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Turkey's Growing Involvement in Central Asia

8 MINS READApr 6, 2012 | 12:53 GMT
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov (R) with Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Ankara on Feb. 29
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

The geopolitical interests of major powers have often clashed in Central Asia. These clashes intensified after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when other powers tried to take advantage of Russia's weakness and strengthen their own positions in the region. One of these powers was Turkey. Although Turkey began strengthening its cultural ties to Central Asia shortly after the Soviet collapse, its efforts to build influence in the region have only recently gained momentum.

With new confidence, a healthy economy and enough internal political consolidation to look beyond its borders, Turkey is on the rise as a regional power. Part of its growth involves setting up for a stronger presence in Central Asia in the future. Although this is a long-term plan that will pit Turkey against larger powers in the region, namely Russia and China, Ankara will have many opportunities to increase its influence.

Turkey's primary rivals in Central Asia, Russia and China, have strategic interests in the region. Russia considers the region a security buffer from other Asian powers and an important part of the Russian energy network. Russia is very politically, economically and militarily influential in Central Asia. China sees the region as a source of energy supplies to meet its ever-growing needs and a market for its cheap exports.

Ankara has its own geopolitical interests in the region. First, Turkey sees the region as part of its wider export market. Second, Ankara wants energy supplies from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan (hence Turkey's involvement in projects like the Trans-Caspian Pipeline and its efforts to get Kazakh natural gas to the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline and Kazakh oil to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline). Third, Turkey's social interests and ethnic ties to some Central Asian populations allow Ankara strategic access into the region.

Turkey understands its limitations and how difficult it is to operate in Central Asia. Most important, Ankara does not want to move too boldly against Moscow. Thus, Turkey's current moves in Central Asia are gradual and preparatory measures rather than radical steps to spread its influence in the region. 

Turkey's History in the Region

The predecessors of the modern Turkish republic, the Turks from Central Asia, left Central Asia nearly 1,000 years ago (though they never fully controlled the Central Asian countries). The Turkic tribes in Central Asia encountered Arabs, Persians and Mongols, a process that greatly changed not only the ethnic makeup of the region but also its overall geopolitical landscape. Later, incorporation into the Russian Empire and Soviet Union altered the region's ethnic composition further and brought about linguistic and cultural changes. However, excluding Tajikistan, which has ethno-linguistic ties to Iran, the majority of the population in Central Asia is Turkic, a fact Turkey believes it can use to build connections and influence in the region.

Such sentiments actually date to the late 19th century when some in the collapsing Ottoman Empire began envisioning a Pan-Turkic union. But the hopes of the believers in "Turanism" were dashed with the rise of the Soviets and the emergence of the Turkish Republic, which focused on building a new state within its truncated borders. 

The Soviet Union's demise created a power vacuum in Central Asia that gave Turkey an opportunity to resume involvement in the region. Turkey's re-engagement with the region was facilitated by the Central Asian countries, which found it in their interests to increase cooperation with countries other than Russia after they gained independence. 

After the Central Asian countries became independent, Turkey recognized their independence and established diplomatic relations. Ankara and the Central Asian governments began interacting more, mostly in the areas of economics, culture and education. Although Turkey's political and military involvement in Central Asia is limited when compared to Russia and China's strategic presence in the region, Ankara's engagement with the Central Asian states is an ongoing process. 

Turkey's Position in Central Asia

Turkey's current military involvement in Central Asia is not strong enough to match Russia or to be considered significant. But Turkey offers Central Asia an alternative to Russia and China in terms of economic and business ties. Turkey's economy is the world's 17th largest and has experienced a great deal of growth recently, which makes Turkey an attractive player in the region. Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has a strong focus on developing business relations with Central Asia, contributing to the growing bond between Turkey and the Central Asian states.

Turkish businesses in Central Asia are mostly small- and medium-size enterprises, which are more flexible and less susceptible to instability in the region than larger Turkish corporations. Additionally, smaller eastern-focused businesses are more in line with the AKP's expansionist plans and can make inroads without a great deal of capital. Larger corporations have generally focused on the more established markets in Europe, where Turkey enjoys duty-free access via a customs union. 

Public and private Turkish educational institutions have also become active in Central Asia. The Gulen movement — an evangelical movement of moderate Islamists founded in the late 1960s by prayer leader Fethullah Gulen and known for its schools in Africa and the Arab world — opened schools in Central Asia, though some institutions were closed in some Central Asian countries because of the perception that the schools served missionary purposes. The Gulenist schools are still viewed favorably in most of Central Asia, with the exception of Uzbekistan.

Individual Countries

The level and nature of Turkish engagement in Central Asia varies from country to country.

Trade is an important component of Turkish relations with Kazakhstan; bilateral trade increased over the years (except for declines in 2001 and 2009 due to financial crises) from approximately $236 million in 1995 to $3 billion in 2010. Turkey has invested more than $2.4 billion in Kazakhstan, and Kazakh investments in Turkey exceed $2 billion. Moreover, Turkish companies are involved in telecommunications, petroleum products, food manufacturing and other sectors in Kazakhstan. Cultural and educational cooperation between the countries is widespread; Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has even publicly praised the importance of Turkish schools in Kazakhstan.

Of the countries that have invested in Turkmenistan, Turkey has invested the most. Turkish state-managed enterprises have a relatively small share in trading volume but are active in Turkmenistan's wholesale, retail, textile, construction materials, electronic devices and automobile sectors, among others. Additionally, trade between Turkey and Turkmenistan has grown from approximately $168 million in 1995 to about $1.5 billion in 2010. The Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA) has been involved in Turkmenistan since 1997 and strives to bring Turkey and Turkmenistan closer by emphasizing the countries' shared historical and cultural heritage. Turkey established approximately 20 schools in Turkmenistan and student exchange programs were thriving, but Turkmenistan began shutting down Gulenist schools and accused them of spreading pan-Turkic ideas.

Uzbekistan, the most independent-minded country in Central Asia since the fall of the Soviet Union, encountered some troubles in its relationship with Turkey, but they did not damage relations permanently. Bilateral trade between Uzbekistan and Turkey rose from approximately $200 million in 1995 to more than $1 billion in 2010, and Turkish investment in Uzbekistan is widespread. Most Turkish businesses operating in Uzbekistan are small- and medium-size enterprises, but large companies including Koc Holding and Arcelik operate there as well. TIKA is involved in cultural and developmental work in Uzbekistan and also provides some financial assistance. Turkey has provided scholarships for Uzbek students to study in Turkey since 1992, but this program encountered problems when Uzbekistan called its students back home when relations between the countries soured.

Uzbekistan could prove to be problematic for Turkey as Ankara tries to establish a stronger presence in Central Asia. Uzbekistan is very concerned with its internal security and thus is wary of Turkish efforts to spread its cultural influence. The Uzbek government closed Turkey's Gulenist schools and several businesses operating within the country. Also, Uzbek President Islam Karimov on April 3 closed any Turkish television programs airing in Uzbekistan. Furthermore, Turkey criticized Uzbekistan's stance on human rights, focusing on crackdowns in Andijan.

Trade and investments between Turkey and Kyrgyzstan are on the rise but remain insignificant compared to Turkey's trade and investments in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Bilateral trade between Kyrgyzstan and Turkey has grown from approximately $43 million in 2005 to $160 million in 2010. Turkey is the fifth-largest source of foreign direct investment in Kyrgyzstan (after Kazakhstan, Canada, the United Kingdom and Russia). TIKA has been operating in Kyrgyzstan since 1992 and has implemented 51 projects in the country. Turkey's Gulenist schools still operate in Kyrgyzstan and are of higher quality than Kyrgyz schools. Most government officials' children attend these Turkish schools and then go to Turkish or Western universities. Although people with ties to Russia now rule Kyrgyzstan, these young Turkish-educated people will rule eventually, contributing to Turkey's future influence in the country.

Turkey has also developed relations with Tajikistan, but it faces competition from Iran, which has cultural and linguistic ties to the Tajiks. Turkey is one of Tajikistan's top four trade partners, with trade growing from about $12 million in 1995 to $427 million in 2010. Although Tajikistan and Turkey do not share a Turkic heritage or language, TIKA is involved in several development projects in Tajikistan. The countries have also developed ties in the area of education. 

Turkey's Plans for the Future

Given Turkey's limited capabilities, it cannot replace Russia or China as a major player in Central Asia. During the Soviet era, Central Asia went through Russification and became less religious, which limits Turkey's involvement to some extent, though Turkish educational and cultural programs are working to Turkey's advantage. Furthermore, some of the region's authoritarian leaders — Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan and Karimov in Uzbekistan, for instance — are relics from the Soviet Union with certain perceptions about Turkey.

Ankara's strategy is focused on building "soft power" in the region, mainly through education, cultural ties and business relationships. A decade from now, these measures will have strengthened Turkey's presence in Central Asia, assuming that Turkey can sustain its own economic growth enough to continue economic activities in Central Asia. Also in a decade, Central Asia will experience a generational shift and people with less experience of the Soviet Union enter the workforce and the government. These people will be more likely to identify with Turkey, with whom they share a common heritage.

Right now, Central Asia is not the top priority in Turkey's broader geopolitical strategy. Ankara is still very focused on the Middle East, and Europe is an important market for Turkey. However, Central Asia is likely to become more useful to Turkey in the future, hence Ankara's moves to lay the groundwork for its future position in the region.

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