With Russia distracted, Erdogan courts Central Asia

With Russia distracted, Erdogan courts Central Asia
As the Russian war on Ukraine staggers, Ankara is taking active steps to cement its influence in a region that has historically been under the influence of Moscow.
3 min read
11 November, 2022
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend the meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the Organization of Turkish States in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. (Photo by Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday urged post-Soviet countries in resource-rich Central Asia to ramp up ties with Ankara as he sought to take advantage of a weakening Moscow bogged down in Ukraine.

"We are going through a fragile period that poses risks as well as opportunities to our countries," Erdogan said at the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS) summit in Uzbekistan's ancient city of Samarkand.

"We see that it is critical more than ever for us to strengthen the cooperation, solidarity and harmony among us during this period," the Turkish leader said during his third trip to the region in two months.

Analysts say Ankara is determined to gain a foothold in a region that the Kremlin has traditionally considered its sphere of influence as Moscow is mired in the protracted war in Ukraine.

Erdogan has for years been pushing for closer cultural, linguistic and religious ties with ex-Soviet countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24 spooked Moscow's neighbours in Central Asia and spurred Kazakhstan, the region's largest country, and Uzbekistan, the most populous, to look for alliances elsewhere including China and Europe.

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

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

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Northern Cyprus controversy 

The meeting on Friday was overshadowed by controversy when Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is not recognised by the international community, would join the group as an observer.

Uzbekistan pointedly denied the claim, with Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov saying "no separate decision on Northern Cyprus" had been put in writing.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev stressed his country "decisively supports the territorial integrity of all states".

Ruslan Zheldibay, a representative of Kazakhstan's information and communication ministry, said on Facebook that Tokayev's comment referred to Turkey's "urgent request" to grant Northern Cyprus observer status.

The group last year dropped its former name, the Turkic Council, in favour of the Organisation of Turkic States.

Speaking on Friday, Erdogan also called for the establishment "as soon as possible" of a Turkic Investment Fund to "give momentum to our activities."

Kyrgyzstan's President Sadyr Japarov insisted on the need to "cooperate even more closely" to ramp up trade and find new supply chains.

"This community of Turkic states is beginning to take shape," Bayram Balci, who teaches political science at France's Sciences Po, told AFP.

Turkey's efforts to build political alliances with Turkic ex-Soviet states after the 1991 breakup of the USSR were long hampered by the influence of Russia.

"Since the beginning of this dream of creating a Turkic community, the weight and influence of Russia have been obstacles," Balci said.

But the Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, followed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, have given new impetus to Turkey's quest for influence in the region.

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'Interests not incompatible' 

Turkey and Russia, which cooperate despite disagreements in several geopolitical arenas, could however find common ground to work together in Central Asia.

"The interests of Turkey and Russia in Central Asia are not fundamentally incompatible," said Andrei Grozin, a Central Asia analyst at Moscow's Institute of CIS Countries.

Turkey is deepening military ties with former Soviet states, in particular with the sale of drones.

The International Trade Centre (ITC), a Geneva-based agency attached to the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations, says that the volume of Turkish-Central Asian trade in 2019 amounted to some $7.3 billion.

That figure falls far behind Central Asia's volume of trade with the European Union and Russia, which the ITC says amounted that year to around $29 billion, or the $25 billion with China.