Small Arms and Light Weapons Transfer Controls in the CIS Region

Tasneem Jamal

Bernardo Mariani

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2007 Volume 28 Issue 1

The region of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)1 has long been a major source of armaments, including small arms and light weapons (SALW), with Russia and Ukraine ranking among the six top suppliers of major conventional weapons in the period 2001-2005 (Hagelin, Bromley & Wezeman 2006, p. 477). Uzbekistan and Belarus are also important arms exporters.2 Huge stockpiles of SALW were left in the region when the Soviet Union collapsed and, in some countries, there are risks that weapons, ammunition, and explosives leaking from stockpiles might enter the black market. Even so, the progress made in the CIS region at the multilateral level provides some building blocks for developing international consensus on effective arms controls.

Progress at the regional and multilateral level

While subregional cooperation among CIS states on arms transfer controls is not well developed, all CIS countries have been involved in concerted efforts to develop common understandings of how to deal with international arms transfers, especially those related to SALW.

They have also made important commitments to avoid transferring arms that are likely to be used inter alia for violations of human rights and humanitarian law, for example through initiatives pursued by multilateral forums such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Wassenaar Arrangement.3 As UN members, all CIS countries are committed to the 2001 UN Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects.

Preventing the spread of MANPADS (man-portable air defence systems) has become a priority in SALW transfer controls for many CIS countries. In the context of the fight against terrorism, Russia has been at the forefront of international efforts to establish tighter controls over the export of MANPADS since 2001. In 2003, it took the lead on a CIS initiative devoted to this issue. This led to an agreement between 11 CIS members to provide notification of MANPADS transfers.

National standards and implementation

Over the last 15 years, CIS countries have made progress in strengthening their national laws, regulations, and systems to control SALW transfers. At the start of the 1990s virtually no export control system existed in the region. Currently, most countries, including all those that have an independent capacity to produce and supply arms (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan), have developed both the normative basis for transfer controls and licensing procedures.

The Russian legislative and executive authorities have developed legislative and statutory acts that relate to manufacture, stockpiling, import, export, transit, and re-export of arms, including SALW. The 1998 Federal Law on the Russian Federation’s Military Technical Co-operation with Foreign States established strict state controls on the export of Russian military SALW, while the Federal Law on Arms (adopted in 1996, subsequently amended) regulates possession, use, and internal transfers of SALW, as well as licensing requirements for the production and export of SALW.

Ukraine has also taken action to strengthen its national export controls by adopting a law in 2003 that provides a new legal base for arms export regulations. Likewise, Belarus has tightened its legislation and export and import control regulations. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan also have arms export control legislation; Kazakhstan, the only SALW producer in Central Asia, with significant arms stockpiles inherited from the Soviet Union, has developed an export licensing system organised through the Ministry of Trade and Industry that involves consultations with the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2003 Georgia introduced new legislation that covers transfer, possession, and use of SALW.

Despite undeniable progress in setting up national norms and regulations and the political commitments made by CIS countries at the regional and multilateral levels to better control the arms trade and improve international cooperation and information exchange, weaknesses and loopholes remain in most national export control systems. These allow arms transfers from the region to continue to reach human rights abusers, countries in conflict, and regions of instability.

A crucial challenge for all CIS countries is the lack of effective criteria-based licensing systems that ensure that factors such as national and international policies and commitments and responsibilities under international law are reflected in export licensing decisions.

Neither laws nor official statements by CIS governments on their foreign policy goals and national export control systems refer to the need to control international arms transfers in light of human rights considerations, the internal situation in the country of destination, or the compatibility of arms exports with the country’s technical and economic capacity.

Therefore, the consistent application in arms transfer decisions of the specific criteria that have been agreed within the framework of multilateral initiatives is not guaranteed and there is a constant risk that commercial preferences or other considerations could overpower the political commitments regarding export controls that countries have adhered to. The problem is often compounded by the lack of effective and clear parliamentary oversight of government decisions and an overall lack of public transparency.

The implementation of national controls related to arms transfers also poses big challenges, with many states still struggling to improve law enforcement capacity and effectively manage and control goods transiting across borders. Often, a general lack of financial, technical, and human resources undermines a state’s ability to implement and enforce effective export and border controls, as well as such other concerns as stockpile management and destruction. Most CIS countries would benefit from arms export licensing officials and law enforcement officers who were better trained in practical and technical aspects of export control, but they sometimes lack the experienced officials and resources to provide adequate training programs. And, while officials in Western countries often have access to computerised systems, embassies, and consulates that provide information on prospective end-uses and end-users, CIS countries often do not have such resources. Although CIS licensing officials and their Western counterparts have had exchange visits, and customs authorities have been provided with equipment, these efforts have only begun the process to implement effective mechanisms for international cooperation and assistance.

Transparency and government accountability

A general lack of transparency cuts across all the problems and is often maintained by low public interest in SALW control issues. Although some countries, such as Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, have made important commitments to increased information exchange through their participation in regional and international arms control initiatives within the UN, the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the OSCE, developing public transparency remains a key challenge for all CIS countries. Some states, especially those that produce weapons, are concerned that increased transparency on production and transfers of SALW may compromise their defence and security capabilities and/or undermine their legitimate defence business. Therefore, they are not easily prepared either to increase public transparency or to consider what the optimal level of public disclosure should be.

CIS countries have made some progress in developing confidential information-sharing between governments on arms transfers. At the regional level this has taken place inter alia within the framework of the Wassenaar Arrangement (for Russia and Ukraine) and the OSCE information exchange mechanisms on SALW. Since 2001, CIS countries have shared information with other OSCE countries on several different issues related to SALW, including data on exports and imports within the OSCE region. As part of the CIS initiative on MANPADS, Russia and its CIS partners have tried to improve information exchange over the export of MANPADS. Since 2003, Russia has signed bilateral agreements on information exchange about MANPADS transfers with all other CIS countries except Turkmenistan.

In February 2005, the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed an agreement that allows the USA and Russia to cooperate on stricter control over MANPADS, including sharing information on MANPADS supplies to third countries.

Such information exchanges are important because they can contribute to better cooperation between law enforcement agencies and can improve the capacity to prevent diversion to unauthorised users. But most of these exchanges are confidential to the state parties concerned and, although some mechanisms are becoming more elaborate, they are usually fairly modest, both in the scope and specificity of the information exchanged. Public information concerning the production and trade of armaments, especially SALW, is often difficult to obtain, inaccurate, or shrouded in excessive secrecy.

Parliaments of CIS countries potentially have a variety of mechanisms to oversee the arms transfer policies and practices of their governments. But the political will to make these mechanisms effective is often lacking and members of parliament exert little or no pressure on governments to become more transparent; nor do they challenge the bureaucratic culture which treats arms trade issues as a government prerogative. The most effective tools at the disposal of parliamentarians –raising public awareness through speeches, lobbying with other members of parliament, and using the press to support or raise objections to particular imports and exports – are hardly used. It appears that CIS parliamentarians are satisfied to leave control over the imports and exports of arms to the discretion of their governments.

Civil society participation

The involvement of civil society in SALW transfer controls has been modest, even in countries such as Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine that have relatively liberal political systems. There is an overall lack of public interest and open public discussion in the region regarding arms transfer controls and, consequently, SALW control is not perceived as a priority by civil society organisations. The result is an insufficient level of NGO oversight.

However, several organisations, especially in the Western CIS subregion, have been involved in conducting research and advocating and promoting transparency with regard to SALW. In Russia, the PIR Centre and Saferworld are currently working on a two-year project, funded by the European Commission, on “Building civil society capacity to engage with government to tackle small arms in Russia.” In Ukraine, NGOs such as the Razumkov Centre have mostly concentrated on researching the problem of surplus SALW and ammunition, trying to identify priority areas on which international cooperation and assistance should focus. Currently, the Kiev-based International Centre for Policy Studies, in cooperation with Saferworld, is preparing a detailed analysis of Ukraine’s export controls system, and the two organisations are working on a project aimed at developing parliamentary oversight. In Belarus, Voluntas has been active in the promotion of domestic and regional initiatives in the area of SALW, especially transparency in the arms trade, stockpile security, and the decommissioning of surplus arms. In Moldova, the Institute for Public Policy has been involved in research projects on various aspects of the SALW issue in the country. In Georgia Saferworld has worked with the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development in promoting international transfer controls and the ATT.

In highly authoritarian states like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the conditions for civil society oversight or strong investigative journalism are almost nonexistent.


The CIS region has made some progress in developing international consensus on effective arms transfer controls. However, significant challenges remain. Relatively new national nonproliferation norms and decision-making procedures, which often had to be created from nothing after the collapse of the Soviet Union, show some of the deficiencies and shortcomings of systems that require further development and consolidation. All CIS countries should introduce and implement effective transfer control criteria to make good on the political commitments made within multilateral forums. CIS states must also recognize the need for transparency in arms transfers and actions to prevent and combat illicit arms trafficking, especially the monitoring and implementation of any future ATT.

Because it is unlikely that CIS civil society will mobilise in support of stringent transfer controls, progress will be largely dependent on the building of a more constructive international dialogue and common understandings with those CIS countries that are sensitive about stricter arms transfer controls. The arms industries of Russia and Ukraine remain dependent on exports.

Particularly in these two countries, the continued development, implementation, and enforcement of nonproliferation export control policies and practice must be sustained.

Bernardo Mariani is International Transfer Controls Co-ordinator at Saferworld. He is based in Austria. This article is extracted from a longer paper presented to a recent international seminar held at Project Ploughshares in Waterloo on 8 February 2007.


  1. At present the CIS comprises Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine.
  2. Respectively 13th and 14th on the SIPRI list of suppliers of major conventional weapons, 2001-2005 (Hagelin, Bromley & Wezeman 2006, p. 477).
  3. The Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies has 40 participating states that represent most of the major arms suppliers.


Hagelin, Björn, Mark Bromley & Siemon T. Wezeman. 2006. The volume of transfers of major conventional weapons: by recipients and suppliers, 2001-2005, SIPRI Yearbook 2006. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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