The Armed Forces of Turkmenistan
Department of Oriental Studies
St. Petersburg State University
On October 26, 1991 Turkmenistan held a referendum on independence. The turnout was 94.1% and the overwhelming majority of Turkmens (non-Turkmens have never exceeded 25-30% of the overall population) voted for ceding from the Soviet Union and forming an independent democratic state. On the domestic scene the government adopted a policy of economic and political reforms. In foreign affairs Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov declared a policy of neutrality. On numerous later occasions he indicated that the period of confrontation in the world is over, therefore the greatest political priorities should be peaceful cooperation, non-interference in the affairs of other countries and complete disarmament.1
Formation of national army
The Turkmen authorities chose the road of forming a small but combat capable army "sufficient for protecting the territorial integrity and national sovereignty from possible aggression."2 Until recently the personnel of the Turkmen Armed Forces did not exceed 50,000 men.3
The Turkmen government was clearly unable to cope by itself when the national Armed Forces were created. As early as in July 1992 Turkmenistan signed a treaty on joint defence with Russia. Under the treaty, Russia acted as a guarantor of Turkmenistan's security and contributed former Soviet Army formations deployed in Turkmen territory to increase the budding national Armed Forces. The treaty specified that, except for units and formations of the Border Force, Air Force and Air Defense remaining under Russian command all other military formations would be placed under joint command, with the gradual transition of leadership to the Turkmen side within a period of 10 years. During the transitional period Russia pledged to render military-technical and tactical support and to pay compensation for the deployment of its materiel in Turkmen territory while Turkmenistan pledged to cover spending on the maintenance and supplies of units under joint command.4
In 1993 Moscow and Ashgabat signed an agreement on the joint protection of the Turkmen state border and on the status of Russian servicemen in Turkmenistan. The agreement had no time limit. In keeping with it a 3,000-man strong operational group of the Federal Border Service was set up. In the six years of its existence its personnel was reduced to one tenth its original size. On May 20, 2000 the Turkmen side unilaterally announced its willingness to terminate the agreement and Russian border guards left Turkmenistan by December 20.5
While at first the two abovementioned documents allowed Russia to retain fairly strong positions in the region, the termination of just one of them was very disadvantageous. The foreign policy vector of independent Turkmenistan has been constantly changing. President Niyazov has opted for rapprochement with Turkey and the United States. In 1994 Turkmenistan became the first Central Asian country to join the NATO Partnership for Peace program and get the right to partial participation in NATO arrangements.
The move had a negative impact on the implementation of the 10-year program of developing the Turkmen Armed Forces with Russian assistance. Lately, however, Russian-Turkmen cooperation has revived. The withdrawal of the Russian border force may also be related to Turkmenistan's change in orientation towards the United States. It was after one of the consultations with advisor of US Secretary of State for newly independent states Seven Sestanovich that the Turkmen authorities raised the question of the withdrawal of Russian border guards.6
The Russian border force paid much attention to the protection of borders on the Caspian See. After the withdrawal of the Russians, Americans got down to the delimitation of the sea border between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. It must be noted that control over the Caspian Sea is essential for Russia to successfully contine the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya, among other reasons. Since the Russian civil war of the 1920s, the Caspian Sea has been a crucial transit channel, the appropriate use of which guaranteed a strong influence on the balance of forces in the North Caucasus and not just in Central Asia. It was through the Caspian that Entente countries supported the Menshevik regimes in the North and South Caucasus in 1919-1920.
Russia hoped to keep Turkmenistan in the orbit of its influence through the abovenamed bilateral agreements on military cooperation. A coalition between Russia, Turkmenistan and Iran could have been quite possible and such a coalition would strongly weaken the stance of Azerbaijan and consequently of the United States and Turkey (in the region).
As a result of the division of the Turkestan military district between newly independent countries of Central Asia, Turkmenistan inherited Central Asia's largest air force grouping in Mary, the ground units of the garrisons in Gyzylarbat, Gushgy and Ashgabat. The Turkmen Defense Ministry was faced with an acute shortage of local military officers. In Soviet times the share of ethnic Turkmens in the officers' corps was small. Now thanks to Defense Ministry efforts, 70-80% of the officers are ethnic Turkmens. The Defense Ministry opened a military college in Ashgabat. Intergovernmental agreements were signed with Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and Pakistan on training officers for the Turkmen Armed Forces. Besides, participation in NATO programs permitted Turkmenistan to send officers to training centers of member-countries of the alliance. Thus in 1999-2000 13 Turkmen servicemen were instructed under the International Military Education and Training program of the US Defense Department. The spending involved ran to some $317,000. Special attention was paid to operational and tactical subjects, artillery and engineering reconnaissance.7
Given the changes in the political situation in the world as a whole and in Central Asia in particular Turkmenistan has doubled the size of its Armed Forces from 50,000 to 100,000 and partly rearmed them.
The current Turkmen defense budget amounts to $90 million or 3.4% of the GDP. The modest figure can be partly attributed to the "self-sufficiency and food independence program" of the army. Military formations spend a significant part of their time on farming, cattle breeding and tilling the land.8 Naturally, this compromices combat training. In addition, the top echelons of power overseeing the Defense Ministry are ridden with corruption and provincialism.9
What is being described as the reform began with a cabinet reshuffle. First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shikhmuradov was fired first. In 1994, together with former Chief of the General Staff of the Turkmen Armed Forces Annamurat Soltanov he sold 5 fully equipped Su-17 ground attack aircraft to the Russian Bonex company. The deal is estimated to have been worth $25 million. Shikhmuradov was also involved in the illegal exportation of 9,000 AKS-74 short-barrel Kalashnikov assault rifles and 1.5 million cartridges for them.10
Then Defense Minister Batyr Sarjayev was removed and his post given to Gurbandurdy Begenjov, earlier chief of the military counter-intelligence service. In 2002 Begenjov was also sacked and Rejepbai Arazov, a former Turkmen parliament speaker, was appointed deputy prime minister for the military and law enforcement agencies and Defense Minister. Lt. Gen. Serdar Charyyarov was appointed first deputy defense minister, chief of the General Staff and Air Force commander.
A new law on conscription and military service became another manifestation of military reform. Under law, Turkmens can now enter military service at the age of 17 with a personal application. The purpose is to reduce the overall age of the military personnel and to increase the number of people of conscription age. In 2001 Turkmenistan regarded 952,218 persons aged between 15 and 49 fit for military service.11 The mandatory conscription age was set between 18 and 30. The exemption from conscription for college and university students was abolished. The term of military service was prolonged from 18 to 24 months. Only persons with a college or university degree may be eligable for a 1.5 year military service. In the Navy and Coastal Guard, the term of service is 30 months. Military departments were closed at universities and colleges to improve the enforcement of the law, even though the country badly needed its own officers.
The current staffing principle has two key objectives: to prevent mass-scale desertion and guarantee government control over the entire territory of Turkmenistan. Traditionally for Turkmen, tribal ties have been more important than ethnic ties. Therefore, conscripts are sent to do their military service outside their home areas. To prevent any imbalance, conscripts are sent to districts where the overwhelming majority of the population belongs to other tribes. As the system of military commissars was already rotten trugh during Soviet times Niyazov radically changed the system of conscription in 1999.12 On February 5 of the same year, in order to reduce the number of deserters, he announced an amnesty for those who would voluntarily return to their army units to continue their terms of service.13
Unlike many other developing countries in Turkmenistan the army does not perform police functions nor does it wage or intend to wage hostilities inside the country itself. The army itself, however, may even pose a potential threat to the ruling regime. The medicine against this ailment is quite traditional - rotation of the top brass and territorial rotation (i.e. the area of service is separated as much as possible from the place of birth/conscription).
Forces and means
The Turkmen Navy is currently subordinate to the command of the border force. Its main base is Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk). The Navy personnel together with Coast Guard number less than 2,000.
The development of the Navy that is likely to soon be given independent status is a priority of military reform primarily because of the unresolved legal status of the Caspian Sea and the need to protect the emerging national oil drilling fleet. In addition to natural gas, the reserves of which off the coast of Turkmenistan are estimated between 5.5 billion and 11 billion cubic meters, the Caspian shelf contains rich oil reserves. Turkmenistan has certain differences with Azerbaijan over several oilfields - namely Kyapaz, Azeri and Chirag.14 Large-scale hostilities between them are unlikely but mutual provocations of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are quite possible.15
Turkmenistan pays special attention to units stationed on the Caspian Sea coast. In May 2001 President Niyazov during a tour of the west of the country inspected coastal units and was quite satisfied with their state. In 2001 Turkmenistan decided to import through Ukrspetsexport company 20 Grif and Kalkan-M patrol boats from Ukraine with the purpose of reinforcing its Navy. The vessels are to be used by border, customs and police services. No less than two vessels have already been delivered. Under a joint military cooperation plan of the Turkmen Defense Ministry and the United States Central Command the Turkmen Navy has also been supplied with a patrol boat of the Point Jackson class.16
Nevertheless, at the moment the Turkmen Navy remains the weakest in the Caspian Sea compared to the navies of other littoral countries (see Table 1). Before its division in 1992, the Russian Caspian Flotilla consisted of 2 destroyers, 12 frigates and over 50 motorboats not counting support ships. When Soviet military property was divided, Russia lost some 15 warships and 50 support ships that went over to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan also inherited the main base of the flotilla - Baku. In 1993 several more ships were handed over to Kazakhstan. In 1997 Russia reinforced its flotilla with marine units and Ka-25 and Ka-27 anti-submarine helicopters. In 1998 the flotilla commissioned the trawler Magomet Gajiyev. Despite the commissioning of new ships the Russian Caspian Flotilla largely consists of vessels launched 18-30 years ago. Its main base is now located in Zaton, near Astrakhan.
The Kazakh Coast Guard bases are in Aktau and Atyrau. The formations inherited in the process of the division of Soviet military property were reinforced by 10 motorboats received from the Untied States and Germany. In July 1998 Kazakhstan received three Coast Guard vessels built in Uralsk, west Kazakhstan. Two more were then under construction.
The Iranian fleet in the Caspian is represented by forces of the fourth naval district with the main base in Bandar-e Anzelli and an auxiliary base in Nowshahr. It comprises up to 50 warships and support ships, a marine corps, Coast Guard and naval aviation with a combined personnel of up to 3,000. There are plans of reinforcing the grouping by almost doubling it. Iran is even considering the possibility of deploying a submarine of the Kilo class in the Caspian.
As was mentioned above after the disintegration of the USSR Turkmenistan inherited the largest Air Force grouping in Central Asia, stationed at two major bases near Mary and Ashgabat. At the end of 2000 the Air Force had a personnel of 3,000. The Air Force fleet comprised up to 250 helicopters and aircraft of different systems (see Table 2).
In keeping with its policy of updating army materiel the Turkmen government has signed an agreement for the repair of all Su-25 ground attack aircraft at Tbilisi Aircraft Manufacturing Plant in Georgia. The repair of 22 aircraft were completed by September 1, 2001. The cost of repairing one aircraft stands at about $1 million. The Tbilisi plant made the repairs by way of paying Georgia's $340 million in debts for Turkmen natural gas deliveries.17 In addition the Turkmen government wished to acquire two new two-seater aircraft from the Tbilisi plant. The size of the deal is estimated at $20 million.18
At the moment the Air Force is the most combat capable component of the Turkmen Armed Forces. It is used, among other things, for patrolling the Caspian Sea thus compensating for the insufficient capacity of the Navy.
The land forces have a mixed structure. It is not clear whether Turkmenistan plans to fully move to staffing on the basis of brigades. Artillery and tank units are the best equipped and most mobile and consequently most combat capable.
Table 1. The naval potential of Caspian countries
Source: Author's estimations based on information of ITAR-TASS, BBC and AVN news agencies.Table 2. Turkmen Air Force aircraft
They have up to 600 T-72 main battle tanks, over 1,000 combat armored vehicles and some 500 units of artillery with a caliber exceeding 100 mm.19 Lately Turkmenistan has been significantly building up its border forces. At the end of 2001 three new border units were formed: one is deployed in the north-west on the border with Kazakhstan, the second in the area of Kerki on the border with Afghanistan (the total length of the Turkmen-Afghan border is 850 kilometers), the third Koitendag unit is deployed in the southeast at the junction of the Afghan-Uzbek and Turkmen borders. The latter unit operates in the most difficult terrain. The formation of the new units was quite justified. Turkmenistan has a fairly long borderline. After Turkmenistan renounced the presence of Russian border guards in its territory, its borders have been poorly guarded due to the lack of personnel and poor training. The other reason for reinforcing the borders is the anti-terrorist effort of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan. A large number of refugees have concentrated across the border in Afghanistan. The large-scale call up of reservists to active army service is related to the strengthening of borders. At the end of last year summons were sent to some 10,000 reservists. In 2001 a significant part of the 50,000 conscripts were sent to border garrisons.
Turkmenistan has no border disputes with Kazakhstan but Astana is deeply concerned with the transit of Afghan drugs via Turkmenistan to its own territory because some sections of the Afghan-Turkmen border in the area of Kushka remain completely open up to now.
Relations with Turkmenistan's other neighbor - Uzbekistan - had been peaceful until recently. The border areas of the two countries had simplified visa regulations because many ethic Turkmens live in Uzbekistan while Karakalpaks and Uzbeks live in Turkmenistan. Sometimes the Turkmens and Uzbeks belong to different clans of the same tribes. After the explosions in Tashkent Uzbek President Islam Karimov closed the border and tightened visa regulations. Naturally this unpopular step did not arouse enthusiasm among the local populations. There were armed clashes near the town of Amudaryinsky in the Dashoug district, but they had no serious consequences.20
Turkmenistan is a country with a small population scattered over a significant territory. It is surrounded by much more powerful neighbors even, in terms of demography, who are not however hostile Turkmenistan with its population of 4.5 million, neighbors Azerbaijan with a population of 7.5 million, Kazakhstan - 17 million, Uzbekistan - 25 million, Afghanistan - 20 million, Iran - 65 million. Such a position, in addition to the absence of clear enemies have predetermined Turkmenistan's neutral status that is observed in practice, not just on paper. Actually it is the most neutral of all former Soviet republics. On the one hand, Turkmenistan has not signed the pro-Russian Collective Security Treaty, on the other hand, it does not belong to the pro-Atlantic GUUAM organization (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova). Turkmenistan also conducted a manifestly neutral policy with regard to the war in Afghanistan by maintaining equal relations with both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Even after September 11, 2001, the allied NATO armed forces have not appeared in its territory.21
To date three key geographical directions may be singled out in Turkmenistan's efforts to guarantee the security of its borders and protect its national interests of Turkmenistan: the Caspian, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
Map 1. Turkmenistan
1 E. Efegil, A.M.Olzhai, Kh. Kydyk, "Sotrudnichestvo Turkmenistana s mezhdunarodnymy i regionalnymy organizatsiyami," Tsentralnaya Aziya I Kavkaz, 24.04.2002, p. 3.
2 Roman Streshnev, Krasnaya Zvezda, 27.01.2001.
3 "Spravka o vooruzhonnykh silakh Turkmenistana I Uzbekistana," Strana.ru, 11.10.2001, www.strana.ru.
4 "Russian Military Districts," Federation of American Scientists, 24.04.2002, www.fas.org.
5 V. Georgiyev, "Ashkhabadu stalo nevygodno rossiiskoye prisutstivye," Nezavisimaya gazeta, 27.04.2002.
7 Foreign Military Training and DoD Engagement Activities of Interest, Vol. I, Joint Report to Congress, March 2000, DOS Foreign Policy Objectives, 24.04.2002, Federation of American Scientists. www.fas.org.
8 Eurasia-Internet, "Turkmenskuyu armiyu kosit golod," 29.05.2002; Vadim Granin, "V Turkmenistane snizhen vozrastnoi tsenz dlya sluzhby v armii…," Erkin Turkmenistan, 10.04.2002.
9 For details see: www.erkin.net/chronicle/sveltana.html.
10 "Neparadnoye litso eks vitse-premyera," Parlamentskaya Gazeta, 10.11.2001.
11 The World Factbook, www.cia.gov.
12 There exist quite definite bribe rates in Turkmenistan for being exempted from conscription. A reservist is expected to pay $100-200, exemption from regular army service is much more expensive $1,000-2,000 depending on the arm of service, locality, rank of official and complexity of procedure. See "Turkmenistan ukreplyayet svoi granitsy," Information and Analysis Center of Kyrgyzstan, 24.01.2002.
14 N. Aliyev, Kh. Ismailova, "Ashgabat pristupayet k polnomasshtabnoi dobyche nefti na Kaspii," Caspian.ru, 26.06.2001.
15 E. Mirzoyev, "Voyennye prigotovleniya na Kaspii," www.russianseattle.com, 30.05.2002; Turkmenistan.ru, "Prezident Turkmenii posetil dislotsirovannye na Kaspii voinskiye podrazdeleniya," 31.05.2001.
16 www.mutalibov.org, 09.06.2001.
17 "Gruziya remontiruyet turkmenskiye shturmoviki," www. turkmenistan.ru, 2001.
18 "Tbilaviastroi pomogayet Gruzii pogashat yeyo dolg pered Turkmenistanom," Prime-news, 02.07.2001.
19 V. Georgiyev, "Ashkhabadu stalo nevygodno rossiiskoye prisutstviye," Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 27.04.2002.
20 "Turkmenistan ukreplyayet svoi granitsy," Information and Analysis Center of Kyrgyzstan, 24.01.2002.
21 Thus President Niyazov refused to offer bases to German aircraft arguing that his country is determined to continue following the principles of neutrality. See Ekho Moskvy Radio, 07.01.2002.
Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST)