Lofty Ideals, Practical Efforts: Turkish Engagement in Central Asia

Though its Central Asian ambitions failed to live up to their original promise, Turkey has positioned itself as an important player in the region.

May 3, 2016

By Allen Park

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arrived in Ashgabat alongside top officials from several former Soviet republics last December to help Turkmenistan mark the 20th anniversary of its UN-recognized neutral status. Neither the timing nor the theme could have been more awkward: it was only two weeks earlier that Turkish forces shot down a Russian plane on the Turkey-Syria border.

The sharp rhetoric exchanged by the leaders of Turkey and Russia not only sparked fears of escalation, but also placed Central Asian countries in a particularly uncomfortable position. The two countries, among the region’s most important partners, had largely maintained cordial relations with one another despite deeper historical fault lines, which made the incident an especially unwelcome diplomatic test. Central Asian leaders were predictably muted in their initial responses. Though it would have been  optimistic to expect otherwise, that Turkey could barely inspire a murmur of support from its Central Asian counterparts surely had its share of disappointed observers.

Headlong promises

The Turkish leaders who opened ties with Central Asia nearly 25 years ago would have certainly counted among those disappointed. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Turkey was one of the most enthusiastic newcomers to an independent Central Asia and the first country to recognize the nationhood of all five Central Asian successor-states. There was an additional sentimentality tied into Turkey’s overtures: with the exception of Tajikistan, the titular people of the Central Asian republics shared common linguistic, cultural, and historical ties with Turkey. At the heart of Turkey’s outreach were echoes of Pan-Turkism, a movement with roots in the 19th century whose proponents called for the political and cultural unity of the Turkic peoples of Eurasia. It was in many ways a response to imperial Russia’s expansionist campaign at the time, and it would alternately shine and dim throughout the next century, mainly as a function of Russian (and later, Soviet) domination of Central Asia and the Caucasus. With Russia mired in its own post-Soviet transition struggles, the old feeling dawned once again. Former Turkish president Turgut Özal, at a summit of regional leaders in 1992, implored his counterparts “not to throw away this chance, which presented itself for the first time in 400 years.”

Spurned by Europe, and with its role as a frontline bulwark against communism no longer relevant, Turkey also saw an opportunity to redefine its strategic role as the leader of a globally engaged “Turkic bloc.” It directed trade, capital, and cultural outreach to the newly independent republics. People-to-people exchanges blossomed and Turkish businessmen flocked east in search of fresh opportunities. In addition to economic and cultural exchanges, Turkish leaders also proposed Turkish-style democracy as a possible model for Central Asia’s political liberalization. Indeed, regional leaders from Islam Karimov to Nursultan Nazarbayev expressed admiration for the “Turkish model” at the outset of independence. Western countries mostly encouraged Turkey’s endeavors, especially since they presented an attractive alternative to possible Iranian designs in the region. In the early days, there was no shortage of praise for these seemingly interlocking aspirations.

Stark realities

Rhetoric crashed into reality, and the first Turkish wave into Central Asia quickly receded. Turkey suffered a series of economic crises during the 1990s that damaged its credibility and left it unable to deliver on many of its high-level strategic goals. The Central Asian countries themselves faced massive and unprecedented challenges following independence. It was a potentially volatile period – several former Soviet countries, including Tajikistan, fell into civil conflict. With their economies, infrastructure, and personal networks still oriented toward the Soviet sphere, it was difficult for the Central Asian states to break their existing orbit. Resource-rich countries such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan deferred ambitions of exporting their treasure to lucrative markets further abroad, watching it filtered through old pipelines instead. Turkish promises could do little to change the situation, and overarching pan-Turkic ambitions, therefore, appeared to be an unaffordable luxury.

It was also in this context that the region’s elites rejected political liberalization and the “Turkish model.” The ossification of Central Asian politics (with the notable exception of Kyrgyzstan) is commonly taken for granted today. It is therefore difficult to remember the handful of fledgling interest groups in the early 1990s, most of whom ceased to exist as viable political entities by the end of the decade. It became evident that the region’s leaders had little interest in sharing their mantle at home. Likewise, having recently emerged from Moscow’s shadow, there was a growing resistance to the idea of lining up behind a new “Big Brother.” Uzbek president Karimov put it succinctly: “Turkey wants us to become Turks. We are Uzbeks, not Turks.” Authorities hunted for signs of foreign interference in domestic politics, and outsiders learned to tread lightly on calls for political reform. To be fair, this is hardly an indictment of the Turkish political model as Turkey was merely one of many disappointed onlookers in this respect.

Qualified successes

Since those heady and idealistic early years, Turkey’s ventures in Central Asia have been dialed back to a pragmatic scale. Moreover, it has been private sector actors who have taken the lead, gaining footholds in a range of sectors including construction, industry, retail, and education. Cultivating good relationships with local elites, Turkish contractors have completed over $50 billion in projects ($34 billion in Turkmenistan alone) since independence. Turkish retailers, often showcasing Turkish goods, were among the first to introduce Western-style department stores to the region. Moreover, Turkish soft power was amplified through outreach in media and education. Turkish television channels were beamed to a wide audience by satellite, while the “Turkish lyceums” charter schools run by religious figure Feitullah Güleneducated tens of thousands of students, many of whom went on to pursue higher education abroad. These schools were acknowledged for their quality, although their presence was not without controversy regarding their alleged extracurricular motives.

Despite these successes, Turkey’s pull on the region remains secondary to that of Russia. Far more students go to Russia than to Turkey for higher education (48,000 compared to 16,500 during the 2014-15 academic year), and Russian remains the lingua franca of the region. With the exception of Turkmenistan, more Central Asians choose Russia over Turkey as a destination for labor migration; remittances are a vital source of income for many households in the region. Moreover, trade between Turkey and Central Asian countries is overshadowed not only by Russia but increasingly, China. Regional imports from Turkey totaled around $4 billion in 2014, resembling more those from South Korea ($3.7 billion) than Russia ($23.1 billion) or China ($16.2 billion).* At a strategic level, Russia continues to be the main security partner in the region, while the Eurasian Economic Union – Russia’s own “Eurasianist” project – has come to include Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan among its members. Thus, though Turkey has established a significant presence in Central Asia, it is ultimately a modest one in context.

Moreover, Turkey itself also experienced a domestic political shift that some observers claim has reduced its attention to the region. In 2002, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into power and replaced the existing secular establishment. While Turkey’s economy enjoyed rapid economic growth in the ensuing years, Central Asia assumed a lower profile in Turkey’s international development strategies. The region received four percent of total Turkish foreign aid in 2014 compared to 24 percent in 2005.** This could be partially explained by the Central Asian countries’ own concurrent economic growth, but also by the AKP-led government’s increased focus on the Middle East. Though Turkish leaders appear content with continuing along existing rails in Central Asia, these aims can be difficult to maintain in isolation: Syria is what led Turkey into its current confrontation with Russia, which in turn has brought Central Asia into the impasse.

Future considerations

The Syrian incident at least raises questions as to how continued tensions with Russia could affect Turkey’s interests in Central Asia. Apart from the Middle East, the two countries find themselves at odds in multiple areas, including Nagorno-Karabakh and strategic energy issues. For their part, Central Asian leaders have generally pursued a deliberate foreign policy that hews closely to their immediate interests and refrains from forceful positions on external conflicts regardless of their possible relevance: their reticence on the crisis in Ukraine is an example.

On the other hand, Russia wields policy and diplomatic levers that it can employ to trouble Turkey in Central Asia. Following the shoot-down of its jet, Russia froze transit permits for Turkish truckers, forcing Central Asia-bound traffic through Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev, who had made an enthusiastic cameo at Erdogan’s presidential victory rally in Ankara just a year prior, strongly condemned the Turkish shoot-down at a press conference in Moscow at the end of December 2015 and called on Turkey to apologize. Still, despite Atambayev’s “unfortunate statement” (as one Turkish official put it), relations between Kyrgyzstan and Turkey did not change drastically.

The Syrian crisis poses additional challenges that may open avenues for further cooperation between Turkey and Central Asia. Thousands of individuals from the region have traveled to fight for the Islamic State (IS) and other groups in Syria, and it is not lost among Central Asian authorities that many of their citizens have gone through Turkey. In October 2015, Turkish police discovered a ring of IS training camps consisting of mostly Tajik and Uzbek youths in the outskirts of Istanbul. Intelligence sharing, therefore, could become an important pillar of future security cooperation. With militants repeatedly testing the region’s borders with Afghanistan, even the most aloof of the Central Asian countries have kept the hotline open not only with Moscow, but also with Washington and Beijing. Military ties between Turkey and Central Asia grew in earnest during the 2000s, but engagement in this area is modest by comparison.

In addition, much has been remarked about the changes in color of Turkey’s leadership to a more conservative and religious hue in recent years. On the other hand, their Central Asian counterparts have remained fiercely secular. Though this contrast has rarely factored into the current Turkish government’s approach in its relations, it has occasionally been a source of mild irritation for Central Asian leaders in the past, as evidenced by their unease with the Gülen schools (prior to the AKP-Gülen split). Popular interest in Islam has risen among the general population since independence and official responses to this trend have often been clumsy. While regional politics can hardly be described as pluralist to begin with, authorities appear to have a particular aversion to political Islam. It is therefore interesting to contemplate Turkey’s overall engagement on the subject: its nationals have invested heavily in the region’s religious revival and it has always supported political liberalization in Central Asia. That Turkey’s own AKP has been held up by some Central Asian religious leaders as a model for moderate Islamist politics is not insignificant.*** It also suggests the question of how Turkey would position itself if a viable ideological analogue were to ever emerge in the region: whether it would remain hands-off or be tempted to adopt a more proactive role as it has done in the Middle East.

Otherwise, Turkey stands alongside a host of other outsiders with their own ambitions in Central Asia. In this respect, Turkish interests, mostly consisting of business and cultural activities, fly under the radar of some of their counterparts’ larger strategic goals. The Chinese “One Belt One Road” initiative may in fact benefit Turkey if it is ever realized – Istanbul is one of the focal points of this proposed concept. Russia, concerned with Beijing’s growing influence, may even welcome Turkey’s role as a non-Chinese counterbalance in the longer term – current disputes notwithstanding. With the European Union and United States also in the picture, Turkey fits comfortably into the multi-vector foreign policy designs favored by Central Asian leaders.

Conclusion

It has become de rigueur to use the theme of pan-Turkic bonds as a springboard for exploring the links between Turkey and Central Asia (this piece itself is guilty of that). Still, this is how Turkey and its “long-lost relatives” chose to characterize their ties after the fall of the Soviet Union. Though larger pan-Turkic visions never quite materialized, these fraternal connections continue to be played up in rhetoric today, often by the countries themselves. This characterization tends to exaggerate Turkish leverage based on these abstract ties and downplays the tangible elements that actually underpin relations. Finally, it distorts the standards by which the relationship is viewed and understates Turkey’s predicament as a middle power among larger competitors. Acknowledging these considerations gives a clearer account of Turkish accomplishments in Central Asia over the past 25 years.

Notes

*Simoes, A., C. Hidalgo. The Economic Complexity Observatory: An Analytical Tool for Understanding the Dynamics of Economic Development. Source data from United Nations Statistical Division (COMTRADE).

** The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “Aid disbursements to countries and regions” from OECD Stat.  

*** Balci, B. 2013. The Myth of Rising Radical Islamism in Post-2014 Central Asia. Carnegie Endowment for Peace.


 

Allen Park is a member of 2015-2016 CGI Rising Experts Program with over a decade of experience covering international development and national security issues in both government and research settings. During this time, Allen has worked on various projects in Turkey, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan in addition to assignments in the Middle East and Europe. His interest in Central Asia dates back to his service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niyazov-era Turkmenistan. Allen received a B.A. at Yale and an M.P.P. at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of the affiliated organizations or the Center on Global Interests.

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