Central Asia in the conceptual foundations of Turkish foreign policy
Turkey is pursuing its own regional approach and emphasize that, unlike Russia, China and other countries, it has abandoned the concept of "spheres of influence" and prefers to focus on the common interests, cultures, and languages as well as the common economic views as the main criterion of its foreign policy. This approach is so pragmatic and indicates that Turkey cannot take the responsibility of other countries and prefers to keep the relations in a level that is beneficial to the country based on the status quo.
By: Esen Usubaliev
Turkey's active foreign policy in the last 10 years has aroused considerable interest among the experts regarding the country’s serious role in international relations, as well as Changes in Turkey's position on key issues of modern international politics. This Turkey's updated foreign policy largely led to the rise of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power and the appointment of Dolatov (who is the author of the new concept of foreign policy that has influenced Turkey's ruling political elite) as foreign minister.
Although the previous policy of De-Ottomanization was successful at a certain stage and helped Turkey to become a modernized country, this policy did not manage to erase the memory of the empire in Turkish society. The legacy of the Ottoman Empire has always been alive not only in the minds of the Turkish people, but also among the large circles of Turkish political establishment.
Under a bipolar system of international relations, Turkey failed to pursue an independent foreign policy based on its national interests. Therefore, in exchange for security, it pursued a pro-western policy. However, the collapse of the bipolar system of the international relations that led to the emergence of independent Turkic-speaking countries as well as Washington’s decision for changing the format of the Middle East (which shares a common history with Turkey), Provided the ground for the realization of the dream of the Ottoman Empire.
It should be noted that multilateral foreign policy, zero-problem policy towards neighbors, soft power, and other ideal concepts are Turkey’s effective tools for achieving economic expansionism. Being aware of the troubles of competition in the western markets, Turkey has now shifted its focus on the Middle East, Africa, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The remarkable economic progress of the last 10 years was possible only thanks to the success of a peaceful multilateral foreign policy and the enormous potential of Turkey's business elite for expansion of the developing countries’ markets.
The idea of turning Turkey into a world power is one of the main foreign policy objectives of Turkish establishment. The special global achievements of the Turkish government - that even in the absence of sufficient resources has participated in all the international processes - has promoted the country’s status. The active participation of Turkey in regional and international procedures is actually the demand of the majority of the Turkish citizens.
Now in this context, a question must be answered: Which foreign policy concepts, ideas and views of the Turkish government determine its active participation in Central Asia? From 2002 to 2015, Central Asia was not a foreign policy priority for the AKP. During this period, Turkey preferred to focus its efforts on important foreign policy orientations in Europe, Middle East, Caucasus, and so on. After Russia and Iran increased their participation in Syria and formed a new front in this war-torn country, Central Asia was the only place that remained suitable for Ankara’s activities. Given the new efforts that are being made in the region - and in Eurasia in general - to enhance Turkey's global role, Ankara is paying close attention to developing multilateral relations with the regional countries.
When we analyze the Turkey’s policy in Central Asia, we should first identify the AKP’s main ideas and concepts about Turkey’s role in Central Asia and about the region's role in Ankara's global game. These ideas and concepts are as follow:
Soft power: A kind of foreign policy that is based on diplomacy, culture, dialogue, cooperation, economic interdependence, and historical commonality. The concept of soft power is defined on the basis of historical and cultural relations with the regional countries, traditions, free market, and democratic institutions.
Historical Heritage (Tarihsel Miras): This concept is deeply related to the terms of "Ottoman heritage" and "historical depth," that are being used to describe the geopolitical context of Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East, Balkans and Central Asia. These terms determine the cultural and geopolitical environment that has always been associated with Turkey (in other words, the historical region of Turkish geopolitical influence and interaction).
Civilizational geopolitics (Medeniyetsel Jeopolitik): Although this is not a formal concept, it is used by the Turkish political establishment to show that "civilizational geopolitics" is an important tool and source of historical formation and implementation of Turkey’s foreign policy. The cultural and civilizational notions are the basis of civilizational geopolitics.
Neo-Ottomanism (Yeni Osmanlıcılık): Turgut Ozal used this term for the first in the early 1990s to describe the foreign policy, and in particular, Turkey's interest and influence in the neighboring countries during the post-Cold War era. Then, the AKP revised this policy, and now, the region is perceived as an area of influence within the geographical framework of the former Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, Middle East and Caucasus. The term is also used to refer to the Middle Eastern and Islamic nature of Turkey’s foreign policy, especially in dialogue with western countries.
Historically, however, Central Asia was not the real sphere of influence pf the Ottoman Empire; meanwhile, the Empire’s religious and cultural presence could be felt in the region to some extent and Central Asia had relatively extensive relations with the Ottomans.
The Energy Terminal and Corridor (Enerji Terminali ve Koridoru): It is one of the energy hubs for transportation of global energy resources through Eurasia to Turkey. The term was first coined by Süleyman Demirel in 1998, but its implementation became possible only when the AKP came to power. The term was introduced in the Turkish analytical circles to show the country’s growing activities in the field of energy and to indicate Turkey's possible role in providing sustainable energy resources via the pipelines. This strategy envisages a deep and simultaneous relationship between the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The purpose of this foreign policy strategy is to strengthen the interdependence of the countries in terms of foreign policy and ensuring the stability of energy flows. Energy-importing countries consider Turkey's geographical location along the "East-West" and "North-South" lines as the most important center for diversification of their energy resources. The implementation of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project in 2006, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (Trans Caspian gas pipeline) and other Ceyhan energy terminal projects in Turkey may be the prominent examples of this claim.
Commercial country (Ticaret Devleti): Commercial country means a country that supports its trade via its foreign policy and shapes its foreign policy in accordance with the dynamics of economic relations. According to this strategy, the economic factor, in the first place with the neighboring countries of the Balkans, Middle East and Caucasus, is much more important than military and political influence. So, this factor is considered as an important tool for increasing the economic interdependence of the countries. In addition to state-owned companies, private corporations, which are considered as the key elements of foreign policy and strategic interaction, are also an important part of this strategy.
Investigation of these concepts and other concepts in Turkey’s foreign policy doctrine will clarify Turkey's foreign policy orientations, which also includes Central Asia. Although many of these concepts were set between 2005 and 2010, their change - due to changes in both Turkey's foreign policy and international relations - paved the way for the realization of Turkey's collective goals in Central Asia.
When we want to talk about Turkey's official strategy in Central Asia in 2021, we should consider both the abovementioned concepts as well as the recent official statements by the Turkish government. In short, Turkey's regional approach is based on four principles: culture, politics, economy and security.
The bilateral level of Turkish foreign policy in Central Asia has its own characteristics. For example, Kazakhstan had long been a top priority for Turkey in Central Asia due to its economic and energy potentials. However, by reviving relations with Uzbekistan in 2016, Turkey put the country at the forefront of its economic interests as well as political-cultural relations. Uzbekistan is of great geopolitical importance to Turkey. Uzbekistan shares border with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, which, in addition to its proximity to Russia and East Asia, makes it strategically important.
Moreover, the Turkish officials have always acknowledged to Uzbekistan's special role in their own country’s history, culture and religion, and call Uzbekistan as "the homeland of fathers." Therefore, the changes occurred in Central Asia in the wake of Uzbekistan’s developments in 2016, forced Ankara to change its regional priorities.
So, Turkey priorities Central Asian countries as follows:
In an attempt to show its differences from other countries, Turkey has sought to promote "equal dialogue" with "brotherly countries" and refuses to use some terms such as "sphere of influence" and "sphere of interests" for Central Asia. Considering these terms as unfair and even humiliating, Ankara reiterate that there is no place for these concepts and approaches in the Turkish foreign policy.
In fact, Turkey is pursuing its own regional approach and emphasize that, unlike Russia, China and other countries, it has abandoned the concept of "spheres of influence" and prefers to focus on the common interests, cultures, and languages as well as the common economic views as the main criterion of its foreign policy. This approach is so pragmatic and indicates that Turkey cannot take the responsibility of other countries and prefers to keep the relations in a level that is beneficial to the country based on the status quo.
Meanwhile, Ankara’s regional project, which began in 1992 in the form of Turkey’s regular meetings after the Nakhchivan summit, led to the establishment of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (The Turkic Council). Prior to this event, nine meetings had been held and the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TURKSOY) and the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA) had been created. Thanks to these organizations, many projects were implemented and the relations between Turkey and the regional countries developed to a large extent. Also outside this structure, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) was established, which is one of the main tools of Ankara’s foreign policy influence in the region and beyond. Thus, Turkey managed to consolidate its economic and cultural presence in Central Asia.
However, it is difficult to assess the real impact of the council and its subsidiaries, because we cannot say that they have had widespread impact on the overall situation of the region. Turkey's lack of capacity to launch large-scale projects in the region has also contributed to this situation.
At present, the main goal of Turkey's foreign policy is to gradually become a world power without which regional problems in the Middle East, Mediterranean, Balkans, South Caucasus, as well as other problems of global security and development, cannot be resolved.
In general, three important concepts can be considered as the basis of Turkey's foreign policy approach in Central Asia:
1. Central Asia has cultural and linguistic commonalities with Turkey;
2. Central Asia is a context for pragmatic politics; and
3. Central Asia is a region through which Turkey has increased its global role and established the mechanisms of collective and bilateral cooperation; something that will show its benefits in the future.
In other words, Central Asia is largely a tool for Turkey to achieve more serious goals at the regional level (in dialogue with Russia and China) and globally (recognizing its special role as an important factor that can influence global security and economic development).
However, given the serious economic headaches in Turkey at the end of 2020, it is unclear how achievable these goals will be. At the present, however, some efforts are being made to analyze Turkey's existing capabilities in Central Asia and predict its policy developments in the midterm.
In 2008-2009, Turkey formally announced the following provisions as the main components of its foreign policy in Central Asia:
1. Develop bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the fields of energy, economy, trade, culture, society, politics, etc;
2. Contribute to the peaceful settlement of regional conflicts;
3. Play the role of a regional energy terminal;
4. Assist the regional countries in their state and national construction processes; and
5. Contribute to the development of other countries and support deep ties with them.
Turkey believes that expansionism and the export of the regional natural resources to the global markets is not possible without deep multilateral cooperation between the regional and non-regional countries. In addition to its central role in energy transit, Turkey considers itself as the main coordinator of these relations.
However, in 2009, after the AKP's leadership reconsidered its role in both world politics and Central Asia, then prime minister of Turkey Erdogan clearly declared his views about Turkey’s common space as well as the ultimate goal of the country’s foreign policy. In his speech at a meeting of the Turkish-speaking countries in Baku on November 17, 2007, he outlined the main programs of his country’s foreign policy for the development of mutual relations as follows:
• establishing a secretariat for the meetings of the presidents of Turkish-speaking countries;
• establishing an OPEC-like entity for the regional gas exporters;
• Creating a common alphabet based on Latin letters;
• Creating a common TV channel;
• establishing the Turkish World Academy of Sciences as well as the Turkish World Science Museum;
• Publishing books about the history, literature, culture and religion of the Turkish-speaking countries; and
• establishing a political and economic union.
Of course, it is not yet possible to talk about the possibility of achieving these goals, but it can be said that a hard work is underway to attract the resources of the Central Asian countries and Turkey in public and private level. It is also noteworthy that despite the lack of massive investment in these projects, Turkey is trying to implement them in the future.
On the other hand, the non-implementation of these programs is due to the fact that the Central Asian countries have not yet determined their share in these projects as well as their approaches towards Turkey's role in the region.
It must also be acknowledged that Central Asia has always been a fragmented region. Tajikistan, as an ethnic representative of the Persian people, has in fact withdrawn from The Turkic Council. However, the Tajiks are an integral part of the Turkish-Persian religious, cultural, and civilizational atmosphere. In addition, the scientific and religious atmosphere of the Turkish world has been shaped under the influence of the Persians. The Tajik people are the result and example of the combination of the Persian and Turkish world. Despite belonging to the Persian people, Tajikistan is culturally closer to the Turkish world. Therefore, the removal of Tajikistan from the joint Turkish cooperation platform - despite the good relations between Turkey and Tajikistan - is a major shortcoming of the council.
Without changing the nature and form of cooperation within the framework of Turkish cultural and historical commonalities, the activities of the council would only lead to more disagreement in the region. At the same time, Central Asia in the first place means the historical fusion and interaction of the Turks and Persians. It seems that the region will move towards more fragmentation unless there are fundamental changes in the perceptions regarding the Turkish culture and society.
For other countries that have strategic interests in Central Asia, especially Iran, both the conceptual foundations of Ankara’s policy in the region and their ability to respond to rapidly changing foreign policy cases must be considered
Iran, like Turkey, has its own conceptual approaches. The fact that Central Asia has been a place for historical interaction and mutual influence of the Turkic and Persian people, and that historical, cultural and religious heritage is the basis for mutual development and prosperity, may be the basis of Iran's approach towards Central Asia.
Essen Asobalif, is a non-resident research fellow at the Institute for East Strategic Studies.