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Confronting the Double-Edged Sword: Turkmenistan’s Collective Security Dilemma

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In early July, naval delegations from Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Kazakhstan met in St. Petersburg to discuss the idea of a collective security system among the Caspian Sea States, alongside other important security issues.

The proposed collective security system would include the creation of “a council of naval commanders” and “a five-sided agreement on preventing incidents on the Caspian and the airspace above it,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu described. In addition, the joint security initiative will include emergency response exercises likely to be carried out in 2016. Although the proposal of such a collective security system has been hailed as a major move forward for the Caspian Five, interestingly, Turkmenistan was not represented among the delegations at the meeting. Such an absence may reflect a larger dilemma for Turkmenistan in this collective security proposition.

In particular, the proposed collective security system has been perceived by some as a Russian attempt to limit Western influence in the Caspian Sea region. This likely stems from tensions mounting as a result of the crisis in Ukraine which has undoubtedly put Russia at odds with the West, threatening both Russia’s economic viability and its military influence in the region. However, a collective security system would eliminate virtually all outside military presence on the Caspian, allowing Russia to maintain a monopoly of military power. Considering Russia has built up its Navy on the Caspian, to include adding stealth frigates to its collection, and the fact that the former Soviet states Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan only began building their navies after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a monopoly of military power on the sea is not inconceivable. In addition, the Trans-Caspian Gas pipeline is meant to transport gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, and finally to eager European nations looking to circumvent Russia’s dominance as Europe’s largest external gas supplier. Naturally, Russia is opposed to the pipeline which would divert considerable profits from Russia’s state-controlled gas company, Gazprom. Therefore, a Caspian Five collective security system can be seen as a Russian attempt to reorient Turkmenistan from the West, enough to discourage the creation of the pipeline. Needless to say, Russia has a lot at stake in the formulation of a collective security agreement.

Russia is not the only Caspian Sea state banking on a collective security system, however. Iran also maintains a significant military presence in the region, particularly through its naval force comprised of 90 vessels, which certainly exceeds that of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Consequently, isolating the Caspian Sea from any potential outside interference will only strengthen Iran’s military clout on the sea. Although Iran very recently struck a UN Security Council-endorsed agreement with major world powers its less-than-perfect reputation for honoring past agreements makes more violations possible. Thus, increasing the gap between Iran and the Western sphere of influence will only benefit the defiant state.

All of these competing interests stand to create a major dilemma for Turkmenistan. Firstly, Turkmenistan maintains considerable ties to Western nations, particularly the U.S. The strategically located nation has acted as a valuable transportation hub for American forces in Afghanistan, notably by supporting refueling operations and supplying a substantial amount of fuel for the war effort. Moreover, the U.S. has been helping Turkmenistan build up its naval capabilities on the Caspian, namely by providing equipment and technical assistance. Turkmenistan has also acquired naval equipment from Turkey, including two patrol boats. Turkmenistan’s relationship with Europe is arguably even more consequential than its relationship with the U.S., considering the high hopes for the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline. The Central Asian nation holds the fourth largest gas reserves in the world, making it a prime candidate for a long-term supply relationship with Europe and thus a prime recipient of billions of dollars’ worth of revenue. For better or worse, these competing geostrategic interests make Turkmenistan’s role in the Caspian Sea region highly complicated.

Ultimately, it seems Turkmenistan has found itself facing a double-edged sword in the Caspian Sea. More specifically, getting on board with a Caspian Sea collective security system could severely compromise Turkmenistan’s ties to the West. A Russian monopoly of military power coupled with a security system that blocks all possibilities of outside intervention could leave Turkmenistan highly vulnerable to Russian influence and coercion. At a minimum, Russia could use military dominance in a Caspian Five collective security agreement to influence the outcome of any future pipeline projects. Such an outcome would prove detrimental to Turkmenistan’s future economic prosperity. Additionally, completely eliminating the possibility of a foreign military presence, including NATO or U.S. military bases, as well as the use of airspace over the Caspian Sea would leave Turkmenistan virtually exclusively dependent on its Caspian neighbors for defense. However, due to the fact that the Caspian Five harbor serious mistrust issues with each other, collective defense will prove highly difficult and likely ineffective. This may become a serious issue when confronting regional security threats like terrorism, as dangers such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (DAESH in Arabic) undoubtedly require international cooperation and information-sharing which these nations at the moment simply do not have. Further still, Turkmenistan’s staunch principle of neutrality may prove challenging in a collective security system in which Iran is a member state. Iran’s aggressive stances on numerous issues with the West may drag members of the Caspian security system, including Turkmenistan, into a conflict in which they must choose between their collective security arrangement and major Western powers. While this scenario is difficult to determine considering the fact that the terms of the collective security system have not yet been clearly outlined, it is apparent Turkmenistan’s firm principle of neutrality may soon be tested.

Turkmenistan’s dilemma does not end with its reasons to not endorse the Caspian collective security system. The Russo-Turkmen relationship is complicated, characterized by empire and linguistic ties. Turkmenistan’s considerably limited experience in self-governance, combined with a cultural inclination towards Russia, makes maintaining close security ties with the world power a reasonable option for the weak Turkmen diplomatic corps. Turkmenistan has received naval equipment from Russia as well, including several military ships which the underdeveloped Turkmen navy undoubtedly needs. Finally, Turkmenistan’s close proximity to Russia and Iran incentivizes it to ensure security becomes a collective obligation in the Caspian. Essentially, rejecting a collective Caspian security system could see Turkmenistan facing a highly formidable and potentially resentful Russian neighbor. Without a doubt, Turkmenistan has some serious options to weigh in considering these future defense paths. Hopefully, it finds one that does not result in it being impaled on an extremely sharp, double-edged geopolitical sword.

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Central Asia

Kyrgyz-Tajik Conflict: Small States Becoming Victim In Games Of The Great Powers

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Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan sign protocol on regulation of armed conflict in border areas. Photo: © AKIpress News Agency

The Military conflict on September 14th 2022, on the border of two post-soviet countries- Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan took lives of more than 90 people from both sides. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan considers that the events which took place on September 14-17, 2022 necessary to state as a pre-planned armed act of aggression by Tajikistan against the sovereign state Kyrgyzstan. As a result of the inhuman actions of the Tajik side 59 citizens of Kyrgyzstan were killed and 140 were injured, about 140,000 people were forced to evacuate. But the Tajik officials and mass media actively accusing Kyrgyzstan of aggression and violation of non-attack agreements. Both sides blame each other for the outbreak of violence. As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan declared that the information of the Ministry of Foreign affairs and other authorities of Tajikistan did not correspond to reality. The Kyrgyz side has all the evidences (photo and video materials) that recorded the beginning of the aggression, as well as all the crimes committed by the Tajik military on the territory of Kyrgyzstan. If necessary, the Kyrgyz side is ready to provide this evidence.

Main Reasons.

The Kyrgyz-Tajik border 950 kilometers long. At the moment, Bishkek and Dushanbe have recognized only 520 kilometers of a common border, the rest of the sections since the collapse of the USSR are considered controversial and run along villages and roads.

The conflict has many aspects: here are territorial disputes, competition for the possession of water resources, and inter-ethnic problems. It is also associated with activities on the border of criminal structures, with smuggling, with drug trafficking. Radical religious organizations may also be involved in it. Therefore, all relations in the conflict zone between the Kyrgyz and Tajik sides are extremely aggravated. And the reason for the next clashes can be anything, any petty domestic situation.

In spring 2021 a similar bloody conflict took place on the border of two republics. As it turned out later, this escalation had domestic reasons. It was provoked by a dispute over the sharing of a water distribution point located between Kyrgyz and Tajik villages, which ended with a fight afterwards by killing each other by weapons. The state border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is 950 kilometers, and 520 km of it has not yet passed the demarcation procedures. Despite that the Central Asian states gained independence more than thirty years ago.

The reasons of the latest invasion of Tajikistan to the territory of Kyrgyzstan still not clear. What could be the reason of breaking the Agreement of non invasion? Why it started the same day of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit? Why its happening after the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict? Why Post-Soviet countries are in war with each other? Scholars and some officials have various assumptions about the latest bloody clash. “There are provocateurs and third forces.” – says the head of the government of Kyrgyzstan Akylbek Zhaparov.

The military conflict started the same date of the summit of the SCO in Samarkand. On September 14, the governments of China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan signed a long-anticipated  agreement to push ahead with construction of a railroad linking these countries that will  establish a shorter route to Europe bypassing sanctions-hit Russia. So according to some Kyrgyz officials the clashes on Tajik and Kyrgyz borders started after the signing of the agreement about the construction of the railway-plausibly as a warning about the discontent of Russia, which throughout the history of the Central Asian countries has tried to make the region as economically dependent as possible. Moreover the President of Tadjikistan Emomali Rahmon wouldn’t invade into territory of Kyrgyzstan without Putin’s support.

If the first group of people considering that two countries are in this battle because of Russian tactics, the second group of people like the Deputy of the State Duma of the Russian Federation Alexei Chepa noting that the cause of this conflict lies not only in unresolved disputes between the two countries. They suppose the external forces, primarily enemies of Russia, have decided to take advantage of the situation and create conflicts in the region. As they use the internal problems of Tajikistan and the conflict situation with Afghanistan, where the United States left a huge amount of weapons and a certain contingent of troops. And all this are aimed at using conflicts to further discredit Russia. We see this in the example of conflicts arising in Kazakhstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan and in some countries of the Caucasus.

This conflict would repeatedly escalate and next time would lead more death of civilians until the demarcation and delimitation of Kyrgyz-Tajik borders process would be finished and signed. This kind of military battles can lead to the unleashing of a large-scale interstate conflict, as well as to the destabilization of the situation in the Central Asian region as well.

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Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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On September 15 and 16, 2022, the extended format of participants of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are scheduled to meet in Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road Karavansarai in Uzbekistan. SCO —founded in 2001— is the first international organization founded by Beijing. It started as the Shanghai Five with the task of demarcating borders between China and its Central Asian neighbors: Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Russia, and Tajikistan, following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The meeting in Samarkand marks the 21st Head of State summit of this organization, which is growing in international importance. All Heads of member states have confirmed their attendance.

SCO came to the attention of Washington policy makers, when Vladimir Putin used it as a vehicle to set a timeline on U.S. bases in Central Asia there to support operations in Afghanistan. Through direct engagement of President Bush with Chinese President Hu Jintao, this deadline was not repeated in the communique of the following year. This demonstrated Beijing’s unwillingness to have an open rift with Washington and made clear China’s leadership of the organization. Beijing’s interest in preventing anti-American statements has changed in the last 17 years. With the return of Great Power Competition in the Washington-Beijing relationship, who leads the SCO and what is on its agenda should be of considerable interest in Washington.

The SCO is no longer just a talk-shop between Russia and China with its Central Asian neighbors, but is now expanding to the Gulf, South Asia, South East Asia, and the Caucasus. The expanded membership of the SCO makes up 24% of the global GDP, more than half that of the G7 and more than that of the European Union in 2020. SCO’s expanded participant list accounts for 44% of the global population.

If those seeking membership status at the upcoming meeting in Samarkand achieve their goal, the SCO will include in its ranks: Azerbaijan and Armenia who recently fought a war in Nagorno-Karabakh; Saudi Arabia and Iran, competitors over the direction of the Gulf; and current members India and Pakistan, historic adversaries. Afghanistan and Mongolia are currently observer states in the organization. Partner countries of the organization are Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkey, and Sri Lanka. The status of dialogue partner state will likely be granted to Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia in September. Bahrain and Maldives are next in line for the latter status.

In 2005, the US had an opportunity to pursue observer status with the SCO. Those who supported it, saw it as opportunity for the US to shape this organization and for Afghanistan to reconnect with its neighbors with American support. Others thought our being an observer of the SCO would lend legitimacy to this nascent organization. Yet, overtime, flaws in the latter stance surfaced and was repeated by the Obama Administration’s failed attempt to isolate China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In a vote on April 7 for the suspension of Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council, Turkey was the only participant in the expanded SCO out of 18 countries that voted in favor of the resolution. Of the member states, all voted against the resolution, with India and Pakistan abstaining.

For members of the SCO, energy highlights their importance on the global stage and is a tool used in their foreign policy. Following the 2022 summit, SCO states, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, among others, will account for over half of the world’s oil production annually.

Until 2020, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization played a largely regional role for China, the heart of which was Central Asia. Initially reluctant, the recent rapid expansion of the SCO shows that China realigned the organization from a regional one, to one capable of implementing its global ambitions.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization gained greater significance with the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, where an economically weaker Russia can turn to China, a partner with no limits and its leadership over the SCO.

At the 2022 Boao Forum, President Xi restated the goal of the 2021 SCO Dushanbe Declaration, where he articulated a world order not directed by the West. At this same summit, SCO members approved Iran’s membership despite international sanctions after a 15 year waiting period. Xi articulated in a flourish, calling it a community of a common destiny of mankind.

This has echoes of Chairman Mao’s vision of world relations, dating back to the 1970s. In meetings with Dr. Kissinger, Mao posited that imperialism and hegemony violate the world order. Instead, China should expand into what is now known as the Global South, including countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia. China’s mission lives on and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is becoming its vehicle.

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Expanding Human Rights in New Kazakhstan

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June 5, 2022, will be remembered as a turning point in the history of Kazakhstan. On that day, an overwhelming majority of our people turned out and voted in favor of a series of proposed reforms to the constitution, intended to create a fairer system with greater transparency, accountability, and expanded freedoms. The sweeping democratic changes put forward on this referendum day, are deep-rooted and systemic. They follow a meaningful process of listening to the people and taking on board their grievances.

The issues that require addressing are many and varied, affecting every aspect of Kazakhstan’s social, political, and economic culture. This long-term reforms program is all building toward the New Kazakhstan vision, created by The Head of State, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. New Fair Kazakhstan is a country with the human rights, freedoms, competitiveness, and opportunities of Kazakhstan’s modern contemporaries, combined with the culture and traditions of our Central Asian heritage.

Among the significant innovative reforms is Government Decree No. 258, known as “The Follow-up Plan for Human Rights and the Rule of Law”, adopted by Kazakhstan’s government on April 28, 2022. This proposal includes 27 actions divided into eight sections designed to protect and expand the rights of the people, focusing on marginalized and minority groups across Kazakhstan. It is pursuant to Decrees No’ 871 and 597 of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, dated April 13, this year, and June 9, 2021, “On further actions of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the field of human rights”.

Measures within this Follow-up Plan are unprecedented in Kazakhstan’s 31 years of independence since the Soviet era faded away. They are aimed at eliminating discrimination against women, promoting equal rights and opportunities for men and women, protecting the rights to freedom of association, the rights of persons with disabilities, victims of human trafficking, migrants, stateless persons, and refugees, as well as improving mechanisms for interaction with UN bodies.

Ending Discrimination Against Women and Ensuring Gender Equality

Previous proposals passed by this government kickstarted the process of tackling discrimination against women—for example by removing the list of jobs that women were restricted from taking up, thereby expanding employment opportunities.

The new plan seeks to expand on these gains by promoting the commitments to gender policy at the local government level and giving women a more powerful voice on policy through increased representation in government and state-related advisory roles. It also calls for new mechanisms to prevent violence against women and children and includes a proposal for accession to the International Labor Organization Convention on the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the Workplace.

Freedom of Association

The plan calls to include two new draft laws to expand the freedoms afforded to citizen-led organizations. The first of these would expand the rights of citizens to form public associations and organize their activities, reducing state interference in the process. The second would improve legislation and law enforcement surrounding trade unions and labor conflict resolution. This section of the plan was drafted with the support and recommendations of the International Labor Organization.

Persons with Disabilities

This section of the plan envisages a series of proposals to be put before the Presidential administration by the end of 2022 with proposals for non-financial incentives for businesses and organizations in the social and banking sectors and other service providers, to ensure increased opportunities and accessibility to persons with disabilities. Such proposals are not only a moral imperative but as with many of the clauses, they are also geared toward creating the circumstances for meaningful social and economic impact for the individuals themselves as well as for the wider society.

Criminal Justice and Prison Reform

This is the most extensive and detailed part of the plan, once more building on the existing process of reforms to ensure that its benefits are felt across every part of society, especially those most often overlooked, marginalized, and mistreated. Its measures will materially affect the work of the government, the Supreme Court, lawmakers, prison officers, civil society organizations, and the business sector, offering a fundamental and vital overhaul to existing processes.

Much of the work outlined in this section includes proposals to modernize existing procedures, such as applications for early release owing to illness or disability (and updating the list of diseases that qualify the sufferer for early release), improving the functionality of the centralized database of the penitentiary system, streamlining the appeal submission process while ensuring full confidentiality, and automating the selection process for drafting a list of jurors. Also on the penitentiary system, there are proposals for the construction of 17 modern penitentiary institutions to reduce overcrowding, as well as renovating and upgrading existing institutions.

Also included in this section is a liberalization of the administration and oversight of human rights organizations, to ensure they can carry out their work to protect the rights of those they serve without unnecessary and unwanted interference and the establishment of a working group on their protection. In terms of the legislative branch, specific articles and laws to be amended include provisions on discriminatory policies, administrative arrest, and “dissemination of knowingly false information.”

Finally, there are regulations on investigating torture in accordance with the Istanbul Protocol and examining the use of physical force and “special means” by law enforcement, specifically by GP officers.

Victims of Human Trafficking, Migrants, Stateless Persons and Refugees

Kazakhstan’s efforts in recent years to tackle the scourge of human trafficking have been recognized in the US Government’s annual “Trafficking in Persons Report.” In the report, it was noted that Kazakhstan is “making significant efforts,” that the country has increased the number of trafficking convictions for a second consecutive year (including of a complicit official), and that the government has expanded its collaboration with NGOs and international organizations.

As part of these efforts, the plan calls to introduce the draft law on combating human trafficking and to adopt the government’s 2024-2026 action plan on preventing and combating crimes related to human trafficking. This is based on findings from the existing action plan and recommendations provided in a special report of the Commission on Human Rights. Recognizing the global nature of such issues, one article in the plan also calls for the government of Kazakhstan to propose international treaties to safeguard the human rights of stateless persons and foreign nationals temporarily residing in Kazakhstan.

Interaction with UN Bodies

Many of the issues identified in creating this plan can be tackled and reduced by working with international organizations and relying on the existing corpus of research and protocols. In this spirit, the plan calls for the continued implementation of human rights assessment indicators, based on the model of the Global Indicators developed by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The Road to Modern Democracy

The Follow-up Plan for Human Rights and the Rule of Law is yet another step on Kazakhstan’s ongoing journey to build a better future for its citizens. We are under no illusions as to the scale of the task ahead — the road will be long and patience will be required on all sides.

The most recent national address of President Tokayev launches a new political era for Kazakhstan. Political modernization stressed by the President can give significant impetus to the nation-building project “strong President – influential Parliament – accountable Government”. Yet as President highlights some pressing issues related to a plurality of opinion, freedom of speech, domestic violence, and socio-economic development remain to be solved. 

Nonetheless, I am convinced that these reforms in aggregate will lead the country to a brighter economic and social future. They will encourage a more motivated and engaged middle class, with improved opportunities. They will establish new channels to respond to our citizens’ voices. In an age of regional and global turmoil, when concerns of democratic backsliding are extensively felt in many countries, I am confident the New Kazakhstan is traveling the opposite road – The road to a New Fair Kazakhstan. 

Further details on the approval of Kazakhstan’s Follow-up Plan for Human Rights and the Rule of Law can be found on the official website of The Ministry of Justice

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