Crossroads Asia

A Tangled Web: Russia, Turkey and Central Asia

Moscow’s displeasure with Ankara is trickling into Central Asia, but to varying degrees in each capital.

A Tangled Web: Russia, Turkey and Central Asia
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Hellerick

Turkey has long been a second-tier power in Central Asia. The recent tensions between Russia and Turkey do put the region in an awkward spot, but Turkish-Central Asian dealings have never had the high profile of Russian or Chinese regional engagement. The Russia-Turkey tension will trickle into Central Asia — and already has — but will be exhibited in different ways in each state.

Last year (almost exactly), Ryskeldi Satke, Casey Michel, and Sertaç Korkmaz wrote a piece for The Diplomat exploring the region’s ‘Turkic Togetherness.’ They highlighted several areas of engagement — Turkish-funded schools, the creation of the Turkic Council, defense-related cooperation (mostly training exchanges and military aid) — but ultimately concluded that Ankara had been noticeably reticent in developing ties with Central Asian states. “Still,” they wrote, “even though progress can be seen in certain avenues, Turkish-Central Asian relations fall far short of their original promise.”

In the last year Turkish-Central Asian relations have progressed in the same tentative manner, with Turkey playing the proverbial second fiddle to Russia’s overpowering social and cultural influence and Beijing’s big spending. The Turkic Council (members: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey) and its constituent bodies continue to meet and make progress in trade and investment arenas anyway, as well as with cultural initiatives. The Turkic Parliamentary Assembly (TurkPA) convened in Astana this week. In August, information and media officials from the member countries mutually endorsed the idea of a international Turkic news network.

Even Tajikistan — which doesn’t speak a Turkic language — has seen closer ties with Turkey over the past year. Dushanbe ordered the seven Gulen movement schools in the country to close, after the group had a fall-out with Ankara, something Samantha Brletich characterized as a demonstration of increasing alignment between Turkey and Tajikistan.

Kazakhstan, as I’ve discussed previously, will play the middle as it always does. Hosting the TurkPA meeting is a way of pretending that everything is fine, or at the very least that the Russia-Turkey tensions are nothing to be concerned about. Russia recently suspended cooperation with the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TURKSOY), which is under the umbrella of the Turkic Council, like TurkPA.

Kyrgyzstan is perhaps the most torn by the situation. As Aliaskar Adylov wrote recently for Global Voices, Bishkek’s response to the shooting down of the Russian fighter jet was “fairly bland.” A few small protests were staged out front of the Turkish embassy in Bishkek by pro-Russian groups. The protesters echoed the narrative stemming from the Kremlin that Turkey is in league with ISIS.

Where Turkish business interests are most noticeable — in Turkmenistan — Russia’s influence is less intense. Next to Chin, which buys most of Turkmenistan’s gas, Turkey has the best relationship with Ashgabat. Neutral and isolated, Turkmenistan allows few foreign companies to operate inside its borders. Turkey is an exception. According to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, over 600 Turkish companies are registered in Turkmenistan. The Turkish construction company Polimeks holds contracts on Turkmenistan’s two largest projects: the new $2 billion Ashgabat airport and a sport complex estimated to be worth $3.5 billion.

In light of the deterioration of relations between Russia and Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to visit Turkmenistan in early December is notable. It’s likely that discussions will center around Turkmenistan’s continued quest to diversify its gas exports, with the Russia-Turkey tension as both motivation and a point of trouble. Even if Turkey wants to participate more in Turkmenistan’s gas industry it would have to be through the ever-stalled Trans-Caspian pipeline. The Trans-Caspian pipeline — much discussed and hyped as a way to connect Europe to Turkmen gas — rides backseat to a final agreement on sovereignty and borders in the Caspian Sea. Russia, which has been using its Caspian Sea fleet more these days to launch cruise missiles to Syria, hasn’t shown much interest in settling the Caspian sea dispute in such a way that would allow Central Asian gas to bypass Russia.