On October 21 London refocused British diplomatic efforts in Central Asia from Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan. The Turkmen state news agency publicized a visit to Ashgabat by an official from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), wrongly suggesting this was the FCO’s director for Russia and Central Asia. Still, the visit by Niall Cullens, a middle-ranking official, indicates the growing level of UK government interest in Turkmenistan. In reality, this was intended to be low key-visit to explore the potential to forge cooperation with the post-Niyazov regime.
Cullens held meetings with members of Turkmenistan’s parliament, Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Oil and Gas and Mineral Resources, the presidential State Agency for the Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources, the State Commission for Fighting Drug Addiction, as well as the National Democracy and Human Rights Institute, also under the president of Turkmenistan. His fact-finding mission also involved contacts with other diplomatic missions and international organizations accredited to Ashgabat (www.gundogar.org, October 22). It served to establish that London’s main interests in Turkmenistan are energy, potential counter-narcotics cooperation, and the promotion of democracy and human rights.
The UK is interested in evaluating the possibilities for future defense cooperation with Ashgabat. On October 23 Andrew Lee, commander of an air force department and a military communications officer from the UK Ministry of Defense, arrived in Turkmenistan. The pro-government Turkmenistan.ru website portrayed the visit positively, noting the presence of a “high-profile” British defense official holding talks at the Foreign, Interior, and Defense Ministries (Turkmenistan.ru, October 23). Sources in Ashgabat described the purpose of these talks, as developing a “partnership” between the UK and Turkmenistan in defense relations. This is a surprising, if not unrealistic, concept, given the current difficulties confronting UK defense diplomacy in Central Asia. There has been no progress toward reviving the defense cooperation that existed with Uzbekistan before 2005; closer relations with Kazakhstan have produced mixed achievements; and limited progress with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, although some tangible signs of advances are evident in border security and de-mining training. Each Central Asian state that has forged defense relations with London in recent years continues to enjoy close defense and security cooperation with Russia. Although defense cooperation has remained relatively unscathed between the UK and Russia since the downturn in bilateral relations, the troubled security relations between Moscow and London have had a bearing on the thinking and willingness in each Central Asian capital to enter into closer relations with the UK in these sensitive areas.
Assessing the prospects for defense cooperation with Turkmenistan involves careful analysis of the scope and strict limits of any such arrangements. In particular, Ashgabat has yet to prioritize the key areas for its defense reform. This process, if it is underway at all, most certainly remains at a very early and vulnerable stage. Western countries can have only limited roles to play in helping Turkmenistan to improve its defense capabilities, and domestic government pronouncements on the subject inspire little confidence.
On October 23 Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov chaired a meeting of his Cabinet of Ministers. Military and security officials briefed Berdimukhamedov on the performance of the security forces and their present needs. Predictably, after noting Turkmenistan’s neutral status, a positive assessment of the armed forces was coupled with an equally glowing report on the performance and capabilities of the other security agencies in Turkmenistan, described generically as, “performing their duties well in maintaining public order and also strengthening the country’s defense capacity.”
Berdimukhamedov did admit that his country needs military reform, but his public remarks only served to confirm that he has no concept of what this entails, much less what must be reformed and for what purposes. He began well, highlighting logistics as an area for improvement, but then turned to superficial changes such as new uniforms, not usually a burning issue for presidents to solve. “The new uniform should first of all be of modern design, smart, and also should meet national traditions,” Berdimukhamedov noted (Turkmen TV Altyn Asyr, October 23).
While it may be possible to argue that the British visit was ill-timed, there is evidence to suggest that Western countries could be in a position to offer Ashgabat defense assistance. Turkmenistan’s decision to host a UN center for preventive diplomacy for the Central Asian region in the capital, scheduled to be inaugurated on the country’s Neutrality Day, December 12, indicates that it may be considering a new era in cooperation with Western states. Arguably, Putin got there first, securing the agreement of the Caspian littoral states not to allow their territories to be used for any future U.S. military attack on Iran, a position entirely consistent with its neutral status. Ashgabat, on the other hand, may demonstrate some level of interest in the theme of defense links with the UK, in order to at least to promote and foster its energy interests. With Russian official rhetoric consistently scathing toward British foreign policy, Moscow’s Central Asian neighbors will prove cautious in their defense dealings with London. Moreover, while pursuing bilateral defense relations with the Central Asia states, London has been slow to recognize its declining security influence within the region, which instead of leading to new, piecemeal bilateral arrangements with yet another country in the region could have provided an incentive to formulate an overall strategy for engagement in the region.