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Turkish ambitions in Central Asia

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Thanks to its long-standing relations with the region’s Turkic states, Ankara plays an important role in one of the most crucial energy and geopolitical hubs in the world.

When the USSR officially dissolved in 1991, Ankara threw a party. The Turkish Republic was suddenly faced with vast prairies (actually steppes) of opportunity in post-Soviet Central Asia. “The next century will be a Turkish century”, the then president Turgut Özal predicted at the time. This new world was particularly enthralling for nationalists. The pan-Turkish dream of freeing the ‘imprisoned Turks’ in communist Turkestan and creating a common land that would stretch from the Mediterranean all the way to China was now close at hand.

“Turkey was the first country to recognise the independence of the Central Asian and Southern Caucasian states in January 1992 and open diplomatic relations. This enabled the new states to join the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO), founded by the Turks in 1985 with Iran and Pakistan”, explained Sébastien Peyrouse, a professor at George Washington University.

According to William Dale, professor emeritus in the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, “with the dissolution of the USSR, Ankara had high hopes of creating a pan-Turkish union. These expectations were mainly based on cultural ties and the assumption that a resurgence of Russian power was unlikely”. History, however, has proven otherwise. Putin’s Russia is once again a world player, but that’s not the end of the story.

According to Peyrouse, “Ankara was hoping to take part in the area’s political development by exporting its (successful) democratic, non-confessional, modern model, but the naïve optimism of those years led to many mistakes. The Central Asian leaders soon started to point the finger at the Turkish ‘big brother’ tactics”.

Turkestan countries, particularly those rich in hydrocarbons, have learned the Soviet lesson and do not intend to become simple pawns in a new “geopolitical chess match” involving the US, Russia, China and Turkey. Authoritarian leaders such as Islom Karimov in Uzbekistan are die-hard sovereigns. Nor is Azerbaijan a Turkish satellite, despite being Ankara’s main ally in the Caucasus and Central Asia (in December the Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu praised the “strategic partnership” between Baku and Ankara in front of an appreciative audience of Azeri university students).

“Since the middle of the 90’s and up to today, Central Asian countries have viewed pan-Turkish discussions as an attempt to question the legitimacy of their states, and they have thus been marginalised both politically and culturally, mainly restricted to dissident circles. The two most authoritarian countries, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have regularly accused Ankara of harbouring dissidents, and have tried to limit Turkish influence”, says Peyrouse.

According to a European diplomatic source in Ankara, “the Turks have a tendency to consider Central Asia as their backyard, and this doesn’t go down well. But even if they don’t carry the clout of Moscow, Washington or Beijing, their economic and particularly their cultural influence is very obvious. They are a kind of trump card, that could tip the balance one way or the other”. Turkey is a major investor in Kazakhstan, the region’s top economy, particularly in construction, textiles and services. And along with Russia, Turkey is also one of the two major commercial partners of Azerbaijan, a country that bridges Europe and Central Asia.

In any case, Turkey’s ace in the hole is soft power. Through its vastly popular TV series, university partnerships and Islamic proselytism, Turkey exerts a growing appeal on citizens and the elite (including the military: a number of central Asian officers have been trained by the Turks as part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace project).

This goes hand in hand with Turkey’s more pragmatic attitude, low on ethical grandeur. The change in approach reflects the economic development of Turkey over the last decade. It is also consistent with Prime Minister Davutoglu’s geopolitical views, based on principles such as “zero problems with neighbours”, an awareness of soft power and the need for a multi-faceted approach. There’s a good dose of realism in all of this: in a region where large and average size military powers confront each other, armies are a commodity more than an asset.

What Turkey can offer to Turkestan countries is financial capital, technological know-how and ports on the Mediterranean. In exchange, it wants access to the region’s markets (approximately 70 million people with a similar cultural background) and, more importantly, to secure a role for itself in the Caspian energy power game. The Turkish economy is thirsty for hydrocarbons and Ankara wants to become an energy hub. The BTC pipeline, carrying crude oil from Baku to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, and TANAP, the gas pipeline currently under construction that by 2018 should be carrying Azeri gas into Turkey, are there to prove it.

To add to this, over the years, the cooperation between Turkey and the countries in the area has become increasingly structured and multilateral. Besides TÜRKSOY, a form of Turkish-speaking UNESCO, a Turkish Council was created in 2009.  The Council is an intergovernmental organisation set up by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan and Turkey, founded on the pillars of a shared language and culture. It aims to expand cooperation among member countries regarding the economy, customs procedures and science. Other institutions are linked to the Council as well, such as the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkish speaking countries, the Turkish Academy and the Turkish Business Council. There has also been talk of launching a Turkish language news channel.

Be that as it may, Turkish influence still encounters considerable opposition in the region. This, according to Hale, comes primarily from “Russia, once again a dominant power in the area, both from an economic, military and political point of view. And China is also becoming a relevant regional player”. For Morgan Y. Liu, an expert on the region and professor of anthropology at Ohio State University, “Turkey is still involved in Central Asia, but the excitement of a preferential relationship has mostly waned”. But the last word has yet to be spoken. “Kazakistan and Uzbekistan both have very old leaders, and there could be changes in store once power is transferred to the new generation”, says Hale. “It remains to be seen whether the low oil prices will lead to an economic crisis in Russia, thus curtailing Moscow’s regional influence”.

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