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Does the Organization of Turkic States Worry China and Russia?

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Does the Organization of Turkic States Worry China and Russia?

Greater integration among Turkic states may pose a crucial threat to Beijing and Moscow.

Does the Organization of Turkic States Worry China and Russia?

In this handout photo released by Turkish Presidency, Turkmenistan’s Chairman of the People’s Council Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, from left, arrive to the Organization of Turkic States summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Friday, Nov. 11, 2022.

Credit: Turkish Presidency via AP

Close ties among Turkic states have begun to build momentum in recent years. The momentum reached a tipping point at the Eighth Summit of the Turkic Council on November 12, 2021, in Istanbul, when Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan officially announced the decision of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council) to change its name to the Organization of Turkic States (OTS). The announcement reflected Ankara’s ambition to upgrade the organization from a lethargic alliance to a formidable political union.

The Istanbul summit was a significant milestone for the Turkic world for many reasons. While it offered economic and political support to member and observer states, increased cooperation among Turkic states was proposed as contributing to a reduction of trade barriers between Asia and Europe. Much of the long-term plan of the OTS is codified in the Turkic World 2040 Vision document. The document outlines how the Turkic organization will harness member states’ collective resources and become a force to reckon with on the global stage. Only time will tell whether this vision will succeed or not.

In the year since the Istanbul summit and the formation of the OTS, the Turkic alliance has experienced many positive changes. During a recent summit, which was held on November 11, 2022, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan was accepted as a full member of the organization. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) was also welcomed as the OTS’s newest observer member. One of the most remarkable decisions of the recent summit was the establishment of the Turkic Investment Fund (TIF). The purpose of the TIF is to accelerate the economic growth of member states through the provision of finance to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

In addition to the creation of the TIF, OTS members have embarked on many cultural initiatives aimed at strengthening the ties of Turkic nations. In the last year, efforts have been made to deepen member states’ integration through shared history, language, and identity. The OTS envisions a world where every member state speaks the same language. At a workshop held in Turkey on September 30, 2022, the “Common Alphabet Commission” was established to expedite the transition of Turkic states to a standard alphabet.

Another strategy proposed to strengthen the relationship of members states is the prioritization of religious issues. The organization brings heads of religious institutions of member states together four times a year to discuss issues affecting Islam in Turkic nations. On October 20, 2022, religious leaders from the Turkic states convened a meeting in Baku and established the Council of Religious Leaders of the Turkic World. The goal of the council is to take a common stance in the fight against Islamophobia and any form of extremism in Turkic nations.

The organization has also made plans to take a joint political stance. Member states have adopted a collective perspective on various regional issues, such the Afghanistan crisis, the Kazakhstan unrest, the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflicts, and the Kyrgyz-Tajik border issue. Another major objective of the alliance is to establish a logistical link between Turkic states by empowering Trans-Caspian East-West-Middle Corridor and merging with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. With this objective, member states have the collective political and economic clout to challenge Beijing’s influence in Central Asia. 

Although the OTS has lofty goals, only Azerbaijan and Turkey are willing to go the extra mile to implement the union’s full vision so far. Russia wields great power over OTS members like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, and this influence may imperil the harmonization of member states. While these countries may want to support Pan-Turkism, they may also balk at making moves that counter Moscow’s interest. Apart from Russia, the OTS may pose long-term risks to China’s plans to become the dominant player in Central Asia. Of course, Beijing will not fold its hand and watch the OTS interfere in the sensitive issues.

Apart from external influence, internal issues may also compromise the goal of the OTS. Some member states have questioned Ankara’s leading role in the union. More worrying is that the OTS may stoke the emergence of nationalist ambitions among Turks. The expansion of organization activities based on descent and cultural unity may result in the resumption of factionist tendencies among other Turkic peoples.

However, some Turkish officials feel that the OTS does not pose such a threat. In a speech, Chairman of the Council of Elders (Aksakallılar) Binali Yıldırım calmed people’s fears: “Some believe the Turks are dreaming about their old ambitions. However, our aim is to develop regional cooperation, enhance the well-being of people and make security permanent.” In an op-ed for the SCMP, the Turkish Ambassador in Beijing Abdülkadir Emin Önen wrote that the “OTS does not follow ethnicity-based policy among its members or in 3rd countries.”  

Despite Turkish officials’ assurance of OTS’s altruistic goals, the 2040 vision document and the views of top political figures in the Turkic world reveal that the OTS seeks to design a joint cultural and historical alliance among the Turkic states. Speaking at the 9th Summit of the OTS, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev proclaimed that “The Turkic world does not consist only of independent Turkic states. Its geographical boundaries are wider.” Aliyev’s call to action for Turks living in other countries can be seen as OTS’s intention to interfere in other states’ domestic affairs.

Moreover, Burhanettin Duran, a member of the Turkish presidency security and foreign policies council, wrote a thought-provoking article in which he stated Turkey could compete against China in the region. According to Duran,“Given China’s proximity and growing economic interest in the region, Türkiye could serve a balancing role to ensure that Beijing does not engage with the Turkic world as it has with Africa.” The covert ambitions of the OTS pose a compelling risk, particularly for countries like China and Russia, with millions of Turkic populations within their borders.

In conclusion, while the OTS claims that it has no plans to challenge the hegemony of China and Russia in Central Asia, the integration of Turkic states poses a crucial threat to Beijing and Moscow. These countries’ thoughts are shaped by political realism, and they will not accept OTS’s seemingly noble claims at face value. To them, the only way to retain their power is by weakening emerging regional powers and making smaller countries depend on them. However, if the major powers are not startled, the OTS will undoubtedly emerge as a new game changer in the region in the long or medium term.