Central Asia as Turkey's region of influence

The article examines the influence of Turkey in Central Asia, its strategic and ideological foundations, main sectoral directions of relations with the region, dynamics of development of bilateral and regional relations, and mechanisms of institutional implementation. The activities of organizations and forums that contribute to relations with Central Asia, which are united and institutionally formed, are envisaged within the framework of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-speaking states. Trade, infrastructure, energy and communications have become areas that have deepened Turkey's economic ties with the Central Asian region with an aim of increasing integration and diversification of Turkish business interests. In addition, Turkey's actions on destabilizing factors such as extremist movements, drug and arms trafficking, and terrorist activities in the Central Asian republics were discussed. One of the factors shaping Turkey's influence is its policy in the military sphere, including the analysis of its work on providing military assistance to the countries of the region to strengthen defense and security. The foreign policy concept of Turkey in Central Asian region is also considered through the lens of different organizations such as The International Organization of Turkic Culture (TÜRKSOY) and others.


Turkey can be considered a second-tier rising power. Distant from the economic weight of China, India, or Brazil and without their global reach, Turkey is nonetheless increasingly present in conflict-affected regions of the world. This presence is manifested in commercial ties, official and non-governmental aid, security cooperation, and diplomatic efforts to mediate between conflict actors. Despite Ankara's attention to the region having waned since the early 1990s, the Central Asian states maintain a special place in Turkish foreign policy given ethno-linguistic Turkic ties. Over the last decade or so, Turkey has become a more visible international actor. With a population nearing 75 million, it saw GDP grow at an average rate of six per cent between 2002 and 2008, increasing to over eight per cent in 2011 following the financial crisis. Although slowing in 2012, the Turkish economy is currently the world's 18th largest, placing it within the ranks of the G20. With growing economic ties with the rest of the world, Ankara's diplomatic reach is progressing at an equally rapid pace — in 2009, Turkey's Foreign Minister announced the opening of 33 new embassies alongside an increase in budget and personnel for his ministry. Turkey's membership of a wide variety of multilateral forums and organizations is illustrative of a diplomatic reach that cuts across usual groupings.

The advent of five new independent states in Central Asia after the demise of the Soviet regime in 1990s raised the necessity of creating the stable basis for development in those countries. Consequently, Turkey, along with other major powers, embedded considerable efforts to support its fraternal Turkicт countries to maintain political stability and become integrated into the international system. The foreign policy of Turkey is guided by the enduring objectives of «Good neighborliness» and «Peace at Home, Peace in the World. Ankara's systematic foreign policy is aimed at influencing Central Asian States through «soft power»

This paper explores Turkey's relations with Central Asia and the implications for its engagement on the region. It examines Turkey as a rising power, followed by an overview of past engagement with Central Asia and a broad examination of today's bilateral relations, multilateral forums, economic ties, aid provision, and security cooperation. It is based on a select number of interviews with experts in London, Istanbul, and Ankara, alongside a limited literature review. As such, it is not intended as a comprehensive study or an in-depth analysis. The paper concludes with some key questions for future research related to Turkey's role in Central Asian management.


The methodological basis of the study is a set of general scientific approaches to the study of traditional and new concepts of Turkish Foreign policy and its dimension in Central Asia, the place of Central Asia in the main directions and paradigms of foreign policy, and scientific discourse on ‘soft power' of regional leader countries. On this ideological and strategic basis, Turkey was the first to recognize the independence of all Central Asian countries. Ankara has sought to deepen relations by increasing the number of official and diplomatic exchanges, announcing potential trade agreements, creating free capital flows, and deepening economic cooperation.

An analysis of the evolution of the concept of ‘soft power' of Turkey on Central Asian countries in the end of the 20th century — the beginning of the 21st century revealed that they had gone through a path of significant transformations, discovering their previously unknown features, and also incorporating additional dimensions. There has been a transition from an understanding of impact of Turkey on Central Asian region, in the core of which is the ideological, economical, security basis. Considering Turkey's major directions of impact there has been revealed main ideological basis of concept of Turkish foreign policy. The existence of a clear, coherent, and well-coordinated foreign policy towards Central Asia is open to question. Nonetheless, according to the analysis, the Turkish Government's current policy towards Central Asia contains five central components:

  1. Developing bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the fields of energy, economy, commerce, culture, society, politics, etc.
  2. Assisting them to find a peaceful solution to the frozen regional conflicts.
  3. Serving as an energy terminal.
  4. Providing assistance to the regional states in their nation- and state-building processes.
  5. Helping them develop and maintain close relations with the other countries.

Relying on these components in this study we will make a focus, firstly, on bilateral relations of Turkey with each country of Central Asia, secondly, examine multilateral cooperation and cooperation of Turkey and Central Asian countries in special fields of relations, such as trade, infrastructure, energy and security.

Results and discussion

Historical elements of Turkey's influence concept in economic-energetic cooperation and military security.

The advent of five new independent states in Central Asia after the demise of the Soviet regime in 1990s raised the necessity of creating the stable basis for development in those countries. Consequently, Turkey, along with other major powers, embedded considerable efforts to support its fraternal Turkic countries to maintain political stability and become integrated into the international system. The idea has been put forward on the ground of sharing the common Turkic identity, which is reflected through similar ethnic, cultural, historical and language heritage. After an unfortunate attempt to join the European Union in 1989, Turkey intended to create (or form) a Turkic community under its leadership by establishing ties with the newly emerged states, the concept of which was proposed by Turgut Ozal, the President of Turkey at that time. The community, according to Turkey, was expected to bring economically and politically advantageous prospects for its member-states and serve as a bridge to the post-soviet space, therefore demonstrating the capacity of Ankara for Western powers. This ideology is interpreted to be aimed at showing the United States a new potential of Turkey as an ascending power in international relations after the end of cold war. Moreover, an Islamic ideology of Iran and its possible leverage in the region triggered cautious sentiment from Western countries, which in their turn, strived to instill «Turkish model» of strategic development based on a strong Islamic tradition with a secular political system, the main elements of western democracies and free market relations. The foreign policy of Turkey is guided by the enduring objectives of «Good neighborliness» and «Peace at Home, Peace in the World. Ankara's systematic foreign policy is aimed at influencing Central Asian States through «soft power» [1].

On this ideological and strategic basis, Turkey was the first to recognize the independence of all Central Asian countries. Ankara has sought to deepen relations by increasing the number of official and diplomatic exchanges, announcing potential trade agreements, creating free capital flows, and deepening economic cooperation. However, the influence of Turkey in the region could not withstand the economic crisis and political instability in Central Asia in the mid-1990s. Despite the significant support from Turkey, economic cooperation remained limited. Turkey's inability to exert strong influence over political regimes in Central Asia is also reflected in the absence of any diplomatic assistance from Central Asia on the issue of Cyprus. For this reason, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey abolished the concept of a «bridge» between Central Asian countries and Western civilizations, and replaced it with the concept of a «regional power», thus diverting its actions in the region from the interests of the West. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey states that Turkey's desire for a «stable, independent and prosperous Central Asia has guided our policy priorities in the region towards building free market economies and functioning democracies» [2]. Furthermore, the Turkish foreign Minister advocated that a more functional and pragmatic policy is being pursued towards these countries, along with upholding neutral stance in conflicts between or within Central Asian countries and gave priority to strengthening their independence. The status of bilateral relations between Russia, China, the United States and, to a lesser extent, the EU will be another important factor in shaping the destiny of the region [3].

Turkey endeavored to keep balance of five components of its Central Asian policy, with the emphasis on economic, energy and military security cooperation, which has been strengthened through political (bilateral and regional (institutional)) relationships.

The first step upon deepening the ties was to build up bilateral relations. For this aim, Kazakhstan became to be Turkey's mainstay in the region. In 2009, two states signed a strategic partnership agreement that aimed at strengthening the rule of law. In 2012, the first meeting of the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council (HLSCC) took place [4].

Turkey chaired the «Measures to strengthen cooperation and security in Asia» conference, initiated by Nursultan Nazarbayev from 2010 to 2014. Turkey strongly supports Kazakhstan's membership in international organizations such as the world trade organization (WTO) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It was noted that the creation of a transport corridor from Turkey through the Caucasus, Kazakhstan, and China might become a cornerstone of future relations.

When it refers to Kyrgyzstan, it has become an important economic point for Turkish trade and investments. However, despite the increase in the percentage of trade between the two countries, political relations remained at a low level. In 2010, after the mass upheavals in Kyrgyzstan, the situation between the two countries began to improve when Turkey provided 20 million US dollars of technical assistance and joint projects in the form of humanitarian aid. During an official visit in April 2013, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan noted that democracy in Kyrgyzstan gives hope to Turkey, while his counterpart highlighted that Turkey is a buoyant model for Kyrgyzstan's development. Although such changes in bilateral relations have allowed Turkey to influence Kyrgyzstan's political institutions, it has maintained its status of a neutral player.

Uzbekistan was seen by Turkey as «the main model of a secular state in post-Soviet Central Asia that accentuate modernization and democracy,» but, according to experts, Uzbekistan's leadership displays distrustful attitude towards Ankara. The influence of Islamic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Turkey on Uzbek citizens and groups is also a matter of concern, as Uzbek dissidents have been living in Turkey since the early 1990s [5]. The Turkish government's refusal to hand them over often led to clashes with Tashkent. Bilateral relations, which began to improve in 2003, deteriorated significantly after the 2005 Andijan massacre and Turkey's support for the UN. Uzbekistan refused to attend meetings of leaders of Turkic-speaking states and postponed the visit of Turkish President Abdullah Gul. In 2011, Turkish companies were directly targeted by Uzbek security forces, and state television accused them of supporting Islamic extremists.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, the relations with Tajikistan are based on kinship, shared history and cultural heritage. However, despite such rhetoric statements, experts believe that Tajikistan is not currently a priority for Ankara.

As for Turkmenistan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey proclaimed that a new impetus has been given to bilateral relations since 2012, noting that high-level meetings are held regularly. In addition to political agreements, Turkish businessmen play an important role in these relations. Even though there are many business issues, more than 600 are registered in the country.

The next step towards Turkey's influence was a multilateral partnership based on regional influence. In 1992, during his first visit to Central Asia, President Suleiman Demirel issued a loan for 1 billion US dollars. In 1993, 200 agreements were signed between the countries of the region and Turkey. After 1992, Turkey began to conduct its foreign policy through well-structured institutions. With the leadership of Erdogan, Turkish politics began to take on a neo-Ottoman, Islamic, and neo-Turkic tone in Central Asia. Given the shortcomings of the 1990s, completing the institutionalization of relations with Central Asia was a priority for Turkey, especially the establishment of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council) as a tool for further formalizing meetings of Turkic-speaking leaders. The Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States consists of several bodies: The Council of heads of state, the Council of foreign Ministers, the Committee of senior officials, the Council of elders and the Secretariat in Turkey. As Turkmenistan did not participate in the Council on its neutrality, then in 2006 Uzbekistan stopped participating in the meeting of Turkic-speaking leaders, leaving only Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in the Council. In 2010, the 10th summit of the heads of state of the Turkic Council was held, as a result of which conflicts and security issues were repeatedly mentioned, but it is not certain what practical results their cooperation initiatives have brought.

In 1992, The Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA) and TRT Eurasia TV were created for Turkish-speaking countries. TIKA was originally created to deliver Turkish aid to the newly independent states of Central Asia. According to Turkish scholars, today it is aimed at supporting several areas: the emergence of stable states, regional stability, regional and global integration, economic and political reforms, bilateral relations, and efficient energy supply [6]. Turkey is also the only NATO country that participates in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), although it is not a full member, and uses its role in the organization to monitor and affect on Central Asian forums.

If we review the nature of Turkic integration, the dates of the establishment of integration organizations do not go in chronological order, but at the moment there is a certain system and various organizations that gather around one central structure:

  •  International Turkic Academy, being created in Kazakhstan on the initiative of N. Nazarbayev, is fully engaged in the creation of a unified system for the study of Turkic history, Turkic science and the formation of a common Turkic historical consciousness;
  •  The Turkish Cultural Heritage Foundation was established in Baku in 2016 with the aim of preserving Turkish cultural heritage and developing cultural and humanitarian ties between the Turkic world;
  •  Turkish Business Council was established in 2011 to coordinate economic cooperation between members-states;
  •  The Parliamentary Assembly of the Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA), being established in 2008 on the initiative of Nursultan Nazarbayev, coordinates cooperation at the parliamentary level;
  •  The Organization of the Eurasian Law Enforcement Agencies with Military Status (TAKM), functions of which are directed to combat and eradicate organized crime, terrorism, smuggling, and the activities of radical groups of the participating countries. It has been established in 2013 with joint efforts of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
  •  The International Organization of Turkic Culture (TÜRKSOY) was formed in 1993 in Almaty. Unlike UNESCO, TURKSOY is not limited to the cultural and educational spheres and deals with political, trade and economic issues.

All these organizations are united in the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking Countries and function in coordination with the Council. The Council holds high-level summits every year where the issues of each summit are considered as a strategic goal of integration. Prior to this year, the summits were devoted to increase cooperative means in the fields of economy, science, education and culture, tourism, transport and communications [7]. Following the results of the Fifth Summit of the Council, where issues of cooperation in the fields of media and information technologies were discussed, the parties initiated the creation of a single Turkic-language news Agency and TV channel. This Council is pointed toward creating a unified political and socio-economic position of the Turkic world in the international arena. To this end, in 2014, following the IV Summit of the Council, the Declaration touched upon one of the major initiatives of the «Turkic Council-Modern Silk Road» based on the Silk Road Project initiated by Turkey in 2008. The sole purpose of this project is to economically integrate participating member states and use Turkey as a hub and bridge between Central Asia and Europe. Thus, the strategies and goals of Turkey were achieved as a result of institutionalized organizations and forums that accelerated relations with Central Asia.

Turkey, that was able to create and use such powerful mechanisms, an expanded range of opportunities appeared on Central Asian platform, and the ways of influence are grouped in several areas which can be divided into economic, military-technical and cultural fields.

Economic cooperation with other countries of the world contributed to Turkey's own economic growth: in 1980, the trade turnover constituted 17.1 percent of GDP, in 2008 — 52.3 percent. At the same time, the substantial domestic growth created a new class of entrepreneurs who, due to geographical proximity and cultural factors, «began to study the economic and financial potential of neighboring countries and support the efforts of the state». Trade, infrastructure, energy, and communications have deepened Turkey's economic ties with Central Asia. Turkey's trade with the region accounted for 6.5 billion US dollars in 2010, and the total volume of foreign direct investment from Turkey amounted to 4.7 billion US dollars. Turkey's entry into the EU market is a unique opportunity for Central Asian countries. Business communities, such as Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), are looking to step up their initiatives and increase the activity of their members in the region. However, there is no evidence that Turkey's economic ties with Central Asia are deeper than with other parts of the world. In contrast, no Central Asian country is included in the list of Turkey's 20 largest trading partners. However, in this rating, Kazakhstan ranks 21st among Turkey's global trading partners in terms of exports and 20th in terms of imports. To date, Turkish contractors have implemented 402 projects worth 16.5 billion US dollars in Kazakhstan. At the end of 2011, the Foreign Direct Investment Fund of Kazakhstan reached up to 2 billion US dollars. In 2012, Kyrgyzstan ranked 72nd among Turkey's export destinations with a market value of 257 million US dollars. Imports of Turkish goods from Kyrgyzstan amounted to 45 million US dollars. Despite of the weak political bonds, economic relations with Uzbekistan are relatively good: 579 Turkish companies operate in the country, which ranked 49th among Turkey's exports in 2012. The total volume of foreign direct investment in Turkey accounts for about 1 billion US dollars. Since the country gained its independence, Turkish companies have signed contracts worth more than 34 billion US dollars in Turkmenistan. 90 % of all construction projects in Turkmenistan are carried out by Turkish contractors. Turkey's exports to the country in 2012 were estimated at 1.48 billion US dollars, while imports totaled to only 302 million US dollars, showing an increase of 1.1 billion US dollars. Tajikistan positioned 81st in 2012 with the value of export at 234 million US dollars, while imports in the same year totaled to 345 million US dollars [8].

The protection of deepened economic interests, especially with the participation of a good network business community with close ties to political parties, is an important factor in maintaining Ankara's influence in the region. On the one hand, targeted investments can force Turkey to focus and directly interfere in domestic politics and stability in the region. On the other hand, economic cooperation with Central Asia has clearly increased, although experts say Turkish officials have «increased Turkey's business activity in the region».

The area of integration of an utmost importance is energy. As its growing economy becomes too dependent on a certain number of Russian energy suppliers, Ankara was ready to diversify them by including Central Asian states to a list of its potential providers. Ankara is trying to resolve a dispute between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan over oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea, the latter of which is directly linked to Turkey via the 1,700-kilometer Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the parallel Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline. Although the issue has been widely discussed, there has been no progress since the 1990s. Turkey aspires to build a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline that will supply this energy corridor from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Establishing such links would make a significant contribution to Turkey's role as an energy center in the region and prove its global significance [9]. Indeed, in 2007, the Turkish government encountered considerable efforts to create an organization for regional gas suppliers between Turkey and Central Asia, in the example of organizations of oil exporter states, but there has been no progress. Hence, Turkey plans to create a single Turkic world with a common market of regional energy and transport system. However, the geopolitics of Central Asia's energy supply, in which Russia and China play such an important role, is ready to weaken and further complicate Turkey's position.

One of the factors contributing to Turkey's strong influence in Central Asia is military security. According to the analysis, Turkey is particularly concerned about destabilizing factors in Central Asian republics, such as extremist movements, terrorism, drug, and arms trafficking. Accordingly, the Turkish government provides these countries with financial assistance and military training to help them put their way to stable development. Military contacts began only in the early 2000s, when Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were supplied with Turkish equipment and exercises to prepare the military for hostilities. Turkey also worked closely with the special forces of the two countries in training. Since 1999, Turkey has hosted a NATO «Partnership for Peace» training center in Ankara, where military personnel from various Central Asian countries have completed a range of courses. Another important part of Turkey's political paradigm for Central Asia is the active fight against Islamic radicalism, which was officially acknowledged and plays a key role in the fight against the penetration of radical Islamists into Central Asia. In 2012, Turkey agreed to provide military assistance to Kyrgyzstan in the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking, illegal migration and strengthen its defense and security. In 2013, Turkey announced it would help Kyrgyzstan transform NATO's Manas military base into a commercial airport. Turkey's aid budget funded police training programs for Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan [10]. Judges and prosecutors were also trained in Kazakhstan. Although Turkey has implemented large-scale projects to develop its military industry, the lack of a developed scientific and technical base was a serious issue. It is clear that Turkey is interested in the implementation of joint programs with the countries of Central Asia to expand not only military-technical, but also political participation in the region.


Relative to the bold vision laid out after their independence in the early 1990s, the states of Central Asia appear to be of high priority for Turkish foreign policy. Steady efforts appear to have been made to deepen or at least maintain diplomatic relations with most of the countries and with the region as a whole through the CCTS. In parallel, but perhaps with more tangible consequences, levels of trade and investment have markedly increased, that this outstrips the growth of economic ties with other regions of the world. Turkey's total aid budget has grown significantly; available data suggests that Central Asia has featured highly in Ankara's calculations of where it should be allocated. Security cooperation appears to have become a main feature of its engagement over the past decade or so. Finally, it is clear that Turkey is a significant a player as larger powers that have more established interests in the region and greater capacity to protect them.

Turkey, which has focused its political and diplomatic efforts on the development of Central Asia, fulfilled its historic mission in the application of «soft power» and the philosophy of Pan-Turkism. Taking into account the domestic political and economic situation, it could provide humanitarian and financial assistance to develop its social and human potential. All of this was to ensure a possible future of a specific political mechanism, which can serve as a key instrument for the implementation of various projects between the countries of the region. Turkey's geopolitical position is determined by the intersection of the most important and most problematic regions of the world — Europe and Asia. Based on the main prerequisites, strategic and ideological reasons for Turkey's foreign policy, it pursues a strategy of ambitious impact on the main goals, proceeding from the spheres of economic, energy and military security through institutionally formed mechanisms with Central Asia.

Currently, Turkey attaches special importance to preventative diplomacy, pioneers a great deal of mediation attempts in a wide geography and endeavors actively for the peaceful settlement of disputes. Nonetheless, there is little evidence that such endeavors have featured prominently in relations with Central Asian countries. Taking into account the dynamics of its existing diplomatic, economic, development, and security cooperation in Central Asia. Of course, a number of contextual changes — such as a significant deepening of Turkish involvement in the energy sector, the targeting of Turkish businesses, escalating intra- and inter-state conflict or intense geopolitical competition — could force Turkey to take on a more proactive role. When Ankara has sought to engage on issues in other regions, it has legitimized its engagement with reference to shared histories and identities with the regions in question. In a similar vein, its Turkic links with Central Asia may be perceived by decision makers in Ankara to be a distinguishing asset for Turkey that guarantees it influence and a special role.



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Year: 2020
City: Karaganda
Category: History