Population: In 2005 Turkmenistan’s population was estimated at 4,952,000. The annual growth rate was 1.8 percent. In 2003 some 55 percent of the population lived in rural areas. Population density varies greatly between desert areas and areas where water is available. In the first post-Soviet years (1991–95), Turkmenistan experienced a strong rate of immigration as ethnic Turkmens returned to their homeland, but by 2005 the net migration rate was –0.81 per 1,000 population.

Demography: In 2005 some 35.7 percent of the population was 14 years of age or younger, and 4.1 percent of the population was 65 years of age or older. The sex ratio was 0.98 males per female. The birthrate was 27.7 births per 1,000 population, and the death rate was 8.8 per 1,000 population. The infant mortality rate was 73.1 deaths per 1,000 live births. Overall life expectancy was 61.4 years: 58.0 years for males, 64.9 years for females. In 2005 the fertility rate was 3.4 children born per woman.

Ethnic Groups: In 2003 the population of Turkmenistan was 85 percent Turkmen, 5 percent Uzbek, and 4 percent Russian. Smaller ethnic groups, in order of size, are Tatar, Kazakh, Ukrainian, Azeri, and Armenian. The Turkmens are divided into five major tribes: the Ersary, Goklen, Teke, Yasyr, and Yomut. The Teke, to which President Niyazov belongs, predominate in top cultural and political positions. In the early 2000s, government and societal discrimination against minority citizens, particularly Russians, has increased the rate of emigration and depleted the fund of Russian technical expertise. Dual Russian-Turkmenistani citizenship was abolished in 2003.

Languages: In 2003 officially 72 percent of citizens spoke Turkmen, the official state language. Some 12 percent spoke Russian, and 9 percent spoke Uzbek. Russian is spoken mainly in urban areas, and Uzbek is spoken mainly in northern Turkmenistan. Since the late 1990s, the government has discouraged the use of Russian. In 2000 President Niyazov decreed that all governmental office holders and officials in higher education must speak Turkmen, and a campaign has sought to abolish non-Turkmen instruction in institutions of higher learning. In 2004 only one Russian-language newspaper was allowed to publish.

Religion: Turkmenistan has no state religion. An estimated 89 percent of the population practices Sunni Islam and 9 percent Russian Orthodoxy. Islam in Turkmenistan often includes elements of mysticism and shamanism.

Education and Literacy: In the Soviet era, Turkmenistan’s population was considered to be well educated. In 2002 the literacy rate was estimated at 98 percent. However, since independence a serious deterioration of the education system has depleted the overall skill level of the working population. The government has limited curricula by eliminating a wide variety of studies that are considered dangerous or useless. Funding has not matched the growing population, teacher salaries have been reduced, and the infrastructure is in poor condition. The dismissal of many ethnic Russian teachers also has damaged the system. The reduction of obligatory education from 11 years to nine years put Turkmen students at a disadvantage in continuing their education past secondary school. Some 16 institutions of higher learning were operating in the early 2000s, but the government has limited access to higher education by eliminating free tuition (in 2003) and by ethnic background checks on applicants. Bribes often are necessary to enter a university.

Health: In the post-Soviet era, reduced funding has put the health system in poor condition. In 2002 Turkmenistan had 50 hospital beds per 10,000 population, less than half the number in 1996. Overall policy has targeted specialized inpatient facilities to the detriment of basic, outpatient care. Since the late 1990s, many rural facilities have closed, making care available principally in urban areas. President Niyazov’s 2005 proposal to close all hospitals outside Ashgabat intensified this trend. Although health care is theoretically available to all citizens without charge, physicians are poorly trained, modern medical techniques are rarely used, and medications are in short supply. In 2004 Niyazov dismissed 15,000 medical professionals, exacerbating the shortage of personnel. Private health care is rare, as the state maintains a near monopoly. Free public health care was abolished in 2004.

The most common causes of death are cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory disease. Major health factors are poor diet, polluted drinking water, and the industrial and agricultural pollutants that are especially concentrated in the northeastern areas near the Amu Darya River and the Aral Sea. The reported occurrence of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has been less than 0.1 percent. However, sharp increases in drug trafficking through Turkmenistan are likely to increase that figure substantially.

Welfare: In the post-Soviet era, the Niyazov government has declared several large-scale increases in public welfare, and in 2005 the state budget continued providing heavy subsidies for basic services, goods, and utilities. In 1992 Niyazov declared a "Ten Years of Prosperity" program, the goals of which were virtually free natural gas, electricity, and drinking water to all households in the republic and increased social benefits, minimum wages, and food subsidies. The program was renewed for another 10 years in 2000. In 2003 Turkmenistan broadened the coverage of its social security system, and in 2004 pensions and public-sector wages were increased by 50 percent. The state pension system nominally pays retirement pensions to men aged 62 or older who have worked for 25 years and to women aged 57 or older who have worked 20 years, with reduced eligibility requirements for work under hazardous conditions. The disabled and survivors of pension recipients also are eligible for pension coverage. The system also includes sickness and maternity benefits. Although information about living standards is sparse and no official poverty line exists, some failures of the welfare system have been reported since 2000. Turkmenistan’s income inequality is the greatest among the Central Asian republics, with especially strong differences between urban and rural living standards.