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To Deepen Relations With Uzbekistan, Turkey Leans on Cultural Appeal

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To Deepen Relations With Uzbekistan, Turkey Leans on Cultural Appeal

Amid a rapid rapprochement, Ankara has relied on soft power in Uzbekistan by strengthening cultural ties in language and education opportunities. But is it enough?

To Deepen Relations With Uzbekistan, Turkey Leans on Cultural Appeal
Credit: Facebook/ Shavkat Mirziyoyev

Although Turkey was the first country to acknowledge Uzbekistan’s independence on December 16, 1991, the two countries have  been through hot and cold periods since. Relations reached their lowest point in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Tashkent canceled its visa-free regime with Turkey, recalled Uzbeks studying at Nursi schools there, and closed Gulen-affiliated Turkish schools across Uzbekistan. 

Reconciliation and rapprochement between Uzbekistan and Turkey took off with the 2016 government change in Uzbekistan. Currently Turkey is Uzbekistan’s fourth largest economic and trade partner after Russia, China, and Kazakhstan – the volume of bilateral trade between the two countries increased from $1.2 billion in 2016 to $3.6 billion in 2021. Uzbekistan finally joined the Organization of Turkic States in 2019. In 2021, days of Uzbek culture were held in Ankara and Istanbul, and soon after, Turkish culture days were celebrated in Uzbekistan. Amid this rapid development of ties, Ankara is trying to exert its soft power via promotion of the Turkish language and education among Uzbeks. 

Turkey’s foreign policy in regard to the Central Asian region relies on cultural commonalities such as language, religion, shared history, and traditions. Both Uzbek and Turkish are members of the Turkic language family. The Turkish language is thus very popular in Uzbekistan, and its popularity has only grown with the broadcast of Turkish TV series on local TV channels. 

One of the first Uzbek universities to teach the Turkish language to Uzbeks was Tashkent State University of Oriental Studies. As early as 1990, the university opened the Department of Altai Studies and renamed it to the Turkic Languages Department a year later. The University of Oriental Studies became the first higher education institution in Central Asia that taught Turkish language studies. In 2020, the department was renamed again to the Turkish Philology Department and reportedly remains the only faculty that focuses on Turkish language studies –Turkshunoslik – not only in Uzbekistan, but in Central Asia as well. The department currently has nearly 500 students.  

Another public university, the Uzbekistan State World Languages University, established a Turkish language center in 2014. 

Alisher Navo’i Tashkent State University of Uzbek Language and Literature cooperates with many Turkish educational institutions, including with Yunus Emre Institute – a public foundation established by the Turkish government to promote “Turkey, Turkish language, its history and culture and art.” With the support of the Yunus Emre Institute, Turkish language is taught free of charge at Alisher Navo’i university where apart from students and language enthusiasts, Uzbek military officers who want to undergo training with the Turkish Armed Forces also study. In 2022 alone, nearly 200 people took the Turkish Language exam at the university (up from 115 in 2021). 

The Yunus Emre Institute has put more effort into promoting Turkey’s image in Uzbekistan than just providing free Turkish language courses. In 2021, for example, Navoi Publishing House signed a TEDA agreement with the Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Turkey. The Translation and Publication Grant Program of Turkey (TEDA), established in 2005 and run by the Turkish Ministry of Tourism, promotes the “publication of Turkish literature as well as works about Turkish art and culture.” One of the first publications in Uzbekistan under TEDA was the Uzbek translation of the book titled “Yunus Emre Divani” (Divan of Yunus Emre). 

Cooperation between Turkish and Uzbek education institutions is clearly supported by Ankara and Tashkent.

Interest in Turkish education is slowly growing among Uzbeks, especially in the field of medicine, economics, and tourism studies. Based on a bilateral agreement signed on November 21, 2019, a joint Turkish Faculty of Medicine was established at the Bukhara State Medical Institute together with the Turkish University of Medical Sciences. The program currently has nearly 500 students studying medicine. A year later, the Uzbek government adopted a resolution to launch a branch of the Turkish University of Economics and Technology (TOBB ETU) in Tashkent. Although studies are held in English and study materials are provided by Ankara, the TOBB ETU itself is established under the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Uzbekistan. Reportedly, students have a chance to travel to Turkey and undergo an internship program with leading Turkish companies. Uzbek youth are in particular interested to learn about and engage with Turkish enterprises both in Turkey and Uzbekistan. As of 2022, 1,882 enterprises with Turkish capital operate in Uzbekistan – over 80 percent of them were established between 2018-2021. 

Turkish higher education institutions also enjoy a relatively large number of students from Uzbekistan. In the 2020-2021 academic year, 2,421 Uzbek citizens were studying at Turkish universities – some benefit from Turkiye Burslari or other scholarships. Although it is a sharp increase from 840 Uzbek students in 2018, this is still a small number in comparison to Russia, which hosts over 48,000 Uzbekistani students. At the same time, Turkey has more students from other Central Asian countries. For example, there were over 12,000 Turkmen students in 2018 in Turkey.

Despite all these efforts, Turkey cannot surpass the influence of Russia or China in Uzbekistan any time soon, even in terms of language and education promotion. There are already 750,000 ethnic Russians living in Uzbekistan, and up to a third of the population can communicate in Russian due to the seven decades of Soviet colonization of the region, while only 130,000 Turkish speakers reside in the country. Russian is taught at local public schools as part of the mandatory curriculum and over eight dozen schools teach exclusively in Russian. Fourteen Russian universities or branches of Russian universities operate in Uzbekistan and nine more are to be launched soon. Similarly, two Confucius Institutes in Uzbekistan actively teach the Chinese language to locals and 6,500 Uzbek youth study in China. 

Turkish TV shows play a bigger role in fostering the image of Turkey among local Uzbeks than Ankara’s language and education promotion efforts. However, Turkish TV series are also criticized as the lifestyle presented in some shows is viewed by some as counter to Uzbek family values. In 2018, for example, a local Uzbek TV channel had to stop broadcasting the Turkish series “Kara Sevda” (Blind Love) due to heavy criticism from locals, including from Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov himself. 

While political and economic cooperation between Ankara and Tashkent is growing rapidly, cultural development programs are mostly limited to a small number of symbolic publications, a couple of study programs, and a promised collaboration in cinematography in the coming years. If Turkey wants to become a bigger player in Uzbekistan, more voluminous efforts are needed. Shared commonalities have been proven to be not enough.