On November 6, leaders from the Central Asian states, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Hungary met for the tenth Organization of Turkic States (OTS) summit. Established in 2009 as the Turkic Council, the group seeks to promote “comprehensive cooperation among Turkic States.” The body, which adopted its present name and form in 2021, also “aims to serve as a new regional instrument for advancing international cooperation in Eurasia,” and it has sought to convene regularly.
During the session, the group discussed trade opportunities within the collective. Last year, the “turnover of goods between the OTS countries exceeded $22 billion.” The OTS members are now exploring avenues to increase their trade relations, which will help boost the economies of the collective. Member states also created a road map for the “implementation of the transformation communication for 2023-27.” The program will seek to modernize and diversify transportation routes from Central Asia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. Finally, the group focused on strengthening science programs and education systems within their countries, and they discussed the importance of energy security.
Since its inception, the OTS has made progress. According to Amir Bashbayev, the head of the analysis and forecasting group of the Institute of Foreign Policy within the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the OTS used to serve as a “platform of dialogue.” Member states and countries with observer status would gather to discuss domestic and international issues, but very little materialized from the sessions. Now, the organization has changed.
“The OTS is evolving into a union of states,” Bashbayev said in an interview with the Astana Times. Member states are “highly interested in advancing trade and economic cooperation.”
In other words, after years of hard work, it appears the organization is coming to fruition. The recent OTS summit also came at an interesting time as relationships within the region appear to be changing.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia has worked to establish itself, caught between the east and west. While leaders from the countries entertained relations with Europe, the region quickly caught the attention of Russia and China due to its “treasure trove of natural resources.” For more than 30 years, Russia and China slowly worked hard to establish favorable relations with the region. Central Asia, already closely tied to the north from the days of the Soviet Union, established strong trade relations with Russia. Now, the region heavily relies on its trade with Russia, meaning the Russian Federation has established a trade monopoly. Meanwhile, China formed an energy relationship with Central Asia, where it quickly became the region’s biggest gas consumer. In other words, due to the trade and energy relations that formed, Central Asia quickly became dependent on Russia and China.
Now, Russia and China are pursuing aggressive energy policies with the region. For example, Russia has been trying to create a gas union with Central Asia, something that would further strengthen Russia’s hold on energy. Meanwhile, China hopes Central Asia becomes a “major energy partner.” These paths would only strengthen Russia’s and China’s roles in the region.
Given these aggressive developments, Central Asia has attempted to distance itself from Russia and China. For example, following the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s global influence has declined, including in Central Asia. The international community has imposed harsh penalties on Russia, weakening the Russian economy via sanctions, which even Central Asia states have promised Western capitals they will not assist Moscow in circumventing. Russia’s failure in the war has also led several of its partners and allies to second-guess their relationship, particularly those within the Caucasus and Central Asia. Even the future of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has come into question.
Meanwhile, citizens within Central Asia have also pondered their relationship with China. According to a 2022 article for The Diplomat by Elizabeth Woods and Thomas Baker, research fellows at Central Asia Barometer, the “sentiment of Kazakhstanis, Uzbekistanis, and Kyrgyzstanis toward China has followed a recent downward trend.” The feeling appears to be mutual. According to a report by the Atlantic Council’s Joe Webster for Eurasianet, the Chinese are “somewhat reluctant to assume regional hegemony” in Central Asia.
Given these trends, Central Asia now appears to be strengthening its relationship with Europe. The OTS also serves to unite the European continent with Asia.
While at the recent OTS summit, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said that the “Turkic states have so far succeeded in defusing conflicts and reducing the risks of escalation” throughout the world. Orban also claimed that security matters across the globe are in their worst state since the end of the Cold War, and that the “role of the Organization of Turkic States is becoming increasingly important.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed with the importance of the OTS, stating that the organization will “continue to take steps for the peace, prosperity, and security of the Turkish world.” He also said that countries within the collective should focus on enhancing their energy and transportation infrastructure, which will improve cooperation across the collective.
How can the OTS members strengthen their collective security? How might they pursue greater economic and energy cooperation?
First, security. Since its establishment, the OTS has stated that it is committed to the purpose and principles of international law, as outlined by the United Nations Charter. The organization recognized the “territorial integrity and inviolability of internationally recognized borders … [and the] maintenance of international peace [and] security.” With the increase of terrorist activity across the globe over the past decade, member states have worked to strengthen their border security. The collective is also looking to “stabilize Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal.” Monitoring developments in Afghanistan and attempting to stabilize the situation will help enhance security within the region.
Second, energy. Central Asia is well known for its “natural resources and know-how to achieve sustainable energy security.” Meanwhile, Turkey and Azerbaijan are gas suppliers, too. Finally, the members of the OTS are exploring energy alternatives. Pooling their various resources and putting together their scientists, engineers, and experts would allow the collective to become a leading energy exporter in the region. It would also help them fend off Russian and Chinese influence.
Finally, trade. As discussed during the recent summit, the members of the OTS are exploring avenues to increase trade relations. From Turkey on the Mediterranean Sea and Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea to the Central Asian states through which the historic Silk Road ran, there are ancient pathways to be reopened in modern times along this stretch of Eurasia. The growth of this Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor could help “play crucial roles in facilitating trade between Asia and Europe via Central Asia.”
Overall, something new is brewing in Eurasia. Continued dialogue between countries from Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia suggests that the political climate in the region is changing. New alliances are growing, and recent developments are helping unite Europe with Asia. These relationships will lead to greater economic prosperity, and will help strengthen the national and energy securities of these regions. There is still much work to be done, but the future seems bright for Eurasia.