Staunton, July 17 – Most people know about the five main tribes of Turkmenistan – the Teke, the Yomut, the Arsary, the Chowdur, and the Saryk -- only because each of them produces a distinctive kind of carpet or because patterns from these various tribes appear on the flag of that Central Asian country.
But the tribal divisions of the Turkmen nation – and there are far more than five -- are playing a far more significant and negative role: they are the leading cause of clashes among soldiers in the Turkmenistan army and are destroying unit cohesion, reducing its ability to defend against either attacks from Afghanistan or by Islamists within the country.
This is not something Ashgabat is willing to talk about. Indeed, the authorities in the capital do everything they can to prevent any spread of news about this or other problems in the country’s army, but because this Turkmen-style “dedovshchina” is now so widespread, it can’t be kept hidden from the rest of society or from journalists elsewhere in Central Asia.
In recent weeks, two journalists at the Centrasia.ru portal, Mikhail Fedoseyev and Serdar Dovranov have summarized what is known about this problem and how it is sparking ever greater hostility to the army and military service among the Turkmen population (centrasia.ru/news.php?st=1468239480 and centrasia.ru/newsA.php?st=1465449000).
Fedoseyev who draws on Dovranov’s report, says that the Turkmenistan army has an “extremely bad reputation” in the country because of what he calls “the dears of dedovshchina in the ranks.” In that country, the main cause of this kind of soldier-on-soldier violence is “the division of soldiers by groups according to an extended family or tribal basis.”
“If in a military unit, the Mari Tekintsy predominate, then it is tough for those who come from other oblasts and tribes. And again, if the situation in a unit is controlled by Yevmuds from Dashoguz or Balkan oblasts, then for the Akhaltsy and Tekintsy, service in the army will become a real hell.”
These conflicts have led to casualties and desertions, although commanders and military doctors are told not to ascribe wounds and deaths to this phenomenon lest it spread. “But the authorities are ignoring these problems,” Fedoseyev continues. And that means they are getting worse not better.
That neglect, the journalist continues, extends to how Ashgabat is treating those of its soldiers who die in clashes with Afghan-based insurgents. In May, some 27 soldiers were killed in the fighting, but instead of treating them with respect, 20 of the dead were sent back to their families not in coffins but “in sleeping bags.”
According to Fedoseyev, “people are asking themselves the question: how is it that they are sending their healthy sons to military service and getting back their bodies” in this way? “If they have defended the Motherland,” Turkmens are asking, “then why is it that the Motherland responds with silence?”
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