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About 30-35% of
Turkmenistan is considered arable, but only3.6%
was under cultivation in 1998. Almost all the
sown agricultural land is under irrigation.
Yields are relatively low because of poor water
usage, salinization, inefficient irrigation, and
overdevelopment of cotton cultivation. In 2001,
agriculture engaged 48% of the economically
active population. Agriculture accounts for
about 27% of GDP.
Cotton is the main crop, with production on the
Mary and Tejen oases and along the Amu Dar'ya.
Estimated cotton production for 2001/02 was
185,000 tons, up from 137,000 tons in 1996. Lack
of machinery had caused significant portions of
the cotton crop to go unharvested. Wheat also is
cultivated to avoid dependency on unstable
cotton export earnings. In 1999, estimated
production was 1,506,000 tons. Citrus fruit,
dates, figs, grapes, pomegranates, olives, and
sugarcane are grown in irrigated groves and
fields in the southwest. Sesame, pistachios, and
oilseeds are other important export crops.
Turkmenistan is made up mainly of desert and has the smallest population of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
The government is seen as the region's most autocratic, but the strict isolation imposed by eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov lifted slightly after his death.
The country claims to possess the world's fifth largest estimated reserves of natural gas.
Despite its gas wealth, much of Turkmenistan's population is still impoverished. Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has remained largely closed to the outside world.
It is effectively a one-party state dominated by the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, which was led by the late president Saparmurat Niyazov until his death in December 2006.
The late leader styled himself Turkmenbashi, or Father of the Turkmen, and made himself the centre of an omnipresent cult of personality. Mr Niyazov, who was made president for life in 1999, spent large sums of public money on numerous grandiose projects, but not on social welfare.
Presidential palace in Ashgabat, built by late President Niyazov
His influence spread into every conceivable area of life in the republic. Turkmens were even expected to take spiritual guidance from his book, Ruhnama, a collection of thoughts on Turkmen culture and history.
His successor, Kurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, said he would follow in Mr Niyazov's footsteps, but increasingly showed signs of a different approach, for instance by eschewing the pomp that accompanied his predecessor's public appearances.
Turkmenistan is the most ethnically homogeneous of the Central Asian republics, the vast majority of its population consisting of Turkmens. There are also Uzbeks, Russians and smaller minorities of Kazakhs, Tatars, Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis and Armenians.
In contrast to other former Soviet republics, it has been largely free of inter-ethnic hostilities. However, strong tribal allegiances can be a source of tension.
With foreign investors keeping away, the Turkmen economy remains underdeveloped.
The country has been unable to benefit fully from its gas and oil deposits because of an absence of export routes and a dispute between the Caspian Sea littoral states over the legal status of offshore oil wells.
Turkmenistan produces roughly 70 billion cubic metres of natural gas each year and about two-thirds of its exports go to Russia's Gazprom. A protracted dispute between the two countries over the price ended in September 2006 when Gazprom agreed to pay 54% more.
Turkmenistan has since made efforts to break out of Russia's hold on its exports. It is building a major gas pipeline to China, and is considering taking part in the Nabucco pipeline - an EU-backed project designed to provide an alternative to Russian gas supplies to Europe.
Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was sworn in as president after winning elections in February 2007 with 89% of the vote.
Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov aims to follow in President Niyazov's footsteps
There were six candidates in the poll, all from the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. Exiled figures from the Turkmen opposition were banned from competing. Electoral officials put turnout out at over 95%. Rights groups and Western diplomats condemned the election as rigged.
Weeks later the president was chosen as chairman of the People's Council, Turkmenistan's highest legislative body. He was the only candidate.
A former deputy prime minister, Mr Berdymukhamedov became acting president after authoritarian leader Saparmyrat Niyazov died in December 2006. Mr Niyazov had been in power since Soviet times.
His nomination for the presidency surprised observers because under the constitution the post should have gone to People's Council chairman Ovezgeldy Atayev. However, after Mr Niyazov died Mr Atayev became the subject of a criminal investigation and was sacked.
The new president has promised to continue the policies of his predecessor but also to introduce reforms, including unlimited access to the internet, better education and higher pensions.
Soon after coming to power, he restored pensions to more than 100,000 elderly citizens, reversing President Niyazov's decisions to withdraw them the previous year.
He has dismantled aspects of his predecessor's personality cult, but in part only to introduce the beginnings of one of his own. Already, a new mosque was named after him in 2009, and bookshops are full of Mr Berdymukhamedov's own works.
Once Mr Niyazov's personal dentist, Mr Berdymukhamedov became Turkmen health minister in 1997 and deputy premier in 2001. One of his tasks was to implement Mr Niyazov's health service reforms which are widely seen as having brought about its near collapse.