According to Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry press service, an incident occurred in Ashgabat on September 13, as a consequence of the activities of an illegal drug ring. The Prosecutor-General’s Office said that an operation involving the use of police and special forces units had been launched to quell the violence. In addition to some arrests, the press release confirmed that others involved had been “neutralized.” Residents of the Khitrovka district of the Turkmen capital reported gun battles that lasted throughout the night (Interfax, September 14).
Turkmen media outlets were predictably silent on these events, despite the international impression that Turkmenistan has been improving gradually since the death of Niyazov and hopes that the country is becoming more open following the rapid upsurge in interest of Western energy companies in doing business with the regime. In the information haze that followed, typical in such a closed regime, there are a number of points that demand further consideration. It is also questionable how well the Western states know the country they are doing business with or indeed the extent of Turkmenistan’s “neutrality”
Foreign reports differed even on the issue of how the long the fighting had lasted, varying from several hours to as long as 24 hours. The overall picture of the incident involved an armed group being confronted by security forces. Eyewitnesses told the Associated Press that the streets around the area where the fighting occurred were patrolled by armored personnel carriers (APCs). Others reported seeing tanks in the streets. The response seemed disproportionate and in all likelihood poorly organized. Russian press reports suggested that Islamic terrorists were involved and had seized a drinking water plant. They were reportedly fired on by tanks and APCs, with the precaution being considered of closing the local airport. The following day, the area was patrolled by APCs and security personnel; but by evening the situation had returned to normal. An opposition website alleged that up to 20 Turkmen police officers had been killed and their bodies taken in secret to hospitals in Ashgabat (Ekho Moskvy Radio, Vremya Novosti, AP, www.gundogar.org, September 14).
Additional reporting seemed to corroborate that a building or plant had been seized in the capital by an armed group that took some hostages and that security forces had later stormed the building, resulting in casualties on both sides. The official explanation for the incident, however, is that it involved only armed drug dealers. No explanation was given for why they had taken hostages, the sequence of events, or why the security forces had deployed in such strength against lightly armed targets. Nor was there any reliable information about casualties, with reports varying between 20 Turkmen security personnel killed to about nine on each side with as many injured.
This silence is hardly surprising, but in light of Turkmenistan’s efforts to enhance its international image, it serves to illustrate just how closed the country remains with the media tightly controlled by the state and the response to the incident cloaked in mystery and carried out with a “Soviet” air of stifling information (www.chron-tm.org, Vienna, September 14). The Prosecutor-General’s Office released a statement on September 14 confirming that authorities had engaged with an armed gang, which had been uncovered during a routine police sweep in the city.. The armed gang consisted of drug dealers, and a conflict ensued that demanded a response from the Turkmen security forces. The prosecutor-general’s office launched an investigation into the incident, although it has given no further details of whether anyone is in custody (Turkmen government website, September 14).
One unconfirmed report, based on an interview with a Turkmen police major, suggested that the authorities were surprised by the armed gang’s fierce resistance and had to call for help from a special unit in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which quickly dealt with the situation. That would explain the length of the operation and the implication that the Turkmen forces encountered difficulty. This report suggested that there were at least two Islamic militants in the gang and that it had not simply involved drug dealers as the Turkmen government claimed (www.chron-tm.org, Vienna, September 14).
The armed clash in otherwise tranquil Ashgabat highlights how little is known about the real security situation in the country. At best Western assessments of the security threats and risks to businesses operating there are only provisional in a society that remains so closed and “Soviet” in matters relating to national security. A number of points can be drawn from these events, though tentative in nature, and pose questions about Turkmenistan’s security capabilities. Officially, the government is uncomfortable about recognizing that Islamic militants may transit Turkmen territory, since the regime has had a long history of collusion with drug trafficking though its porous borders. Why the armed response was triggered in the first place remains unclear, as do the objectives of the “armed gang.” In any case, that a lightly armed gang should merit a response that included tanks, APCs, and other elements of the Turkmen security forces suggests a lack of real planning for such incidents and shows at least some of the deficiencies in the Turkmen security forces. Finally, despite its much vaunted “neutral” status, if Turkmen authorities in fact panicked and asked for assistance from the FSB in Moscow, it suggests that Russia is already playing the role in Turkmenistan that it appears to be recasting in Central Asia and the South Caucasus: guarantor of security.