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Internal Challenges of Turkey's Foreign Policy: The Impact on Central Asia

“The traditional foreign policy discourse of a civilizational “bridge”, linking the East and the West, has been replaced by a concept of the “central power” in which Turkey stands as an independent geopolitical and geo-strategic center” – this material is devoted to an analysis of Turkey’s influence on the Central Asian states, prepared specially for CABAR. asia, by an analyst from Kazakhstan Iskander Akylbaev.

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АкылбаевAfter gaining independence in 1991, each of the Central Asian countries set out in search of an optimal formula for political and economic development. Having a common historical, cultural, linguistic roots, and the secular nature, coupled with a stable economy and democratic institutions, Turkey’s experience, or the so-called “Turkish model”, with the support of the US administration of Bill Clinton, was seen as the most appropriate guide for Central Asian elites. The main aim of Ankara was to support stability, functionality and gradual integration of the regional countries into the international community [1]. At the same time, the growing influence of Turkey was indirectly aimed at reducing the dependence of Central Asian countries on Russia and China, as well as to counter the “Iranian”, “Saudi” or “Pakistani” development model.

In this context, with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) coming to power in 2002 and a sharp economic upturn following it, Turkey has been increasingly positioning itself as a sub-regional power. As a result, the traditional foreign policy discourse of a civilizational “bridge” linking the East and the West, has been replaced with a concept of the “central power”, in which Turkey stands as an independent geopolitical and geostrategic center [2]. Central Asia, in turn, sharing historical and cultural commonality, is seen by Ankara as an “important strategic space” [3]. However, with the entry of the Middle East into a zone of a long-term turbulence, the deterioration of the political and economic relations of Ankara with key regional players such as Israel, Egypt, Syria, and Russia, Turkey’s foreign policy concept of “zero problems with neighbors” proved untenable [4].

During the rule of the then Prime Minister and later President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the “Turkish model” began to take on more authoritarian and conservative shades [5]. In view of this, the act of leaving from the political arena of the former founders and leaders of the AKP, such as Abdullah Gul, from the presidency in 2014, of Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, Education Minister Huseyin Celik, Minister of Justice Sadullah Yergin, and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in 2016, is considered as a step towards the formation of a new political elite and consolidation of the levers of power in the hands of President Erdogan [6].

At the same time, the slowing economic growth, a growing threat from ISIL and other terrorist groups, the accumulation of more than two million Syrian refugees in Turkey, the unresolved Kurdish question, combined with the ideological fractures in society, are the key domestic policy challenges affecting the formation of the foreign policy orientations of the country.

Internal challenges

In the circumstances, the July 15th coup attempt committed this year was the last link in a series of disturbing events. During the rule of the AKP, the Turkish army, which is considered a stronghold and guardian of the secular and Kemalistic past, lost considerable influence over the political processes in the country, which gave rise to discontent in military circles. Against this background, the positions of the police and the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) have palpably strengthened [7]. Thus, the power structures have been divided into different areas of influence. Given that the Turkish army is not a homogeneous structure, it is one of the reasons why only a small number of the military supported the coup.

In the meantime, having had a negative experience of the military coups of 1960, 1971, 1980, 1997, the very factor of a “military coup” has a broad rejection in the Turkish society, regardless of the ideological commitment attached to it [8]. As a result, it may further be used as a general civil mobilization tool for strengthening the top-down governance headed by President Erdogan and the AKP position in the foreseeable future.

While analyzing recent trends in domestic policy and, twists and turns of the foreign policy of Turkey in the regional processes, it should be emphasized that all these events are directly and indirectly affecting Central Asia.

Firstly, the Turkish government’s accusations of Fethullah Gulen as the main organizer of the coup, is important in terms of further securitization of the domestic political field and the heightening of the discourse on internal and external threats. In this regard, one should expect more serious attempts of Ankara to lobby for the closure of Turkish lyceums and other educational institutions in Central Asia, affiliated with the Gulen movement. The Turkish government will try to raise the issue at the meetings with Central Asian leaders within various interstate platforms [9].

As is well known, at the suggestion of Ankara, the Turkish high schools were closed for the first time in 2011 in Turkmenistan. Subsequently, they were closed in Azerbaijan in 2014, and in Tajikistan in 2015. The proposal was rejected in Kazakhstan, based on the fact that these institutions are financed from the state budget [10]. Hence, this year, on July 24th the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, called on the authorities of Kyrgyzstan to shut down these schools, otherwise, Ankara would have to reconsider relations with Bishkek [11]. Thus, the “Gülen factor”, may, in the foreseeable future, become an irritant not only in bilateral relations between Turkey and Kyrgyzstan, but the region as a whole.

Secondly, due to the deterioration of the internal security of Turkey against the backdrop of the bombings in key cities and residential areas that have claimed more than 200 lives, and the unresolved “Kurdish question” in the south-east of the country, concern may be caused by further developments associated with the efficacy of control over the Turkish-Syrian and the Turkish-Iraqi borders. For the Central Asian states, the main threat is in the penetration of Central Asian militants into the war zone, and their potential return to the region, where in both cases, Turkey is one of the key points of transit. Moreover, this process is simplified by a visa-free policy between Turkey and the countries of the region [12].

Thirdly, the Syrian conflict has become somewhat of a test for Central Asian countries in the context of tensions between their key strategic and economic partners represented by Moscow and Ankara.

Thus, Astana, along with Azerbaijan, tried to use the experience of negotiating platforms and become a unifying link between Russia and Turkey. As a result, the diplomatic efforts of the two countries have yielded positive developments. According to the Turkish side, Ankara intends to work in the foreseeable future on a trilateral basis, “Turkey-Azerbaijan-Kazakhstan” and “Turkey-Azerbaijan-Russia” in the development of transit-transport potential and trade relations [13]. It is noteworthy that, in his turn, the President of Kyrgyzstan supported Russia on this matter, while the leaders of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have taken a wait-and-see stance [14]. Under these conditions, the current unstable situation in domestic and foreign policy, is spurring Ankara to normalize relations with key regional countries, represented by Russia. Consequently, finding a compromise on the Syrian question between Ankara and Moscow will affect the overall context of Turkey’s relations with the Central Asian region.

Turkey in Central Asia: Opportunities and limitations of influence

In general, it is worth emphasizing that since 2002 the Turkish government tried to make the cooperation more institutional. During this period, a number of intergovernmental platforms were created, including Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council), the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic-speaking countries (TurkPA), multifaceted cultural, scientific and educational channels, such as the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TURKSOY) and the International Turkic Academy.

At the same time, it should be understood that, given the political fragmentation and disunity of Central Asia, Ankara’s attempts to form a common regional agenda remains limited. As a consequence, it is often forced to resort to a bilateral format of cooperation as the level of Turkey’s relations with the countries of the region varies [15].

At present, despite the transformation of the geo-economic situation, namely the launching of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the trade turnover between Turkey and the Central Asian countries continues to grow. Thus, in 2010, the total trade turnover between them was about $6.5 million, whereas the results of 2014 amounted to $9.5 billion, which is an important indicator, given the slowdown in the regional economies [15]. However, these figures seem modest against the background of Turkey’s trade relations with Russia, the EU, China, and the United States. In this context, Kazakhstan is one of the key areas of Turkish investments in the region. In 2014, trade turnover between Astana and Ankara amounted to about $3 billion, while the goal is to bring it up to $10 billion [16]. Furthermore, enjoying the status of strategic partners, Astana and Ankara, established a Supreme Council for strategic cooperation in 2012.

As of 2013, trade exchange between Turkey and Turkmenistan amounted to $4.7 billion, making Ankara on a par with Russia as chief trading partner [5]. In addition to a widespread representation of Turkish companies in the construction sector, Ankara is interested in the transfer of Turkmen gas to Europe. Thus, the launching of such a project as the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP), will enable Ankara to play a more significant role in the European energy market. As for Ashkhabad, Turkey is important in terms of further diversification of energy supplies.

Compared with other countries, the Turkish-Uzbek relations remain strained. However, despite the negative trends, in 2014 the total volume of trade amounted to $1.38 billion, making Turkey the fifth largest trade partner of Uzbekistan. It should also be noted that in February 2014 the Turkish side attempted to improve the bilateral relations, where Prime Minister Erdogan met Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Sochi, and a few months later the Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu, visited Tashkent [17].

Further, economic relations with Turkey are important for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Annual trade turnover between Turkey and Kyrgyzstan is about $500 million, while it is projected to reach $1 billion in the foreseeable future. Between Ankara and Bishkek there is also a Supreme Council for strategic cooperation. With Tajikistan, Turkey annually conducts trade in the amount of $450 million, where Turkey is the fourth largest exporter and the second country-importer of Tajik products [18].

In addition to the energy and economic investments, Turkey’s foreign policy initiatives are actively accompanied by elements of “soft power”, including educational and cultural programs. Within the framework of international agreements, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan host Kazakh-Turkish University H. A. Yassaui and Kyrgyz-Turkish University Manas, in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan respectively. Similar to the French Alliance activities, the British Council or the Confucius Institute, Turkey has its own version in Central Asia represented by the Turkish Cultural Center named after Yunus Emre. Currently, the only cultural center is located in Kazakhstan. Worthy of mention is the Turkish Agency for Cooperation and Coordination (TIKA), which provides annual donor assistance to all countries in the region. According to the data of 2014, of all the countries in the region, Kyrgyzstan was the main recipient of a Turkish donor assistance, which amounted to $84.8 million, while Kazakhstan received $40.5 million [19]. In 2013, TIKA provided Turkmenistan with $15.7 million. [20].

Under these conditions, what also attracts attention is the new initiatives of Ankara in enhancing relations with the scientific and research community of Kazakhstan, as well as in the field of education in the region as a whole. For example, in 2012 a Eurasian Research Center (ERI) was opened in Almaty with the support of the Turkish government.

Turkey’s turn towards the Eurasian processes

By and large, recent negative trends in domestic policy, together with the continued instability in the Middle East and the transformation of the European Union (EU), pose new tasks before Turkey for the revision of foreign policy priorities. The involvement of Ankara in the Middle Eastern processes, a need to normalize relations with Russia and a growing rift with the US and the EU, is considered a step towards de-westernization of Turkey. However, the influence of Turkey’s policy in Central Asia in the medium term will continue to be limited [15]. At the same time, bilateral relations of Ankara may strengthen with certain countries in the region, namely Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Against this background, considering the fact that the political situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating and there are new terrorist threats from ISIL, Turkey will pay more attention to the domestic and regional processes of Afghanistan. Turkey’s participation in the NATO military contingent in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, and after the troops’ pull-out, with the support of the United States, Turkey continues to act as a moderator in the framework of the Istanbul process, involving Central Asian countries in it.

Another important factor that may contribute to further involvement of Turkey in regional processes could be the prospect of China’s initiative called “Economic belt of the Silk Road”. This, in turn, will not only have a positive impact on the bilateral relations between Beijing and Ankara, but also contribute to further expansion of cooperation between Turkey and Central Asian countries in the spheres of transport, logistics and infrastructure.


Recent internal political processes in Turkey will have direct and indirect impact on Central Asia. Firstly, Turkey will increasingly put forth the “Gulen factor” in the agenda of the bilateral relations with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Secondly, in view of political instability in Turkey, of particular concern for the countries of the region are the risks associated with the return of Central Asian militants via Turkey’s territory. Thirdly, a further normalization of relations between Moscow and Ankara can become an important stage in strengthening of Ankara’s influence in the region, in the long term. Currently, both countries are key strategic and economic partners for Central Asian countries. Along with that, threats related to the destabilization of Afghanistan and prospects of Turkey joining the Chinese initiative of the “Economic Belt of the Silk Road” will nourish the interest of Ankara to expand cooperation with Central Asian countries in the transport, logistics and infrastructure projects. However, considering the active involvement of Turkey in the Middle Eastern affairs and the EU’s transformation, its key trading partner, the role of Ankara in the Central Asian processes in the foreseeable future will remain limited.


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Author: Iskander Akylbaev, a researcher of KazISS, the Department of Foreign Policy and International Security (Kazakhstan, Astana).

The views of the author may not coincide with the position of cabar.asia

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