Turkmenistan’s President Saparmurat Niyazov, having traditionally maintained neutrality for his country in its international relations, has now made strengthening the armed forces one of Turkmenistan’s top priorities. Such efforts to raise the overall standards in the military and enhance Turkmenistan’s defense capacity come at a time of uncertainty over the political futures of the post-Soviet leaders throughout Central Asia, from which Niyazov will attempt to shield himself. The nature of Ashgabat’s approach to military reform reveals much about its geopolitical priorities as well as indicating the likely future development of its armed forces.
On January 27 Niyazov delivered a speech on state television congratulating the armed forces on the thirteenth anniversary of their formation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His presentation witnessed the usual appeals to the image of the ancient Turkmen warrior and lavished praise on the military itself. The audience was duly heard chanting “Glory to the Great Leader.” Yet in the midst of such politically orchestrated scenes revealing how firm Niyazov’s grip on power remains, an element of an address given by Army General Agageldi Mammetgeldiyev, Turkmenistan’s defense minister, highlighted the central strands in the forthcoming military reform program. Combat training is the main focus, with an emphasis on improving the training for servicemen throughout the armed forces. Plans call for procuring modern advanced military hardware, which seems an essential part of any Central Asian leader’s wishes for his national armed forces, raising the educational levels of servicemen by building new schools and educational establishments, building better military barracks and homes for personnel, and raising the conditions of service. Generic ideas of raising the professional level of Turkmenistan’s servicemen lacked any clear indication of which service branches or particular units could be targeted.
While offering praise for aspects of Niyazov’s military reforms to date, Mammetgeldiyev appeared to attach special significance to air defense forces, possibly at the expense of the army. He identified the Kolchuga air defense complex, which gives adequate protection to Turkmenistan’s airspace, and went on to explain that repairs to existing airframes, including helicopters, have improved air defense capabilities. Indeed, the only direct reference to the army itself came in the context of future plans to produce greater numbers of highly educated officers for the air defense forces and the army. Though the aims of Niyazov’s reform program are sensible in themselves, the practicalities of how these will be implemented are less obvious. Mammetgeldiyev indicated that Ashgabat is viewing more favorably the concept of training its servicemen in foreign countries, which will have to be developed further if only to avoid any deepening of the security structures’ apparent international isolation.
Niyazov publicly supported Mammetgeldiyev’s plans to utilize the army in the 2005 cotton harvest, saying, “This is a right and timely decision because the cotton harvest can be sold and bring good profit.” Since cotton is Turkmenistan’s main export and only around 30% of its crops have been gathered in recent years, the idea is a sensible one. But in the context of plans to reform the military, sending soldiers to work on cotton farms will hardly raise combat readiness. Add to this the mandatory readings within the army of Niyazov’s spiritual writings — his latest collection of poems, “A Spring of My Spirituality” is planned to become compulsory reading in schools and universities — and it is clear that the ordinary soldier does not do much soldiering.
The timing and precise political purposes of strengthening the military are equally important issues and deserve greater attention. Given the emphasis placed on air defense capabilities and the country’s reluctance to become involved in any international military operations or peace-support operations, it is more suggestive of determined efforts to protect Ashgabat’s vital economic interests. Niyazov has the Caspian Sea in mind, with the ongoing problems over the four oilfields disputed by Azerbaijan.
This sensitive issue recently erupted into the open after Baku reacted angrily to reports of negotiations between Turkmenistan and the Canadian Buried Hill Energy Company relating to developing the Kyapaz (Serdar) offshore oilfield. Baku sees the Canadian involvement as de facto recognition of Turkmenistan’s outright ownership of the disputed oilfield. The stern rebuttal from the Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry was accompanied by off-the-record comments from Azerbaijani officials about the possibility of military action should Ashgabat begin developing the disputed oilfields. Such tensions are unhelpful and unwelcome in Caspian security negotiations, but illustrate the type of calculations within the Ministry of Defense in Ashgabat and their interest in military reform.
Potential international assistance to help Ashgabat’s military reform must be carefully crafted to avoid igniting Caspian disputes. Western planners would do well to remember Turkmenistan’s proximity to both Afghanistan and Iran. Tehran and Kabul will surely closely scrutinize any Western security assistance and training to neutral Turkmenistan.
(Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Gorgan, January 24; Turkmen TV First Channel, January 27; Neytralnyy Turkmenistan, January 29).