Ankara’s strategic goal has always been to develop and consolidate strong military, political, and economic ties with both Azerbaijan and the countries in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan). Against the backdrop of how the Central Asian republics formed their national identity, secured strategic and economic autonomy, and upgraded their infrastructure, Ankara has recently been trying energetically to close the loop between itself and these countries in most of these areas, pushing Russia and China, which traditionally have influence in this region, into the background.
In recent decades, Ankara’s expansionist ambitions have begun to grow especially rapidly, with President Erdogan’s emphasis on consolidating the “territory of Turan” as a global supranational entity that unites both Turkic and other peoples across Central Asia and Siberia. And the turning point in this regard was, of course, creating the Turkic Council in 2009, which Erdogan hopes to use to force the region’s leaders to lay down the groundwork for cooperating as a single political bloc, and to create a unified, visa-free space by 2040.
On March 31, a summit of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States (the Turkic Council) will be held in Kazakhstan via video conference, following which a declaration is expected to be made that designates the city of Turkestan in southern Kazakhstan as the spiritual capital of the “Turkic world”. According to the conclusions reached by a number of experts on the region, the “Turkic world” is being promoted by Ankara as a specific foreign policy doctrine, along the same lines as the “Russian world” and “Eurasian unity”, and with the help of that – after Azerbaijan’s victory in the Karabakh war in South Transcaucasia – Turkey expects to receive access to Central Asia through the Caspian Sea. Therefore, Turkish businesses that support Erdogan are also striving to make the most of this favorable situation to gain access to Central Asian markets. Turkey currently considers cooperating on military technology to be another promising area of focus for its exports to the region, since Turkey’s military-industrial complex has something to offer to the outside world, including Central Asian countries. That is why military circles in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkey are reinforcing their ties now.
In his actions and political rhetoric, President Erdogan has repeatedly reaffirmed his determination to become an influential player in the strategically important Central Asian region, which has more than 200 million young people, a combined GDP of 2 trillion USD, and leaders who have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to create national identities that are not tied to Moscow, and to pursue liberal economic policies.
Ankara began to build relations in Central Asia by actively applying the tried-and-true method used by the West of involving various NGOs to change political priorities and orientations in the region’s countries. For these purposes, at the level of social projects, education, cultural event, and developing cooperation across various fields, including military cooperation, Turkey began to create centers with a permanent presence for the pro-Turkish lobby, and in particular in Kazakhstan, where a whole generation of the elite has grown up that was educated in Turkish schools and universities.
In 2019, Ankara made it clear that it places a high priority on relations with Central Asian countries as part of its New Asia Initiative, which has been accompanied by unprecedented diplomatic activity and tremendous investment. At the same time, leading Turkish companies have started to implement large-scale projects in the areas of real estate and infrastructure, and thousands of small-sized Turkish companies operating in various sectors of the economy have ratcheted up their activity. All this has led to an increase in trade turnover with the region’s countries, which amounted already to 8.5 billion USD in 2019.
Establishing the Central Asian Universities Association, which unites the region’s most prestigious universities, together with Turkish higher educational institutions, and creating a wide network of schools funded by the Turkish government, has made preferable conditions for students in Central Asian republics to study in them.
Turkey’s use of this “soft power” factor to strengthen its positions in Central Asia has been accompanied by active steps taken by Ankara to remove the Cyrillic alphabet from the region’s countries. Turkey’s largest news agency Anadolu Ajansı affirmed that as soon as Kazakhstan, for example, abandons the Cyrillic alphabet then communication between this country and Turkey, and other Turkic-speaking countries, will reach a new level. The transition to the Latin alphabet in Kazakhstan will begin soon, in 2023.
Along with trade and economic projects, Ankara energetically began to propose bolstering cooperation on military technologies, and especially to Uzbekistan.
Taking into account that Central Asia is located between two of America’s largest rivals, Russia and China, the entrenchment of NATO member Turkey in this region fully corresponds to Washington’s interests to obtain a real opportunity, via Ankara, to strengthen its political, economic, and military penetration into the region, which holds high strategic significance and boundless economic prospects. For its part, Turkey also offers America assistance in reinforcing its presence in the region, something that the US has always strived for. Even though Ankara will not be able to take the place of those dominating (politically) Moscow and (economically) Beijing in the Central Asian region in the near future, support from the United States is letting Turkey move further into this strategic geographic region. And US-Turkish cooperation, and the effective use of soft power, can provide a powerful platform to counter Russian influence and the growing Chinese presence.
In addition, Washington is actively using cooperation with Turkey, based on their mutual interests in Central Asia, to stabilize and improve bilateral relations between the two NATO allies, which have noticeably deteriorated recently. Therefore, it is quite possible that the issue of developing mutually beneficial cooperation in Central Asia will become one of the topics to be discussed at a personal meeting between Joe Biden and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Although Russia and Turkey in recent times have more and more shared interests, they are geopolitical rivals due to historical and geographic factors. In terms of their strategic approaches in Central Asia, Moscow does not forget that Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and has many more common interests in the areas of politics and security with the United States and other Western countries than with Russia, although its relations with them have not been coming together too well in recent years.
Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.