The most secretive country in Central Asia remains committed to defending itself from unnamed threats. This became clear after President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow met with the State Security Council that’s occupied by ministers responsible for the armed forces and police.
The course of the meeting, as reported by the propaganda site Turkmenistan Today, glossed over the activities undertaken by each department–military, internal affairs, border guards, judicial, customs, and intelligence–in 2017. It appears everyone is doing their job as they should, but how it’s being done is unclear.
The meeting did serve as an occasion for President Berdimuhamedow to enumerate the council’s goals for 2018. These are to modernize the armed forces, raise living standards for soldiers, and train them “in strict compliance with set requirements.”
While Berdimuhamedow’s remarks seem vague the gist of his orders concur with the military’s orientation for some years now. Annual military parades have shown a Turkmen military equipped for counter-terrorism. Although the government still buys conventional weapons from a handful of countries, an increasing amount is for urban combat and neutralizing threats in Turkmenistan’s borders.
The same article from Turkmenistan Today mentioned the President’s visit to “one of the frontier outposts in the country.” In all likelihood this was near the border with Afghanistan. But rather than discuss the looming threat posed by militants Berdimuhamedow insisted exercise and sports were essential for improving soldier’s preparedness. Exactly what changes he planned for their equipment or living quarters wasn’t reported.
A recent, albeit quite suspect, piece of evidence reinforcing Turkmenistan’s efforts to shore up internal security is an announcement by an Indian manufacturer that it received orders for armored trucks. According to Minerva Special Purpose Vehicles (MSPV), which has offices in India and the UAE, its line of Panthera 4×4’s was ordered by the Central Asian states but how many and for how much wasn’t disclosed. The Panthera is a brand name for a selection of vehicles rebuilt to carry troops in hostile environments.
Although there’s ample evidence Turkmenistan is successfully modernizing the armed forces, Ashgabat’s actual preparedness for combating terrorist infiltration is suspect. Some believe it’s for show. Since 2016 the small circle of journalists and researchers who analyze the country have slowly reached a shocking consensus: President Berdimuhamedow’s regime is in the midst of an economic crisis triggered by diminishing natural gas exports. This hasn’t been acknowledged inside Turkmenistan but enough circumstantial evidence points to a government that’s almost completely broke.
In December 2017 Radio Free Europe published a report by Bruce Pannier that claimed Ashgabat had no allocations for its 2018 budget despite the official figures it published. Pannier revealed the country had used up multibillion dollar Chinese loans and its current natural gas deliveries to Beijing won’t earn enough revenue for paying these back. As further proof, he cites different bits of news about the government cutting salaries and social programs.
A recent update by Eurasianet on its Turkmenistan coverage is even less charitable. With natural gas production crippled by low prices, Berdimuhamedow is proclaiming his regime’s successes while citizens are forced into poverty by a depreciating cash supply and the rollback in subsidies for electricity and gas. One bizarre development this January was the sudden crackdown on private vehicles that aren’t colored white. How this fits into a government austerity program is a complete head scratcher but it isn’t out of line with Berdimuhamedow’s bizarre leadership style.
If Turkmenistan is now as poor as claimed then vague assertions of rebuilding its military strength, even for small engagements against terrorist cells, are in doubt. If Ashgabat’s programs are financed by debt, is it safe to assume it has a credit line for importing more foreign equipment? Or is the regime now peddling alternative facts to dampen an inevitable public backlash? On the other hand, a lot of its new weapons–like MRAPs and drones–are suited for defeating a civilian revolt. But Turkmen citizens are probably too impoverished for an uprising right now.