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Army Reform May Result in Further Purges

Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov’s new drive to modernise the armed forces will, say NBCentralAsia observers, offer him an opportunity to purge critical voices among senior military staff and further consolidate his power.

On May 25, President Berdymuhammedov, who is supreme commander of Turkmenistan’s armed forces, announced a round of reforms designed to introduce modern standards into the military. The priority areas are the creation of substantial capacity to repair military hardware, and improving the service conditions and living standards of all personnel.

Military sources in Ashgabat say the Turkmen armed forces retain the structure of their Soviet predecessors, with mobile tank and artillery units and air forces. Turkmenistan’s naval flotilla remains the weakest of any of the Caspian littoral states.

NBCentralAsia observers say reforms are needed because the armed forces’ level of equipment and the quality of personnel are dismal. If the army can be transformed into a professional force, Berdymuhammedov’s own position will be strengthened.

“The army reform will mean new appointments [of officials] who will bolster the president,” said Mars Sariev, a commentator on Turkmen affairs. “It’s [also] a great opportunity to purge the army of potential opponents.”

An NBCentralAsia expert based in Ashgabat agreed on the issue of Berdymuhammedov’s motives, but added that the changes the president wants will be very difficult to achieve because the military are very far from combat readiness, and soldiers are used as cheap labour.

“Our research shows that in some units, the soldiers have never had combat training during their entire military service and have never touched a weapon,” said human rights activist Tajigul Begmedova.

Turkmenistan declared itself neutral in 1993, and its abstention from joining international organisations and defence blocs has meant that the armed forces have not been able to re-equip since the Soviet era.

However, given that neighbouring Afghanistan and Iran both pose a potential security threat and some territorial and administrative disputes with Uzbekistan remain unresolved, Sariev said the authorities are right to want to beef up their defences.

“Modernising the army does not conflict with neutral status,” he added.

(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)