The Turkmen people were not meant to be tamed, beholden to anyone or anything other than the land. Nomads of determination and skill, the Turkmen of history were notoriously difficult to conquer. Seljuks, Mongols and Uzbeks failed to subject them into an acquiescent bondage.
As soldiers, horsemen and traders, the Turkmen formed an influential constituent part of successive dynasties and Khanates. Brought into service they may have been, but the Turkmen retained an autonomy of character which only Russia would end.
In the 19th century the conquests began; striking out from the Caspian Sea, the Tsarist forces achieved what no civilization had achieved before. The nomadic Turkmen were tamed. 1881: the Battle of Geok Tepe confirms Russian victory.
Since this point, the Turkmen people have been subject to the whims and demands of a select group of people. First, it was the bureaucrats of the Tsarist imperialists; then it was the stooges of the Soviet Union, the eloquently titled General Secretaries of the Communist Party of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic.
The last of these scions of Moscow was Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov. Eccentric, deranged, impulsive, Niyazov became the first President of an independent Turkmenistan. Surely the years of subjection and repression were over? Not so; bloodthirsty meglomaniac that he was, Niyazov drove the Turkmen people further into the ground. Renaming months after his family, commissioning hideously overpriced artworks of his bloated figure, he ruled for personal pleasure.
His successor, the laboriously named Gurbanguly Mälikgulyýewiç Berdimuhamedow, dispensed with the cult of personality and vulgar cultural works but his authoritarian control of the Turkmen was undimmed. In 2012 he was re-elected with 97% of the vote.
On Sunday, multi-party parliamentary elections were held for the first time. Yes, the contesting parties were all government sanctioned; yes, it may be a ruse to detract attention from Turkmenistan’s undemocratic state; yes, it may be an attempt to attract foreign investment.
To simply dismiss this development, however, would be naive. Political development is a slow process. Democratic change does not simply occur overnight, despite the desperate hopes and beliefs of the Western world. Look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya; overthrowing authoritarianism and replacing it with democracy is too destabilising.
Initiating political change, however limited, is the key starting point. Think of the Great Reform Act of 1832 in the United Kingdom. Changes to the electoral system and the franchise were limited, supposed to appease the agitators without giving anything away, yet they set in motion a lengthy political process that ended with universal suffrage. People get encouraged by change, it makes them hungry for more.
For the Turkmen people, it has been a long time coming. Indentured nomads, they yearn for freedom. Do not be surprised to see the streets of Ashgabat bedecked with the demands of a people destined to seize this sliver of hope.