Facing low commodity prices and a lessened demand for natural gas; oil-dependent Turkmenistan must quickly devise an approach to address the looming threat of macroeconomic instability.
Falls in global commodity prices and decreasing demand for natural gas over the past two years have cut state revenues, leaving the state vulnerable to emerging security concerns along its southern border, and Russian overtures.
Fighting on the Afghan side of the frontier already poses a security risk in the Turkmen border regions. And there are some indications that Moscow is attempting to use the issue to reassert its influence by providing military support to the Turkmen government – in exchange for Russia buying Turkmen gas again.
Ultimately, this means that Turkmenistan will probably accept some form of alliance with Russia in the medium term. Reports of security threats are also likely to gain greater prominence in Russian media, although without necessarily being an accurate reflection of the risk on the ground.
The threat at the Turkmen-Afghan border
Russia and other Central Asian states have expressed concern that the conflict in Afghanistan risks spilling over into Turkmenistan and destabilising the southern border of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Alleged Taliban militants conducted at least three attacks on Turkmen border guards in 2014 and 2015, in what appeared to be an attempt to steal weapons. We have only seen unconfirmed and undetailed reports of similar attacks this year.
However, according to the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe in June, Afghan officials from Faryab province said that Taliban factions comprising Central Asian militants have recently been involved in heavy fighting against Afghan state security forces in districts bordering Turkmenistan. The security situation in these areas and the northern provinces of Afghanistan more widely has worsened over the past two years, in part because of the absence of foreign military troops since 2014. This has allowed the Taliban to gradually take over territory in several provinces including Faryab, Balkh and Badakhshan but particularly Kunduz, at the border with Tajikistan.
The situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon. According to the former governor of Kunduz interviewed by Radio Free Europe last month, the Afghan government is unable to retake territory from the Taliban in previously peaceful northern provinces. The presence of insurgents and terrorists at the CIS borders is also pushing up organised crime in Central Asia and all the way to Russia.
However, the intent of Afghanistan-based insurgent groups to directly target Turkmenistan is probably limited. The Taliban is an Islamist nationalist movement and has not expressed aims to extend its operations beyond the Afghan border. Another militant group originating from Central Asia, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), has been considerably weakened by infighting over the past year. And it does not have the capabilities to expand territorially.
Whatever the case, the concerns of regional governments about the emergent security issues are stimulating engagement between Russian and Turkmen officials, who have met more often than usual recently. The Russian defence minister, Sergey Shoigu, visited Turkmenistan for the first time on 9 June, while the speaker of the Turkmen parliament made her first visit to Moscow the same day. According to the Russian authorities, Shoigu discussed issues of regional security, bilateral military and technical cooperation and ‘ways to activate them’.
Regional concerns around Turkmen capabilities
Such engagement is particularly important for Ashgabat given the Turkmen government’s lack of capability in managing external threats. Turkmenistan is probably the Central Asian state most vulnerable to such threats because it is not part of a military alliance and its armed forces have little operational experience. Its ability to deal with a surge of criminal activity at the border, an inflow of refugees, an insurgency, or a military aggression, appear to be limited.
The Turkmen authorities have already taken measures to protect the border, notably mobilising reservists and moving about 70% of their armed forces there. But otherwise, it has taken few concrete measure to bolster its capability. Turkmenistan has downplayed the threat and strongly condemned Kazakhstan’s claim that the situation at the Turkmen border was unstable. This is unlike Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, who also share a border with Afghanistan, and have tended to exaggerate the threat posed by Islamist groups in order to secure support from Russia and the US.
By contrast, Turkmenistan appears determined to protect its neutrality as long as possible. According to a US diplomat quoted by Eurasianet last November, the Turkmen authorities have cancelled their request for US military help they made at the beginning of 2015. In this context, Russia has been pushing for Ashgabat to accept military support, which the Turkmen authorities publicly refused in January. This could leave Turkmenistan more vulnerable to instability in Afghanistan, but also means that regional partners do not know with certitude what security measures Ashgabat has implemented along the Afghan-Turkmen border.
Broader Russian geopolitical goals in Turkmenistan
Despite Ashgabat’s current resistance to deep security engagement with a foreign government, it is increasingly likely to accept Russian forces, even if the threat from Afghanistan-based groups does not substantively worsen. This is because economic challenges make Turkmenistan vulnerable to pressure from Russia and the Kremlin’s objective to reassert its influence in Central Asia.
Russia is already using a combination of military assistance and economic support as a means to increase its presence in the region and further its policy of political integration of post-Soviet states. It has military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. And Kyrgyzstan joined the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) last year. A Russian expert source on Central Asian politics told us in March that the Kremlin will similarly push for Tajikistan’s accession to the EEU, even if it means economic loss for Moscow.
In relation to Turkmenistan, Moscow now appears in a stronger position to negotiate on its terms with Ashgabat. Russia stopped all imports of Turkmen gas in January, saying that Kazakh and Uzbek partners were offering lower prices. Ashgabat has consistently refused to lower the price of its gas exports to Russia since 2008, despite its economy becoming increasingly reliant on China as a single client. However, Beijing’s demand for Turkmen gas has decreased in the past two years, and it seems unlikely that pipeline construction projects with China, India, Pakistan and Europe will materialise anytime soon. As a result, Turkmen GDP growth shrank by 37% from 2014 to 2015.
To diversify its gas export clients, Ashgabat will probably have to compromise with Russia, over lower gas prices or other concessions. The recent visit of the Russian defence minister to talk about military cooperation suggests that Moscow will probably demand buying Russian weapons or accept Russian military presence in Turkmenistan. This would be in return for Ashgabat regaining Gazprom as a client. When this will happen is unclear, but if the recent diplomatic shuttling is any gauge, it may be soon. And it seems that Russia will have an ever more pressing interest in highlighting security risks in the region.
Image: President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow at UN headquarters on September, 25, 2015: Mary Altaffer, Press Association
This report is part of a series on Central Asia. We will issue further short assessments on the political and security situation in remaining post-Soviet Central Asian states in the coming weeks.
SIAS provides risk management professionals with a responsive international intelligence capability to help them enable business with confidence. To discuss a free trial, use our contact form and reference the code SIAS15.