05.12.2020 Author: Vladimir Odintsov

The Realities and Prospects involved in Turkey’s Expansion in Central Asia


In recent decades, Turkey has laid claim to playing the role of a new regional superpower, and has increasingly begun to pursue an independent foreign policy, which many political scientists have dubbed Neo-Ottomanism. Furthermore, Ankara’s expansionist ambitions have started to mushroom very quickly, and it is attempting not only to position itself as a regional power, but as a key state in something that has been provisionally named “Afrasia”, meaning a link between Africa, Asia, and Europe. Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan seriously believes that Ankara is the one that should play a primary role in foreign policy issues in the Middle East and Central Asia, given that many of the countries in this region were once part of the Ottoman Empire. For example, virtually all the countries involved in the “Arab Spring” of 2011 are countries in the former “Ottoman encompassment”: Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The same is true for many states in Central Asia. Proceeding from these facts, politicians currently at the helm in Turkey consider themselves entitled to take an active part in their politics, or at least the same way that Britain does concerning the Commonwealth, or the way France does regarding its former colonies and countries in the Francophone world.

In the bounds of this context, Erdogan has put particular emphasis in terms of forming his expansionist policy on setting up the essential prerequisites to consolidate the “territory of Turan” as a global supranational entity that unites both Turkic and other peoples in Central Asia and Siberia. Against the backdrop of the collapse of the USSR, and the end of the former political and military divide in the world, at first the Turkish political elite really did experience a certain euphoria in restoring contacts that it had lost throughout the “Turkic world”. The Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States was created, and activity has picked up on the part of the International Organization of Turkic Culture, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic-speaking Countries, the Council of Elders of the Turkic Council, the World Assembly of Turkic Peoples, etc. At the same time, Ankara has conscientiously tried not to “irk” Russia.

Following the example that has been set by Western countries of using various NGOs to alter the political priorities and bearings present in specific countries, Ankara started to build relations in Central Asia at the level of social, education, and cultural projects, fostering cooperation in the areas of transport and tourism, and attempting to integrate the Central Asian republics’ economies and its own by building close ties at the level of small- and medium-sized businesses. In addition, there has been a trend towards making attempts to invest in projects relating to healthcare, education, and social policy.  Consequently, in a number of Central Asian countries pockets have popped up where the pro-Turkish lobby maintains a permanent presence, and in particular in Kazakhstan, where a whole generation of elite has been raised with education in Turkish schools. However, in some Central Asian countries, for example, in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, these attempts have failed, and Uzbekistan’s President Karimov even banned Turkish TV serials from being broadcast in the country.

Central Asian countries gained an understanding quite swiftly that expansion on the part of the Turkish economy could lead to serious problems for those representing small- and medium-sized businesses in the region’s countries; local business owners, and even state-owned organizations – for example in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan – may be out of work after Turkish goods flood the shelves. In addition, there is a danger that Turkey, which exports mainly agricultural products, might change the pricing policy that government-run agricultural organizations in these countries have grown accustomed to, and this would inevitably lead to a decrease in budgetary revenues, layoffs for some workers, and then accordingly to decreases in the volume of products manufactured in the future. Besides that, land suitable for cultivation could be put up for sale or lease, and after that foreign farmers would arrive in these countries. For its part, in a worst-case scenario this could lead to first privately run, and then government-owned, organizations becoming supplanted in their own territories. The final chapter in this could be a state of debt bondage, and the country entering into Turkish external receivership, since there will be no funds flowing into the economy from the agricultural sector. Therefore, Erdogan’s program to create a “unified Turan”, which he regularly mentions in his speeches on restoring the Great Ottoman Empire, is effectively focused on putting this in place in Central Asia, but using economic methods and not military force.

However, Ankara has not taken the military aspect involved in bringing Central Asian countries into this “Turkic family” off the table, and the idea has sprung up among the country’s leadership of building up a “Turkic NATO” that has a single “Turanian Army”. These ideas were propagated particularly energetically by Tayyip Erdogan against the background of hostilities becoming more acute in Nagorno-Karabakh. But this Neo-Ottomanist idea put forth by the Turkish leader has not yet garnered wide support among Central Asian countries, and for several rationales. One of them is the memory that Central Asia has about the situation when, in the 1990s, Ankara welcomed Uzbek oppositionists with open arms – who plotted acts of terrorism that they then carried out in some cities in Uzbekistan.

In Central Asia, they see how Ankara is actively making overtures to radicals from the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in the Russian Federation – Ed.) and terrorist fighters, namely those with DAESH (banned in the Russian Federation – Ed.) and a number of others – something which the region does not need in the least. This is sometimes reflected in the fact that they are given asylum, and recently another “petitioner” like this – Idriss Sihamedi, the head of the “BarakaCity” organization, which was shut down in France on charges of spreading radical Islam and justifying terrorist acts – applied for asylum in Turkey. Or in how Turkey pays for their “services”, redeploying militants to Libya or Nagorno-Karabakh to fulfill advantageous political and military objectives. Or in how it provides financial support to DAESH by being a major purchaser for oil produced by DAESH. And if the oil channel from DAESH could be turned off, then Turkey’s support for the jihadists, including delivering weapons to Syria and Libya for them, persists. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) specifically reports that 4,000 DAESH militants were recently sent to Nagorno-Karabakh to fight the Armenians. However, it is not clear whom Turkey is helping by doing this – it is clearly not Azerbaijan, since the president of that country, Aliyev, is hardly delighted with the idea of sheltering thousands of extremist fighters on his territory. But Azerbaijan has signed several different agreements with Turkey, and entered into many various alliances with Ankara, so now it is being forced to reap “Turkish dividends” from all this. All this has served as a valuable lesson to other countries, especially those in Central Asia, which Ankara has been trying to actively involve in a “marathon of treaties” in recent years similar to the one Azerbaijan ran.

What does not contribute to Turkey’s expansion in the region, despite the desperate hopes harbored by Ankara, is the realization there that, in reality, there is no “unified Turkic world”. There is no unified Turkic people, since scientists call Turkic people all peoples who speak the languages in the Turkic family of Altaic languages. The Turkic community is a philological and linguistic concept, but not an ethnic or political one. According to various sources, Turkic languages are spoken by up to 35 different peoples, including the Turks, Turkmens, Uzbeks, Azerbaijanis, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Gagauz, as well as the Russian Tatars, Bashkirs, Yakuts, Tuvinians, and Balkars; this includes even the Huns, Alans, Scythians, and Sarmatians, who have all sunk into oblivion, and some other peoples.

In real life, the so-called “Turkic peoples” have no more in common with each other than peoples who speak the languages in another family, for example the Indo-European one, under which scientists classify the Bengalis, Germans, Tajiks, Lithuanians, Russians, Spaniards, Swedes, Iranians, and scores of other peoples. But nobody today is urging that all of them should be united in an “Indo-European world”!

A serious obstacle to Turkish expansion in Central Asia is the obvious discrepancy between this idea with Russia’s and China’s aspirations, both of which have long-standing and very strong ties with Central Asia, of uniting this region’s countries around a totally different idea involving trade and economic cooperation on an equal footing, and a joint struggle to strengthen their common regional security and combat the threats that terrorism poses.

Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.