Russia’s aggressive strategy in Ukraine and its hostile attitude toward the West have forced states in the region to revise current policies toward the Kremlin’s perceived “sphere of influence.” While the EU is searching for ways to avoid conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, and even though the Turkish government remains concerned over Russia’s treatment of the Crimea Tatar minority in the annexed peninsula, Turkey has shown restraint. Most commentary has focused on Ankara’s dependence on Russian natural gas – Turkish gas imports from Russia were estimated at 57 percent in 2013 – as the reason for Turkey’s moderate approach to the Ukraine crisis. However, when describing Turkey’s reticence in the former Soviet sphere, especially within Central Asia, other factors need to be considered.
In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Turkey was one of the first states to initiate wide-ranging cooperation with the Central Asian states. Despite setbacks in promoting a Turkic Union in the region, Turkish soft power over the years has achieved a moderate level of success, especially in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In a 2012 interview with an Egyptian outlet, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated that Turkey’s primary objectives toward Central Asian countries have been concentrated on supporting “the efforts for a working democracy and free-market economy; political and economic reform process; political and economic stability and prosperity in the region; to contribute to the emergence of an environment conducive to regional cooperation; to support their vocation toward Euro-Atlantic institutions, and to assist them to benefit from their own energy resources.”
Turkish government-funded schools in the former Soviet republics have become popular choices among prospective students. In addition to cultural links, energy security remains one of the top priorities for Ankara’s strategy in Central Asia. But while Russia’s gas politics are pressing both Turkey and EU to diversify their imports – even more so after the Kremlin’s drive to confront the West in Ukraine – neither Turkey nor the EU can push forward with energy supply routes in Central Asia without resolving the interstate dispute over the status of the Caspian basin. This remains all the less likely after Russian adventurism in Ukraine.
Even before the crisis in Ukraine, Turkey’s influence in the Turkic republics was debatable, with uneven levels of success in each state. Ankara’s ties have been observably progressing in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, while Uzbekistan and Tajikistan seem less responsive to Turkey’s initiatives – though Tajikistan, as a non-Turkic nation, lacks the prior links of other Central Asian nations. The shaky Uzbek-Turkish relations took a dramatic turn after the Andijan massacre in 2005, which has provoked an international outcry. The Turkish government backed the UN resolution condemning Uzbekistan’s human rights record over mass killings, resulting in a significant downturn in relations between Ankara and Tashkent. After almost a decade-long chill, Turkey’s diplomatic effort to reignite relations with Uzbekistan was rewarded in July when Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu visited Tashkent to jump-start relations. In Tajikistan, meanwhile, Ankara’s presence in the country remains largely limited. Generally, Tajikistan is tied to the AKP’s strategy regarding Turkey’s assisting role with facilitating peace and stability in neighboring Afghanistan, which has been reflected in providing development aid to the Tajik government.
Despite Turkey’s ill-matched political and economic capabilities – and as opposed to Beijing’s massive spending spree on the regional gas pipelines and infrastructure projects, or the Kremlin’s coercive actions in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – Turkish policymakers appear to maintain a low profile that is consistent with a strategy of non-interference. Turkey had high hopes of integrating the Turkic republics into Western-oriented political-economic structures in the 1990s, but due to host of complex issues with Central Asian post-Soviet regimes, Ankara abandoned the idea of promoting democratic reforms over a focus on regional security. Turkey’s political-economic power and military capabilities are not projected to support Central Asian republics as client-states – and will like continue that way, especially after China’s Silk Road initiatives and Russia’s revanchism in the former territories.
But relations haven’t been entirely without success, and could continue in some fashion moving forward. A growing economic and domestic political shift toward the Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish) paved the way for Turkey’s proactive foreign policy over the past decade. Turkish foreign aid to 121 countries skyrocketed from $85 million to $3.4 billion over the same period. The emergence of the AKP party has brought a pragmatic re-assessment of the Ankara’s strategy in Central Asia as well. In 2009, Turkey was a robust force behind the creation of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States, an organization mainly designed to promote trade and investment among member states. And increasingly Turkish businesses have used this model of cooperation to promote Turkey to outside investors as a gateway to energy-rich, undeveloped Central Asian republics.
On the security front, hundreds of military personnel from Central Asian republics have been trained in Turkey through bilateral defense programs. The significance of Central Asia’s strategic geography is one of the main priorities for Turkish policymakers in Ankara, and has spurred their decision to support security education within both the police and military, including cooperation on military modernization with Kazakhstan, funding universities both in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and a continued military presence in Afghanistan. A military agreement worth $44 million signed between leading Turkish defense company (ASELSAN) and its Kazakh partner (Kazakhstan Engineering) in 2012 resulted in the launch of the joint Turkish-Kazakh defense manufacturing in 2013. Turkey also provided $13 million in military aid to a struggling Kyrgyzstan.
Turkey does not necessarily need to approach the region in isolation. In light of the geopolitical developments in Ukraine and dramatic slowdown of the Russian economy, Turkey’s balancing act in Central Asia can actually be beneficial for Moscow, which could find another partner in helping to stem some of China’s swelling influence in the region. Now that the Americans have all but departed from the region, Russia’s remains the only viable military hardware in Central Asia. But despite the possibilities of cooperation, Russia is unlikely to look to Ankara for aid – both due to a distrust of interacting with a NATO country, as well as general distaste of working with any third-party actors in what it perceives to be its backyard.
Still, even though progress can be seen in certain avenues, Turkish-Central Asian relations fall far short of their original promise. The relationship “is not really practical,” says Bakyt Beshimov, a former Kyrgyz politician and analyst of Turkish-Central Asian relations. “There’s been a weakness of Turkey in strengthening its influence in Central Asia, compared to big players,” he added. Unfortunately for Turkey, the state of current relations with the former Soviet Turkic republics pales in import to Russia’s military outreach or, especially, China’s financial presence. And according to Beshimov, this reality will not change any time soon. ”It’s about the past, not about the future,” he said. “[The relationship is] just very symbolic. It seems to me a mystification of the so-called Turkic togetherness. Even in the past, Turkic nations were happily fighting with each other.”
Ryskeldi Satke is a contributing writer with research institutions and news organizations In Central Asia, Turkey and the U.S. Casey Michel has worked as a journalist in both Eurasia and the United States, and is currently a graduate student at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. Sertaç Korkmaz is a Turkish analyst.