Turkmenistan’s President Saparmurat Niyazov announced on September 1 that his country would downgrade its links with the Commonwealth of Independent States. Arguing on the basis of his avowed and UN-approved neutral status, Niyazov advanced the idea of a looser associate CIS membership, eschewing the participation of Turkmenistan in any future CIS military exercises or involvement in post-Soviet military structures.
Niyazov made clear his country’s position regarding future links with CIS military structures, speaking during a trip to Dasoguz in Northern Turkmenistan. “There are numerous military treaties within the CIS under which regular military exercises are conducted. But we should not take part in them, and many people do not understand this. That is why we told them that we are pulling out of the CIS. The leaders of all CIS member countries have supported this idea” (Turkmen TV First Channel, September 1).
Niyazov defended the withdrawal from the CIS — or downgraded associate membership — on the basis of his country’s preference for neutrality. He expressed concern about Turkmenistan’s commitment under existing CIS treaties to participate in military exercises, fearing this provision might send the wrong signals to neighbors. He suggested that after conveying this decision to CIS leaders at the CIS summit in Kazan, a general understanding, if not sympathy was offered for his position. Turkmenistan has to avoid military alliances and seeming to favor any particular structure or individual state against another. Instead, Ashgabat prefers to purchase weapons that meet only modest defense needs.
Ashgabat’s announcement came originally during the CIS Summit in Kazan and took many within the former Soviet space by surprise. The official statement appeared to send a blow to efforts aimed at promulgating a CIS-wide security effort: “Turkmenistan will continue to further develop its relations on a bilateral basis with CIS states on issues of mutual interest. We may also take part in multilateral relations within the CIS, apart from activities involving the Commonwealth’s military and security structures” (Itar-Tass, August 27).
Russian reaction was somber and tended to focus on the somewhat forlorn state of CIS security integration efforts. Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council foreign affairs committee, believed that it confirmed the serious cracks within the CIS and once again raised doubts about the long-term future for the CIS. “As for new impetuses for the development of the CIS, they are not obvious — everything depends on whether Commonwealth members want to reform the organization in earnest,” remarked Margelov (Interfax, August 29). While denying that Niyazov’s decision signaled the end of the CIS, Margelov recognized the serious nature of the setback.
In the immediate aftermath of the Kazan summit, official Turkmen statements denied any intention of repositioning the country to favor hosting foreign military bases. Such an arrangement, according to official reposts, would only serve to compromise the neutrality of Turkmenistan (Turkmen TV First Channel, August 27).
Nonetheless, coming at a time when senior U.S. military officials were conducting in-country talks with Turkmen defense officials, speculation has been fuelled over the prospect of utilizing Turkmenistan as a possible base for the relocation of U.S. military assets from Uzbekistan.
General John Abizaid, Chief of the U.S. Central Command, met President Niyazov on August 23 to reassure him that the United States mainly seeks to stabilize Afghanistan and bring greater security to the region. Though this position was by no means controversial and was aimed at building diplomatic links with Ashgabat, efforts were also made to promote U.S. security interests, raising the ongoing deployment of the U.S. military in Central Asia (Itar-Tass, August 27).
Reaction to the rumor of plans to redeploy the U.S. military to Turkmenistan has been mixed within Moscow. Some analysts have given credence to these reports, pointing to the suitability of the base at Mary as an example of a base in better condition than the one American military personnel found on arrival in Uzbekistan. Equally, Turkmenistan’s proximity to both Afghanistan and Iran makes sense as a strategic option. But other Russian observers of U.S. policy in the region have urged a more cautious interpretation: Washington is merely testing the political waters, exploring all options before deciding on how best to resolve its basing crisis. Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, Deputy President of the Academy of Geopolitical Science, commented, “I believe that the news of a possible redeployment of the U.S. air base from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan is Washington’s attempt to test the reaction of neighboring states; as far as I know, no specific agreements have been reached to this end” (Interfax, August 29).
U.S. basing options in Central Asia are restricted by the host countries’ membership in the SCO and a desire to not risk their relations with China. Turkmenistan, despite its step back from CIS military structures, is unlikely to put at risk its relations with Russia and Uzbekistan on a wild experiment with its own well-publicized neutrality. Washington must, however, tread carefully, to avoid entanglement in another Central Asian state arguably a very long way from democracy.