On November 17, 2016, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan grabbed the attention of Central Asia watchers by making a state visit to Uzbekistan. Even though Turkey-Uzbekistan relations have been strained in recent years, Erdogan’s decision to lay flowers at late Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s grave site and meeting with Uzbekistan’s acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev (since elected president in his own right) represented a major step toward normalizing ties between Ankara and Tashkent.
Turkey’s decision to thaw its relationship with Uzbekistan after Karimov’s death can be explained by a mixture of economic aspirations and security imperatives. As Western investor confidence in the Turkish and Uzbek economies has declined precipitously in recent months, the leaders of both countries have been forced to place their long-standing economic disputes to the side. In addition, Turkish policymakers hope that a closer partnership with Uzbekistan will allow Ankara to combat the pernicious effects of terrorism’s diffusion in Central Asia, and deepen Turkey’s engagement with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) security bloc.
The Economic Dimension of the Turkey-Uzbekistan Normalization
Although the relationship between the Turkish and Uzbek governments has often been tense, Turkey continues to possess a formidable economic footprint in Uzbekistan. According to the Turkish embassy in Uzbekistan, Turkey-Uzbekistan foreign trade turnover totaled $1.2 billion in 2015. Turkish investors own and operate 450 companies in Uzbekistan, which employ an estimated 50,000 Uzbeks and generate $300 million in annual export revenue.
Despite this prominent economic presence, the growth of Turkish investment in Uzbekistan has lagged behind expectations in recent years. In 2014, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu released an official statement calling for an expansion of foreign investment to $5 billion in the medium term, but this pledged expansion did not occur.
Turkish policymakers have blamed Uzbek government obstructionism for the stagnation of bilateral trade links. In 2011, Karimov launched a public campaign against Turkish businesses in Uzbekistan. Uzbek state media accused Turkish firms of funding Islamic extremist movements, and scathingly criticized Ankara’s alleged involvement in the creation of an illegal shadow economy in Uzbekistan.
This hardline anti-Turkish rhetoric resonated powerfully within the Uzbek political establishment. Many Uzbeks remain deeply suspicious of Turkey’s attempts to carve out a sphere of economic influence in Central Asia. Therefore, Karimov’s prosecution of Turkish entrepreneurs for tax evasion and labor rights violations received broad support, even though this crackdown made Uzbekistan inhospitable to potentially beneficial Turkish investment.
Mirziyoyev has not officially renounced Karimov’s anti-Turkish campaign, but deteriorating economic conditions in both Turkey and Uzbekistan have forced the two countries to ameliorate tensions. The freeze in Turkey’s European Union (EU) accession bid after the July 2016 coup attempt has caused Ankara to strongly pivot toward Central Asia, as part of a broader divestment from Western markets. Turkish investors have singled out Uzbekistan as an especially useful economic partner, due to its extensive natural gas resources, large textile industry, and robust real estate market.
As Uzbekistan continues to suffer from the pernicious effects of a currency crisis and high unemployment, the Uzbek government is likely to respond more favorably to Turkish investment proposals than in years past. Uzbekistan’s successful negotiation of a textile agreement with the EU demonstrates its willingness to diversify its trade linkages beyond Russia, China, and South Korea. Closer economic cooperation with Turkey would be another major step toward achieving this goal.
The Security Dimension of the Turkey-Uzbekistan Rapprochement
Although Turkey was the first country to recognize Uzbekistan as an independent state in 1991, prospects for a durable Ankara-Tashkent security partnership have been marred by distrust. Unlike his counterparts in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, Karimov flatly rejected Turkey’s attempts to establish an alliance with Uzbekistan based on Pan-Turkic nationalism. The Uzbek government has frequently repressed pro-Turkish elements in the country, due to Turkey’s decision to offer asylum to opposition Erk activists and sponsorship of Islamist movements in Uzbekistan.
Even though Mirziyoyev continues to view Islamist movements as the leading threat to political stability in Uzbekistan, recent developments indicate that there is potential for expanded counterterrorism cooperation between Turkey and Uzbekistan. Turkey’s improved relations with Russia have bolstered the prospects of Ankara-Tashkent security cooperation, though Mirziyoyev’s refusal to rejoin the CSTO could marginalize Russia’s role in the rapprochement process.
In addition, Erdogan’s crackdown on Fethullah Gulen-linked institutions in Central Asia closely mirrors Uzbekistan’s past repression of Gulen’s movement. The refusal of Turkey’s other leading Central Asian partners, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, to conform with Erdogan’s anti-Gulen policy provides an opening for Uzbekistan to become Turkey’s principal regional ally in the struggle against Islamic extremism.
Normalizing relations with Uzbekistan could also help Turkey prevent a potential blowback of Islamic extremism from Central Asia to its own territory. Under Karimov, Uzbekistan deported large numbers of Turkish nationals to prevent them from sponsoring an Islamist insurrection against his government. The deportation and return of Turkish Islamists to Turkey has alarmed Turkish policymakers, as these disenfranchised groups could spread Islamic extremism in Turkey. Expanded Turkey-Uzbekistan cooperation will likely cause Mirziyoyev to scale back Karimov’s deportation policy, to the benefit of Turkey’s security.
In addition to the potential for counterterrorism cooperation, Turkish policymakers view a closer relationship with Uzbekistan as a gateway to deeper cooperation between Turkey and the SCO. Many analysts have highlighted the fact that Erdogan’s November 20 announcement that Turkey would consider SCO membership immediately followed his visit and normalization of ties with Uzbekistan. As Uzbekistan has successfully lobbied the SCO to increase trade linkages between the organization’s member states, a tightened Turkey-Uzbekistan partnership is a vital precondition for Ankara’s potential SCO accession.
The recent improvement in Turkey-Uzbekistan relations demonstrates the striking increase in Central Asia’s importance to Turkish policymakers, and highlights Uzbekistan’s desire to broaden its network of international allies. Early signs suggest that Turkey is likely to expand its economic investments in Uzbekistan and bolster its counterterrorism cooperation with Tashkent. Despite this progress, it remains to be seen whether Uzbekistan’s lingering concerns about Erdogan’s Islamist links and disdain for Turkish interference in Central Asia will derail Ankara’s latest attempt to normalize Turkey-Uzbekistan relations.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.