By Stephen Blank (7/3/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)
BACKGROUND: Since independence in 1991, Niyazov has ruled Turkmenistan with an iron hand and through a suffocating and omnipresent cult of personality. This dictatorship, evidently far worse than the preceding generation of Soviet rule, has brought Turkmenistan to the brink of disaster and also apparently triggered substantial, if not yet overt, mass and elite disaffection. There is a virtual absence of civil society, and if reports by dissidents are true, there also is a high degree of likelihood of a failing state in the event of a transfer of power.
BACKGROUND: Since independence in 1991, Niyazov has ruled Turkmenistan with an iron hand and through a suffocating and omnipresent cult of personality. This dictatorship, evidently far worse than the preceding generation of Soviet rule, has brought Turkmenistan to the brink of disaster and also apparently triggered substantial, if not yet overt, mass and elite disaffection. There is a virtual absence of civil society, and if reports by dissidents are true, there also is a high degree of likelihood of a failing state in the event of a transfer of power. This fact is beginning to register among all concerned with Turkmenistan\'s future. It seems that as Turkmenistan approaches the brink of socio-economic catastrophe, Niyazov has begun to sense a danger to his increasingly erratic and capricious rule. He has recently purged virtually the entire senior level of government, particularly his police and internal security systems. This has led elite oppositionists like former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov to claim that there is a large movement of elite dissidents – not to mention large-scale mass disaffection – that seeks to overthrow Niyazov. Shikhmuradov has also been touring foreign capitals like Washington to gain support for this alleged movement.
The risk this poses to U.S.-Russian partnership lies in the fact that Shikhmuradov and other opponents of the regime are based in Moscow from where they have openly called for a coup d’etat or for uprising against Niyazov. Since Moscow has become for Central Asian dissidents the equivalent of what Miami is for Latin American oppositionists, at least some U.S. analysts believe that Shikhmuradov has the support of Russia’s government and intelligence services – and he is certainly searching that support. This possibility has undoubtedly alarmed Niyazov, who has now sought to repair Turkmenistan’s international isolation. Thus he convened a conference on the division of the Caspian Sea but the conference fell apart, and Russia signed separate agreements with Kazakstan and will soon do so with Azerbaijan, preserving his isolation. Consequently there is a real possibility of a coup being launched with the support and perhaps instigation of Russian special services.
IMPLICATIONS: Such unilateral actions would endanger partnership with America in Central Asia for several reasons that go beyond concern for Turkmenistan’s enormous natural gas holdings. While the U.S. would prefer not to see Russia virtually corner the Central Asian and Eurasian natural gas market, political and strategic issues are also important. First, a Russian-backed upheaval in Turkmenistan could easily destabilize the country to the degree where Turkmenistan becomes another violence-prone failing state and another front in the war on terrorism. Yet this front would surely be a diversion that saps allied concentration on the main strategic goals of that campaign. Moreover, the possible ensuing violence in Turkmenistan could easily become protracted and spread beyond Turkmenistan’s borders.
Apart from the intrinsic dangers of any war or internal strife in the vicinity of Afghanistan, Iran, and Russia, another point to be considered here is that if such an insurgency instigated by Moscow evolves into protracted unrest, it would trigger enormous pressures upon Moscow to intervene further, something that is clearly recognized to be beyond Moscow’s effective capabilities at present. Yet this reality apparently does not deter its special services from the recurrent temptation of adventurism in the CIS. Such adventurism would signify that Russia and its special services are still too inclined to overplay their hand in the CIS generally, and follow a unilateral course of action like that of the 1990s that led to unending conflict there. A Russian-backed coup would enhance the power of those who have employed this tactic or the analogous one of armed intervention in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Moldova, etc. It would further erode trust between CIS governments and Moscow and between Washington and Moscow by suggesting that the real power and policy in Moscow belong to those who wish to act unilaterally in Central Asia and not in concert with the United States and/or the West. That in itself might actually be a motive for those who would launch such a coup. But it is difficult to see how Russia’s potential gains from unseating Niyazov could outweigh these costs, especially since Russia is clearly unable to sustain a forward position in Central Asia. Consequently the sponsorship of foreign insurgencies under present conditions should be a non-starter for Moscow. But if critical elements of Russia’s regime cannot or will not grasp this elementary fact, as indications show, it is impossible to count on Russia as a predictable ally or partner across an entire agenda of critical international issues.
CONCLUSIONS: While Niyazov’s continuation in power surely endangers Turkmenistan and the region, Russian-backed coups are not the solution. The external pressure that should be brought to bear upon Niyazov’s regime should be thoroughly coordinated among all the states who are now partners in Central Asia and be highly transparent. That transparency and unity would strengthen its force, while possibly reducing the risks of continuing and protracted unrest and violence. Externally-led coups or external support for internal coups here as elsewhere have proven to be a rather unreliable way of advancing the external player’s strategic goals or internal progress.
AUTHOR BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.