In the past few years, Ankara’s foreign policy has been preoccupied with the Syrian conflict, the Turkish-Russian rapprochement and the growing rift with the West. However, Ankara has also been striving to build a silent but important strategy towards Central Asia. Even if post-Soviet Eurasia has lost its salience in Turkish foreign policy under the Justice and Development Party governments, according to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu, the region retains its strategic importance “for ensuring the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic region”. While geopolitical considerations have formed the backbone of Turkey’s renewed interest in Central Asia, economic pragmatism and the domestic turmoil in Turkey have also shaped its priorities in the region.
The Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and Turkey’s Position
The past two decades have witnessed a significant transformation in Turkey’s role in Central Asia. Firstly, Turkey no longer sees the US and the EU as crucial partners in Central Asia. Long gone are the days when Turkey was seen by the West as a model for the region with its free market economy and secular democracy. The West’s failure to develop a comprehensive and relevant Central Asia strategy has created frustration in Ankara, which has started looking for new partners.
A second and related development is that Turkey and Russia are no longer rivals in the region unlike in the 1990s. In the new millennium, Ankara has accepted Moscow’s hegemonic role and chosen to cooperate with it in Central Asia. The two governments’ ability to overcome the crisis that began in November 2015 with Turkey’s downing of a Russian Su-24 fighter and the following Russian-Turkish rapprochement have strengthened this trend. Remarkably, it was former Kazakh president Nazarbayev who delivered president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “letter of regret” to Russian president Vladimir Putin during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Tashkent in June 2016. The letter effectively ended the Turkish-Russian jet crisis.
Thirdly, Ankara has welcomed China’s economic rise. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is expected to revitalize Turkey’s own connectivity project in Eurasia, the Middle Corridor. According to Ankara’s plans, the Middle Corridor, which goes through Georgia, Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea, could complement China’s Silk Road Economic Belt. While 96% of goods (by value) are still transported by sea and air from China to Europe, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs argues that the Middle Corridor can shorten the travel time to 15 days, thereby offering a smooth passage for Chinese goods. To that effect, Ankara plans to connect the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway, which was inaugurated in October 2017, to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan through the Caspian. Turkmenistan’s Turkmenbashi International Seaport on the Caspian was constructed by a Turkish company with close ties to the Turkish government and started operating in 2018. The Turkish and Chinese governments signed a “Memorandum of Understanding on Aligning the Belt and Road Initiative and the Middle Corridor” in November 2015 at the G20 summit held in Antalya, Turkey. Contrary to Ankara’s expectations, however, Beijing has so far demonstrated little interest in prioritizing Turkey and the Middle Corridor for BRI.
Institutionalized Ties, Economic Relations and Domestic Politics
The past decade has also witnessed the institutionalization of Turkey’s relations with the Turkic-speaking states of Eurasia. Since 1991 Ankara has perceived its relations with the region through a Turkic lens and institutionalized intra-Turkic cooperation. Established in 2010, the Turkic Council has four members – Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. On 12 September 2019, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Çavuşoğlu, announced that Uzbekistan had applied to become the organization’s fifth member, while Turkmenistan is considering applying as an observer. So far, the Turkic Council has held six summits, the last of which took place in Cholpon Ata, Kyrgyzstan in 2018. The summits have concentrated on functional areas of cooperation including trade, transportation and customs, education and tourism. In August 2019, member states established the Turkic Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Istanbul. Beyond the Turkic Council, Ankara coordinates its bilateral ties with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and most recently Uzbekistan through the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Councils, which bring together heads of states, ministers and high-level bureaucrats on a regular basis.
Geopolitical motives notwithstanding, Turkey’s own turbulent domestic political transformation has had reflections on its Central Asia strategy. Since the failed coup attempt of July 2016, Ankara has especially pressured Central Asian governments to close down schools operated by the Gulenist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ), as Ankara officially refers to the group, crack down on the network’s businesses and return high-level members of the network to Turkey. Uzbekistan had already closed down Gulenist schools in the late 1990s and Turkmenistan nationalized them in 2011 due to fears of Turkish interference in their domestic affairs and the potential spread of political Islam. Tensions with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan on the fate of these schools remain.
Despite Turkey’s intensifying bilateral ties with the region, Turkey’s economic ties with Central Asian countries remain limited. Turkey’s trade volume with the five Central Asian states in 2018 was $6 billion, which amounted to a mere 1.5% of Turkey’s total foreign trade. Moreover, Central Asia has lost its importance for Turkey’s official development assistance policy. Contrary to its founding principles of offering socioeconomic development aid to Turkic-speaking countries, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) now mostly focuses on Syria, the Middle East and Africa.
Turkish investments are heavily concentrated in the construction sector throughout the region. Turkish contractors have completed projects worth billions of dollars in the region in the past three decades. The region is also significant for Turkey’s goal of becoming an energy hub. To that effect, Ankara expects a growing amount of Kazakh oil to be pumped through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in the near future. Similarly, Ankara expects Turkmen gas to be connected to the Southern Gas Corridor through the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), the construction of which has recently been completed. However, the prospects of a Trans-Caspian pipeline that can deliver Turkmen gas to Azerbaijan are currently unknown. Given Turkmenistan’s dependence on China, it is unrealistic to expect a sea change on that front in the near future.
Uzbekistan’s recent economic opening has been a source of excitement for the Turkish government and investors. Uzbekistan had long been an obstacle for a more vibrant Central Asia strategy for Turkey. Under former president Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan stayed away from Turkey-led cooperation initiatives in the region. Ankara therefore welcomed Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s rise to power in 2016. During Erdogan’s state visit to Tashkent in April 2018, the two governments signed twenty-four agreements in various fields. Uzbekistan’s potential participation in the Turkic Council will strengthen the organization. In addition, with a population of 30 million, the Uzbek market offers strong incentives for Turkish investors. With its vibrant private sector, Turkey can offer a good example for Uzbekistan’s domestic economic reform process.
The Road that Lies Ahead
Ankara will most likely never go back to its activism in Central Asia, which was visible in the 1990s. A joint Turkish strategy with the West is also unlikely. However, the institutionalization of Turkey’s ties with Central Asian states in the past decade has established a basis for stronger diplomatic and economic relations for the future. Turkey also regards Central Asian states as strategic partners in regional and global affairs. In the short-run, Ankara’s regional strategy will continue to focus on enhanced connectivity and energy projects, and the Turkic Council. For Turkey, the most important developments to watch in the near future will be the pace of Uzbekistan’s economic and political reform, Turkmenistan’s potential participation in the Southern Gas Corridor, and China’s BRI projects in the region, especially Kazakhstan.