Turkmenistan is preparing to conduct its first true census in seventeen years. Given the lack of true data for nearly two decades, population estimates have ranged from 4.67 million up to 6.84 million based on the 1995 census baseline figure of 4.48 million. The World Bank estimated the population to be 5.1 million in 2011. Mass exodus of Russians and Tatars blended with reportedly high child mortality rates lead many to believe figures on the lower end of the spectrum.
Plagued by poor education, malnutrition, and an ailing economy, a sound census could serve as a valuable baseline for future development efforts, both from the Turkmen government and the international community. According to the Turkmen Government’s official site, the census aims to achieve a number of goals including:
1) Refining the boundaries of administrative areas, urban education zones and rural communities,
2) Conducting audits of addresses and street signs to identify necessary repairs and replacements,
3) Identifying the education, income, ethnic make-up and gender of the population,
4) Collecting housing information including the date of construction, materials used, size of the unit and available amenities.
The United Nation’s Population Fund (UNPFA) has played an important role in providing training on international census best practices, cartography and GIS implementation to the Turkmenistan State Statistics Committee since 2007. Hardware and engineering expertise for the technically-ambitious census have been contracted out to INTECH GmbH, a Russian engineering company with customers primarily in Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
In a country where distrust and deception are as useful for survival as they are problematic for macro understanding, the effort faces significant challenges. As Ashley Cleek of Eurasianet noted,
In a 2011 report from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, one Ashgabat journalist described the climate of fear pervasive in Turkmenistan: “We’re afraid to talk to people on the phone. A lot of people have been put behind bars because they let something slip during a telephone conversation.”
Their fear is not unfounded. Travel restrictions for citizens, discrimination against ethnic minorities, and a record of severe censorship haunt the nation. Under former President Niyazov broadcasters had to state that “their tongues will shrivel if their reports ever slander the country, the flag, or the president.”
Despite the recent emergence of Turkmenistan’s first alternative political party, The Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, to the reigning Democratic Party, many note that the party’s existence would not be possible without the approval of strong-man President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. And although the government claims that “All individual information collected in the census is confidential, it will be used only to obtain summary [information] and [will] not in any way affect the personal interests of the citizens,” skepticism and a lack of candor may significantly influence data results.
Turkmenistan’s census is scheduled to take place from December 15– 22, 2012.