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Turkmenistan Faces 'Shocking Population Decline' As Exodus Continues

People wait outside the Russian Embassy in Ashgabat, waiting to apply for travel or work documents, in May 2019.

ASHGABAT -- Turkmenistan is facing an unprecedented population decline, with only about 2.8 million people -- or less than a half of what the government says -- living in the country in 2021, three different officials told RFE/RL.

The government in Ashgabat put the country's population at 6.2 million early last year.

But a preliminary survey ahead of the planned census in 2022 found that the number of people living in Turkmenistan was between 2.7 million and 2.8 million earlier this year, the three sources said.

The officials, who are involved in the census preparations and data analysis, spoke on condition of anonymity over safety concerns in the secretive, tightly controlled state.

They said that an exodus of people from Turkmenistan, a falling birthrate, and rising mortality figures amid plummeting living standards are among the main reasons behind the shrinking population in the Central Asian state.

"We went door-to-door to count the population, and also used additional methods, such as getting the number of conscripts in the army, school graduates, university students, children registered in kindergartens, prison populations, data from migration agencies on arrivals and departures, and registry office records on birth and death figures," one of the officials said.

The sources said the results of the survey might differ slightly from the official census, but they say the difference would be insignificant.

The officials described the findings as "shocking," although the demographic crisis in Turkmenistan has been known for some time.

The last census in Turkmenistan took place in 2012, but the government didn't release the results.

In May 2019, multiple sources in Ashgabat told RFE/RL that nearly 1.9 million people left Turkmenistan between 2008 and 2018 either for permanent residency abroad or for permanent work outside the country. The figures didn't include Turkmen labor migrants working abroad.

At the time, the sources -- familiar with the situation -- put the country's population at slightly more than 3.3 million people.

A devastated economy, rampant unemployment, and a repressive authoritarian government are responsible for driving people to live in Russia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan -- the three main countries where people have emigrated seeking to resettle.

Trying To Stop The Stampede

Before the pandemic, RFE/RL correspondents in Ashgabat reported long lines of people applying for visas at the Russian and Uzbek embassies. The process slowed due to the border closures and travel restrictions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic that began in early 2020.

Despite the pandemic, 2,451 Turkmen received Russian passports and 2,271 others obtained permanent residence in Russia in 2020.

During the same period, about 87,200 Turkmen citizens received residency permits in Turkey.

Hundreds of thousands of Turkmen traveled to Turkey every year before the pandemic, taking advantage of the visa-free travel agreement between the two countries. Most of them didn't return home.

The exact number of Turkmen living in Turkey is unknown. Many are thought to be there illegally with expired Turkmen passports.

To stop the exodus, Turkmen authorities have often removed up to 50 percent of the Turkmen passengers on Istanbul-bound flights.

Many Turkmen planning to move to Russia complained that they were unable to obtain documents required to leave the country. They said Turkmen officials would simply refuse to issue the documents in an apparent attempt to curb migration from the country.

"The rise in migration from Turkmenistan began in 2013-14, which coincided with the onset of the economic crisis in the country," one of the officials told RFE/RL.

The crisis has since deepened in Turkmenistan, with food shortages and price hikes.

Most of the population depends on state-owned grocery stores that offer affordable staple foods. Supplies at such stores are limited and people often wait for hours for the shops to receive new stocks.

The revenue from the country's abundant energy resources has only benefited a small circle of government elites and not trickled down to the common people. Widespread corruption only adds to the people's misery.

Many Turkmen don't have access to adequate health care, especially in rural areas where dilapidated hospitals lack modern medical equipment and even good sanitation.

At the same time, the government deprives people of their most basic rights and freedoms, restricting their access to the Internet, banning social media, and clamping down on free speech. The state also controls all media and does not allow opposition political parties.

Amid financial and social hardships, mortality figures began to go up and the traditionally high birthrates began to drop over the past decade, the sources said. "In 2019, the death count in Turkmenistan was between 5,000 and 6,000 a month. But in 2020, the monthly figures rose to 8,000 and 10,000 at its peak," one of the officials said.

The rise in mortality could also be attributed to COVID-19 cases in the country, despite the government's claim that Turkmenistan has remained coronavirus-free and has not had a single death from the coronavirus, despite evidence to the contrary.

The government doesn't publish mortality statistics. But even by official estimates, the birthrate in Turkmenistan has been steadily falling in recent years.

If the fertility rate drops below 2.1 children per woman, it means a country's population has begun to shrink. In Turkmenistan, it went into negative territory with -0.5 in 2014 and continued to fall, with -3.2 in 2020.

In comparison, the populations in the other four Central Asian countries have been rising. Tajikistan recorded the highest population growth rate in the region, with more than 2 percent between 2015 and 2020, according to United Nations figures. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan came in second with 1.4 percent growth, followed by Kazakhstan with a 1.1 percent rise during the same period.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service