The Karakum, or "black sand" desert covers 70 percent of the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan. Population is sparse there, with only one person per 2.5 miles, and rain might come once in a decade. Underneath this austere territory lies the ancient city of Merv, near today's Mary, whose ruins are still studied by scholars around the world, as well as a great deal of oil and gas, making Turkmenistan's reserves the fifth largest in the world. Also under the shifting sands are the springs of water that feed oases where the Turkmen people have made their villages and struggled against the elements for centuries. The Karakum Canal, the largest irrigation system in the world, crosses the region, and the desert is also the site of an over-ambitious and controversial state project to create an artificial lake.
Yet beyond these iconic cliches about Turkmenistan's hydrocarbon riches and the desert exterior that seems to symbolize this long-closed and little-known society, there have in recent years been new developments in domestic affairs and foreign relations since the death of long-time dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. Under the leadership of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, some modest reforms have been made, such as restoration of the education and health systems, opening of Internet cafes, and a removal of some of the most ludicrous trappings of "Turkmenbashi" (head of all Turkmens) as Niyazov was known, such as his ubiquitous portrait and the renaming of the days of the week after his relatives.
Regretably, troubling indications of the hard limits of reform are increasingly visible, with blocking of the Internet and continued suppression of independent media; barring of students from studying abroad; and failure to permit authentic legitimization of civil society in the form of the registration of civic and religious groups. Unsolved cases remain, such as that of former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, arrested in 2002 and sentenced to life imprisonment, and not heard from since, along with others alleged to have attempted a coup. Civic activists continue to be harassed, detained, or forced to leave the country. Meanwhile, all lines of power lead to the president, who maintains a harsh top-down management of subordinate officials who are constantly reprimanded, shuffled around, or dismissed for "shortcomings" and "negligence".
A new cult of personality seems to be in the making with saturation TV coverage of Berdymukhamedov's trips around the country to inspect new buildings as crowds are bused in to greet him along the highway and children are forced to dress in national costumes and dance for the leader in the "Era of Great Revival," as the president has dubbed his time in office. Numerous world dignitaries -- presidents, diplomats, CEOs, and religious leaders -- have beaten a path to the white marbled palaces of Ashgabat because only the president can decide everything.
With so much of the real life of Turkmenistan hidden or deliberately suppressed, it is our hope to sift through what stories do emerge from within the country from domestic and international media, and via a network of independent reporters and exiles who still risk getting the news out, and attempt to see the true dimensions of a country whose impoverished people hope to one day see the benefits of their nation's tremendous wealth.