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HENRY SREBRNIK: The wider Turkic world of Central Asia

Henry Srebrnik
Henry Srebrnik - Contributed

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the formation of independent states in Central Asia and the Caucasus has transformed Turkey’s role in the world.

The newly independent Turkic states constituted 85 per cent of the former Soviet Union’s Muslim population, which is predominantly Sunni, as is Turkey.

The main Turkic groups in these states are Uzbeks, Kazaks, Tatars, Azeris, Turkomans, Kyrgyz, Chuvash, Bashkirs, Kumyks, Balkars, and Nogais.

All of these peoples are linked to Turkey in many ways, including by the ties of their various languages linked to Turkish, enabling Turkey to project its “soft power” in the region.

With the threat of antagonizing and provoking the Soviet Union no longer an issue, feelings of kinship with Turkic peoples living outside the boundaries of the Turkish state became more widespread, especially under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Iran, too, has viewed these new countries as a potential sphere of influence, though both linguistically and religiously – the central Asians are mainly Sunni, not Shi’a – Tehran is at a disadvantage in relation to Turkey.

Also, there are various issues in which Iran and Turkey may find themselves at odds. Iranian Azerbaijan may turn out to be such an area since Turkey is sympathetic to those Azeris who would like to unite northwestern Azerbaijan, located in Iran, to Azerbaijan.

The world’s largest number of ethnic Azerbaijanis actually live in Iran, followed by the Republic of Azerbaijan itself.

Turkey was the first country to recognize the independence of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s then Foreign Minister, Tofik Gasymov, in Ankara in August 1992 stated that “Turkey is our greatest helper. We want Turkey’s aid in establishing links with the world.”

Politically, Turkey ardently defends the Azeri position regarding the conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave within Azerbaijan. Economically, both countries have linkages for energy transmission routes such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project.

Turkish-Kyrgyz relations followed a similar track. Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev called Turkey a “North Star” to be looked to for guidance. Kyrgyz students came to Turkey to further their education, and Ankara helped the new state create two new universities in the 1990s.

Bilateral relations between Turkey and Turkmenistan have been strong since the declaration of independence by Turkmenistan. In fact, Turkey was the first country to recognize its independence. Trade, investment by Turkish firms, and cooperation in educational ventures have cemented the relationship.

Uzbekistan is the most important of the central Asian states, and Turkey’s close linguistic, historical, and cultural linkages with Uzbekistan have served Ankara well. Islam Karimov, the country’s first president, was also the first Turkic leader to visit Turkey.

In October 2017, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visited Ankara. Agreements between the two countries committed them to 35 joint projects, worth over $3.5 billion, in the construction of power facilities, road infrastructure, manufacturing of textiles, electrical equipment, building materials, food and agro-industry.

Of course, Russia is still an influential player in the region and Russian politicians in the Putin era do their best to retain ties with these former Soviet republics. Hence, Ankara and Moscow will most probably compete, rather than cooperate, in central Asia, each seeing it as part of their respective “near abroads.”

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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