Turkey’s role in Central Asia and the Caucasus

Developing Just Leadership

Maksud Djavadov

Rajab 18, 1431 2010-07-01

Special Reports

by Maksud Djavadov (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 5, Rajab, 1431)

Under the concept of Pan-Turkism, NATO aimed to foster separatism within the Turkic people living in Russia, China and Iran

As Turkey becomes a more independent political player and begins to assert its authentic identity, it will face a strong challenge in reshaping its foreign policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Until recently Turkey was simply an instrument of NATO policy in the region. It pursued strategic policies designed in Washington that were presented as serving “Turkish national interest” under the label of Pan-Turkism. Therefore, one could not draw a distinction between the US, British, Israeli or Turkish agendas until recently. Turkey was a pawn used by the US against China, Russia and Islamic Iran.

Under the concept of Pan-Turkism, NATO aimed to foster separatism within the Turkic people living in Russia, China and Iran. This policy assumed that through Pan-Turkism Russia will be distracted from its involvement in Eastern Europe; China would be diverted from the Taiwan Straits in the Pacific and Iran would scale back its support for the Palestinian cause. On a strategic level this policy failed, but this is the only agenda through which Turkey was involved in that region. So what options does Turkey have now?

In order to design an alternative, independent and sustainable policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Turkey must keep in mind that it cannot make all the players in the region happy. In fact for Turkey to succeed in Central Asia and the Caucasus it must upset the despotic regimes in the region and avoid an alliance with Russia. The local population of the region resents Russia; in any Russia-Turkey alliance, Ankara will always be a junior partner forced to follow the Russian agenda.

This does not, however, mean that Turkey must abandon its partnership with Russia but such relationship must be backed by political, economic and military levers. Currently Russia exercises greater leverage over Turkey. Approximately two-thirds of Turkish natural gas comes from Russia’s Gazprom. This is a huge amount, since 50% of Turkey’s electricity is generated by natural gas. Turkey also imports 40% of its oil from Russia and Russian coal dominates the Turkish market. In order to eliminate this leverage which is a necessity for a successful Turkish role in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Turkey must enhance its energy cooperation with Iran. If Turkey chooses to tap into Iraqi energy sources it will give the US great leverage over Turkish policy in the region; this can be deadly for its reassertion and independent policy. Logic, therefore, dictates that the best option from reliance on Russian and the US energy dependence is Iran.

To achieve success in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Turkey must avoid the fallacy of perceiving Russia as the “boss” of the region and assume that through Russia, Turkish dilemmas can be resolved. Turkey must also abandon the chauvinistic concept of Pan-Turkism that only aggravates ethnic rivalries. While such rivalries are in essence shallow, they are susceptible to manipulation as the latest crisis in Kyrgyzstanhas shown. In fact Meskhetian Turks were the main victims of the ethnic riots in Uzbekistan in 1989. Pan-Turkism will also cause unnecessary Chinese opposition. Turkey itself being a multi-ethnic state cannot afford to flirt with nationalist sentiments even under what its state institutions call controlled nationalism. It will ultimately backfire.

If Turkey is truly committed to returning to its roots that are a source of strength, it must forge a strategic alliance with Islamic Iran and the genuine opposition forces in the region. Over the past 20 years Turkey was unable to cultivate authentic opposition movements in the region because it was prevented by the US from doing so. Islamic Iran however, built a successful relationship with the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan during the Tajik civil war in the early 90s. People of Tajikistan feel quite sympathetic towards Iran for its efforts in ending the Tajik civil war. Therefore, Tajikistan being the only country in Central Asia and the Caucasus that has a genuine opposition movement, can serve as a launching pad for new Turkish presence in Central Asia. In the Caucasus, Turkey and Iran must back the territorial integrity of Georgia and Azerbaijan in order to create a solid popular base in the region and design a common energy policy. However, this will only happen if governments in Georgia and Azerbaijan alter their priorities. This is unlikely under their current leaderships.

The key to creating a new, independent and sustainable policy towards the Caucasus and Central Asia is a strategic alliance between Turkey and Iran. Alone, neither can contain Russian ambitions in the region and at the same time repel non-regional predators. Turkish political leadership must guard against forces trying to promote “historic Safavid vs Ottoman rivalry.” From their bitter history Turkey and Iran must learn that their rivalry always benefited foreign powers that tried to colonize them both.

Creating a new approach in the Caucasus and Central Asia will not be easy for Ankara. For more than 150 years, Pan-Turkism has been an integral part of Turkish involvement in the region. It led nowhere, but Turkey does not seem to have developed a new approach to the region. It has not yet reached the level where it can pursue a purely Islamic agenda. Therefore, until it reaches this level it has to make sure that whatever policy it adopts does not lead to deviation from reaching the goal of creating a foreign policy committed to Islamic ideals and goals. Otherwise Turkey will turn into a replica of Saudi Arabia and lose all credibility.

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