Turkey searches for Central Asia while Russia is distracted

Turkey searches for Central Asia while Russia is distracted


Turkey will chair a summit of Central Asian countries on Friday aimed at strengthening economic ties with the region’s resource-rich former Soviet states while Moscow is distracted by the war in Ukraine.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will chair the Organization of Turkish States (OTS) summit in Uzbekistan’s historic city of Samarkand.

Erdogan has been pushing for closer cultural, linguistic and religious ties with several former Soviet states in the Caucasus and Central Asia for several years.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February startled Moscow’s neighbors in Central Asia and spurred Kazakhstan – the region’s largest country geographically – and Uzbekistan, the most populous, to look elsewhere for alliances: with both China and Europe.

In a sign of Ankara’s determination to gain a foothold here while Moscow focuses on Ukraine, this is Erdogan’s third trip to the region in less than two months.

The OTS group includes Azerbaijan – a Turkic-speaking former Soviet republic in the Caucasus region bordering Turkey – and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia.

Turkmenistan, also in Central Asia, and EU member state Hungary are observer members of the group.

The group last year gave up its previous name, the Turkic Council, in favor of the Organization of Turkic States.

– Moscow’s “failure” –

The group could expand further if isolated Turkmenistan becomes a full member – an expansion announced by Turkey’s foreign ministry but not confirmed by Ashgabat.

When Turkmenistan joins, the union established in 2009 will include all Central Asian countries that speak languages ??in the Turkic group.

“This community of Turkish states is taking shape,” Bayram Balci, who teaches political science at France’s Sciences Po, told AFP.

In Samarkand, locals said they viewed the Turkish-led summit positively.

“The people of Turkey are considered our brother nation. We have a lot in common… and we like this event,” said 18-year-old student Sevinch Zhurakulova.

Khadicha Murodova, a 22-year-old resident of Samarkand, said she finds it “very pleasant that these countries come and communicate with each other”.

Turkey’s efforts to forge political alliances with Turkish states of the former Soviet Union following the collapse of the USSR in 1991 have long been hampered by continued Russian influence.

“From the beginning of this dream of creating a Turkish community, the weight and influence of Russia have been obstacles,” Balci said, citing Moscow’s strong economic and military ties in the former Soviet states.

But the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, followed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, has given a new impetus to Turkey’s quest for influence in the region, helped by Moscow’s weakening position.

“Turkey is indirectly reaping the fruits of Russia’s failures and mistakes that allow other countries to gain a foothold,” Balci said.

– A “threat” to Moscow –

For Andrei Grozin, analyst for Central Asia at the Moscow Institute of CIS countries, “Any activity in Central Asia is perceived by Moscow, if not as a direct threat, then at least as undesirable”.

But Turkey and Russia, who work closely together despite disagreements in several geopolitical areas, could find common ground for cooperation in Central Asia.

“Turkey’s and Russia’s interests in Central Asia are not fundamentally incompatible,” Grozin said, noting that Ankara doesn’t have “as many resources as Moscow” anyway.

Balci said the Central Asian countries would choose from alliances offered by Moscow and Ankara, “taking what interests them and rejecting what doesn’t interest them.”

Turkey is also deepening military ties with former Soviet states, notably through the sale of drones.

It has also shown its soft power by funding mosques in the area and providing money for schools and scholarships.

The International Trade Center (ITC), a Geneva-based agency affiliated with the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, says the trade volume between Turkey and Central Asia was around US$7.3 billion in 2019.

That number lags far behind Central Asia’s trade volume with the European Union and Russia, which totaled around $29 billion this year, according to the ITC, and China ($25 billion).

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