Updated: Nov 13, 2019
By: Fatma Begüm Karacaoğlu
Turkmenistan gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, it has remained an isolated and politically centralized country with a relatively closed lower-middle income economy.
The country is rich in natural gas resources and the economy very much depends on its export. It holds a strategic importance in Central Asia bordering the countries of Iran, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan.
Today, Turkmenistan is the only country officially recognized by the United Nations as permanently neutral. On December 12, 1995, a special Resolution called “Permanent Neutrality of Turkmenistan” was accepted and 185 UN member states showed their support for it (Orlandi, 2006).
We can define neutrality as a legal status in which the country has an equal distance to all countries with no allies at all times. As a neutral state recognized by the UN, Turkmenistan is obliged to never become a member of any economic, political, military alliances and blocs.
Having the legal status of permanent neutrality helps the country remain stable in a time of conflict. It aims to develop cooperation with humanitarian international organizations while adhering to universal values and keeping a neutral stance in foreign relations.
A neutral state however, can become a member of the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), the Council of Europe, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the United Nations Organization for Education, or Science and Culture (UNESCO) but it cannot be a member of organizations with military or strategic preferences such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as they become aligned with partners.
Temporary vs. Permanent Neutrality
Neutrality can be divided into temporary and permanent. Temporary neutrality can be defined with a choice of a country to declare itself neutral in the event of a war while having the right to change it later.
In the First World War, Netherlands had a neutral stance while Ireland and Switzerland during the Second World War were neutral as well.
However, after the Second World War, a declaration of temporary neutrality has become less possible due to scarcity of natural resources such as water and the advance of nuclear wars.
Today, countries are more inclined to act in the pursuit of their own benefits and it is harder to hold a neutral stance. In permanent neutrality, the stance is first declared by the country and through mutual agreements, other countries accept this status.
Therefore, permanently neutral countries come under the obligation of obeying to specific international regulations and rules. Efraim Karsh (2012) defines permanent neutrality as ‘’ a policy of consistent non-alignment in peacetime, overtly aimed at preparing the ground for neutrality in wartime.’’
They are restrained from interfering in any conflict, although, economic relations with other countries can be maintained.
As for the case of Turkmenistan, they have gained their status in 1995, shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union as agreed by the UN General Assembly (2016).
The rights and obligations of its status are declared in the constitution and permanent neutrality completely shapes the foreign policy of the country.
As the only country with a neutral status in the region, Turkmenistan is a unique case and it can be argued that the main reasons for this policy is due to its strategic importance, and rich oil and gas reserves.
Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashi) and Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov
Similar to all other post-Soviet states, Turkmenistan attempted to establish its own foreign policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Saparmurat Niyavoz was the first president and he had a huge role in establishing the status of permanent neutrality. Due to his policies however, Turkmenistan is considered the most repressive post-Soviet state (Gore, 2007).
He established a cult of personality over the years through measures such as renaming the name of the months after his family members or erecting golden statues of himself all around Ashgabat.
It is stated in article 68 of the constitution “The President of Turkmenistan shall be the head of the state and the government, the highest official of Turkmenistan, acting as guarantor of the state independence and the status of permanent neutrality of Turkmenistan, its territorial integrity, compliance with the Constitution, rights and freedoms of people and citizens and fulfillment of international obligations.”
Even the Turkmen flag demonstrates the importance of neutrality. On the last carpet design of the flag, olive leaves symbolize the neutrality status.
In the early years of country’s independence, they had three principals for the neutrality status; having good relations with neighboring countries, trying to open up to the world after the Soviet Union and lastly establishing security within the borders (Demirel, 2019, p. 33).
President Niyazov or Turkmenbashi as referred to by Turkmens, was particularly fearful of taking steps in multilateral initiatives since Turkmenistan was a small country rich in natural resources and he believed that a permanent neutral status would protect the country from being targeted by any power.
The UN perceived the reasons as logical and showed no opposition as they also believed that Turkmenistan could work as a nonmilitary buffer zone in tumultuous region and perhaps help bring peace into the region.
Turkmenbashi had the vision that Turkmenistan would be the neutral venue for peace talks between countries in conflict, a place that states would come and resolve issues.
In a way, this became true as inter-Tajik peace talks within the two sides in Tajikistan's civil war (1992-1997) had begun in Ashgabat in early December 1995 (Pannier, 2015).
Turkmenistan fully acted in accordance with a neutral policy by keeping a peaceful attitude and this was the first regional conflict in which Turkmenistan had to have an attitude. Turkmenbashi also believed that permanent neutrality in the international arena would pave the way for sustainable development.
They would have more freedom to form state institutions and establish democratic reforms as well as grow the economy of the country. In this manner, the main aim of Turkmenistan could be defined as “development in a peaceful environment” (Demirel, 2019, p.36).
Turkmenbashi wrote the book of Ruhnama (Book of the Soul) which would serve as a spiritual and moral guidance for Turkmens.
The content could be regarded as a mixture of inspiration from the Koran, references to communist pamphlets, Turkmen traditions as well as Turkmen revisionist history.
It can be compared to Mao Tse-Tung’s Little Red Book that aimed to indoctrinate people with the ideology of the Communist Party (Horak, 2005).
Death of Turkmenbashi
On December 21, 2006, Turkmenbashi died of a cardiac arrest and Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov became the new president of Turkmenistan as he was the vice-president at the time. He brought up a series of changes in domestic policies especially in the spheres of education and social life.
The Academy of Sciences was reopened which had been shut by Turkmenbashi. The education system was changed more in accordance with the international ones. Many also believed that he would help abandon the permanent neutrality as it largely isolated the country in the international arena.
However, he declared his full commitment to the status of permanent neutrality right from the beginning. In 2008, a new constitution was accepted and it indicated that permanent neutrality would be the core of foreign policy.
Despite sticking to the policy of permanent neutrality, we can clearly view a more active attitude in relations with international organizations and other countries.
Since the death of President Niyazov, the country became more engaged in the activities of the NATO, the UN and the SCO during his presidency (Demirel, 2019, p.73).
The current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, mentioned that the transport system in the region should be an issue in which Turkmenistan and the UN should collaborate in order to transform Central Asia into a major transit zone. He even allowed NATO to have a military base for the protection of regional security.
If we have to compare both periods in terms of the policy of permanent neutrality, we can clearly state that only some bilateral relations were conducted with few countries and there were no international alliances or organizations in the era of Turkmenbashi.
Whereas Berdimuhammedov, wanted the country to open up and gain more alliances in order to end the isolation both regionally and internationally.
Day of Neutrality
Day of Neutrality was declared by the UN General Assembly as the International Day of Neutrality in 2017 and it became to be celebrated widely in Turkmenistan on December 12. Currently it is the second most important state holiday in Turkmenistan after Independence Day.
In 2018, to celebrate the day, there were events held throughout the country including a concert in Ashgabat’s congress center where famous local and foreign artists had performances. The main motive of the music show was to demonstrate the unity of different peoples and cultures along the Great Silk Road.
This was done as a symbol of the idea of neutrality that existed in ancient times which is a reference to the Turkmen mentality. As the main event, President Berdimuhamedov placed flowers at the Arch of Neutrality.
Demirel, G. (2019). Permanent neutrality policy of Turkmenistan: a comparative analysis of Turkmenbashi and Berdimuhammedov eras (Master's thesis, MIDDLE EAST TECHNICAL UNIVERSITY).
Gore, H. (2007). Totalitarianism: The Case of Turkmenistan, in Arianna Nowakowski (ed.), Human Rights in Russia and the Former Soviet Republics, Topical Research Digest, Human Rights and Human Welfare (University of Denver), 107-116.
Horak, S. (2005). The Ideology of the Turkmenbashy Regime. Perspectives on European Politics and Society, 6(2), 305–319. doi: 10.1080/15705850508438920
Karsh, E. (2012). Neutrality and small states. Routledge.
Neutral country. (2019, September 23). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neutral_country.
Neutrality of Turkmenistan: In the Interests of Universal Peace and Progress. (2016, December 10). Retrieved October 18, 2019, from http://tdh.gov.tm/news/en/articles.aspx&article3660&cat26.
Orlandi, F. (2006). Turkmenistan: a permanently neutral country. EAST 10, 183–189. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/36490097/Turkmenistan_a_permanently_neutral_country
Pannier, B. (2015, December 12). Twenty Years Of Turkmen Neutrality: 'It Means Everything And Its Opposite At The Same Time'. Retrieved October 19, 2019, from https://www.rferl.org/a/turkemenistan-neutrality-20-years/27422590.html.
The International Day of Neutrality celebrated in Turkmenistan. (2018, December 13). ORIENT: NEWS AGENCY. Retrieved from https://orient.tm/en/the-international-day-of-neutrality-celebrated-in-turkmenistan/