Turkey's Future in Central Asia

Discussions with Turkish citizens concerning topics related to the ethnic diversity of their country, such as the infamous "Kurdish problem", tend to return to the same idea: Turks and Kurds came from lands in Central Asia and settled in Anatolia along side ethnic Armenians, Greeks and Arabs. Due to manner in which it is depicted in their school books, ethnic Turks in Turkey have a rather romantic impression of their Central Asian O─čuz ancestry.

While ancestry plays an important role in anchoring Turkish interest in Central Asia, more contemporary interests related to economic and political influence have developed this relationship further. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkey's connection to its Turkic cousins in Central Asia was considerably limited due to the Soviet Union's suzerainty in these areas. When the fall of the Soviet Union opened the Turkic countries of Central Asia to outside influences, Turkey considered itself in a prime position to augment its influence in Eurasia.

Turkey's contemporary attempts to make inroads in Central Asian affairs peaked in the middle of the 1990s. Hoping to renew older attempts to forge Pan-
Turkism under the direction of the secular and western-oriented direction of Ankara, Turkey set out to promote new modes of cooperation in the Turkic world. Although Turkey was successful in realizing the adoption of Latin script in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, their efforts to create greater cultural, political and economic cooperation were stymied. Progress was made in Azerbaijan due to a shared antipathy for Armenia, but Turkey was unable to overcome the lingering obstacles related to the Soviet era in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Since meaningful progress was not made during this first post-Soviet attempt, the cause of Pan-Turkism seems to have been abandoned for the time being.

American military activities and the new Great Game to control the flow of Central Asia's energy resources have dominated the region's geopolitical headlines during the past decade. Compared to its political initiatives in Europe and along its southern borders, Turkey has not been particularly active in the east. Making deals to transport Central Asian energy through Turkey's system of pipelines represent the recent highlights of Ankara's dealings in Central Asia.

Foust of Registan.net recently wrote a piece about the future of Central Asian geopolitics entitled, "Iran and China Rise; Shall Russia and the U.S. Fade Away?" While his insights are all quite sound, it is remarkable how Foust does not feel it necessary to mention the possibility of Turkey playing a bigger role in Central Asia's geopolitics. When asked about this omission by this observer, Foust answered:
I certainly see Turkey trying (they’ve made a few weak stabs at it), but I don’t see how they can overcome the heft of Iran, Russia, China, the U.S., or the EU. The Turkic connection exists, but it’s also fairly weak, as you rightly said. There remains more cultural affinity for, depending on the country, China, Russia, or Iran—no one seems to want to announce Turkey as their best friend. Which, I think, is too bad. I would prefer Turkey to Russia or Iran or China any day.
It would seem that Turkey can not afford to continue this course of treading lightly in Central Asia. Central Asia simply has too much economic significance for Turkey's future. Although the United States currently protects Turkey's interests as a conduit for Central Asian energy, Turkey should not depend on this arrangement alone. While Ankara does not possess the same financial resources as Beijing or Moscow to back its policy in Central Asia, it will become more capable as the Turkish economy receives more foreign investment.

If Turkey does not pursue its interests in Central Asia more aggressively, it ultimately risks losing Central Asian energy to ports on the Persian Gulf and to pipelines built by Russia and China. Such a fate would significantly diminish Turkey's standing in the region.

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