Turkey's New Government Looking Again to the Caucasus and Central Asia

By Feller, Gordon | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 31, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Turkey's New Government Looking Again to the Caucasus and Central Asia


Feller, Gordon, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Turkey's New Government Looking Again to the Caucasus and Central Asia

After a 13-month break during the rule of the Islamist Welfare Party, Turkey again is focusing on the Turkic states of the Caucasus and Central Asia. In mid-September, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem arrived in Baku for talks with the Azerbaijani leadership, and Turkey's new prime minister, Mesut Yilmaz, scheduled a follow-up visit for less than a month later.

Turkey's diplomatic focus on relations with the Turkic successor states to the former Soviet Union constitutes a return to foreign policy priorities espoused by the governments of Suleyman Demiral and then Tansu Ciller from 1992-96. By contrast, the Welfare Party government headed by Necmettin Erbakan sought to strengthen ties with other leading Muslim states but virtually ignored Central Asia and the Caucasus. Charging that as a result Turkey's influence and standing in the region had declined, Yilmaz declared on being appointed prime minister in late June that his first trip abroad would be to Central Asia.

Since late 1991, when the Muslim republics of the U.S.S.R. declared their independence, Turkey's relations with them have been less than harmonious, despite the linguistic and cultural similarities between the Anatolian Turks and the related Turkic peoples. Western expectations that, following the demise of Communism as the state-imposed ideology, Turkey and Iran would engage in a struggle for the hearts and minds of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia proved misplaced. The overriding concern of the newly independent Central Asian and Transcaucasus states was not to import a new ideology but to develop the broadest possible economic and infrastructural ties with the world at large.

Euphoric predictions by the late President Turgut Ozal of a Turkish sphere of influence extending, he said, "from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China" engendered hopes that Turkey would provide urgently needed investment in the newly independent Central Asian states. But these hopes proved unrealized, as did the aspirations of some Turkish political figures to secure for Turkey, with Western backing, the role of a regional power.

After several years of uninterrupted economic upswing between 1984-1990, by 1992 the Turkish economy was heading for crisis. Ankara therefore was unable to provide economic aid in the desired quantities, but continued to fund a program of expanded cultural contacts, including satellite TV broadcasts to Central Asia and scholarships for Central Asian and Azerbaijani students to study in Turkey.

Because the Azerbaijanis are closer to the Anatolian Turks, both geographically and linguistically, than are the other Turkic peoples of the former U.S.S.R., Azerbaijani-Turkish relations were perceived as a barometer for measuring Turkey's influence throughout Central Asia. Moreover, by virtue of its geographic position, Azerbaijan was perceived as Turkey's gateway to Central Asia. However, Turkey's failure unequivocally to condemn the ouster in June 1993 of Azerbaijan's enthusiastically pro-Turkish President Abulfaz Elchibey served to highlight both the limits of Turkey's influence in the region, and Russia's undiminished ability to intervene in the domestic political affairs of the newly independent states.

Since 1993, the five Turkic Soviet successor states (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) have determined their respective foreign policy orientations and priorities. None of them regard Turkey as more than, at best, one of a number of economic partners. True, Azerbaijan hopes to build a major export pipeline for its Caspian oil from Baku through Georgia to the eastern Mediterranean terminal of Ceyhan -- a project that Turkey is keen to implement but unable to finance, and which has the backing of the U.S. government. By contrast, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are reaping the benefits of U.S. and German investment while vying for the role of regional leader within Central Asia, and Kyrgyzstan is increasingly oriented toward China as a major economic partner.

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