Turkey carves out a new role for itself in Central Asia
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week paid a historic visit to Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous and resource-rich country. While there, economic, defense, political and cultural issues topped his agenda.
The Turkish leader was accompanied on the three-day trip by a large delegation, including his wife Emine, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar, and several ministers and businessmen.
A weighty package of deals between the two countries, worth $3 billion, was signed, which Erdogan referred to as “the start of a long journey for Turkey and Uzbekistan.” He underlined his hope the countries could set aside the tensions of a bygone era and revive “lost opportunities.”
Among other Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan has a special place in Turkey’s relationship with the region. The story of Uzbek-Turkish relations started well. Turkey was the first country to officially recognize Uzbekistan after it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. However, Uzbekistan was the only Central Asian and Turkic country with which Turkey had limited relations. Ankara-Tashkent relations have been tense for decades for many reasons.
Things started to move in a more positive direction after the ascension of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in 2016, following the death of his predecessor, Islam Karimov, who had distanced his country from Turkey during his 27 years in office. In November 2016, just four months after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, Erdogan made a momentous trip to Uzbekistan, becoming the first Turkish president to visit in 16 years.
Although relations were still strained at that time, the visit caught the attention of those following Turkish policy on Central Asia. During the trip, Erdogan laid flowers at Karimov’s grave and met the new president, planting the seeds of a better relationship between the countries.
The following year was an important one for the improvement of relations. Mirziyoyev paid a two-day visit to Ankara in October, the first state visit by an Uzbek president to Turkey since Karimov’s in 1999. In addition, most of the agreements achieved by the two leaders in November 2016 were implemented, while high-level contacts and meetings of various ministries and business circles intensified as relations evolved into a strategic partnership. It would not be wrong to say that 2017 was the reunion of the long-lost friends.
Uzbekistan has geopolitical significance. It borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan which, along with its proximity to Russia and East Asia, makes it a strategically placed country. It also has important natural resources and the highest population in the region (accounting for 45 percent of the people in Central Asia).
Thus Erdogan’s latest visit will not only have political, geostrategic and geoeconomic effects on Turkey’s relations with Uzbekistan alone but also, in broad terms, with Central Asia.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of resources increased the significance of Central Asia. This led to a rising number of external actors with a stake in the region. With this Uzbek opening, Turkey has more opportunities to strengthen its Central Asian policy, but at the same time it might face competitors to its growing political and economic presence in the area.
Culture, politics, the economy and security are the four main pillars of a new era in Turkey-Uzbekistan relations.
Russia is the most powerful actor in the region. Turkey needs to walk a fine line in improving relations with Central Asian countries without harming its relationship with Moscow. At a time when Ankara enjoys a good relationship with the Kremlin but tense relations with the Western world, and the Middle East is caught up in crises, Central Asia is a potentially beneficial region for Turkey to pursue its economic and political interests.
In fact, Turkey’s pragmatic and constructive approach in Central Asia could actually be favorable for Moscow, which might find another partner to help curtail Chinese influence in the region. Beijing follows a very pragmatic policy in Central Asia and this might hamper Russian power in the region.
Another part of the story is that there are several issues that Turkey and Central Asian republics could be encouraged to cooperate on. One of these is the fight against extremism. For instance, Uzbekistan borders Afghanistan, one of the most unstable countries in the world. Thus, Turkey is considered a vital security partner not only in the Middle East but also in Central Asia.
The movement of extremist groups from the Middle East toward Central Asia necessitates the countries there cooperating with Turkey. Therefore, defense has been a significant issue in the recent agreements signed between Turkey and Uzbekistan. In this context, the visit of Turkish National Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli to Uzbekistan in July 2017 was critical.
Iran is another significant factor that has been affecting Central Asia and security issues in the region for two decades. A strong collaboration between Turkey, Russia and the Central Asian republics might prevent expansion of Iranian influence in the region.
Turkey’s regional integration policy toward Central Asia is not only based on the fight against extremism, but also the creation of new areas of economic cooperation. Central Asia is seeking ways to reduce its dependence on Russia, while Turkey wants to direct its investments from Western markets to Central Asian ones, particularly Uzbekistan, which Ankara considers an especially useful economic partner due to its rich natural resources, a great textiles industry and a strong real estate market.
Lastly, in cultural terms, Central Asia, which played a significant role in Turkish foreign policy since the creation of the Turkish Republic, is commonly accepted as a historical fatherland of Turkic people. Therefore, this region holds a special meaning for Ankara.
In short, culture, politics, the economy and security are the four main pillars of a new era in Turkey-Uzbekistan relations in particular and Turkish-Central Asian relations in general. It is reasonable to expect that the next decade might be a period of Turkey rapidly improving its relations with the region.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.