Episode 61. Turkish Influence in Central Asia
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Turkey spent much of the 20th century building itself back up after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, striving to once again become the major power at the world's crossroads. Turkey's influence now extends wider than it has in decades, from the battlefields of North Africa, to the slopes of the Caucasus, to the supply chains of Europe, and into the frontlines of Syria. In the country's pursuit of regional power however there remains one more front they are looking to gain influence in; Central Asia. Can Ankara use its cultural connections with its Turkic neighbours across the Caspian to position itself in a balance of power between Russia and China in Central Asia?
Principal Research Analyst at IHS Markit
Specialist in Ukraine, Russia, and the former Soviet States.
Senior Fellow for the Eurasia Centre & Atlantic Council
Director for the International Centre for Defense Studies in Tallinn
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia
Mediator for the Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia conflicts.
Former Director for European and Eurasian Affairs on the US National Security Staff
Director for Europe and Central Asia for Human Rights Watch
Journalist focusing on Human Rights Issues around the Globe
Longtime Journalist and Correspondent covering Central Asia
Currently writes for Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Liberty
Has written for The Economist, Janes Intelligence, Oxford Analytica, Freedom House, The Cairo Review, FSU Oil and Gas, Al Jazeera, and many more
One of the most influential writers when it comes to Central Asia
Part 1: Ripping Up The Backyard (3:06)
Kokcharov takes us through the region's history, as well as the histories of the powerful players seeking to play a role in its future. In doing so we trace the key historical events and trends that influence the dynamics and power balance in the region today, as a stagnating Russia tries to regain its Soviet-era strength, and a rapidly rising China is asserting its influence through the Belt and Road Initiative.
We look at how Ankara deals with different countries in the region, and what informs these different approaches. From Turkic cultural ties, to expertise in particular natural resource industries, to Turkey's particular economic needs, understanding these is critical to working out where Ankara is looking to expand its role, and how.
We look at the Turkic Council (The Organisation of Turkic States), a group whose importance is being pushed by Ankara as a vehicle for its growing role in Central Asia. Kokcharov analyses exactly what role he believes Turkey is seeking to cement for itself in a region that has increasing geopolitical competition.
We look at Russia's reaction to Turkey's growing role, and how they are seeking to cement their existing influence and control in the region. For example, Turkey's closest partner in the region is Azerbaijan, and Russia has reasserted itself through military deployments after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in a "peacekeeping" role.
Part 2: A Turkish Delight (14:46)
Matthew Bryza takes us through Turkey's various geopolitical expansions; its strong focus on growing ties in Africa which has been heavily militarised in nature, and rapprochements in the Middle East which are largely economic and diplomatic, and how they compare to its recent moves to focus on Central Asia. He analyses that they are far more nostalgic and culturally influenced goals than those in Africa or the Middle East.
We look at why Turkey changed its outlook from Europe focused and EU-aspirant to Africa and Central Asia focused in the late 2000s; the influence of Greek Cypriots in the EU, the roles that Poland, Germany, and France played, and the difficulties Turkey had domestically in moving towards the requirements for European Union Membership.
We look at the complex relationship Ankara has with Moscow, and the vastly overstated closeness of Erdoğan and Putin. While the two have met many times, Turkey has bought air defence systems, and there is some diplomatic ties through the Syrian peace process, there are fundamental obstacles to a close relationship.
First and foremost is Ukraine, where Ankara has repeatedly condemned Moscow for the annexation of Crimea, and has actively built a flourishing diplomatic and defence relationship with Ukraine, centred on Turkish drones, aviation engineering, and naval cooperation. Similarly, Turkey and Russia have killed each others troops in both Syria and Libya as both seek to expand their roles in both regions.
We overview various other groups and countries that Turkey has built its ties with, and look at how they tie into Ankara's broader strategy, as well as what those decisions say about where the country is likely looking to move towards.
Part 3: With Friends Like These (49:10)
The Central Asian region, since its various republics emerged from the Soviet Union, has been largely characterised by illiberal and authoritarian regimes. With Hugh Williamson we discuss the political situations and landscape within Central Asia, as well as how Turkey approaches human rights issues in its dealings. Turkey has generally taken a more business-oriented stance, sidelining issues that don’t directly relate to strategic or economic cooperation.
A case in point is the experience of the Turkmen diaspora, many of whom fled political repression to settle in Turkey, who until recently tolerated their protests and activism, but in light of their shifting geopolitical priorities and relationship with Turkmenistan's government have begun to harass and even deport them back.
Williamson believes that the Human Rights situation in the region is declining overall, as repressive governments further entrench themselves, citing the mass detention of protestors in Uzbekistan and the harsh lives faced by migrant workers both locally and in Turkey (a common destination for those of Turkic ethnicity).
Part 4: The Balance of Power (1:04:46)
We explore the possibilities of Turkey being drawn into the competition between Russia and China in Central Asia, and how it would compete in this sphere. Bruce Pannier argues that Turkey could form an important pole of influence, drawing on cultural and linguistic ties as the bedrock of its strength which could give it an ability to 'stand up' to Russia and China.
As of yet, none of these parties have really clashed over their interests in the region and it remains to be seen how Russia would respond if Turkey were to further expand its influence over areas aligned with Russia, or if it tried to align with Muslim Communities in Southern Russia itself. The strong-man tendency within many Central Asian countries may also afford opportunities to seek the installation of a favoured successor, allowing Turkey to grow and cement its power beyond the merely commercial, though this could create the risk of conflict with Russia or even Iran. The Trans-Caspian pipeline and the economic potential for Turkey it represents, may be an important flash point to watch in this arena.
Pannier believes that the cultural and linguistic ties between Turkey and many Central Asian states make it a more "natural" alternative (to Russia or China) partner than Iran. Additionally, Iran represents in part a theocratic pole within the Muslim world, which the prevailing regional regimes want to keep at arm’s length as much as possible. According to Pannier, this cultural affinity plays well with the growing nationalist politics within Central Asian states, and will help Turkey avoid the populist push-back that Russia and China's involvement in the region has been generating.
Turkey has also started to involve itself militarily in the region, selling arms and deploying advisors within the context of the simmering Kyrgyz-Tajik conflict, although their involvement for now remain strictly limited. The Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan has raised security and military concerns in the region, but Pannier argues that this sphere will remain mostly dominated by Russian interests in the near future, that the focus in mainly on local extremist groups which Russia has established political infrastructure to combat - the Collective Security Treaty Organisation.
The Red Line's Reading List:
We’ve compiled a list of further reading should you be interested in delving deeper into the world of terrorist financing.
Dictators Without Borders
Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw
The Making of Eurasia
Turkey's Pivot to Eurasia
Emre Erşen and Seçkin Köstem
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This episode is dedicated to Patreon members TK Karlsen, Luiz Socrate, Major Hayden, and Ally Tranchina.