The territory of what is now Turkmenistan provided the bedrock for many of the most powerful empires of their age. The Parthians, the Seljuks and the Khans of Khoresm all based their empires at various points on the edge of the Kara-Kum Desert, while Alexander the Great conquered the region during his epic campaign of the fourth century BC. The influence of Islam dates from the seventh century AD, when the region was under Arab control. Modern-day Turkmen are descended from tribes that migrated to the area in the 10th century from the northeast. Around 300 years later, Genghis Khan arrived from the same direction and incorporated Turkmenistan into his expanding empire. From the 15th century, the area was under Persian domination until the Russian move into Central Asia at the end of the 19th century. Turkmenistan fell into the British sphere of influence but the Bolsheviks took control of the region in 1920 and incorporated Turkmenistan as a union republic in 1925.
Turkmenistan's ability to embrace the reforms made possible by glasnost and independence were hampered by its backward economy and, as a result, it retains many more of the trappings of the old system than other post-Soviet republics. There have, however, been significant changes such as the introduction of a new currency and the framework for further economic change has been put in place. By contrast, politics has changed little since the Soviet era. The current president is Saparmyrat Niyazov, who has acquired the honorific title of Türkmenbashy leader of all Turkmen which conveys something of a spiritual, as well as political, leader. He was elected (as the sole candidate) as president in 1990, having been leader of the Turkmenistan Communist Party since 1985 and Chairman of the Supreme Soviet from 1990. In a referendum in 1994, he was confirmed as president.
In 1993, the Majlis (see Government) approved a motion to extend Niyazov's term of office beyond 1997 until 2002. Then, in 1999, it decided to make him president for life. 'Türkmenbashy' has evolved a cult of personality to rival any in the world it has reportedly extended to renaming calendar months in honour of him and assorted relatives. Opposition has been quickly and brutally suppressed, especially in the wake of a reported assassination attempt against Niyazov in late 2002. This peculiar and unpleasant regime is tolerated by the international community for two main reasons the country's strategic position and its enormous (and, as yet, largely undeveloped) reserves of oil, gas and precious metals.
Abroad, Turkmenistan has forged strong economic and political links with Iran and Turkey, within the framework of what the government calls 'permanent neutrality'. The country also retains close links with the Russian Federation, although there have been some recent difficulties over the current dual nationality status of ethnic Russians living in the country. Also, since the US-led war against the Taleban regime in Afghanistan, its strategic position like that of neighbouring Tajikistan has been immeasurably strengthened, as it has become a staging post for materiel and humanitarian aid in Central Asia. For their part, the Turkmens are looking to a new stable Afghanistan as a possible route for the export of their oil and gas deposits.