Turkmenistan looks set to deepen military ties with Russia in a rare development for a nation that has since independence pursued a rigidly isolationist foreign policy.
ITAR-Tass news agency cited a spokesman for Russia’s defense ministry as saying on June 9 that Moscow would provide Turkmenistan’s armed forces with weaponry and training.
"During talks, the sides discussed relevant issues of bilateral military and military-technical cooperation, as well as problems of regional and global security," ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said, speaking at the close of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Turkmenistan.
Ashgabat’s sudden change of course appears likely motivated by concern over the worsening security situation on the border with Afghanistan.
Foreign-based website Alternative News of Turkmenistan, or ANT, on June 8 carried a sensational item claiming that 27 conscripts stationed on the border were killed in clashes in early May.
The website cited unnamed sources as saying that the body of one soldier was returned to his family in a sealed coffin with the explanation that he had committed suicide. When relatives opened the coffin, they found the body riddled with 17 bullet wounds, the website said.
“An ANT source in the Mary velayat said that the bodies of 20 soldiers were brought to their region, but not in zinc coffins, as it should be, but in sleeping bags,” the website said.
ANT has carried multiple reports of claimed casualties among Turkmen troops on the border, but such stories are virtually impossible to verify independently.
Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev has fired his most senior military official following a series of violent and deadly incidents that point to growing disorder within the armed forces.
On May 11, Zhanybek Kaparov was dismissed and replaced by Raimberdi Duishenbiyev as head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, one day after a soldier in the southern Jalal-Abad region reportedly stabbed a comrade in a squabble over chewing tobacco.
That incident, which did not result in any fatalities, followed news that a 19-year old recruit in the northern Naryn province appeared to have hanged himself after he abandoning his post on May 5.Earlier in the month, a brawl between two soldiers, again in Jalal-Abad, culminated in the death of another 19-year-old conscript.
According to well-regarded human rights organization Kylym Shamy, there have been over 60 deaths in the armed forces in the last four years — most of them suicides.
Militaries across the Central Asian region — particularly its poorest countries Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — are notorious for providing conscripts with dismal living conditions and paltry wages.
Hazing, or the bullying of young conscripts by older officers, is also widespread. Tajikistan is famously, if only unofficially, said to resort to “oblava,” or the kidnapping of recruits, as a method of hitting conscript quotas.
With Tajikistan now in the midst of its spring conscription drive, the country’s top defense official has given to worrying out loud about the state of discipline and morale among the armed forces.
Asia-Plus last week reported that Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo addressed senior defense personnel to discuss a series of problem areas, including the rampant and often deadly scourge of hazing. There is no reason to believe this problem will be tackled with any vigor, however.
Authorities say they have already enlisted 50 percent of the required number of conscripts this season. The techniques used to hit targets strike terror into the hearts of young Tajik men and for many they amount to little more than legalized mass kidnapping.
Pictures have appeared on social media showing young men being rounded up directly from the streets of the capital, Dushanbe. Social media has also served as a platform in the past for anonymously spreading alleged photographic evidence of hazing among conscripts. Media reported last year on four deaths in Tajikistan as a result of hazing: Firdavs Rahmatov, Abduvahhob Kayumov, Parviz Dustmatov and Azam Ubaidulloev.
In an unhappy piece of timing, a court in Dushanbe has just heard the trial of 22-year old man Umedjon Amrohon, who is accused of involvement in the fatal attack in November on a group of military mobilization personnel. Two of the officers were killed in the assault.
Prosecutors have asked that Amrohon be thrown behind bars for life.
Ever since Russia’s Defense Ministry announced it is to convert its military presence in Tajikistan from a division into a brigade, watchers of the region have been scratching their heads trying to work out the significance of the development.
Authorities in Tajikistan appear no more certain than anybody else what to make of it.
Russian news agency TASS on January 30 cited the commander of the Central Military District, Colonel General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, as saying that the reformatting of the base would make Russian forces more mobile, while reducing the volume of enlisted personnel.
“All the same, the role [of the base] as a Russian outpost in Central Asia and guarantor for peace and stability in the region will remain unchanged,” Zarudnitsky was quoted as saying.
A drastic reorganization of Russian forces in Tajikistan has been in progress since late last year, when news emerged that troops were redeploying away from a base near the southern city of Kulyab. The explanation for the move offered at the time was that it was part of plans to enhance combat readiness.
The motivations for the conversion to brigade status appear even more nebulous, and even Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Aslov confessed to being in the dark.
“Questions about changes to the organizational and staff structure of the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan, as far as increasing or decreasing its size goes, have not been discussed at the official level,” Aslov told Deutsche Welle.
It seems remarkable that Russia’s armed forces are adopting strategic military decisions without bothering to consult their hosts, but the episode is characteristic of Moscow’s high-handed attitude toward Dushanbe in its dealings over the base.
Tajikistan has met its quota for the fall military conscription drive 10 days ahead of time this year, state news agency Khovar reported on November 20.
If true, it is a remarkable achievement for a country where so many able-bodied young men have left for overseas in search of work.
This year’s conscript recruitment drive was tinged with bloodshed after two officers with the military mobilization office were killed after being attacked in the capital, Dushanbe, early November 7. Two men have been arrested on suspicion of committing the killings, although authorities have said they still are uncertain over the motive. Investigators said after the incident that the killings were not linked to recruitment drive, although since the two suspects are unemployed and of conscription age, it seems possible that assertion may need to be revisited.
Khovar said the first provinces to meet the quota were Khatlon and Gorno-Badakhshan, followed by Dushanbe, the Sughd province and finally the Districts of Republican Subordination, an area that surrounds Dushanbe.
The two month-long fall military enlistment season had been due to end on November 30. Male adults aged 18 to 27 are eligible for call-up, which boosts the ranks of the military by up to 16,000 draftees every year, according to Defense Ministry figures.
As Khovar notes, there are 600,000 people of eligible age, but 150,000 are exempt for various reasons, while another 100,000 are working abroad. It is unclear though if that larger figure also includes those that have already done their service. The figure for the number of people living abroad may strike some as seeming surprisingly low. An exact calculation on that is difficult as many young men travel to Russia for work without going through much of the necessary bureaucratic procedures.
Tajikistan’s Asia-Plus news website is reporting that Russian troops are pulling out of their base in the southern city of Kulyab in an unexpected and, so far, unexplained development.
The website based its report on November 18 on an official order from Russian military command obtained by local residents with ties to the base.
“We inform you that in connection with a [Russian Central Military District] directive, this military facility is being relocated as of October 15, 2015. The relocation will be completed within two months of receipt of this directive,” reads the summons, as reproduced by Asia-Plus.
No details are provided about where the garrison is to be relocated.
Kulyab is one of the three cities in Tajikistan where the Russian 201st Motor Rifle Division is deployed — the others are Dushanbe and Kurgan-Tyube.
Russian troops numbers in the country are estimated to stand at around between 6,000 and 7,000.
The presence of the base in Kulyab provokes mixed feelings. While adding to the local economy, the military presence has also been at the root of much scandal in recent years.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported in July on an incident of drunken Russian soldiers going on the rampage in Kulyab and getting into a mass brawl with some local men.
In an earlier incident in February, a Russian officer was charged with grievously assaulting a waiter in Kulyab, RFE/RL reported.
And although the base is a valuable economic input, even that aspect has on occasion fallen short of people’s expectations.
A soldier at the Russian military base in Tajikistan is suspected by police of murdering a Tajik citizen in an occurrence with apparent echoes of another killing in the country last year.
State news agency Khovar reported on November 10 that Tajik and Russian law enforcement officers jointly detained the suspect. Officials have said the killing took place on the grounds of the Russian military base in the capital, Dushanbe.
The Russian Defense Ministry is dispatching a Central Military District commission to investigate the circumstances that led to the suspected killing.
Khovar named the suspect as Ivan Scherbakov, a senior lieutenant with the 201st Russian military base, and the victim as Shoira Jabborova.
Scherbakov told investigators that he had no memory of the events of which he stands accused as he was heavily intoxicated at the time, Khovar reported.
Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador in Dushanbe to express its concern over the case.
“In the meeting, the ambassador was informed that these events are not in conformity with the spirit of traditional friendship and strategic partnership between our two nations,” the ministry said in an emailed statement.
The Foreign Ministry said it demanded that Russia objectively assess the incident and take necessary measures to avoid such acts being committed by Russian military personnel.
The fate of the accused will be watched closely, since murders committed by Russian soldiers have in the past led — not only in Tajikistan — to disputes about jurisdiction.
Two officers with the military mobilization office in Tajikistan were killed over the weekend in a yet unexplained incident in the capital, police said in a statement on November 9.
The Interior Ministry said that around 7:20 a.m. on November 7, unknown people attacked a group of four officers with knives in the Sino district and then fled the scene. Major Pulod Mirzoyev died on the spot, while warrant officer Hamza Nasibov succumbed to his injuries in the hospital several hours later.
Police are now trying to confirm the identity of the attackers and are appealing to the public for help and offering a $10,000 reward for any information leading to arrest.
The details of the case are still hazy, but there will already be strong suspicions the cause of the incident may have been to do with the work the military officers were performing. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has cited Defense Ministry spokesman Faridun Mahmadaliev as denying the link.
Tajikistan is currently going through its bi-annual two month-long military enlistment season. Male adults aged 18 to 27 are eligible for call-up, which boosts the ranks of the military by up to 16,000 draftees every year, according to Defense Ministry figures. The autumn call-up season opens on October 1 and ends on November 30.
Radio Free Europe’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported earlier this year that some 600,000 Tajik men fall within the 18-27 age group, but that many are exempt for reasons of ill-health or because they are the only sons in the famliy. The conscription drive is further complicated by the large number of eligible and able-bodied men living abroad for work.
With the neutralization of General Abduhalim Nazarzoda complete, Tajikistan is on the search for a replacement deputy defense minister.
Asia-Plus website has revealed a likely possible candidate whose name will come as a surprise to scholars of the country’s recent history: Bakhtiyor Langariyev.
On October 6, the website reported that Langariyev — whose brother Suhrob was sentenced to life in prison in 2009 on charges of drugs and arms trafficking — had returned to Tajikistan after a seven-year absence.
Around the time of his departure, which coincided with the period of Suhrob’s arrest in the city of Kulyab, Bakhtiyor Langariyev was head of the Dushanbe anti-organized crime department .
Another unnamed source cited by Asia-Plus suggests that yet another Langariyev brother, Faizali, could be named deputy defense minister and that Bakhtiyor could take up a position as head of a defense ministry special battalion. The website cites people close to 44-year old Bakhtiyor Langariyev as saying he is currently doing business in other former Soviet states and in the United Arab Emirates.
The appointments would mark a remarkable return to the fold for a family that, although once staunch loyalists of President Emomali Rahmon, eventually fell foul of the ruling regime.
Another of the four Langariyev brothers, Langari Langariyev, served as a leading field commander during the civil war in the pro-Rahmon Popular Front and was killed in combat in October 1992.
The criminal activities of Suhrob Langariyev appear to have precipitated the family’s demise, but as always in Tajikistan, there is more to matters than meets the eye.
Turkmenistan’s president has reshuffled the country’s top security officials in a major change of personnel that suggests creeping anxiety over unrest on the border with Afghanistan.
State media on October 6 reported that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov named the head of his praetorian guard and close confidante, Guichgeldy Hojaberdiev, to head up the National Security Ministry, the successor agency to the KGB.
Hojaberdiev takes over from Yaylym Berdiyev, who had occupied his post since 2011 and has now been appointed Defense Minister, replacing Begench Gundogdiyev.
Gundogdiyev will in turn take over as commander of Turkmenistan’s naval forces.
Berdymukhamedov announced the personnel changes during a session of the state national security council, portions of which were shown on television.
Taking on their new roles, all the officials read out a vow of loyalty to the president and kissed the national flag as they kneeled.
At the meeting, Berdymukhamedov expressed his satisfaction with the work carried out by the National Security Ministry, which he said was responsible for upholding the foundations of the constitutional order. The president said that it was important to strengthen state security to ensure future prosperity.
The word was then given to the head of the state border service, Murad Islamov, who reported on his agency’s efforts to protect the country’s frontier so far this year. State media offered no specifics other than to cite Islamov as saying that the border service is “thoroughly upholding the key principles of Turkmenistan defensive military doctrine.”