Modest but meaningful steps to prevent proliferation in Turkmenistan

By Hannah Rifkin | October 7, 2016

Turkmenistan’s constitution states that the country is permanently neutral. Many have interpreted this stance as an absolute refusal to participate in international coalitions and treaties. While Turkmenistan joins international coalitions less often than its Central Asian neighbors, the increasing instability of Central Asia, exacerbated by the withdrawal of NATO troops from the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border, guarantees a Turkmen interest in increasing security in the country—and this drive toward security will increase the probability of Turkmen participation in coalitions and treaties.

One piece of evidence for Turkmenistan’s willingness to participate in international treaties is the Turkmenistan National Implementation Plan of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540, submitted in preparation for the 2004 adoption of the resolution. UNSCR 1540 affirms that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a threat to international peace and security and obliges all UN member states to develop and enforce measures to prevent the spread of such weapons to non-state actors.

Further evidence for Turkmenistan’s commitment to UNSCR 1540 is its sustained involvement with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). To build on this commitment, Turkmenistan could and should implement several measures—including better border security and European Union export trade controls—over the next five years to promote security within Turkmenistan and Central Asia.

An economy in crisis. While Turkmenistan does not provide reliable public data about GDP growth or decline, the Turkmen economic circumstance is undeniably grim. The Turkmen economy relies heavily on exports to Russia and China, and the severe economic crises in both countries have limited Turkmenistan’s export market. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan’s primary export, gas, has drastically declined in value during the past year. Both of these factors increase the likelihood that Turkmenistan will participate more actively in bilateral and multilateral agreements when offered an economic incentive to do so.

In addition to Turkmen economic instability, Turkmenistan’s location in Central Asia is significant in that the country is never far from conflict. The Istanbul Ataturk airport attack in June reminded the world that Central Asia plays an important role in the terrorist group ISIS. Central Asian leaders, however, have been acutely aware of the risk. As ISIS loses ground in Syria, many ISIS militants have fled the battleground to return to their home countries. The number of ISIS fighters from Russia and Central Asia is unknown but significant. Russian President Vladimir Putin estimated in 2015 that between 5,000 and 7,000 people have left Russia and other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States to fight in Syria. This situation is concerning and reminiscent of the era under Russian President Boris Yeltsin—when Chechen soldiers, trained in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war, returned home to Chechnya. After the Soviet Union denied Chechnya independence, violence erupted in Chechnya, and Chechen terrorist attacks plagued Russia for two decades.

Russia is not the only country in the region to experience homegrown terrorism. In 2016 a group of at least 16 people organized an attack in Aktobe, Kazakhstan. The attack was linked with a plot to overthrow the Kazakh government. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev described the attack as a “color revolution,” linking terrorist acts and regime change firmly in the minds of leaders in Central Asia.

Central Asian leaders are acutely aware of the risk terrorism plays in their countries, including threats to the stability of their own regimes. The Syrian civil war, combined with weak borders in Central Asia, creates the possibility for untold horrors. With the major exception of the Aum Shinrikyo group in Japan, terrorists have almost exclusively used conventional arms to commit attacks. Despite this reliance on conventional arms, terrorist groups such as ISIS have sought weapons of mass destruction in the past and will continue to do so. Successful implementation of UNSCR 1540 can mitigate such risks.

Better border security. Turkmenistan’s existing border patrol is ineffective and must undergo significant change to combat proliferation risks. As the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported in 2014: “The primary task of Turkmenistan’s 12,000-strong border guard is to counter the flow of illegal drugs into the country. The force is considered highly corrupt and ineffective, with a high likelihood that both its leaders and personnel are themselves involved in cross-border smuggling operations . . . In addition to corruption problems, the border guard does not have the manpower and surveillance equipment to effectively observe and patrol the entire border.”

The 462-mile Turkmen border with Afghanistan is porous and unstable, and the recent withdrawal of NATO and US troops has only exacerbated the situation. Weak border security presents a grave risk to Turkmenistan, as traffickers and proliferators alike can exploit the porous border.

The international community should pivot its engagement on UNSCR 1540 to activities that strengthen border security. Better border patrol is vital to ensure that proliferators cannot use Turkmenistan as a safe haven. To effectively and fully implement UNSCR 1540, Turkmenistan should request assistance to buy surveillance equipment to secure its borders, hire and train more border patrol guards, and retrain existing guards.

Because of its neutrality, Turkmenistan may find that multiple donors wish to assist with border security, in hopes of winning favor with the small petrostate. The Austrian Federal Ministry of the Interior and the European Union have funded border control efforts in Central Asia as recently as 2013 and may be willing to assist Turkmenistan again.Turkmenistan should also submit a request for financial assistance to send border guards to the OSCE’s Border Management Staff College in Tajikistan. Given sufficient funding, Turkmenistan can make significant progress on border security over the next five years.

During Year 1 of a five-year program, Turkmenistan should send a group of senior and promising border guards to the OSCE college. Training at the college in Tajikistan would enable border guards to identify and respond not only to conventional arms, but also to identify materials that could be used to construct a weapon of mass destruction. By Year 2, Turkmenistan should hire more border guards to man the understaffed border. During the final three years, a contingent of Turkmenistan’s top guards should return to the college to develop internal training—to ensure that effective practices learned in Tajikistan are not lost if funding is jeopardized in the future.

In addition to its college in Tajikistan, OSCE is also active in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital and its largest city. There the OSCE “regularly organizes specialized training courses for navy and border security officers, customs personnel, and aviation and airport security staff on topics that range from patrolling procedures and surveillance techniques to maritime security protocols and airport safety management.” OSCE also trains Turkmen law enforcement officials on techniques to counter drug trafficking and strengthen travel document security.

Improving border security is not only timely, but also a proven way to engage with Turkmenistan. Few international organizations are allowed to operate in Turkmenistan. OSCE’s presence indicates willingness by the Turkmen government to participate in activities that strengthen border security in the country.

Better export controls. International engagement with Turkmenistan should also focus on developing export controls that not only limit the supply chain network, but also inspire confidence in Turkmenistan as a trading partner. According to a private email message that I received from Tetyana Ivanishena, a foreign service officer at the US State Department, the Turkmenistan embassy has reported that the Turkmen Ministry of Trade and Foreign Economic Relations, the State Customs Service, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs all manage Turkmen export controls. That Turkmenistan has some form of export controls is a positive indication that the country is willing to engage with its UNSCR 1540 responsibilities. The embassy also reports that Turkmenistan works with multilateral organizations, in addition to working bilaterally with the United States, to strengthen border controls.

Turkmenistan should prioritize implementing the European Union’s dual-use export controls—a common set of rules regulating trade in items that can be used for both civilian and military purposes—as one of the first steps to better implement UNSCR 1540. The EU trade controls have been successfully implemented in many other countries, so they are unlikely to limit trade—something that should be emphasized when negotiating with Turkmenistan. By encouraging confidence in Turkmenistan as a trading partner, the EU trade controls could mitigate trade losses that Turkmenistan might experience after implementing the controls. Because the Turkmen government controls industry in the country, outreach to the government through existing channels, such as OSCE, is essential.

After implementing the EU dual-use export control regime, the Turkmenistan government should create one agency that is responsible for enforcing export controls. As mentioned above, three separate ministries currently enforce export controls. Centralizing export controls within one ministry will eliminate gaps and inefficiencies in the existing regime. Creating one ministry to oversee enforcement will not be easy, because it requires countless hours of training. The OSCE should assist in training Turkmen government officials, but it will likely take several years of successful implementation of the EU export control regime to produce a new, streamlined ministry. Optimistically, if the EU dual use export regime is adopted in Year 1, the new export control ministry should be operational by Year 3.

Better transparency. The government of Turkmenistan must be transparent in its efforts to update export controls as part of its commitment to UNSCR 1540 efforts. Transparency is important because it builds confidence among potential trading partners. Transparency on UNSCR 1540 measures is also important as a public commitment, making it more likely that Turkmenistan will continue to participate in other activities to strengthen UNSCR 1540 in the future.

Transparency is not common in Turkmenistan, so a push for transparency will be difficult and will take time. Each step toward strengthening UNSCR 1540 in Turkmenistan should be covered by state-run news and framed as a path to modernity and an achievement for Turkmenistan.

While Turkmenistan may seem an unlikely proliferator, a Turkmen push toward a more comprehensive implementation of UNSCR 1540 is critical: Vigilance by all countries is necessary to prevent non-state actors from proliferating.

Editor’s note: This essay was one of five finalists in the Stimson Center’s United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 International Student Essay Contest. It has been edited for publication in the Bulletin. You can read other winning national action plans to counter proliferation in Tunisia, the United States, Russia, and Qatar in Countering WMD Proliferation: The Next Generation's Ideas.

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