History, Soviet Period
Niyazov, Amu Darya, Turkmen language, Aral Sea, CPSU
In the late 1920s the Soviet authorities began to take land and set up state-owned farms, forcing the local population to settle in one place in order to work in agriculture. Many Turkmens fought fiercely against this directive, as it threatened their traditional nomadic way of life. A number of Turkmen intellectuals became leading figures in the Turkmen Communist Party, a branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the only legal party in the republic. These Communist Turkmen leaders were denounced as nationalists and executed in the 1930s as part of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalinís violent and extensive purges of Soviet society.
In contrast to the massive industrialization taking place in most other Soviet republics, the industrial sector in the Turkmen SSR received little development. Instead, the republic was an important provider of raw materials, mainly natural gas and cotton, to the more developed Soviet republics. In the 1960s the Soviet government devised a scheme to make the southern part of Central Asia the USSRís primary base for cotton production. As a result of the strong emphasis on cotton growing, the Turkmen republic was unable to supply itself with basic food commodities and became increasingly dependent on the central government. The Soviet governmentís demands for intensive cotton cultivation also led to the extravagant overuse of scarce water resources. The need for water for agriculture prompted construction of the Garagum Canal in the southern portion of the Turkmen republic beginning in 1954. This canal, the largest in the Soviet Union, diverted more water from the Amu Darya than any other irrigation works in the region. As such, it was the single greatest contributor to the drying of the Aral Sea. The canal also supplied polluted drinking water to the local population, contributing to the Turkmen SSRís extremely high infant mortality rate.
Beginning in the mid-1980s Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev promoted major economic and political reforms in the USSR. The reforms fostered movements for greater local autonomy in most of the Soviet republics. However, no mass movement occurred in the Turkmen SSR, in part because of long-standing tribal divisions. Then in September 1989 Turkmen intellectuals formed a popular front organization called Agzybirlik. The Turkmen Communist Party banned Agzybirlik in January 1990. Elections to the Supreme Soviet were held later that month, and the Turkmen Communist Party won a majority of seats. The new legislature appointed Saparmurad Niyazov, the first secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party since 1985, as chairperson of the Supreme Soviet (the highest government office in the republic at that time). Conceding to popular pressure, the Supreme Soviet accorded official status to the Turkmen language in May and adopted a declaration of sovereignty in August. Niyazov was directly elected to the newly created post of president in October.
In August 1991 Communist hard-liners, who were opposed to the democratic reforms taking place in the USSR, staged an unsuccessful coup attempt in Moscow. Although the CPSU was officially banned after the coup attempt, Niyazov announced that the Turkmen Communist Party would remain the ruling party in the Turkmen republic. In October the Turkmen SSR formally declared independence, and the name of the republic was changed to the Republic of Turkmenistan. In December Gorbachev resigned, and the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist. That month Turkmenistan joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose alliance of most of the former Soviet republics. Meanwhile, the Turkmen Communist Party changed its name to the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT), retaining Niyazov as chairperson.
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