th century. The country’s previous history remains widely obscure though it was conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century, by the Parthians in the 6th century and by various Muslims starting with Arabs in the 7th century. In 1925, the “Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic” became a state of the Soviet Union and followed its politics dutifully – though being off-limits for other Soviet citizens and modernising influences such as the perestroika.
Once the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, the last boss of the Turkmen Communist Party Saparmurat Niyazov became President of the newly independent Turkmenistan. In the course, the Communist Party rebranded itself as “Democratic Party” and became exactly as democratic as most states bearing the attribute: barely. Instead, Niyazov declared himself Head of the Turkmen and a prophet, set in all kinds of inhumane reforms like abandoning hospitals in the countryside and was ultimately proclaimed president for life in 1999.
“For life” only lasted until 2006 when he died and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow – his personal doctor and accordingly minister of health – proceeded him. Though he took back a few of Niyazov’s reforms, Turkmens still lack most basic freedoms. For example, only Eritrea and North Korea are worse off with regard to freedom of the press. Critics of the system are tortured, force-institutionalised, vanish or go abroad “voluntarily”. In fact, Turkmens can’t even own a car in another colour than their second dictator’s favourite colour: white.