The virtues of neutrality

Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan © Patrick Pascal

          In these times of war, heavy threats in various theaters of operation, strengthening of military budgets, reconstitution and even enlargement of alliances for security, does the concept of neutrality still have any meaning? What are its possible virtues?

A status that is not widespread and flexible

It is necessary to correct misconceptions about neutrality by first distinguishing between States which have a policy of neutrality and those which opt for a status of permanent neutrality. The former show a willingness to remain outside the blocs and alliances and determine their policy accordingly. This was the case for Sweden and Finland until they applied for NATO membership. The latter choose a particular situation involving international rights and obligations established by treaties.

Permanent neutrality deserves here our attention. It corresponds to a State’s commitment not to use force, except to defend its independence and territorial integrity. This commitment is recognized by the other States which oblige them as far as they are concerned not to use force against it and sometimes to guarantee its neutrality, that is to say to act by force against those who would not respect the status of neutrality.

The status of neutrality is historically old and generally responds to a desire to avoid armed conflicts in particularly sensitive areas. The legal basis for Swiss neutrality was the result of unilateral and converging legal acts adopted in 1815. The 1955 Austrian State Treaty put an end to the occupation of Austria and contained the commitment of the USSR, France, the United Kingdom and the United States to respect the independence and territorial integrity of Austria. An Austrian constitutional law proclaimed the same year Austria’s perpetual neutrality. This position excluded alliances and military bases on its territory.

It is important to note that a perpetually neutral state undertakes not to participate in any armed conflict and not to link its fate to any foreign influence. But this status is not synonymous with demilitarization and it does not in any way rules out a capacity to ensure its defence. It cannot be ensured within the framework of a collective defence organisation, but a guarantor State can side militarily with the neutral State that has been attacked.

The experience of a former Soviet Republic 

Turkmenistan offers a very contemporary example of permanent neutrality. This Republic of Central Asia gained independence in 1992 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. By a declaration registered by the UN in 1995, the country chose permanent neutrality. This status was the result of exercise of a sovereign right and was confirmed, on its twentieth anniversary, by a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on a proposal from Turkmenistan, also co-sponsored by France.

The country has made neutrality the emblematic expression of its foreign policy, particularly within a multilateral framework. Ashkhabad’s motivations have never been clearly explained but we can try outlining and defining contours. A republic somewhat neglected by the Soviet Union and whose development left much to be desired despite its great potential (NB: today the world’s fourth largest gas reserves; the second economy in Central Asia), Turkmenistan located in a sensitive zone – where it is both neighbor of Iran and Afghanistan (NB: respectively 1,150 and 800 km of common borders) – has taken into due consideration its enclavement and relative weakness. It has therefore adopted an orientation based on an analysis of the means of its power, regional environment and purposes.

The desire to live in harmony with neighbouring countries quickly materialized and, as an example, Ashkhabad has always maintained relations with all parties throughout the Afghan conflict. Turkmenistan, rich in energy resources, even provided electricity in the border areas. After having received material support from Iran at the time of the creation of the state, Turkmenistan in turn supplied gas to a country hit by sanctions, especially in northern Iran, far from the energy basins of this country.

A member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Turkmenistan is not, of course, a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), unlike the four other Central Asian republics. Does its statute forbid it from close cooperation with countries belonging to different alliances? The answer is no. Russia, whose positions have declined in this country, nevertheless retains an important soft power, notably through the Russian language, which remains the working language of administration and the presence of a large community of bi-nationals. Moscow continues to provide military equipment. The United States has dominated the civil aeronautics sector since independence, China has become the almost exclusive buyer of Turkmen gas and France is present in this country with large companies in the field of construction (Bouygues, Vinci), energy (Total, Schneider Electric) and advanced technologies such as satellites (Thalès) and helicopters (Airbus). 

The relative closure of the country therefore does not exclude all-round cooperation. The country is at the heart of major economic projects (see TAPI/ Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline) to which the Chinese ambition of the New Silk Roads (One Road One Belt) could restore a new topicality. With regard to the States of the European Union still insufficiently present, there is an EU strategy for Central Asia, developed at one time with particular dynamism by Ambassador Pierre Morel. The French National Assembly has already authorized for several years (NB: 2015) the ratification of the Agreement between Turkmenistan and the European Union.

The transposition of the status of permanent neutrality?

Each example of permanent neutrality, a status that is not widespread, is specific and we cannot compare the model of Central Asia to Switzerland and Austria and even to a former Soviet Republic now at war. A reflection had nevertheless developed about Ukraine after the Crimea annexation. Military scenarios are unfolding before our eyes which will not be easy to extricate but the question of regional security, according to modalities to be determined will inevitably be integrated into a comprehensive settlement.

If security is clearly a major priority and prerequisite of development, economic constraint will be common, in different forms, to Turkmenistan and Ukraine. According to figures to be specified, hydrocarbons account for 90% of the Central Asian State’s exports and 50% of its GDP; Ukrainian economy is heavily dependent on grain exports. Enclavement and dependence on an almost single Chinese gas buyer on one side, maritime blockade on the other, the two countries will have to do everything to remain “corridors” (see gas, cereals, rail) which relativizes the question of neutrality.

One can imagine the very strong reluctance for external «guarantees», the failure to respect the Budapest Protocol of 1994 – following the military denuclearization of Ukraine – by Russia alone constituting a difficult trauma to overcome. But a permanent neutrality should be conceived differently and become the responsibility of the entire international community. Nothing prevents us from exploring all possible ways and formulas to put an end to a destructive conflict and neutrality, in this search, can also have some virtues. 

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