Central Asia

Turkey as key regional player in Central Asia

The influence currently exercised by Turkey in the Central Asian republics is developed through bilateral projects focused on education and commercial relations.

Central Asian states have declared their sovereignty in 1991 immediately after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics(USSR) and Turkey was the first to recognize their new status and has initiated the first diplomatic and economic relation of post-Soviet era.

Also, the former president of Turkey, Turgut Özal (1989-1993), has initiated the first cooperation policies subsequently developed by the former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, in the political ideology of Neo-Ottomanism, presented later in a theoretical framework in his book Strategic Depth (2001). Influenced by Turkey’s cultural and economic similarities, the elites of the Central Asian republics adopted the Turkish governance model focused on two major aspects: secularism (“a la turca“) and market liberalization policies.

Turkey is an important route connecting Europe to Asia, which made Turkey a leading actor in the relationship between the two continents. With a growing economy, transposed into increased consumption of resources, especially gas and oil, the government of Ankara has been able to find new energy sources and avoid dependence on Russian gas.

Turkey is directly interested in Caspian gas and oil resources and is actively involved in the settlement of the diplomatic dispute between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan regarding the territorial division of the Caspian Sea.  This dispute is particularly important especially for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum oil pipelines. Turkey’s foreign policy is favorable for the creation of a Trans-Caspian energy corridor linking Kazakhstan (oil) and Turkmenistan (natural gas) to Turkey and implicitly Europe, which has brought sympathy to the European Union partners.

In order to preserve the traditions and also for a closer cooperation among the Turkic states, in 1993 was signed the declaration for the establishment of the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TURKSOY) based in Ankara by ministers of culture in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Turkey. Between Turkey and the Central Asian states there are similarities in terms of language, culture, history and religious practices encountered within the Turkic-speaking peoples family. At present, there are about 125 million people speaking Turkic-speaking languages living predominantly in Turkey, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Until now, there have been 34 meetings of the countries that carry the values of Turkic culture, the last being in Sheki, Azerbaijan. The objective of the organization is to preserve and promote common values so that they maintain peace and solidarity within the Turkic peoples. For accomplish this goal, TURKSOY organizes cultural and artistic events.

During the meetings between the President of Turkey and Turkmenistan, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: „I strongly appreciate activities carried out by TURKSOY to preserve, revive and explore Turkic language, culture and art.” and President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguli Berdimuhammedov said in his turn: „I attach great importance to activities carried out by TURKSOY. Indeed, besides exploring our common cultural hertige, TURKSOY also contributes to the strenghening of ties among kindred peroples of the Turkic World. I would therefore like to express my strong appreciation as to activities carried out by this organization which i am proud of.

At the educational level, Turkey has been actively involved in creating a philo-turkish elite in Central Asia. At the beginning of 1992, Education Minister Suleyman Demirel launched the “Big Student Project” program that offered scholarships to students from Central Asian countries. Each year approximately 1500 students benefit from these scholarships to study in the universities of Turkey. Since the launch of this project, a total of 35,000 students have studied in Turkey.

Another collaboration in the area of education was the establishment of Turkish universities in Central Asia. Two universities were opened by bilateral agreements: Turks-Kyrgyz University of Manas, founded in 1995 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and Ahmet Yesevi University, founded in 1993 in Turkistan, Kazakhstan. Among them, NGOs have been involved in educational activities, and thus the Suleyman Demirel University was born in 1992 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the Turkish-Turkmen International University in 1994 in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan and the Ataturk-Alatoo International University in 1996 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

For closer cooperation in the economic field, Turkey has set up in 1992 the Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) for the purpose of social and economic development by providing financial services and technical support, especially in the Central Asian region, with the following prerogatives: it establishes the budget for financial aid, offers help between ministries, coordinates aid from unofficial sources and establishes commercial partnerships. In 2015, President Turkmenistan, Gurbanguli Berdimuhammedov, in the meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: “The trade volume between the two countries increased by 26 percent last year, which is very pleasing. Also, the projects of the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency are significant to us“.

The main areas of interest of Turkish firms in Central Asia are in construction, textiles, food and equipment, with about 2000 Turkish-based companies operating in Central Asia.

The total loans granted by the government of Ankara to Central Asian states reached 1 billion USD. Also, the total financial aid granted to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the 25 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain amounted to 1 billion USD. The total value of Turkish companies investments in the region exceeded 4.7 billion USD in 2016 and the projects reached over 50 billion USD in the same period of time.

The most important partner of Turkey is Kazakhstan, following the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement in October 2009. The president of Turkey said at the press conference that: „The Republic of Kazakhstan is the first Turkish country to sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Turkey”. Bilateral trade has increased from year to year, from 236 million USD in 1995 to 2.14 billion USD in 2015, and the target set by both countries is to reach 10 billion USD. The value of the projects implemented by Turkish firms in Kazakhstan amounts to 21 billion USD, with more than 600 Turkish companies registered in Kazakhstan currently operating in food, pharmaceutical, hotel management and industry.

Turkmenistan holds the largest Turkish investments in the region, with bilateral trade in 1995 of 168 million USD and 2.4 billion USD in 2015. Exports amounted to 1.85 billion USD, while imports amounted to 557 million USD. Approximately 600 Turkish companies are active in Turkmenistan. Since the independence, companies with Turkish capital have made 1,400 projects worth 47 billion USD, most of them in construction and textiles.

Uzbekistan has encountered problems in dealing with Turkey because it granted political asylum to Mohamed Solih, a leader of the Erk party, the main opposition of the former Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, to the presidential election in 1993 that had a pan-turkish platform as well as the Uzbek government’s closing of Turkuaz stores with Turkish capital. However, the trade balance increased from 200 million USD in 1995 to 1.2 billion USD in 2015. There are about 700 companies present in Uzbekistan, 100 of which have official representation. The main activities are realized in the textile, food, hotel management and service industries.

The trade between Turkey and Kyrgyzstan has not increased as much as other countries in the region, with 43 million USD in 2005 and 372 million USD in 2015. Turkey is the fourth largest foreign investor in Kyrgyzstan. Through TIKA, Turkey has made 51 projects in this country. The main trade treaties signed between the two countries are the “Agreement on Eternal Cooperation and Friendship” signed in 1997 and the statement “Turkey and Kyrgyzstan: Together in the 21st Century” issued in 1997.

Trade relations with Tajikistan have been tightened because of the closer rapprochement on  Persian than Turkish culture and Iran’s influence with which it shared common values. Trade balance in 1995 amounted to 12 million USD, reaching 366 million USD in 2015. Companies with Turkish capital have invested $ 50 million and made projects worth 545 million USD.

Recently, the Turkey attention to Central Asia has diminished due to domestic political instability, the deepen cooperation with the European Union, the Kurdish dilemma and the war in Syria. However, Turkey continues to exert its economic and cultural influence due to the desire to develop Turkish identity and Islamic influences as well as inter-regional cooperation. The maintaining of these links makes Turkey`s relations with other regional actors be even more competing.

China invests in Central Asia infrastructure through the One Belt One Road project to connect itself to European and African markets. Iran’s influence in Central Asia is particularly concentrated in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan due to the Shiite population and it hopes to export the Islamic revolution to the region, while Russia is mainly interested in hydrocarbon reserves and their exploitation by Russian companies as well as the integration of Central Asian states into the Eurasian Economic Union.

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