BBC Country Profiles, 11 June 2001
Turkmenistan is made up mainly of desert and has the smallest population of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia. It was also the poorest republic within the Soviet Union.
It possesses the world's fifth largest reserves of natural gas, and has substantial deposits of oil. Yet it is still impoverished, and since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 has remained largely closed to the outside world.
Turkmenistan is the most ethnically homogeneous of the Central Asian republics, the vast majority of its population consisting of Turkmens. There are also Uzbeks, Russians and smaller minorities of Kazakhs, Tatars, Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis and Armenians. In contrast to other former Soviet republics, it has been largely free of inter-ethnic hostilities. However, strong tribal allegiances can be a source of tension.
It is effectively a one-party state. The Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, which comprises mostly former communists, faces no opposition parties. There are no independent media. Real power is concentrated in the hands of President Saparmyrat Niyazov, whom the parliament has granted presidency for life. Having forced the main opposition activists out of the country, he has developed a personality cult unrivalled in Central Asia.
Turkmenistan has been unable to benefit fully from its oil and gas deposits due to the absence of export routes and because of a dispute between the Caspian Sea littoral states over the legal status of the sea where oil wells are to be found. With foreign investors shying away, its economy remains underdeveloped.
President: Saparmyrat Atayevich Niyazov
Born in 1940, Saparmyrat Niyazov became Turkmen Communist Party chief in 1985. In 1991 he was elected the first president of independent Turkmenistan, and in 1999 the country's supreme legislative body, the Mejlis, made him president-for-life.
Niyazov underwent major heart surgery in 1997, after which he quit smoking, ordered all his ministers to do likewise and banned smoking in public places. When Niyazov started to go bald after the operation he resorted to Chinese herbal remedies, he said, to save his people from the "unpleasantness" of having a bald leader.
President Niyazov has often criticised and sacked media heads for failing to show interesting programmes or print interesting articles.
Freedom of the press is limited. There is strict censorship and journalists practise self-censorship.
The daily activities of the president are detailed on television.