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Turkey and the tug of war in Central Asia

In the 19th century it was Britain and Russia that played the ‘Great Game’ for influence in Central Asia. Throughout the 21st century the ‘game’ has continued, but the players have changed.

Baktybek Beshimov
6 June 2014

A statement last year by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's Prime Minister, that his country might prefer the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) (a Eurasian grouping including Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) over the European Union has raised speculation that Ankara has decided to join the ‘Great Game’ in Central Asia. 

If this is true, then he is treading on dangerous ground. Russia’s aggressive behaviour in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea are a warning that the rules of this game are changing and the stakes rising. In trying to draw the countries of Central Asia into its new Eurasian Economic Union, and demonstrating its ability to force change (to its own advantage) in insubordinate states, Moscow is seemingly following a policy of subjugation of ‘post-soviet’ republics. 

Russia is using the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as an excuse to increase its military presence in Central Asia.

Some countries, such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have shown loyalty to Russia by endorsing its actions in Ukraine; others, namely Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have not. They all, however, feel their security threatened by Moscow’s perceived aspirations to extend its orbit of control, and its apparent willingness and capability to destabilise any neighbour it chooses. Moscow’s support for separatist movements in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova has forced the issue of protecting the sovereignty of ‘post-soviet’ states, into the fore. Russia is already using its increasing confrontation with the West and the partial US withdrawal from Afghanistan (Washington is pushing for a security deal that would allow US troops to remain in Afghanistan until ‘2024 and beyond’) as an excuse to increase its military presence in Central Asia.

kremlin sized_0.jpeg

Last year President Erdogan suggested that Turkey might prefer the SCO over the EU. Photo CC: Kremlin.ru

China, to Russia’s great annoyance, is rapidly escalating its economic presence in Central Asia, and will clearly seek an assurance from Moscow that its interests there will be protected. While the US has had no success in integrating the countries of the region into its orbit, one could suggest that it is now trying to use sanctions to take the heat out of Putin’s aggressive fervour. 

The countries of Central Asia now find themselves in a situation where neither international law, and codes of practice, nor the assurances of supra-national governmental alliances and ‘great powers,’ can ensure a binding guarantee of their security and territorial integrity. 

A Turkic world

In this situation, it is clear that a united Central Asia has a better chance of maintaining its independence and ability to stand up to pressure from its stronger neighbours. So the question is whether the region could become a fully-fledged player in the ‘Great Game,’ with expanding ambitions and capabilities, by joining forces with Turkey. 

Turkey’s unique attraction for Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Turkmens is that, like all Central Asian countries except Tajikistan (which is linguistically and culturally close to Iran), it sees and presents itself as part of a common Turkic civilisation. The idea of a union of Turkic countries has existed for over a century, and received new impetus after new Turkic-language countries appeared in Central Asia after the breakup of the USSR. The concept of Turkic nationalism in its purest form, Pan-Turkism, was seen as a threat by both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, hence the reason why there was never a single Turkestan uniting the Turkic peoples of Central Asia: the area was split up into smaller ethnically-based republics that were kept isolated from Turkey.

When the USSR collapsed, Turkey was quick to support the newly independent countries of Central Asia.

As early as the 1920s, both Pan-Turkists and the followers of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of modern Turkey, believed that Turkey should be ready to support the Turkic family of nations in the USSR after the fall of communism. This pivotal idea had to be kept on hold for many decades, but when the USSR collapsed, Turkey was quick to lend support to the newly independent countries of the region. 

The then President of Turkey, Turgut Özal, attempted to bring together the Turkic-speaking peoples in some kind of Eurasian Turkic Commonwealth where his country would play a leading role. Ankara also pragmatically tried to position itself as a bridge between the new Central Asia and the West, in particular the US, as a way of boosting its own international standing. However, a lack of resources, combined with the unwillingness of Central Asia’s countries to line up behind Turkey facing West, meant that the idea soon fizzled out. In general, the new authoritarian leaders of the Central Asian countries reacted with suspicion to both Turkey’s initiatives and its model of development, and it proved impossible to achieve any mutual understanding. 

The ‘soft power’ approach

This failure did not, however, deter the Turkish government, which rethought its strategy and came up with a new approach. Ankara realised that it had underestimated the effect of many decades of Communism, and also their long isolation from Turkey, on the culture and mindset of the peoples of Central Asia. So the government decided instead to concentrate its efforts on educational and cultural cooperation, and the development of Turkish business in the region. 

The Turkish government set up a Great Student Exchange Project, with the aim of ‘forming a Central Asian Turkic-speaking elite.’

A network of schools, colleges and universities began to spring up across Central Asia, funded by the Turkish government and the Fethullah Gülen movement, named after its founder, an Islamic scholar now based in the US. The Turkish government set up a Great Student Exchange Project, with the aim of ‘forming a Central Asian Turkic-speaking elite to replace its present Russian-speaking elite;’ and between 1992 and 2008, 38,000 students from the Turkic republics received scholarships to study at universities in Turkey. Today, the Fethullah Gülen movement runs about 30 primary and secondary schools in Kazakhstan, 15 or so in Kyrgyzstan, and ten in Tajikistan. The movement also publishes the Turkish daily newspaper Zaman (Time) in Astana, Bishkek and Ashgabat. 

Changing the game

The victory of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey, in 2002, brought a further change in strategy towards the region. Rejected by Europe, Turkey decided to promote itself as a new power centre, and began to regard Central Asia as a mere accessory to its more global ambitions. Turkey’s rapid growth since 2002 has made it the world’s 18th largest economy, which in theory could have allowed it to increase its level of aid to Central Asia thirteen-fold, but in fact aid is now considerably lower than it was in the 1990s. Turkey has also become less interested in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, and is focusing more individual attention on Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which has had the unintended side effect of widening the rifts between these countries. 

The Presidential Press and Information Office.jpeg

President Erdogan has focused much attention on strengthening ties with Russia and China.Prime Minister Erdogan has also been busy strengthening his country’s ties with Russia and China, now both major markets for Turkish goods. Although Turkey’s trading volume with Central Asia in 2010 totalled 3.9 billion GBP, and its investments 2.8 Billion GBP, the region is still marginal to the Turkish economy. In terms of markets for Turkish exports, Kazakhstan occupies 21st place, Uzbekistan 49th, Kyrgyzstan 72nd and Tajikistan 81st place; and Turkey’s total trading volume with Central Asia is only a fifth of its sales turnover with Russia, and a quarter of its sales to China. 

These days, the Erdogan government sees its relations with Turkic Central Asia to some extent though the prism of its links with Moscow and Beijing. Ankara appears to have realised that it cannot compete with Russia or China in the region, either financially or politically, and has given up any aspirations it had to create a union of Turkic speaking peoples. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have pulled out of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (CCTS) set up by Turkey in 2009, and, not surprisingly, there is growing scepticism among Turks about the viability of any Pan-Turkic project in Central Asia. It is still difficult to say what effect this might have on Turkish strategy in the region, but it is clear that the conflict between the countries of the region will further weaken Ankara’s influence there. 

Ankara has given up any aspirations it had to create a union of Turkic speaking peoples.

In short, no attempt, by either Central Asian states or Turkey, to create a union of Turkic speaking countries has had any success. Unresolved tensions among the countries of the region, a lack of resources and Turkey’s own inconsistent policies have prevented the creation of a united front, a collective player in the ‘Great Game,’ and so they are left with their separate manoeuvrings for position around the ‘Great Powers’ in order to survive. How long this can go on, is difficult to say. 

There are, however, new factors to be borne in mind. Firstly, hundreds of thousands of Central Asian students have now graduated from Turkish universities, and their numbers are still growing. Although many of them still essentially think of themselves as Kyrghyz, Uzbek or Kazakh, their common Turkic identity is now an important element in their mindset; and these are the people at the centre of a new elite that is gradually taking over from the old, pro-Russian one. 

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The corrupt political elite currently at the helm in Turkey hardly provide a desirable model for Central Asia.

Secondly, the growth in aggressive Russian nationalism and Putin’s seemingly imperial ambitions make Turkic unity an increasingly relevant issue today. At the same time, elites in Central Asia are keeping one eye on China and its uncertain ambitions in the region. Probably with this in mind, President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan has suggested offering Turkey membership of the newly formed Eurasian Economic Union, and is actively pushing for Turkic unity, with the full support of Turkey. 

In the early 1990s, after the breakup of the USSR and the appearance of five new states in Central Asia, the US regarded Turkey as a new regional power that could play a consolidating role in the region. Nothing came of that idea. Whether Turkey can now be an active player in the so-called ‘Great Game’ will depend on the willingness of all the countries in the region to see it as an equal and dependable partner offering an attractive developmental model. But with the corrupt political establishment currently at the helm in Turkey, this is probably too much to hope for.

Image 2: CC: Aguzer

Image 3: CC: Presidential Press Office

Image 4: CC: Ceyhun Islik

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