Uzbekistan as a Gateway for Turkey's Return to Central Asia

By Yalinkilicli, Esref | Insight Turkey, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

Uzbekistan as a Gateway for Turkey's Return to Central Asia


Yalinkilicli, Esref, Insight Turkey


Since the fall of the former Soviet Union (USSR), Eurasia has emerged once again as the "geographical pivot of history" in calculations of the 21 (st) century's great game of geopolitics,' which is played by Russia, China and the U.S., as well as by some other regional powers like Turkey, Iran, India, Japan and South Korea. Grand theorists and strategists from Mackinder to Mahan and from Brzezinski to Dugin have all designated Eurasia as the "heartland" of the "world island" given the importance of its geopolitical landmass and geo-economic potentials. In their common understanding of politics, "whoever rules the heartland, would also rule over the world." (1)

As for Turkey, the geographical term of "Eurasia" has frequently referred to post-Soviet Turkic republics (of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan) with the promotion of the well-known ideology of Pan-Turkism (and/or Turanism) among Turkish intellectual circles and policymakers. (2) The revival of a neo-Pan-Turkism under the auspices of the then president Turgut Ozal steadily increased Turkish public awareness regarding common historical, linguistic, cultural and religious affinities with the peoples and states in post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus. Therefore, Turkey's relations with Central Asia have been since then discussed and explained with the affinities of Turkic roots and cultural interactions in the wake of the fall of communism.

However, the excessive usage of the rhetoric of Pan-Turkism has created some questions of rationality in Turkish foreign policy, which usually underestimated interior dynamics of the regional polity as well as its lack of effective instruments. (3) Even though Ankara's pragmatic policies seemed to have shown some successes in promoting the "Turkish model," (4) they were nevertheless not sufficient to overcome conventional Russian reserves in the region because of their ephemeral character at that time. Such idealism swerved Ankara into cul de sacs of the basin where the militant realism of international relations has been shaping regional and international politics. Consequently, Turkey's relations have gone awry with some of the regional actors, first and foremost with Uzbekistan, (5) the region's most populous country and geopolitically one of the most important countries.

In this context, this commentary will briefly deal with the significance of Uzbekistan for Turkish foreign policy that until now has failed to settle an intended partnership with Tashkent. It generally assumes that Uzbekistan is one of the key actors, besides Kazakhstan, which can help Turkey to reintegrate with the region in the next decade. In this way, this analysis suggests that Ankara should accelerate bilateral relations with Tashkent in the new era in which mutual understanding and regional cooperation would be essentially beneficial for both Turkey and Uzbekistan. In doing so, I will attempt to answer the question as to which areas of cooperation can be focused on, in order to resuscitate a long-neglected partnership with Uzbekistan, a country that is still trying to overcome hardships of the power transition in its domestic and foreign policies under a new leadership.

Turkey and Uzbekistan: What Went Wrong?

In the mood of the aforementioned pan-Turkish euphoria during the dissolution of the USSR, Turkey was the first country to recognize the independence of Uzbekistan on December 16, 1991. By the very beginning, bilateral relations were set fraternally and confidence-building measures acquired through the signing of the Treaty of Eternal Friendship and Cooperation on May 8, 1996. Yet, the Turkish-Uzbek relations -contrary to expectations- have tumultuously undergone a crisis in the course of time mostly due to misunderstandings and mismanagements in mutual relations.

The first serious crisis erupted during the early 1990s when Uzbekistan's post-Soviet leader Islam Karimov's political opponents took refuge in Turkey together with other Uzbek dissidents. …

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