TSG IntelBrief: Turkey's Strategic Interests in Central Asia
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 offered Turkey and Iran—two regional heavyweights on the periphery of Central Asian geopolitical affairs—a unique and historic opportunity to reassert themselves on the region’s economic and political scene, with “cultural affinity” a key part of their political narratives. While Iran saw a reopening of erstwhile parts of a glorious Persian empire that could provide opportunities in trade and foreign policy ascendancy, Turkey saw prospects to help its Turkic-speaking brethren rise to their economic potential, become integrated with the world economy, and stand up to Iran’s anti-Western Shi’a ideology.
Turkey was the first country to recognize the independence of Turkic-speaking states of Central Asia as well as the Persian-speaking state of Tajikistan. The Turkish leadership, before the coming to power of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), devoted resources to the newly independent Central Asian states with an eye on strengthening ethno-linguistic Turkic ties and presenting Turkish democracy and pluralism as a model for the region.
Turkey beamed satellite TV programming to the region in order to strengthen cultural bonds. It pushed successfully for the inclusion of the newly independent states in the Economic Cooperation Organization, increasing trade among member states and consolidating their status as regional Muslim economies.
Moreover, using its strong links to Western Europe and its NATO status, Turkey saw an opportunity to enable the region to develop its hydrocarbon resources and export them to Western markets via Turkey. The rise in Turkish confidence in dealing with Central Asia through the 1990s culminated in the mantra, “from the great wall of China to the Adriatic.”
But as the new post-USSR states in Central Asia consolidated power and began to evaluate collective political and geo-energy potentials, Turkey realized the reality on the ground was not completely in tune with its lofty expectations in the region.
Changing Priorities, Maturing Attitudes
Turkey’s economic assistance and cultural programs for Central Asian states have been managed under TIKA (Turkiye Isbirlighi ve Kalkinma Ajansi), the Turkish Agency of International Cooperation. Ankara had also helped the newly independent states with the development of their civil society, albeit for those interested in such institutions. The latter has been managed by TURKSOY, an Ankara-based organization run by ministers of culture from the Turkic-speaking countries of the region, focused on preserving Turkic heritage. Turkish efforts met gradual resistance from the regional states in mainly two ways: First, on promotion of democratic values, the Turkic speaking states of the region are run by autocratic leaders. Thus, they saw a threat to their fledging rule and also felt they received “big brother” treatment from Ankara. Second, on the socio-cultural issues, these states decided to formulate their own identities and, in particular, rejected Turkish efforts to develop a standardized and common language.
A Pragmatic Policy Under Erdogan
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkish strategic interests in Central Asia were initially shaped by ethnic, linguistic, and cultural factors that were, in its view, closely intertwined with the region’s untapped hydrocarbon energy resources and the need to export them to international markets. Reinvigorated cultural bonds combined with long experience in navigating the tough waters of international affairs—as well as a perceived threat from Iranian Shi’a ideology—became a strong driving force for Turkey to pursue a leadership role in Central Asia.
But a number of developments changed the strategic outlook for Turkey and impacted Ankara’s ability to achieve its goals. The economic crisis in the late 1990s hit Turkey hard and plunged its economy into a deep crisis. Turkish economic aid to Central Asia constituted 90 percent of all aid to the entire region. At the height of the economic crisis the aid volume plunged to three percent.
Having failed to deliver a pluralistic vision of Turkic-ness, Turkey gradually reoriented its foreign policy objectives in Central Asia toward economic cooperation and conflict resolution. With the rise of Erdogan in domestic politics, Turkey’s involvement in Central Asia became less colorful as it shifted to its “Zero-Problem” foreign policy doctrine and became primarily focused on the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, the arrival of Chinese companies and investment in Central Asia and Beijing’s aggressive push for economic development vis-à-vis Moscow’s efforts to reassert influence informed Turkey’s more measured approach. Turkey knows it is no match for China’s mighty investment arm and that caution was advised on its pushing ethno-cultural issues and promoting democratic values at the cost of jeopardizing ties with Russia.
At the same time it is a strategic imperative for Turkey to be part of transport corridors that send Central Asian energy resources to Western markets. Success in becoming part of the energy transport routes could complicate Turkey’s relations with Iran and Russia, which have their own ambitions in transporting Central Asian and Caucasian energy to international markets. Tehran, for its part, seeks to promote Iranian territory as the most cost-efficient route for the export of Central Asian energy while Russia does not want to lose its status (mainly through Gazprom’s network of pipes in Central Asia) as a leading exporter of hydrocarbons to the European markets.
Before unraveling of Turkey’s Zero-Problem foreign policy under the Arab Spring and the start of the civil conflict in Syria, Erdogan’s AKP saw firsthand how Iran’s ideologically driven foreign policy in Central Asia backfired when regional states limited Iranian involvement and kept their distance. Central Asian governments also closed most private schools funded by Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish Islamic spiritual leader who lives in self-imposed exile in the US state of Pennsylvania, and is currently at the center of an intense political tug-of-war with Erdogan.
As part of a more pragmatic approach to regional cooperation with the states of Central Asia, Erdogan’s government helped create the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (CCTS) in 2009, which promotes “comprehensive cooperation among Turkic Speaking States.” The Cooperation has proved ineffective in resolving regional conflicts or bringing about significant economic and trade achievements. Since its establishment, two of its members, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have pulled out of CCTS. Under Erdogan, Turkey continues to be focused on the Caucasus region due to its potential in meeting Turkey’s geo-energy goals.
Erdogan is also betting on and pushing for the development of an ambitious and massive high-speed railroad in Turkey and its planned extension to the Caucasus and Central Asia. China has expressed interest and readiness to finance up to $28 billion of the project. With the current political developments in Turkey and Erdogan’s standing in Turkish politics in decline, it remains to be seen if AKP would adopt a new foreign policy and how it would impact relations with Central Asia.
Reset on Iranian Relations?
During his late January visit to Iran, Erdogan tried to mend relations with Tehran, where he announced plans to increase bilateral trade to $30 billion dollars from its current $13.5 billion, in an indication of Ankara’s potential plans to help Iran integrate its economy into those of Central Asia and the Caucasus. With the backdrop of political turmoil at home and deep divisions with Iran over Syria, Erdogan appears eager to display an astute approach to a redrawn political map of the Middle East.
• Turkey will continue to have a pragmatic foreign policy approach to Central Asia for the next several years as cultural and linguistic bonds are no longer a guarantor of Turkish leadership
• If Erdogan stays in power, his administration will bank on the closure of Gulen’s private schools in Central Asia and strengthen ties with the region and enhance his administration’s status among the regional states
• Post-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, Turkey could adopt a more active role in providing security aid to the regional states in Central Asia by shifting its resources in Afghanistan to fighting extremist groups in Central Asia.
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