Organization of Turkic States: An Instrument of Turkey’s Central Asia Policy
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Senior Research Associate , VIF
Background

In recent years, Turkey has emerged as an important regional player in Central Asia. The primary objective of Ankara’s Central Asia policy is to gain strategic dominance in the region. Turkish language and culture are a shared historical legacy of Central Asia and Turkey. Turkey’s relationship with Central Asia was strained during the Soviet administration. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the independence of Turkic-speaking Central Asian nations such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, Turkey saw an opportunity to fill the power vacuum left by the Soviet Union.[1] In the early 1990s, Turkey introduced its policies toward Central Asian republics (CARs) based on the concept of a Pan-Turkic World. The CARs, on the other hand, firmly rejected Ankara’s pan-Turkic ideological construct due to their communist outlook and a desire to retain their newly discovered distinct nationalistic identities. Consequentially, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) abandoned its previous ambitious foreign policy toward Central Asia in favour of a more pragmatic approach, allowing Ankara to strengthen bilateral relations with the CARs through developing commercial, economic, and developmental partnerships. [2]

Due to certain geopolitical circumstances, Turkey’s economic and commercial engagement with Central Asian nations has expanded in recent years. The second Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan presented Ankara with an opportunity to strengthen its strategic influence in the Eurasian region. Following Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Nagorno Karabakh war and Turkey’s active engagement in this conflict, Central Asian nations began to turn to Turkey as a stable economic and geopolitical partner other than Russia and China. This is also important to highlight that since their independence, CARs have adopted a multi-vector foreign policy to balance the major powers. Initially, these countries engaged enthusiastically with China to balance Russia. Now that Beijing has penetrated deep into the region with severe consequences for these countries, Turkey might be seen as another balancing power.

The Turkic Council, established in 2009 and renamed the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) during the 8th summit held on November 12, 2021, in Istanbul, has increasingly actively fostered cooperation between Turkey and Central Asia. The founding member states of this organization are Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey. Uzbekistan joined this group in 2019, while Turkmenistan, which maintains a neutral position, joined as an observer in 2021. The potential for increasing trade, economy, and transportation capacity of landlocked and mostly low-income Central Asian nations are the main factors that make the Turkic organisation lucrative for CARs. Therefore, in order to enhance their relationship with Turkey, CARs are now actively participating in this regional alliance. The organization has reached a significant stage with a modest track record of achievements in the past two to three years. The fact that over fifteen nations have requested to obtain the observer status of the OTS illustrates the amount of attention and importance it has attained.

What does Turkey offer to Central Asian Countries?

Turkey’s goals in Central Asia are almost evident, centered on expanding trade and economic cooperation, improving connectivity routes, reaching Central Asian markets, and strengthening its soft power. However, Central Asian countries look towards Ankara not only just as an economic partner but also as a strategic partner. Turkey is also seen as Central Asia’s gateway to Europe. With the Russia-Ukraine conflict and blockade of traditional transport corridor to Europe, Turkey became more relevant for landlocked CARs as a transit to Europe and access to Turkish markets.

Until recently, Turkey-Central Asia trade was below its potential. But with the mutual attempts to increase the trade, there has been an increase in Turkey’s trade with Central Asian countries. Trade between Uzbekistan and Turkey reached a value of USD 3.4 billion in 2021, up from USD 2.4 billion in 2019, the final year before the epidemic slowed down the world economy. The trade between Kazakhstan and Turkey was approximately USD 3.9 billion in 2019 and USD 4.1 billion in 2021.[3] The two countries want to increase bilateral trade to USD 10 billion. Between 2019 and 2021, Kyrgyz-Turkish trade almost doubled to USD 836 million. Turkmenistan’s exports to Turkey were worth USD 301 million in 2020, while goods imported from Turkey were valued at USD 834 million for the same year.[4] With the disruptions of supply chains owing to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Turkey is being asked by certain Central Asian nations to supply those products that are often imported from Russia or Ukraine.[5]

Turkish drones played a crucial role in Azerbaijan’s victory in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. These drones have also been used against Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Turkmenistan is one of Turkey’s top arms importers. Ashgabat has also bought drones from Ankara. The Bayraktar TB2 drones were displayed at an Independence Day parade last year in Ashgabat.[6] Kyrgyzstan also purchased the Bayraktar last year, negotiating an agreement with Turkey immediately after fighting a brief but bloody conflict with neighbouring Tajikistan.[7] The Turkish military’s significant role in the Syrian crisis, which Central Asian officials have acknowledged, might lead to the possibility of military cooperation between Turkish and Central Asian forces. In this context, joint training and military exercises are conceivable.

The Trans Caspian corridor, often known as the Middle Corridor, connects Europe and China. This corridor connects Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. CARs can access European markets through this corridor, while Turkey and Azerbaijan can serve as transit hubs. The middle corridor also links to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In this regard, Turkey and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Aligning the BRI with the Middle Corridor Initiative in November 2015 during the G-20 Leaders Summit in Antalya.[8]

Central Asian countries are also looking to Turkey to diversify their energy exports, and Turkey represents a feasible option in this direction. The Trans Caspian Gas Pipeline, which would connect Turkmenistan on the east coast with Azerbaijan on the west, is being considered by Ashgabat and Baku. Once completed, it will be well connected to Turkey’s Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) and will be able to reach Europe through the proposed Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP).

Some Major Outcomes of Turkey’s Central Asia policy

Turkish President Erdogan has made many formal visits to Central Asian nations recently. He visited Uzbekistan in 2018 and in March 2022. Similarly, Erdogan visited Kyrgyzstan in 2018 and plans to visit again before the end of 2022. In 2019, he visited Tajikistan, and in November 2021, Turkmenistan. From Central Asia, Uzbek President Shawkat Mirziyoyev paid an official visit to Ankara in 2017, the first high-level visit from Tashkent to Turkey after twenty-one years. He again visited Turkey in 2020. As a result of his visit, Uzbek and Turkish Presidents set up a High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council in 2018. Ankara hosted the first meeting of this council in 2020, while the second meeting was held during Erdogan’s visit to Tashkent in March 2022. During Kazakh President Kassym Jomart Tokayev’s visit to Turkey in May 2022, both countries assured to raise the level of bilateral trade from USD 5 billion to USD 10 billion.[9] These high-level visits from Turkey and Central Asia have laid the foundation for expanded cooperation, particularly in the economic sphere.

In 2014, Turkey initiated a trilateral dialogue with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan at the foreign ministers’ level to explore the opportunities for expanding bilateral and regional collaboration, particularly in energy and transportation, which are also the common interests of the three nations.[10] A similar mechanism has also started with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The trilateral meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Transport of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey was held in June 2022 in Baku. The main agenda of this trilateral meeting was to maximize the potential of the Trans-Caspian East-West-Middle Corridor.[11] The first trilateral meeting of Trade, Transport, and Foreign ministers of Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Turkey was held on August 2, 2022, in Tashkent. This trilateral meeting focussed on simplifying the customs procedures to increase trade and transport between these countries. Turkey has also signed preferential trade agreements with Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.[12] All these attempts by Ankara to increase its influence in Central Asia have borne some positive results. Still, at the same time, the Turkish Central Asia policy has to deal with some challenges.

As proposed at the Turkic Council summit in 2018, a Joint Fund should be formed to promote mutual investment possibilities and intra-trade between member countries, as well as foster entrepreneurship, particularly in Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs), in creating new employment and enhancing innovation, and eventually giving impetus to the Member States’ economic and social growth. The Organization of Turkic States Secretariat is conducting a feasibility assessment in partnership with the consulting firm Ernst & Young. Once established, The Turkic Investment Fund will provide the Turkic Council with a strong financial weapon for exploiting the economic potential of our Member States. [13]

Challenges

According to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, expanding economic investments in the region through improved economic and commercial links is one of Turkey’s top foreign policy priorities in Central Asia. According to the commodities exhibition of the “Turkic Council” countries held in Ashgabat in mid-December 2018, Turkish investments (direct and portfolio) in the region is above 85 USD billion, including about 50 USD billion in Turkmenistan.[14] Ankara has mainly invested in Transportation and Infrastructure in Central Asia. Turkey has invested in constructing an international port in Ashgabat and reconstructing Turkmenbashi International Seaport. Furthermore, in 2020, Turkey’s TAV Airports Holding gained 100 percent ownership of Almaty Airport, Kazakhstan’s largest city.[15]

In addition, Ankara has made significant investments in Uzbekistan’s construction sector. This large-scale investment from Turkey is doubtful because Ankara’s economy has been in difficulties for quite some time; consequently, sponsoring all of these projects in Central Asia casts some doubt on the source of the funding. It also raises the question of how long Turkey will be able to invest in Central Asia, given its shaky domestic economy.

The Central Asian market is highly competitive. Russia and China are the region’s major trading partners. In addition to these nations, Turkey must compete with emerging competitors like Iran. It is worth noting that Turkey lacks a shared border with the region, which is a big disadvantage. Because of this, Turkey is reliant on transit nations. Iran is not just Turkey’s challenger in Central Asia but also a transit nation offering a faster, less expensive route to landlocked Central Asian countries.[16] Not only in the economic field, but Ankara will also struggle with Russia and China to increase its defence and security cooperation with Central Asia.

From the January 2022 protests in Kazakhstan to the latest anti-government protests in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the Central Asian region has recently seen domestic turbulence. In this situation, it may be difficult for any external actor to invest large sums in the region. It becomes increasingly difficult for a nation like Turkey, which lacks a physical border with the region, to protect its interests.

Conclusion

Turkey and Central Asian countries have grown closer due to their complementary interests. While Ankara seeks to expand its strategic influence in the Eurasian region through economic, trade, and transport cooperation, Central Asian nations seek to use Ankara as a counterbalance to Russia and China. The Organization of the Turkic States, which has become an active instrument of Turkey-Central Asia cooperation, has the potential to optimize Turkish influence in the region; however, for greater outcomes, the organization’s economic element must be strengthened. Moreover, despite shared interests, Turkey-Central Asia relations face critical issues related to their respective domestic developments, which might hinder bilateral and multilateral cooperation between the two regions. The Turkish economy is in shambles, and CARs, as middle-to-low-income nations, require a steady flow of capital. As a result, if Ankara fails to sustain the flow of capital, Ankara’s ambition of unifying the Turkic world may suffer.

Endnotes

[1]Zeeshan Fida. “Central Asia’s Place in Turkey’s Foreign Policy.” Policy Perspectives, vol. 15, no. 1, 2018, pp. 113–25. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.13169/polipers.15.1.0113#metadata_info_tab_contents
[2]Ibid.
[3]Bruce Pannier, “Perspectives: Turkey and Central Asia: Ukraine war will strengthen ties”
, April 15, 2022. https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-turkey-and-central-asia-ukraine-war-will-strengthen-ties
[4]https://data.adb.org/dataset/turkmenistan-key-indicators
[5]Bruce Pannier, “Perspectives: Turkey and Central Asia: Ukraine war will strengthen ties”
, April 15, 2022. https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-turkey-and-central-asia-ukraine-war-will-strengthen-ties
[6]“Turkish Bayraktar TB2 attack drones were shown for the first time in Turkmenistan”, RIA News, September 27, 2021. https://ria.ru/20210927/bespilotniki-1751996811.html
[7]Bruce Pannier, “Perspectives: Turkey and Central Asia: Ukraine war will strengthen ties”
, April 15, 2022. https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-turkey-and-central-asia-ukraine-war-will-strengthen-ties
[8]“Turkey’s Multilateral Transportation Policy”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey, https://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkey_s-multilateral-transportation-policy.en.mfa
[9]“Turkey, Kazakhstan Determined To Continue Solidarity In Global Platforms”, Daily Sabah, May 10, 2022. https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/diplomacy/turkey-kazakhstan-determined-to-continue-solidarity-in-global-platforms
[10]“First Trilateral Meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan held in Baku”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey. https://www.mfa.gov.tr/first-trilateral-meeting-of-the-foreign-ministers-of-turkey_-azerbaijan-and-turkmenistan-held-in-baku.en.mfa
[11]“Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan to strengthen regional connectivity”, Daily Sabah, Ankara, June 26, 2022. https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/diplomacy/turkey-azerbaijan-kazakhstan-to-strengthen-regional-connectivity
[12]“Turkey aims to simplify customs with Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan soon”, Daily Sabah, Istanbul, August 02, 2022. https://www.dailysabah.com/business/economy/turkey-aims-to-simplify-customs-with-azerbaijan-uzbekistan-soon
[13]“Organization of Turkic states”, https://www.turkkon.org/en/isbirligi-alanlari/economic-cooperation_2/turkic-investment-fund_39
[14]“Turkic integration" challenges the Eurasian one?”, VPO analytics, October 29, 2019. https://vpoanalytics.com/2019/10/29/kitaj-rossiya-iran-turtsiya-konkurentsiya-za-tsentralnuyu-aziyu-obostryaetsya/
[15]Lukauev, G. et al. “Turkey’s Policy in Central Asia: Are Ambitions Well-Founded? Russian International Affairs Council, February 25, 2022. https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/turkey-s-policy-in-central-asia-are-ambitions-well-founded/
[16]“Trade between Turkey and Central Asia”, Eurasian Research Institute. https://www.eurasian-research.org/publication/trade-between-turkey-and-central-asia/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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