Turkey has consistently tried to influence Central Asia through traditional means. In the early 16th century, when the Turkic-speaking khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan came under attack from a resurgent Russia, the Ottoman Emperor Selim II sent troops to assist his fellow Muslim and Turkic-speaking brothers. Furthermore, the Ottoman Empire’s vassal state, the Crimean Khanate, continued to receive both financial and military support from Istanbul until the khanate was annexed by Catherine the Great in the 18th century.
More recently, Turkey has switched to “soft power” diplomacy in order to enhance its reputation in Central Asia. Almost all Central Asian countries, and those of Caucasus, are Muslim majority states. Most speak Turkic languages and have close cultural connections to Turkey. Ankara has been using this to its advantage, embarking on projects to build mosques in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, while also frequently talking about a common “Turkic brotherhood” that stretches across the Caspian Sea into the heart of Central Asia. While COVID-19 has caused significant economic and political disruption across the globe and in the region, it has also provided Turkey an opportunity to enhance its reputation in Central Asia. By analyzing Turkey’s health care diplomacy in Central Asia, we can learn a great deal about Turkey’s aims in the region and why it needs to continue supplying medical and other aid in the foreseeable future.
Earlier this month, Ankara announced it was sending medical aid to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. The gifted items include ambulances, ventilators, test kits, and various other supplies to help control the spread of COVID-19 in the region. Ankara later announced this was done as a “gesture of friendship and goodwill,” which illustrates Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire to use healthcare diplomacy to enhance Turkey’s reputation in the region. Of course, Central Asia isn’t the only country Turkey has supplied aid to, as Ankara has also been active in shipping medical supplies all over the world, including to countries as far apart as Somalia and Bulgaria, but the sheer scale and breadth of supplies sent to Central Asia is impressive.
Health care diplomacy also paints a wider picture of Turkish aims in Central Asia. Turkey’s decision to publicize its aid packages to Kazakhstan is particularly revealing. Aside from Turkey, both Russia and China are also competing for influence in the country. In July, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin spoke of Moscow’s “friendship and partnership” with Kazakhstan, and Russian President Vladimir Putin also sent protective equipment to his Kazakh counterpart. Not to be outdone, China has also been active in the region, sending 50,000 testing kits, 600,000 surgical masks, and 70,000 protective glasses to Kazakhstan in July. Turkey’s attempts to further its influence in Kazakhstan must be viewed against a backdrop of mutual competition. Furthermore, had Turkey remained inactive during the pandemic, it would have risked losing significant prestige and goodwill with one of its closest allies in the region. Turkey also needs to ensure it continues to retain its influence in one of Central Asia’s largest countries, not only to curb Russian and Chinese interests, but to also enhance its own strategic interests. Kazakhstan can act as Turkey’s window to Central Asia and the Far East and also provides economic opportunities, particularly given its vast oil and gas reserves.
By the same token, Ankara’s support for Baku should come as no surprise, particularly given Azerbaijan is one of Turkey’s enduring and most reliable allies. Both countries have common strategic interests, including a joint desire to see Nagorno-Karabakh (a region contested between Azerbaijan and Armenia) returned to Baku. This week, Turkey’s presidential spokesman reaffirmed Ankara’s support, stating Turkey’s “alliance against all types of enemy will continue.”
However, Turkey cannot be complacent, even with its all-weather ally. Like Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan is also a significant battleground of ideas and influences, particularly from Russia. In a phone call just this week, Putin and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev “reaffirmed their determination to boost the Azerbaijan-Russia partnership in all areas” and Baku congratulated Moscow on its development of a new coronavirus vaccine (it is possible if the vaccine does prove to be successful, it will be used by Russia to further its influence and soft power in the region). China has also started to act, with Chinese medical experts being pictured helping and sharing their knowledge of the virus with their Azerbaijani counterparts. Furthermore, Beijing has also supplied protective equipment and other supplies to Baku during the pandemic, illustrating how China is keen to further its influences on the fringe of Central Asia. It is against this backdrop of Russian and Chinese influence that Turkey has had to act. While there is no doubt Turkey’s continued support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity is at the forefront of relations, its decision to furnish Baku with significant amounts of COVID-19 aid further solidifies its position of influence in the country and keeps Moscow and to a lesser extent Beijing on the fringes.
Regional powers, including Turkey, Russia, and China, continue to jostle for influence in Central Asia. Through the use of soft power and health care diplomacy, Turkey has further cemented its influence in the region, particularly in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. However, Ankara needs to continue its efforts to supply medical aid to the region, in order to counteract Chinese and Russian influences. While other “heavier” aspects of diplomacy are important, including economic, strategic, and military, Turkey has shown that utilizing health care diplomacy effectively can help retain and even bolster a position of influence at the expense of others.
Shahid Hussain is an incoming Ph.D. student at University College London (UCL).