Turkmenistan: Positive About Being Positively Neutral. By Svetlana Dzardanova.

Svetlana Dzardanova, Master of Arts in Political Science, OSCE Academy in Bishkek

“You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train:

A Personal History of Our Times


December 12, 2015 will mark twenty years since the approval of the UN General Assembly Resolution 50/80 formally supporting Turkmenistan’s positive neutrality. To celebrate the anniversary of this historical decision 2015 was announced the Year of Neutrality and Peace in Turkmenistan. A series of events dedicated to the significance of neutrality status is planned to take place both domestically and internationally throughout the year.[i]

The decision to adhere to the policy of positive neutrality was traditional for Turkmens’ path of ‘peacefulness and good neighborliness’ now secured with the adoption of amendments to the Constitution and internationally declared obligations. The hopes were laid not only in non-interference in domestic affairs, but also in “territorial immunity and security of borders”.Since it has been reflected in its law on neutrality, Turkmenistan as a neutral state “does not participate in military blocs and alliances, does not allow the creation of military bases on its territory or its use by other countries for military purposes”.[ii]As the status does not deprive the state of the right to self-defense Turkmen armed forces are only to be used to defend the country’s “independence, sovereignty and territorial unity”.[iii]It may also seek military assistance from other states on bilateral basis. Otherwise, the neutral state is not constrained to join any other non-military unions or alliances.

While the status of neutrality allows Turkmenistan to take balanced views on international relations and abstain from participation in regional and international disputes, the country cannot let security threats penetrate its borders. Turkmenistan started fortifying its borders and increased defence spending following the 2014 global trend [iv] as emerging security challenges of more tension and conflict in the former Soviet area call for “the need to build up the military” and enhance cooperation on security.[v] Recent global security threats, including the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, resulting in hesitant reaction from Central Asian states, violent extremism and radicalization in the region, the ISIS potential threat to the region and growing menace from the neighboring Islamic Republic of Afghanistan are endangering peace and stability of Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan’s foreign policy of non-alignment and non-participation in collective-security alliances makes many experts inquire how the country will be able to deal with complex security threats and question the doctrine’s applicability and effectiveness in light of the alarming situation on the Afghan-Turkmen border.[vi] Therefore, this paper reviews the Doctrine’s impact on political independence and the image of Turkmenistan, as well as stresses the pragmatic security concerns among other reasons that lay behind the strategic choice of positive neutrality.

Turkmenistan was one of the last[vii] Central Asian states to declare independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.[viii] It was also the one which went farthest in manifestation and implementation of its independence and sovereignty. The doctrine of neutrality acknowledged by 185 UN member states in 1995 backed by the vast hydrocarbon resources and geographic location of Turkmenistan allowed country’s leadership to pursue its financial and political independence.[ix]

The concept of neutrality is not an unknown phenomenon in international relations. Turkmenistan followed the example of Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Belgium, pursuing neutrality as a basis for their foreign policy.  However, the Turkmen case stands out as it is the first and only state officially recognized and documented as positively neutral by the international community.[x] This accomplishment proved quite advantageous in several dimensions for the Turkmen leadership including gaining of high international profile, economic development and most important – security.

First, the focus was made on gradual political isolationism and on the other hand becoming one of the major energy producers in the region enhancing multilateral economic cooperation. As a result, country’s proven reserves of 0.6 billion barrels of crude oil and 618.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas combined with the “Open Doors” policy helped avoiding Russian monopoly in the energy sector and boost foreign investment and trade.[xi] The big advantage of the policy is that it ensured relative political independence from regional powers. Without risking its economic relations with Russia Turkmenistan safely left the cohort of forced satellites. Today no one expects statements of support from the Turkmen leadership on usually sensitive issues like the recognition of republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia or annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine. It allows Turkmenistan to ease the tension, preserve the status quo and maneuver between its Western partners, Russia and China.

Internationally neutrality allowed Turkmenistan to become politically active, earn political weight and status of a regional peace-making centre. During the Tajik civil war 1992-1997, Turkmenistan was active in providing a platform for peace-making events, such as negotiations between rivaling parties. It also hosted UN and other international forums on humanitarian aid and peacemaking in Afghanistan.[xii] In 2007, the headquarters of the United Nations Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA) were established in Ashgabat to assist the region in maintaining international peace and security.[xiii]

As much as security is concerned, positive neutrality worked as a manifestation of a good will and reassurance policy for both Russia and Afghanistan guaranteeing brotherly relations and no opposing military alliances and bases on Turkmen soil. However, Ashgabat has been active working internationally and bilaterally on strengthening its military potential and capacity of its borders.  Initiatives include bilateral cooperation with United States, Russian Federation, the Central Asia Border Security Initiative founded by Austria’s Federal Ministry of Interior and consultations with NATO. To ensure border and state security the Turkmen leadership signed a number of bilateral agreements with the Russian Federation starting from the general agreement on friendship and cooperation followed by the agreement on joint protection of the Turkmen state border.[xiv][xv]Military cooperation also included providing training for Turkmen border and military forces, technical assistance and weaponry purchases. On several occasions Russia stepped in as a guarantor of Turkmenistan’s security.[xvi]

Turkmenistan also managed to preserve friendly political and economic relations with Afghanistan throughout the period of Taliban regime and a continuous turmoil in the country, and prevent the spillover effect that many expected. Positive neutrality status was used to limit the involvement in military operations in Afghanistan only to the support on “the use of its own ground and air transport corridors for humanitarian freight in the course of the anti-terrorist operation in the region”.[xvii] Turkmenistan kept its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan under the Taliban, hosted asylum shelters, granted refugee status for those fleeing the country and continued electricity and humanitarian aid supply. The policy survived all the administration changes in Afghanistan. The Trans-Afghan natural gas pipeline project (TAPI) serves as another example of reassurance that Turkmenistan is eager to cooperate with its southern neighbor.

Inside the country the decision to adhere to positive neutrality and ability to avoid international confrontations was attributed to the skillful leadership of the first president Saparmurat Niyazov. It is commonly believed that neutrality allowed avoiding domestic turmoil, which was present in other CIS states, like Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan. While other states in the region went through political instability, military clashes and even civil war (Tajikistan) during post-Soviet transition years, Turkmenistan was lucky to avoid major internal unrest as domestically President Niyazov’s rule was hardly challenged. The decision on neutrality status was advertised and praised domestically as one of the leadership’s achievements.

Experts point out noticeable increase in border activity since 2013 when it became clear that operation Enduring Freedom would soon come to its logical end. While international support and active engagement decreases, President’s Ghani administration and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) remain incapable of assuming responsibility for the state’s security. Even less so it is ready to control the territories bordering Turkmenistan. The utility of permanent neutrality for state security is tested against the ISAF withdrawal and gradual reduction of the US military presence in Afghanistan,the frequent clashes on the 744km-long Afghan-Turkmen border and other regional potential threats.

Although some mention Turkmenistan’s non-participation in regional security organizations such asthe Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as disadvantageous in the light of rapidly deteriorating security situation, it is important to stress the poor capacity of joint forces and slowness of decision-making and reaction thus making bilateral security agreements better addressing the security issuesTurkmenistan might face in future. Bilateral agreements give advantage given that the Turkmen military is unlikely to be exposed to conventional threat from other states. On the contrary, Turkmen border guards face the challenge of individual insurgent attacks, organized crime and drug trafficking rings and thus call for rapid coordinated response ensured by bilateral security agreements. There are, however, issues that require close attention of the Turkmen leadership, like poor human capacity and endemic corruption within the Turkmen military forces that become more and more exposed to threats from non-state actors.


In 1991 the independent Turkmenistan found itself under the regional influence of the Russian Federation and bordering conflict-driven Afghanistan and other turbulent Central Asian neighbors as well being a Caspian state adding to her security concerns. For a comparatively small country as Turkmenistan with a population of 5.17 million blessed with natural resources and restless neighborhood it is hardly surprising that security has become one of the main drivers behind the policy of permanent neutrality.[xviii]

Turkmenistan wisely used the opportunities provided by the neutrality status to downgrade the threats coming from turbulent Afghanistan and reassure Russia in its friendly and brotherly attitude. Keeping diplomatic presence and economic cooperation with Afghanistan and providing no but humanitarian support to allied operation allowed avoiding open confrontation with Taliban regime. Permanent neutrality has been also used to gain a positive country image providing constant support to peace-building efforts.

The ongoing military build-up and bilateral assistance in border management training do not in any sense contradict the positive neutrality doctrine. Positive neutrality applied for the state’s security worked well for Turkmenistan for almost twenty years now and despite increasing border defence contingent and planned equipment purchases there are no signs that any major changes will be applied to the foreign policy of the country in the foreseeable future. On the contrary, only following the neutrality path will Turkmenistan be able to stand the emerging security challenges not compromising its political independence and benefiting from its activism in conflict resolution.


[i]Scientific conference dedicated to the neutrality of Turkmenistan was held at the Institute of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Embassy of Turkmenistan in the Peoples Republic of China, 2015; <http://www.turkmenembassy.cn/newspage.asp?types=English&ID=570> (Accessed March 3, 2015).

[ii]Shikhmuradov, B. ‘Positive Neutrality as the Basis of Foreign Policy of Turkmenistan.’ <http://sam.gov.tr/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/BORIS-O.-SHIKHMURADOV.pdf> (Accessed February 10, 2015).


[iv]Global defence spending.The Economist; http://www.economist.com/news/economic-and-financial-indicators/21643167-global-defence-spending?fsrc=scn/fb/te/ed/pe/globaldefencespending(Accessed February 5, 2015).

[v]DzhumagulyAnnayev. “Turkmen defence budget said to grow”, 2014. Central Asia Online; http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/newsbriefs/2014/11/19/newsbrief-13(Accessed February 5, 2015).

[vi]Daly C. K. John “Despite Proclaimed Neutrality, Turkmenistan Increases Border Defenses” Eurasia Daily Monitor Vol. 11 Issue 37.<http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=42020&no_cache=1#.VQGsePmsVqV> (Accessed March 6, 2015).

[vii]Some Central Asian states were more hesitant to withdraw fromthe Soviet Union than others for various reasons. While centre-periphery relations were well established, independence posed uncertainty as many newly formed states had not experienced statehood before. See Andrey Kazantsev.“Туркмено-российские отношения в постсоветский период” (Turkmen-Russian relations in the Post-Soviet period), 2012; <http://russiancouncil.ru/inner/?id_4=77#top>(Accessed March 16, 2015).

[viii]<http://www2.geog.uni-heidelberg.de/anthropo/mitarbeiter/schmid/pdf/turkmenistan.pdf>(Accessed February 5, 2015).

[ix]Shikhmuradov, B. ‘Positive Neutrality as the Basis of Foreign Policy of Turkmenistan.’ <http://sam.gov.tr/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/BORIS-O.-SHIKHMURADOV.pdf>(Accessed February 10, 2015).

[x] J. A. A. Stockwin “Positive Neutrality” – The Foreign Policy of the Japanese Socialist Party Asian Survey

Vol. 2, No. 9 (Nov., 1962), pp. 33-41;

<http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3023535?sid=21105454562221&uid=4&uid=2> (Accessed February 10, 2015).

[xi]Туркмениязаявляетопереходекполитикеоткрытыхдверей(Turkmenistan declares the shift to the Open Doors policy)Rosbalt, 2007;<http://www.rosbalt.ru/main/2007/11/24/434284.html>(Accessed February 19, 2015).

[xii]Shikhmuradov, B. ‘Positive Neutrality as the Basis of Foreign Policy of Turkmenistan.’ <http://sam.gov.tr/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/BORIS-O.-SHIKHMURADOV.pdf> (Accessed February 10, 2015).

[xiii]UNRCCA, Background information ;<http://unrcca.unmissions.org/Default.aspx?tabid=9305&language=en-US> (Accessed March 1, 2015).

[xiv]ПереченьдвустороннихмеждународныхдоговоровРоссийскойФедерации (List of bilateral international agreements of the Russian Federation)MFA of RF; <http://www.mid.ru/bdomp/spd_md.nsf/0/84C734D894BBA12F43257DEA0045BE26> (Accessed March 1, 2015).

[xv]Vladimir Paramonov and Oleg Stolpovsky.РоссияистраныЦентральнойАзии: Двустороннеесотрудничествовсферебезопасности (Russia and the States of Central Asia:Bilateral Cooperation in Security), Central Asia and Caucasus,№ 2 (62) / 2009;<http://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/rossiya-i-strany-tsentralnoy-azii-dvustoronnee-sotrudnichestvo-v-sfere-bezopasnosti> (AccessedFebruary 10, 2015).

[xvi] Allegedly Russian Special Forces were involved after the 2002 assassination attempt at the president of Turkmenistan and in September 2008 events in Ashgabat.

[xvii]B. Pannier, Five degrees of separation: the Central Asia States’ positions towards war in Iraq’ cited in Luca Anceschi, Turkmenistan’s Foreign Policy: Positive Neutrality and the Consolidation of the Turkmen Regime, p.119.Routledge, Central Asian Studies Series, 2008.

[xviii]WPR, Turkmenistan Population 2014; <http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/turkmenistan-population/&gt; (Accessed February 20, 2015).