How many people live in Turkmenistan? For years it’s been anyone’s guess.
But this December Ashgabat is planning to conduct a census -- the first since 1995. Authorities seem serious about systematically counting every person in the country. The government website dedicated to the census announces, “Right now in most cases we operate based on the 1995 census, but it seems that the situation has changed.”
According to the last survey, there were 4.481 million people living in Turkmenistan in 1995. Since then, from time to time, the government has doled out official “estimations.” Under former President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s population was announced bi-annually. The opposition-run website Gundogar notes that under Niyazov, “on March 1, 2006, new official information was printed that [the population was] 6,786,400 [...] on July 1, 2006 it was 6,836,500.” That’s a sharp increase in just a few months.
Outside observers generally estimate a markedly lower population of around 4.67 million people in 2005. The United States and the United Nations note that Turkmenistan had a high infant mortality rate – around 70 out of 1,000 births – until 2006. Now, the US and UN predict Turkmenistan’s population to be somewhere around 5.1 million.
The 1995 census contained 19 questions -- about education, work and children. For the 2012 census, the Turkmen government is coordinating with UNICEF and other UN agencies to compile a list of questions and a methodology. In fact, the UN in Turkmenistan has been pushing for a census for years. Without an accurate count of people, minorities, etc., it is difficult to build a picture of how Turkmenistan has changed in almost a generation.
But in authoritarian Turkmenistan, how comfortable will people be answering a stranger’s detailed questions about family and earnings? 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.”
Will that state of fear influence the way people respond to a census?