Turkey is looking to gain greater leadership influence in Eurasia, and serve as a bridge between Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. That might explain why Turkey’s relations with Russia are so important.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan enter a hall during a meeting with Russian and Turkish entrepreneurs at the Konstantinovsky Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 9, 2016. Photo: Reuters

The recent normalization of relations between Russia and Turkey, sealed with the recent meeting of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, also has a Central Asian angle to it. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev played a vital role over the past six months in acting as an intermediary between Russia and Turkey.

As a result, Ankara may have finally recognized the advantage of having cordial relations with the ethnically close Turkic peoples of Central Asia, including those in Kazakhstan. Prior relations with the region in the 25 years following the collapse of the Soviet Union were patchy at best.

The governments of the Central Asian states viewed the more Western, progressive and democratically liberated Turkey as a potential threat. Currently Ankara is interested in improving relations with its Central Asian neighbors. Along with improved standing with Russia and Israel, this would help it with its current troubles with the West.

The Central Asian countries on their part show a willingness to expand economic relations with Turkey, although they are reluctant to enter a Pan-Turkic union, despite a declaration of friendship between the Turkic people.

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The reset in relations between Russian and Turkey occurred after the August meeting between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which was in large part facilitated through the efforts of Kazakhstan. Vladimir Putin personally thanked Nursultan Nazarbayev during their meeting in Sochi for his role as mediator in the talks with Turkey. 

The smoothing over of relations was likewise positively received in other Central Asian nations, although their relationship with Turkey has not always been simple.

Turkey and Central Asia after the breakup of the Soviet Union

In the early 1990s, when the Central Asian countries ceased to be de facto under Russian control, Turkey began to actively seek influence in the area. The absence of common borders presented a challenge, but nevertheless, Turkey persevered through the promotion of Pan-Turkism, and in this way hoped to overcome this difficulty.

The idea was that countries populated by Turkic people must unite under the banner of common ethnic, cultural and linguistic commonality. Turkey wanted to follow the 19th century tradition of uniting the Turkic people outside the Ottoman Empire. Even at that time, Turkey also wished to conduct a more independent foreign policy. Pan-Turkism was just part of a greater vision of Neo-Ottomanism in Eurasia with which Turkey planned to gain greater influence in the region formerly belonging to the Ottoman Empire.

Russia, too preoccupied in the 1990s with improving relations with the U.S. and EU, reacted neutrally to Turkey’s activity in Central Asia. The EU for its part hoped Turkey would be a democratizing and free market-promoting influence, and also did not worry much about Pan-Turkism.

The Central Asian countries themselves were mildly alarmed by Turkey’s designs, but depending on the amount of investment (which was no longer coming from Moscow), they often at least nominally supported Ankara’s vision.

In 1992 Turkey created an agency for the development of relations in the realm of socio-economic reforms. This agency was meant to target partner countries. In 1993 Turkey created another agency, which was in charge of promoting Turkic art and culture with headquarters in Ankara. Turkey invited the Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) as well as Azerbaijan to join this organization.

In addition, some of the Central Asian countries and Turkey became involved in several energy transportation network developments with the West. Despite the fact that the more prominent projects such as Nabucco and a trans-Caucasian transport corridor were never realized, at that time they enabled further development of relations between the countries. [The Nabucco pipeline project was conceived as a way to transport natural gas from Turkey to Austria – Editor’s note]

In addition to this, there were new Turkic institutions of higher learning being developed in Central Asia in the early 1990s. This was a period when everything Russian was rejected, and Turkic education centers became very popular, with some students then going on to study at Turkish universities.

The ideological and cultural influence of Turkey could also be felt through television broadcasting in the region. For example, in Uzbekistan in the 1990s, Turkish television appeared on par with Russian television, and contributed to the stream of ethnic Russians leaving the region.

Tashkent subsequently became Turkey’s greatest adversary in the region, accusing Ankara of promoting radical Islamic ideas. It was this period that also saw an improvement in Russian-Uzbek relations.

Keeping a careful eye on Turkey

Concerns over Turkey’s influence arose in the late 1990s and early 2000s over the issue of terrorism.  The terrorist attacks that occurred in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan were connected with radical Islam, and Turkey was increasingly seen as a malign influence. Turkey began to be seen as the most influential Muslim nation and the promoter of radical Islamic ideas.

Uzbekistan took a harsher stance towards Turkey after there were terrorist attacks in Tashkent in 1999. The ruling elite connected the opposition to the attacks, and the opposition in turn received political asylum in Turkey. Subsequently, Pan-Turkism was heavily criticized in Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan-Turkish relations continued only in the economic sphere. But even then, in 2011 the Turkish government was once again put under pressure from the Uzbek government. The reason was the same: Tashkent accused Turkish businesses of supporting religious extremists, who were supposedly spreading radical Islamic ideas. The majority of factories, and market centers connected to Turkish investment were run out of Uzbekistan.

Pressure was even felt by Turkish citizens residing in Uzbekistan. Many were pressured and even expelled just for being Turkish. In many ways, the behavior of Uzbekistan at that period in many ways replicated the behavior of Russia after October 2015, after the Turkish military shot down a Russian airplane in Syria. This included pressure on Turkish business, expulsion of Turkish citizens, and the closing of Turkish centers of higher learning.

Interaction with other Central Asian republic went much more smoothly for Ankara. In 2009, Kazakhstan, looking to establish itself as the regional leader proposed the creation of a Union of Turkic-speaking nations that would include Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan declined this invitation. Turkish officials did not object to this, realizing that the Central Asian republics did not want a big brother.

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Trade with the West, Turkish-style

Today, Turkic unity is mostly represented through linguistic and cultural similarity between countries, and religious unity takes a secondary position. Ankara is more careful now to consider the preferences of the countries with which it interacts.  The countries are participating in China’s Silk Route initiative, which creates a stimulus for friendly relations, especially at the economic level.

In fact, Turkey is not backing down from its ambition to become one of the largest and influential Eurasian nations and continues to improve its positions and work on relations with neighboring states. From this stems the interest in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The projected improvement in relations with Russia and Israel is part of this trend. Turkey is looking to gain greater leadership influence in Eurasia, and serve as a bridge between Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. In this context the support of Central Asian countries would only strengthen its positions, especially in light of the recent attempted coup.

“Turkic solidarity still has great potential, these countries are ready to support each other, but one must remember that these relations do not occur in a vacuum separate from other international processes,” says Daniyar Kosnazarov, deputy director of the Sinopsis Center for the study of China and Central Asia.

Uzbek political scientist Farhod Tolipov disagrees with this statement. He believes that the solidarity between these countries is merely nominal. He told Russia Direct that, “Only Kazakhstan pretends that it supports Ankara. The rest of Central Asia shows no enthusiasm for Pan-Turkism. Turkey needs the support of the West, not of other Turkic nations.”

Timur Akhmetov, an expert on international relations, believes that the strengthening of relations with Central Asia is necessary for Turkey – but not for the obvious reasons. Instead, it could be to receive better trade terms from Europe. He said, “Practically speaking, the two most important vectors for development with the outside world are relations with the EU and NATO. The main motive for expanding relations with Central Asia is to be able to maneuver easier in regards to the West.”

Central Asian countries recognize this, and are in no hurry to comment on Turkey’s recent internal transformations.