Skip to navigation – Site map
“Security and Defense Reform in Central Asia” - Articles (3)

The Central Asian Armies Facing the Challenge of Formation

Sébastien Peyrouse


This article focuses on one of the main challenges that Central Asian armies face, that is, the problem of training and formation. Having rapidly increased since 2007, Central Asian military budgets have been able to multiply the purchases of equipment and weapons from foreign partners (Russia, western countries, Israel, China, South Korea, etc.). Money is not enough, however, to get the military institution back on its feet in its most human aspect, that of formation. In fact, the teaching institutions and the training possibilities provided to conscripts and professional soldiers on contract are generally of inadequate quality and impede the overall military capacities of the Central Asian states. This article will examine the main problems of the Central Asian military institutions and will discuss the means that have been implemented by Central Asian governments to reduce the negative impact of difficulties in promoting human capital.

Top of page

Index terms

Countries :

Central Asia

Research Fields :

Political Science
Top of page

Full text

1The Central Asian states, independent since 1991, have to confront sizeable security challenges. The dangers they face, however, are not conventional ones. Russia, Iran, and Afghanistan have all recognized the borders that issued from the USSR and have not sought to dispute them. China, as for it, has signed border delimitation treaties and demilitarization agreements with the Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajik governments. Among the Central Asian states themselves, there are still some border tensions, mainly between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but a priori the national armies have no need to prepare themselves for the classic-type of conflict linked to territorial issues. Nevertheless, the security pressures on the region are immense, although they relate to non-conventional threats: drug trafficking, Islamist attempts at insurrection, risks of civil war or localized conflicts, environmental changes and natural catastrophes, etc. This situation requires that the Central Asian states reformulate the link between hard security (conventional defense) and soft security (security in a broader sense), something that will have major implications on the systems of military training and formation, because soft security ascribes a central role to human capital.

2In terms of the perception of security, the Central Asian states are heavily marked by the Soviet heritage1. The dangers they face are still interpreted in essentially military terms: the force of a country is supposed to be expressed by its army, excessive if possible, by its mastery of the air and sea (the Caspian Sea for Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan), and by a developed military-industrial complex. The internal security challenges are in the hands of what in the post-Soviet space is called the force structures, which encompass the secret services, the border and customs guards, as well as the special troops of the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Emergency Situations. These “grey” force structures also have the function of population control: political control of dissidents and opponents to the regime, but also economic control of the shadow business and criminality. One of the great difficulties facing Central Asian regimes is therefore that addressing soft security threats requires the participation of broader security sector. However, security service reform is a very sensitive issue, one which requires components such as transparency, accountability, good governance, and a broad coalition of state, civil, and private actors, not to mention ceasing to use these services for the purpose of controlling citizens—none of which is on the agenda of the Central Asian states, at least not for the moment2. Given the dearth of information on this subject, this article focuses on the classic army and the challenges involved in reforming military training.

3The Soviet legacy is both costly in financial, industrial, and human terms, in particular for Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and poorly adjusted to a region with strong geopolitical volatility, and whose main problems are those of soft security. Despite the numerous reforms passed throughout the 1990s and 2000s3, the states of Central Asia have experienced difficulties in modernizing their armies: financial difficulties for the poorest states such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, institutional difficulties for the most politically closed-off states, such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but also difficulties to reconceive the army without undermining either the nature of the political regime, the reigning consensus between elites, or the relations between the forces of order and the citizens. The ongoing debates on performing the transition to a professional army, for example, gives rise to criticisms of the Defense Ministry by the highest-ranked officials, who are used to having a servile and badly trained mass to perform diverse tasks; the corruption of the officer corps is massive; the living conditions for conscripts are poor; and military training is still the weak link of the entire structure. La creation de noncommissioned officer corps is an important reform component. Since 2007, Central Asian military budgets have been able to greatly increase their purchases of equipment and weapons from foreign partners (Russia, Western countries, Israel, South Korea, etc.); however, money is not enough. Human capital proves crucial for armies that are destined to become partly professional and facing the challenges of soft security is essentially linked to competence-building issues.

The Soviet Heritage and the Training Imbalances between States

4In two decades of independence, large disparities have appeared in terms of military training. These disparities depend upon the financial means of each state, but also on their chosen strategic orientation. Accordingly, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have set aside relatively large budgets for the modernization of their armies, while in terms of military training, Kazakhstan is today more advanced than its Uzbek neighbor. The budget that Tashkent sets aside for the military sector (which can only be partly calculated since some elements are not made public or go through other ministries) is considerable in terms of the percentage of GDP: in 2010, 3.5% of the state budget was allegedly devoted to the military sector, amounting to a bit more than 1.4 billion dollars4. Even if Astana only devotes 0.95% of its budget to the army, the total figure more or less equals that of its Uzbek neighbor: 1.2 billion dollars for 2010. Nonetheless the Kazakh former defense Minister, Mukhtar Altynbaev, has deemed this amount insufficient and wants the government to increase it to 1.2% of GDP in the coming years5. Even with less than 1%, Kazakhstan is the highest ranked country in the world, in front of the United States, in terms of military budget increase between 2005 and 2007 (84%)6. Kazakh or Uzbek investments are larger than the three other Central Asian states put together. These latter thus remain largely under-equipped but are also lacking in terms of training, either because of their isolationist logics, like Turkmenistan, or because, like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, they have limited capabilities.

5At the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was better off than its Central Asian neighbors since it hosted on its territory three military schools, two secondary military schools (the Suvorov Institutes), the Almaty Higher All-Arms Command School, as well as an Academy for the border guards. This situation can be explained at once by the necessity to patrol the borders with China, which had been highly sensitive since the confrontations in 1969, but also by Kazakhstan’s important role in the Soviet industrial-military complex, even if Uzbekistan was traditionally considered as the best equipped southern republic in military terms.

6In the 1990s, little attention was granted to the military sector by the Kazakh authorities. It was necessary to wait until the 2000s and the revenue boom from the hydrocarbons exploitation for the reformation of the training system. This reformation took place around two major axes: professionalization of the army and westernization of training standards7. In 2000, the transformation of military districts into regional commandments in charge of strategic and operational questions led to the transformation of the entire national system of military instruction in schools of specialized vocational training. Stimulated by the country’s economic growth, in 2003 the authorities launched important reforms of the training system that were designed to led to the professionalization of noncommissioned officers and to the recruitment of soldiers on a contractual basis. Nearly all the old military institutes from the Soviet period were renamed and restructured, thanks to a marked increase in the Defense budget.

7Kazakhstan today has seven higher institutions for military training. Created in 1997 by presidential decree, the National University of Defense (the former military academy of Shchuchinsk, close to Kokchetau8) each year trains officers to the magister level in different specializations9. The university also provides doctoral training. In 2005, a resolution from the Council of Ministers included the National University of Defense on the list of institutions that train the military personnel of CSTO countries, a sign of its upgraded status. It thus welcomes officers in training from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan mainly, but also sometimes from Belorussia or Armenia. The Military Institute for Land Forces (the former Higher Training Institute of Almaty), created in the 1970s, constitute the main training center for the army, with more than 10,000 officers having gone through it10. The military Institute for Air Force Defense T. Ya. Begel’dinov (a higher aviation military school opened in 1996 on the base of the Institute of Civil Aviation), which has trained about a thousand officers since 2008, manages several specializations connected to aviation11. The Higher Institute of Electronic Radio and Communication, opened in 2002, provides instruction over a period of five years to future officers who graduate as lieutenants upon completing their studies12. Kazakhstan has also reinforced the number (more than twenty) of military chairs in higher institutes and universities for the training of reserve-army officers13.

8Kazakhstan stands out from its neighbors thanks to two specific institutions. The first is related to its creation of a naval force in the Caspian Sea, which led to the opening of a Marine Military Institute at Aktau in 2001. This Institute trains forty officers each year in questions linked to maritime counter-terrorism, anti-drug struggle, research, and sea rescue14. Graduates are sent not only to serve the Kazakh Caspian fleet but also the civil and maritime fleet. Lastly, the will of the authorities to adopt Western standards, mainly as part of the Individual Action Plan for the Partnership (ipap)15 for the purpose of achieving interoperability with NATO, led them to open a Military Institute for Foreign Languages, principally financed by the United States, Great Britain, and Turkey. The Institute opened in 1998 in the framework of the Linguistic Center of the Ministry of Defense, before being reformed as an independent structure in 2005. Based in Almaty, today it includes subsidiaries in Aktau, Kapchagay, and Shchuchinsk, sometimes hosts officers from neighboring states, and is set to become a regional educational center under the aegis of the Partnership for Peace.

9The country also includes several secondary schools for military training based on the Russian Cadets model. For example, the Astana-based Zhasulan school (“Young soldier”) hosts about 450 students who, upon completing their schooling, can go into to a civil or a military career16. A new Zhasulan school is set to open in Aktau with capacity to supervise 400 pupils. Almaty, Shymkent, and Karaganda all have military boarding schools (for the 10th and 11th grades) that are placed under the direction of the Ministry of Education and Sciences. There is also a Military Sports College, created in 1990, the purpose of which is to provide three-year trainings to form specialists that prepare the Armed Forces, mainly the army and navy, for sport.

10In total, about 300 persons are admitted each year to the military institutions of Kazakhstan, including 240 to the corps of Cadets of motorized troops. Close to fifty undertake instruction at the Marine Military Institute, and fifty at the Military Sport College. In addition, more than 700 persons study at Defense Ministry establishments including, more than 300 at the Military Institute for Land Forces, a hundred at the Institute for Air Force Defense, about 200 at the Institute of Radio and Communications, and forty under the aegis of the Defense Ministry itself. Ten officers are doing doctorates on military themes17. The Kazakh authorities have therefore undertaken significant efforts to improve training. The estimated cost of subsidized education for one pupil is reportedly 2,200 dollars per year in a military college, and 17,000 dollars for training in the Air Defense Institute18.

11Uzbekistan has also invested significant sums in military training, but without professionalizing the army, or westernizing its standards, which do not form part of its short-term objectives19. Up until 1993, the country included three establishments whose function was to prepare officers by specialization: the Tashkent College formed the commandment of the motorized troops, that of Chirchik those of the tanks, and lastly that of Samarkand those of the automobile troops. After independence, new instruction facilities were opened: the military faculty of the Tashkent Institute of Electronic Communications, the Academy of Armed Forces, which has two-year teaching programs, the Djizzak Higher School of Military Aviation, the Customs College20, the Academy of the Interior Ministry, the Military Institute of Border Troops, etc. Lastly, several chairs in the country’s major universities educate reserve army officers. In 2000, a noncommissioned officer training school was opened, offering courses from five to nine months21. Despite the increasing number of new structures, the Uzbek training system remains stamped by the sluggishness of the Soviet heritage and few novelties have been introduced in order to modernize education.

12Military instruction in the three other Central Asian states is more limited. Tajikistan did not inherit any military training organization from the Soviet regime. During the first decade of independence, Tajik officers were in the main trained in civil universities and colleges, and sent to Russia. In the 2000s, the authorities called to set up specialized institutions. With the departure of Russian soldiers of the Afghan-Tajik border and the regular tensions between Dushanbe and Moscow over the Russian military base, President Emomali Rakhmon wanted to assert state sovereignty over these crucial questions. Two military training centers therefore have been created: the Military Institute of the Republic of Tajikistan, and the Military School (a former Suvorov school, created in 1984), in which one hundred persons are admitted each year for a period of two years. It seems, however, that a large part of the teaching posts in these two institutions are vacant: meager salaries, lowering prestige, and difficult working conditions cause potential candidates to leave for other sectors22. The troops of the Interior Ministry are trained at the special high-altitude bases of Navruz and Sharvoda.

13In Kyrgyzstan, military education takes place in the framework of the National Military School (KNVL), itself a former Suvorov Institute, the Higher Military Institute of Bishkek (BVVU, a former higher institute of aviation), which trains air force officers, as well as through courses offered by the National Security Services (SNB)23. The Higher Military Institute remains the main base for higher education in the country, since it hosts about 400 students who, upon completion, come out as lieutenants, and specialist engineers of tanks and automobile technologies. The preparation of reserve-army officers is carried out in the state universities: three military faculties have opened, at the National University of Kyrgyzstan, the State University of Building, Transport and Architecture, and the Osh Technology University, as well as eight military chairs24. A Kyrgyz Unified Center for teaching Armed Forces opened in 2005 under the aegis of the second motorized brigade. In 2007, a Center for Advancement was set up to provide qualifications to officers and senior officer cadets in the Defense Ministry, where military personnel complete their knowledge during a one-month training course25.

14Despite its more substantial means Turkmenistan’s isolationist policies leave it in a particularly difficult situation. A military department was opened in 1992 at the Magtymkuly University in Ashgabat, which offers training for tank officers, infantry officers, air force units as well as logistics services. In 1993, a first Turkmen military academy was created, offering a four-year curriculum to train lieutenants, as well as a Military Institute, which today includes around 600 students. The main training centers are in Ashgabat (division of the motorized rifle formation) and Mary (air base). In the context of forming a Caspian fleet, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov decided in 2010 to create a Military Maritime Institute at the Defense Ministry26. In order to curb discontent within army ranks, largely forgotten by the reforms, the Turkmen authorities passed a new bill in 2009 on the status and social protection of military personnel and of their families, guaranteeing them, for example, free medical care, community centers, and decent lodging27. It is probable, however, that the bill was passed by way of symbolism and will take time to be implemented. Berdymukhammedov also opened a new Police Academy to improve the training of new recruits and provide them with more decent working and living conditions28.

Military formation as a mirror of the Central Asian societies

15Despite unquestionable efforts to reinvigorate military training, the challenges to be tackled are difficult. Some changes have actually only been cosmetic: the upgrading of military institutes into academies, for example, by no means guarantees an improvement in level. In some cases instruction still takes place using textbooks from the Soviet era, which are no longer adapted to current strategic conditions; the lack of competent teachers, which is not specific to military teaching but concerns the entirety of civil education, is also an obstacle to upgrading levels; the generation gap further heightens the loss of knowledge; the technical materials required for courses and trainings are sometimes obsolete; Turkmenistan’s and Uzbekistan’s political closeness leaves little room for interaction with other countries, free discussion, or possibilities of modernization. In addition, public service recruitment works through a patronage system, which has exacerbated the dysfunctionality by according priority to belonging to a network over competence, and this has many consequences in the training quality.

16The human cost of the collapse of the Soviet Union was large for the Central Asian armies, which had to face the departure en masse of Russian-speaking officers, who were in the large majority. At the end of the 1980s, 90% of the 4,000 Soviet high-ranked officers were Russian29. In Kazakhstan, Russians constituted 97% of the officer corps, 90% in Kyrgyzstan, and 70% in Uzbekistan. By way of example, the Almaty Higher All-Arms Command School included a mere six Kazakhs among the teaching staff and 84 Kazakhs out of 1,000 students30. Each state has managed this situation by employing a different nationalities policy. Turkmenistan quickly forced the non-Turkmen officers to leave, while Tajikistan lost its non-Tajik officers during the civil war, and Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, without forcing them to leave, were unable to hold onto them. At the beginning of the 1990s the only country with a wages policy sufficiently interesting to avoid a massive brain drain from the army was Uzbekistan.

17In all five states, the massive departure of Russians led to a considerable fall in the level of training31, added to which was the loss of officers of the titular nationality, many of whom found employment in Russia where they could take advantage of more attractive financial conditions and the prospect of Russian citizenship32. There was thus an urgent need to push through new generations of officers, whose training turned out to be somewhat chance-ridden. As such, Central Asia has to deal with an immense generation gap, and this is so through all the intellectual professions. The most competent officers, trained in the Soviet period, are soon to be or are already in retirement, the intermediary generation of those aged 40-50 years is statistically reduced, whereas the youths, who have no experience of the Soviet regime, are trained in more precarious conditions with little knowledge being passed on.

18If Kazakhstan is the most advanced in terms of training reform, since it has both the financial means and sufficient political openness, it has been criticized for the superficial nature of the changes. The authorities like to insist on their transition to Western standards, which is part of their corporate branding to the international community33 and especially to NATO members. The reforms thus serve to promote the most visible elements abroad, such as the peacekeeping brigade KazBat34, where the structures limited to the domestic arena are slow to get the attention they deserve. Even the Military Institute of Foreign Languages, set up to provide training in Chinese, English, German, French, Korean and Turkish, today seem to be desperately short of language experts. Courses are essentially given by graduates who have neither experience nor competence in teaching, whereas many specialists have been discharged from their functions or have changed career35.

19Some decisions also seem to be founded on a logic of prestige more than on one of effectiveness. The Maritime Military Institute trains many more officers than the country requires, given the weakness of the Caspian fleet, and some of them are unable to find any openings in their specialization. The officers trained in Aktau are, in addition, rivaled by those who left for the Russian military academies and who have received genuine practical training in the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, or in the Pacific. The Institute would like to re-orient itself partly toward the civil domain in order to train people for the trade fleet (Kazmortransflot), which is lacking in qualified personnel, but military and civil personnel cannot legally be trained together given the secret nature of the information disseminated during military instruction. It is therefore possible that the Aktau Institute will be given a new profile in the years to come and that Kazakh marines will undertake training abroad only36.

20The lack of discipline, which is a veritable scourge of post-Soviet armies in their totality, is also problematic. It reveals the deterioration of moral norms within the military system and alters the army’s image within civil society. In 2008 the Kazakhstan Minister of Defense, Danial Akhmetov, the first civil appointment to this position, requested that officers undertake special discipline classes37. Several accidents (plane and helicopter crashes) in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have been put down both to badly or incorrectly repaired material, and to human errors, which sheds a hardly flattering light on the general state of the Central Asian armies38. This lack of discipline is highlighted by the endemic problem of hazing, dedovshchina, which each year kills or injures tens of soldiers, and contributes largely to demotivating conscripts or voluntary enrollments39. The measures that have been adopted thus far have proven to be relatively ineffective. In October 2010, regular brawls at the Military School of Bishkek led many students at the end of their second year to stop their study, discouraged by the silence of the educational staff. Although a special committee was dispatched to inquire into these events, the school is famous for regular violence between pupils40.

21Corruption forms one of the background elements of this deterioration of human capital among the Central Asian armies. At the start of 2009, Danial Akhmetov was forced to resign after an immense scandal came to light connected to the Defense Ministry’s purchase of sophisticated artillery systems, which turned out to be faulty, from the Israeli Military Industries (IMI) company41. The Ministry had also been rocked by several scandals in preceding years such as embezzlement linked to a deal to procure Belorussian-made scopes for rifles at an incredibly high price; and the diversion of funds for the would-be modernization of armored personnel carriers within the airmobile forces. Tens of high-ranked officers were demoted or sacked, and official investigations had to be opened42. All-pervasive corruption is evident among the other Central Asian armies, where the theft of weapons and the diversion of funds allocated for foreign partners have become legion. Widespread corruption led the OSCE to no longer give its sophisticated material to the Tajik border guards, after it reported many cases of its material having been sold to the Afghans43.

22In addition, the Central Asian states often have to deal with inter-ethnic tensions in their armies. With the massive departure of the Russians and other Slavs at the start of the 1990s, the Central Asian armies now largely comprise only nationals. Nationalization was also symbolic: since independence the great national heroes are ethnic heroes, providing little room for a civic military imaginary in which non-titulars can find their place44. As in all the structures of force, priority was given to the titular nationality, whose loyalty is not put into question, and whose members are supposed to be under better control via patronage rationales. Today, about 90% of the Uzbekistan officer corps is reportedly Uzbek45. In Kazakhstan, the numbers of Kazakhs are also largely greater than their proportion in the population. The ethnicization policy is still more marked in Turkmenistan, where each applicant is required to prove its Turkmen nationality on three generations. This had led to recruitment based not on criteria of competence but along ethnic lineage.

23In spite of this ethnicization of the armies, relations between regional groups can be tense. Some sources claim that in 2005, during the repression of the Andijan insurrection, the battalions sent to the Ferghana Valley were chosen according to regional (those of Samarkand, of Kashkadaria, etc.) and ethnic criteria (those comprising Karakalpaks) in order to prevent any solidarity from breaking out between the Ferghani soldiers and the insurgents46. In Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the balance between regional groups is under threat. After the civil war, the Tajik army integrated warlords and their men, in order to demilitarize them, but the inter-regional tensions still remain great. Today priority is given to those who are originally from Khatlon, the region of President Rakhmon, while the other regional groups are marginalized. In Pamir, the Pamiri, who were massively recruited by the Russian army when it patrolled the border with Afghanistan, complain about having been systematically evicted ever since the Tajik border guards, deemed more loyal to the president, took control of the Afghan-Tajik border47. In Kyrgyzstan, the Uzbek minority has little presence in the army, which is largely dominated by the Kyrgyz, and this has given rise to protest among some Uzbeks48; however, what has become increasingly apparent are the north-south tensions between various Kyrgyz officers, as the country becomes more and more unstable49. These problems are often linked, once again, to issues of corruption: the army, and even more so the force structures such as the militia, the troops of the Interior Ministry, customs officials and border guards often participate in the shadow economy, and being part of a military institution is therefore a considerable financial issue.

Foreign cooperation in Central Asian military training

24The Central Asian states, faced with the difficulties they have experienced in modernizing their system of instruction, have partly relied upon international cooperation, albeit to various degrees. The place of foreign cooperation in the military education structure depends on the efforts made by each government to build partnerships with its neighbors or with the main world powers, on its acceptance of an outside gaze, but also on its ability to use its own foreign-trained soldiers and officers once they have returned to their home countries. Here again, the republic that sends the most military personnel for training abroad and to the most diverse destinations is Kazakhstan: in 2010, in addition to the United States and Russia, the Kazakh Defense Ministry sent officers to Azerbaijan, Belorussia, Germany, and China50.

25Russia remains an essential partner for most of the states of the region. The Soviet legacy (cultural proximity and Russian as a lingua franca) has enabled Moscow to assist in training the majority of Central Asian military personnel51. Under the aegis of the CSTO, the system of military training has been reformed and unified for all members52. In both a bilateral and multilateral framework, Russian training is offered at two levels: for young, enlisted soldiers who receive their higher education in Russia (from three to five years depending of the degree to be attained) as well as for officers requiring refresher courses or more targeted, specialized training. Several hundred high-level Central Asians have done their diplomas at Russian military academies, which serve as models for the Central Asian military schools. Kazakh military training establishments have, for instance, been re-modeled on Russian lines53. Lastly, the two Russian military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also offer specialized on-site training. Several tens of Russian instructors work for the Tajik army on a contractual basis and Russian military advisors supervise the training of personnel within the Military Institute at the Ministry of Defense54.

26Despite having allocated large budgets to military instruction, Kazakhstan is the post-Soviet state sending the most military personnel to Russia: one third of the CIS military personnel trained in Russia is from Kazakhstan. In the framework of the 1992 Russian-Kazakh treaty of cooperation and assistance, and the military cooperation agreement signed between the two countries in 1994, Russia has committed to training at least 500 Kazakh officers in its military academies each year. Several army corps are involved: Kazakh pilots and navigators are, for example, trained in the training center of Lepitsk. Between 1993 and 2006, about 2,500 Kazakh military personnel were fully trained in the institutes of the Russian Defense Ministry55, while about 15,000 received some specialized courses; in 2006, more than 800 Kazakh military personnel were distributed throughout about forty Russian establishments. Training is also a crucial sector of Russian military aid to Kyrgyzstan: more than 800 persons have reportedly been trained between 1992 and 200756.Each year, some tens of officers are sent to Russia, where they enter the military academies at preferential prices57. In 2008, the Kyrgyz Defense Minister, Ismail Isakov, acknowledged that about 90% of the Kyrgyz army officers who were sent abroad were trained in Russia58. For this same year, 260 student officers out of the 300 in training were placed in Russia and benefited from an education that Moscow covered completely at the financial level.

27The situation is similar in Tajikistan: between 2002 and 2007, Moscow provided complementary training to approximately 500 Tajik officers59. Since the bilateral agreement of 1994, Dushanbe has sent between 300 and 400 persons to be trained in Russian military institutions each year. Several tens of young specialists are also trained at the Russian military base near Dushanbe. Moscow contributes to the training of elite Tajik troops, in particular the First Brigade of Special Operations. Close to 70% of the officers of this armed corps graduated from Russian military institutes, in particular from the parachuting school of Riazan and the schools of the Interior Ministry in Perm and Saint-Petersburg. The FSB Operational Border Guard Group works with the Tajik border guards, trains specialists, and offers technological assistance. For geopolitical reasons, Russian-Uzbek cooperation in the domain of training cadres remained particularly weak throughout the 1990s. Since Tashkent’s geopolitical turnabout in favor of Moscow, Russian-Uzbek cooperation has accelerated. Between 2001 and 2006, close to 250 Uzbek officers were trained in Russia, of which 70 received all their higher education in the establishments of the Russian Defense Ministry60. This cooperation has slowed down since 2007-2008. As for Turkmenistan, it appears that some of its officers have also been being trained in Russia, but no figures are available.

28In the 1990s, the partnership between Kiev and Ashgabat (Turkmen gas in exchange for Ukrainian help in modernizing the Turkmen army) permitted some Turkmen officers to undertaking training in the air force sector in the Ukraine. Fifty Kazakh officers have also received a part of their training in Minsk, in the framework of exchanges between CSTO members. In addition, under the auspices of the Partnership for Peace, Kazakhstan is in the process of becoming a pole of training for the Central Asian military, mainly from Kyrgyzstan, a role that it probably bound to grow in the coming years61.

29Western countries rank as the second most important partners of the Central Asian governments, chiefly due to the Partnership for Peace, even if some programs are also bilateral. Among them the United States leads to way. In the 1990s, the US Special Operations Forces trained soldiers in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, whereas Uzbek and Kazakh military personnel participated in NATO exercises62. In 1994, Washington proposed a more established security assistance program managed by the State Department, the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET), the financing of which has been shown to fluctuate greatly according to country and the geopolitical situation of the moment. It offers training on hundreds of different topics connected to the military sector, whether for air or infantry operations, intelligence, anti-terrorist operations, English language, training in the handling of special weaponry, and so on. It is also supposed to emphasize the promotion of democracy, and the protection of human rights.

30From 1997, two countries of Central Asia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, benefitted from the sending of American trainers under the aegis of the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET), which is designed to train US Special Operation Forces in foreign languages so that they can get familiar with foreign countries and then be dispatched there63. After September 11, 2001, the Pentagon decided to accentuate its aid policy in training matters via programs such as the IMET. The two republics that have benefitted most from it are Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan which, between 2006 and 2009, each received about 4 million dollars, and are set to receive as much as 785,000 and 1 million dollars respectively for 2010 and 201164. The financing was lower for Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, each of which has received 1.5 million and 1.2 million dollars over the last four years, whereas with Uzbekistan the program was suspended for several years and then revived modestly in 2010 with a contribution of 200,000 dollars. A slight increase in the budged allocated to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan is planned for 201165.

31Kazakhstan has received the highest amount of aid in Central Asia through the IMET, the Partnership for Peace, the KazBat brigade—which was sent to Iraq between 2003 and 2008—and the Steppe Eagle annual military training exercises which gather together servicemen from Kazakhstan, the US, and the UK. Between 2003 and 2008, the United States also aided Kazakhstan to train a rapid reaction unit able to respond to all kinds of attacks, in the main anti-terrorist. In 2008, a new five-year agreement was made that makes provision for the training of Kazakhstani officers to gain experience of American methods. In 2010, between 300 and 400 Kazakh officers received such training in US military institutes such as the West Point Military Academy and the National Defense University66. Washington is also involved in the creation of an institute for professional noncommissioned officers67, as well as in the formation of the Caspian Fleet, including training officers in the military academies of NATO members, in particular in Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Spain68.

32The United States cooperates with the other republics, but to lesser degrees. Between 1995 and 2000, 150 Uzbek officers were trained in American institutions. In 2010, some new Uzbek officers were sent for training in the framework of the IMET program69. The American institutes also host on an irregular basis some military personnel from Turkmenistan. The Pentagon was also able to take advantage of its Combating Terror Fellowship Program by including some Central Asia military personnel70. The Aviation Leadership Program (ALP), which consists in undergraduate pilot training in English, was opened to officers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan71. For Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the PfP focuses on language training, training in border security, and is developing a program to help former military staff to retrain for the civilian domain72. Cooperation with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is limited, although each year some officers from these two countries attend courses provided by the trans-Atlantic organization on topics such as weapons control, disarmament, non-proliferation, combat techniques against terrorism, drug trafficking, border control, and they participate in language programs. Lastly, since 2006, Central Asian officers have also been attending the NATO-Russia Council73.

33Western aid does not only come from the United States. Under the auspices of NATO training is given in Western Europe (mainly, the United Kingdom, Germany – essentially at Oberammergau – Greece and Turkey), in Central Europe (Slovakia), and Central Asia was a beneficiary of the Canadian Department of National Defense’s Military and Assistance Program. Under those of the Caspian Guard, a US training program for a network of special and police forces of Caspian countries, Kazakh officers has been assigned to a Caspian special rapid sea intervention brigades which is being trained in Baku74. Turkey is a key partner, both as an “Eastern” member of NATO and due to the close ties between some Turkish military circles and their Central Asian colleagues75. In this way, from the 1990s until today, Turkish military academies have hosted many Turkmen officers as well as security forces staff76.

34With China, cooperation on training matters is limited, largely due to factors such as the language barrier, the fact that the Popular Liberation Army is quite closed off to foreign countries, their very different doctrinal traditions, and historical mistrust between the respective general staffs. All courses for Central Asian officers in Chinese military academies are taught in Russian, Chinese instructors are not able to speak the Central Asian languages, and Central Asian officers cannot speak Chinese. Between 1990 and 2005, only 15 Kazakh officers were sent to China for training. Yet this cooperation has grown—between 2003 and 2009, 65 members of the Kazakh military took courses in Chinese institutions77. Further negotiations in this area were organized between the two countries at the beginning of 2009. About thirty Kyrgyz officers also received training in China78. In 2008, thirty members of the Tajik army also trained in Chinese military academies79. Some others actors should also be mentioned: there seem to be effective links between some Central Asian secret services and their Israeli colleagues, despite information on the subject being sparse. India has likewise played a role in military training, but in a much more limited way than had been hoped. Officers from all the Central Asian states except Turkmenistan have attended courses at India’s premier military institutions, mainly in the 1990s. India provided infrastructure assistance to the Military Training College in Dushanbe and participated in the reconstruction of the Aini military airbase80.

35In addition, foreign cooperation does not always bring the anticipated effects. Once they are back in their countries, officers who have trained abroad often suffer ostracization from officers that are jealous of not having had access to the privileges of foreign life, but also because their loyalty to the regime and to the hierarchy is put into question. Little information has filtered out on these sensitive questions, in particular from the most closed states, but the phenomenon seems to be a generalized one, even in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Some of the Western trainers that come to work in the framework of cooperation programs in Kazakhstan attest to an analogous experience81. Lastly, the unattractive financial and material conditions of work in the military administration have contributed to the some of the best trained officers’ leaving for the private sector. Accordingly, in Kazakhstan, approximately only one thirdof the graduates of foreign courses enter into the service ranks of the armed forces82. This foreign cooperation thus has more long-term implications: it preserves the pertinence of the post-Soviet framework, since the military training continues to be dominated by Russia and the Soviet legacy, even if opening up to the West, and to a lesser extent to China, will probably have consequences in coming years insofar as the number of intellectual traditions employed in understanding security are diversified. However, the potential impact of such foreign cooperation implies that the states emphasize the latter by shaping the careers of those who have benefitted from it, which is not currently the case.


36Numerous difficulties are compounded in Central Asia: a loss of the Soviet-trained and most competent personnel; administrative sluggishness and the inertia of the administrative military machine; bad will on behalf of some of the high-ranked officers to participate in reform; rampant corruption that hampers modernization; deterioration of military morality and the military’s image in society; demotivating salaries for soldiers and officers who are not involved in the shadow economy networks, and so on. The conjunction between managing the Soviet heritage, dealing with financial difficulties, and solving 21st-century security challenges is therefore complex, and it risks impeding the overall military capacities of some of the Central Asian states. The differences between them will continue to grow in the years to come: the Uzbek and Kazakh budgets are incommensurable with those of their three neighbors; Kazakhstan is likely to become the most modernized military power, although Uzbekistan will probably remain dominant in numerical terms. Astana will likely have an army that is able to integrate both with the CSTO and with NATO, and is able also to preserve its links with Russia at the same time as having international visibility, chiefly towards the West. The Tajik and Kyrgyz military forces are, as for them, destined to remain structurally weak and borne along only by international cooperation, whereas the Uzbek and Turkmen forces will be hampered for quite some time still by the effects of isolationism and authoritarianism.

37In this context, the question of training is one of the pillars of the military reform in Central Asia, and is a very sensitive matter since all the societal problems show through it: corruption, patronage, poor levels of handing down of intellectual knowledge, and so on. Buying material presumes geopolitical and commercial choices, but it has no impact on the nature of the political regime, which is not the case with training and competence building. Well-trained and well-paid soldiers and officers who are proud of their army are the only capable of stopping the rot in Central Asian armies, in particular their conflating of corporate and individual interests. Despite these difficulties, reforming the military education system is central, because the enhancing of human capital is a key component of military structures that want to be adapted to the challenges of non-traditional threats. Indeed soft security requires a relatively small staff that is well trained at the technological level, is intellectually and technically competent, able to resist the shadow economy, well-integrated into international networks, trained in intelligence questions, and able to supply an analytical capacity. Hence, the question of military training does not comprise a domain that is closed in upon itself; it is in interaction with the very development of Central Asian societies.

Top of page


1  E. Marat, The Military and the State in Central Asia: From Red Army to Independence, London:Routledge, 2009.

2  On the security services reform in Central Asia, see Merijn Hartog (ed.), Security Sector Reform in Central Asia: Exploring Needs and Possibilities, Grenwood Papers, Groningen: CESS, 2010.

3  See Rustam Burnashev and Irina Chernykh, “Changes in Uzbekistan’s Military Policy after the Andijan Events,” The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, vol. 5, # 1, 2007, pp. 67-73; “Turkmenistan’s Armed Forces: Problems and Development Prospects,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, vol. 22, # 4, 2003; “The Armed Forces of the Republic of Tajikistan,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, vol. 18, 6, 2002.

4  “Voennaia reforma v Uzbekistane ne pobedila korruptsiu,” Voennyi universitet Rossiiskoi Federatsii,

5  “Armii Kazakhstana ne khvataet deneg,”, June 11, 2010,

6  “U.S. Defense Spending vs. Global Defense Spending,” The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, February 26, 2009,

7  On the Kazakhstani case, see R. McDermott, Kazakhstan’s Defense Policy: An Assessment of the Trends, Carlisle: US Army War College, February 2009.

8  “V Shchuchinske (Kazakhstan) sozdan Natsional’nyi universitet oborony,” CentrAsia, August 23, 2008,

9  “V Natsional’nom universitete oborony Kazakhstana sostoialsia torzhestvennyi vypusk slushatelei vuza,”, June 19, 2010,

10  “Voennyi institut sukhoputnykh voisk Kazakhstana otmechaet 40-letie so dnia obrazovaniia,”, September 4, 2010,

11  “Voennyi institut sil vozdushnoi oborony im. T.Ia.Begel’dinova,” Ministerstvo Oborony Respubliki Kazakhstana, no date,

12  “V Kazakhstane otkryt Voenno-inzhenernyi institut radioelektroniki i sviazi. Prepodavatelei zazvali iz ShSA,” Centrasia, September 6, 2002,; see also Andrei Grozin, Vooruzhennye sily Kazakhstana I natsional’naia bezopasnost’ respubliki (Moscow: Institut vostokovedeniia RAN, 2008), p. 132-133.

13  “Voennye kafedry pri grazhdanskikh vysshikh uchebnykh zavedeniiakh,” Ministerstvo Oborony Respubliki Kazakhstana, no date,

14  “Voenno-morskoi institut,” Ministerstvo Oborony Respubliki Kazakhstana, no date,

15  R. McDermott, “United States and nato Military Cooperation with Kazakhstan: The Need for a New Approach,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, vol. 21, # 4, 2008, pp. 615-641.

16  “Respublikanskaia voennaia shkola Zhasulan popolnilas’ sotnei vospitannikov,”, September 1, 2010,

17  “Skol’ko Kazakhstan tratit na obuchenie voennykh spetsialistov?”, Novosti Kazakhstana, May 26, 2010,

18  Ibid.

19  “Vooruzhennye sily Uzbekistana, vchera I segodnia,” Voina i mir, February 11, 2007,

20  “V Uzbekistane sozdan Vysshii voennyi tamozhennyi institut,” Centrasia, May 28, 2003,

21  V. Mikhailov, “Nezamenitye voiska Islama Karimova. Voennykh sil Uzbekistana schitaiutsia samymi maloizvestnymi,” Voennoe Nezavisimoe Obozrenie, February 27, 2009,

22  “Vooruzhennye sily Tadzhikistana stradaiut ot nekhvatki professional’nykh kadrov,”, February 21, 2010,

23  N. Kutnaeva, “Vooruzhennye sily i voennaia reforma v Kyrgyzstane,” Tsentral’naia Aziia i Kavkaz, # 5, 2007, pp. 133-145.

24  “Luchshei shkoly ne naidesh,” MSN online, November 30, 2007,

25  N. Kutnaeva, “Vooruzhennye sily i voennaia reforma v Kyrgyzstane,” op. cit, p. 11.

26  “V Turkmenii otkroiut Voenno-morskoi institut,”, June 10, 2010,

27  M. Denison, “Security Sector Reform in Turkmenistan,” in Merijn Hartog (ed.), Security Sector Reforms in Central Asia: Exploring Needs and Possibilities, Greenwood Paper Special Issue, 25, April 2010, pp.47–54, available at

28  “Reforma politsii v Turkmenistane neeffektivna,” IWPR, November 19, 2007, (accessed August 17, 2010).

29  “Kazakhstanskoe voennoe obrazovanie ne otvechaet trebovaniiam vremeni,”, March 13, 2007,

30  D. Smith, Opening Pandora’s Box: Ethnicity and Central Asian Militaries, Strategic Studies Institute, 1998, p. 34.

31  A. Grozin, Vooruzhennye sily Kazakhstana I natsional’naia bezopasnost’ respubliki, op. cit., p. 132.

32  “Voennaia reforma v Uzbekistane ne pobedila korruptsiu,” op. cit.

33  E. Marat,“Nation Branding in Central Asia: A New Campaign to Present Ideas about the State and the Nation,” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 61, # 7, 2009, pp. 1123–1136, available at

34  R. McDermott, Kazakhstan’s Defense Policy: An Assessment of the Trends, op. cit., pp. 23-26.

35  Ibid., p. 27.

36  I. Kutsai, “Aktauskii voenno-morskoi institut Kazakhstana budet pereprofilirovan. Dlia morskikh ofitserov ne khvataet…korablei,” Centrasia, September 3, 2010,

37  R. McDermott, Kazakhstan’s Defense Policy: An Assessment of the Trends, op. cit., p. 36.

38  Ibid., p. 55.

39  On the dedovshchina in the former post-Soviet space, see F. Daucé, and E. Sieca-Kozlowski (eds.), Dedovshchina in the Post-Soviet Military. Hazing of Russian Army Conscripts in a Comparative Perspective, Stuttgart: Ibidem Verlag, 2006.

40  “Tretii kurs otmelil vtoroi. Massovyi pobeg suvorovtsev Kyrgyzskogo natsional’nogo voennogo litseia, », October 27, 2010,

41  “Nazarbayev Purges Army of Corrupt Top,”, July 24, 2009,

42  R. McDermott, “Corruption in Kazakhstan's Airmobile Forces,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, vol. 6, # 168, September 15, 2009,

43  Anonymous interviews conducted in Dushanbe, June 2010.

44  E. Marat, “State-Propagated Narratives about a National Defender in Central Asian States,” The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies, 6-7, 2007,

45  “Voennaia reforma v Uzbekistane ne pobedila korruptsiu,” op. cit.

46  Anonymous interviews, Tashkent, May 2005.

47  Anonymous interviews, Khorog, GBAO, June 2010.

48  “Oshane trebuiut internatsionalizatsii kyrgyzskoi armii”,, July 3, 2010,

49  “Luchshei shkoly ne naidesh,” op. cit.

50  “Informatsiia po naboru voennosluzhashchikh – kursantov v voennye uchebnye zavedeniia zarubezhnykh gosudarstv v 2010,” Ministerstvo Oborony Respubliki Kazakhstana,

51  E. Marat, “Soviet Military Legacy and Regional Security Cooperation in Central Asia”, The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, vol. 5, # 1, 2007, pp. 83-114.

52  N. Kharrabaeva, “V stranakh-uchastnitsakh ODKB budet vvedena edinaia sistema voennogo obrazovaniia,”, March 31, 2008,

53  V. Paramonov, O. Stolpovskii, Rossiia i Tsentral’naia Aziia: dvustoronnee sotrudnichestvo v voennoi sfere, op.cit., pp. 2-3.

54  Ibid., p. 7.

55  Ibid., p. 2.

56  Ibid., p. 6. See also “Rossiia do 2008 okazhet KR bezvozmezdnuiu voennuiu tekhnicheskuiu pomoshch’ na 27 millionov dollarov,”, May 20, 2007,

57  Nuria Kutnaeva, “Vooruzhennye sily i voennaia reforma v Kyrgyzstane,” op. cit, p. 11.

58  “90% ofitserov armii Kirgizii iavliaiutsia vypusnikami rossiiskiikh vyzov”, Rosbalt, March 26, 2008,

59  V. Paramonov, O. Stopolski, Russia and Central Asia: Bilateral Cooperation in the Defence Sector, op. cit., p. 10.

60  Ibid.


62  L. Lumpe, “U.S. Military Aid to Central Asia, 1999-2009. Securities Priorities Trum Human Rights and Diplomacy,” OSI Central Eurasian Project Occasional Paper Series, # 1, 2010, p. 8.

63  Ibid., p. 29.

64  See

65  Ibid.

66  R. Rozoff, “Kazakhstan: U.S., NATO seek Military Outpost between Russia and China,” Medias Monitor Network, April 17, 2010,

67  A. Grozin, “Vooruzhennye sily Kazakhstana i natsional’naia bezopasnot’ respubliki,” op. cit., p. 21.

68  A. Diba, “The Caspian Sea is a dangerous place,” Persian Journal, December 23, 2005,

69  “Uzbekistan ukrepil voennoe sotrudnichestvo s SShA: uzbekskikh ofitserov budut obuchat’ v Amerike,”, January 28, 2010,

70  L. Lumpe, “U.S. Military Aid to Central Asia, 1999-2009. Securities Priorities Trum Human Rights and Diplomacy,” op.cit., p. 17.

71  Ibid.



74  “Kto skazal chto voenno-morskomu flotu Kazakhstana prishel konets?,” Aktau Business, December 30, 2008,

75  E.F. Parubochnaia, “Voenno-tekhnicheskoe i voenno-obrazovatel’noe sotrudnichestvo v kontektse kazakhstansko-turetskikh otnoshenii,” Izvestiia Altaiskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta, vol. 60, # 4, 2008, pp. 98-102,

76  S. Peyrouse, Turkmenistan, New York: M.E. Sharpe, forthcoming, 2011.

77  “Kitai i Kazakhstan dostigli vysokogo urovnia vzaimoponimaniia – ministr oborony Kazakhstana,” Trends Kazakhstan, December 25, 2009,; “Podgotovka kazakhstanskikh voennosluzhashchikh v voenno-uchebnykh zavedeniiakh Kitaia”, Atyrau, January 26, 2009,

78  “Kitai i Kyrgyzstan vykhodiat na podpisanie novogo voennogo dogorova”,, July 12, 2004,; “KNR”,

79  S. Peyrouse, “Military Cooperation between China and Central Asia: Breakthrough, Limits, and Prospects,” China Brief, vol. 10, # 5, March 5, 2010,

80  S. Peyrouse, “Domestic and International Articulations of the Indian Involvement in Central Asia,” in M. Laruelle, S. Peyrouse (eds.), Mapping Central Asia: Indian Perceptions and Strategies, Farnham, UK: Asghate, 2011.

81  See R. McDermott, Kazakhstan’s Defense Policy: An Assessment of the Trends, op. cit.

82  Ibid., pp. 18-19.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Sébastien Peyrouse, « The Central Asian Armies Facing the Challenge of Formation », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 11 | 2010, Online since 03 March 2011, connection on 30 May 2016. URL :

Top of page

About the author

Sébastien Peyrouse

Central Asia - Caucasus Institute, SAIS, Johns Hopkins University

Top of page


Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License

This text is under a Creative Commons license : Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic

Top of page