Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turkmenistan: Pressed into Service

Recruiters will take anyone, no matter how unfit, to fill the ranks of an army whose main job is to provide a free labour force.
By IWPR staff
Army conscription officers in Turkmenistan are casting their net ever wider. However, the expanded recruitment drive is not to build a huge fighting machine, but to provide an army of free labour for a struggling economy.

IWPR has learned that the military is even calling up people with disabilities in its desperate attempt to meet manpower quotas.

When 18-year-old wheelchair user Andrei Alekseyev in the eastern city of Turkmenabat, received call-up papers in May this year, his grandmother Maria Alekseyeva phoned the authorities to explain that his congenital spinal defect meant he would never be combat-fit.

The military officials who visited Andrei still insisted he had to submit a medical certificate declaring him unfit for service. He was only able to get the document in August, from a special medical commission that convenes once a year.

Dursun Orazova recalled how her son Sapar was called up last year and served in military unit in the capital Ashgabat. He has extremely poor vision, but was only discharged from the army after his family obtained a certificate showing his progressive myopic condition from the institute of ophthalmology.

Although Turkmenistan sits in a volatile region, with Iran, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan as unstable neighbours, these young men are in demand not to fight but to plug gaps in the public sector.

Turkmen president Saparmurat Niazov has sacked thousands of workers in recent years, apparently to save on government expenditure, even though the country should be earning a healthy income from gas and cotton sales abroad.

Within the last two years, around 15,000 healthcare workers have been dismissed from hospitals across the country and replaced by army conscripts. The traffic police became part of the defence ministry a couple of years ago, so untrained recruits now do the job. There are also truck drivers, railwaymen and street-sweepers drafted in from the military, under an organised system where government ministries are allotted a quota of soldiers to be used as free labour.

According to one army recruitment officer, “Today soldiers [work as] nurses in the hospitals, they are sent to guard industrial plants and office buildings, they work as firemen and traffic policemen. The list of duties is a long one.

“That’s why we have to call up everyone, to fulfil the conscription quota.”

In a report earlier this year, the Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights, a group based abroad, said an estimated 75 per cent of men of conscription age were now being called up. This represents a huge increase on the 35 to 45 per cent call-up rate in the Soviet Union.

The difference clearly includes disabled people like Sapar Dursunov and Andrei Alexeev. It also includes men who would previously have been exempted because of family circumstances. A law introduced in 2002 abolished the traditional justifications for not joining up, for example for the son of a single mother, or the father of two children.

It is not clear exactly how big the armed forces of Turkmenistan are - the number was thought to stand at around 30,000 in the Nineties but is believed to have increased since then, by some estimates up to 100,0000.

In 2002, the armed forces chief of staff promised to deploy up to 25,000 men in the public sector, a figure which may have increased considerably since the recent dismissals of hospital staff.

Despite the recruitment officers’ best efforts, it seems that they are failing to keep pace with the need. One regimental-strength unit guarding bridges across the river Amu Darya in the east of the country now has just 300 conscripts men instead of 2,000 it used to have. A company used for construction work in Ashgabat has only half of its complement of 120 men.

Perhaps it is just as well that the thousands of workmen in uniform are generally unarmed. In the Soviet military, basic literacy was requirement for army service, but the Turkmen army no longer sets this standard.

“There are soldiers who can’t read well and aren’t able to write a letter to their parents,” said senior lieutenant Altybay Kakabaev. “Anyone who is literate gets sent to the command headquarters where they have to handle documents.”

Rahmatulla Usmanov, a resident of Lebap region, recalled what happened when he was pulled over by one of the new breed of traffic policemen - in reality an army conscript.

“I knew I hadn’t broken any traffic regulations so I asked him to fill in a report saying what he believed the violation was,” he said.

Twenty minutes, the soldier emerged from the police checkpoint building and handed Usmanov a form which had a few boxes ticked but was otherwise blank. “When I asked why the form wasn’t filled in, he said he’d finish it later. But I realised he was unable to write,” he said.

(The names of people speaking in this article have been changed out of concern for their security.)

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