Monday, 12 October 2009

The "Eastern Dimension" in Turkish Foreign Policy Grows

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By M. K. Kaya (vol. 2, no. 18 of the Turkey Analyst)

Although uncertainty and complications remain, the agreements signed between Turkey and Armenia indicate the potential in expanding Turkey’s possibilities of access to the Caucasus and Central Asia. Furthermore, the cooperation agreements that have recently been signed among Turkic states are destined to eventually have far-reaching cultural, economic and political repercussions. But in these, a leading role is increasingly taken not by Turkey but by Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.

BACKGROUND: During its first term in power, the AKP government gave priority to developing Turkey’s relations with the EU. Since 2007, the foreign policy of the Turkish government has had the development of the relations with the country’s neighbors in focus. Turkey has signed a number of agreements with its neighbors in accordance with the strategy of “zero problems”, the latest being the recent agreement with Armenia. Particular priority has been accorded to the Middle Eastern countries, in line with AKP’s ideological, Islamic conservative preferences.

While pursuing a proactive policy towards the EU and the Middle East, the AKP government until Russia’s 2008 attack on Georgia left the Caucasus and Central Asia fronts largely unattended to. After the outbreak of the war, Turkey sought to enter the scene with a proposal called the “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform”, an attempt that failed to be taken serious by any other country in the region. Despite this setback, the Turkish attempts to assert an influence on the Caucasus and Black Sea fronts have continued. In this context, several protocols were signed with Russia in August when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Ankara. The protocol signed with Armenia obviously represents a significant new step in the evolution of Turkish foreign policy. However, less attention has been paid by international observers to the evolving relations among Turkic states, and the impact they will have on Turkey’s foreign policy orientations.

During the immediate period that followed upon the end of the Cold war, Turkey nurtured high hopes of being able to extend its influence to the newly independent Turkic states of Central Asia. Presidents Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel were instrumental in developing Turkey’s ties to the Turkic world from the Caucasus and beyond to Central Asia. However, much of that impetus was lost in the last decade, with the Turkic dimension of being downgraded in Turkish foreign policy. That downgrading was in part a reflection of the AKP’s ideological estrangement from a Turkic world where the Islamic religious dimension counts less than it does in the Muslim Middle East. On the other hand, economic relations with those countries have continued to develop. The economic growth experienced in both Turkey and in the oil and gas producing Turkic countries has given Turkic relations an important boost. In an environment of ongoing economic development, previously established social and cultural interactions have also come to evolve.

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Summit meetings of the Turkic-Speaking Heads of state began in the 1990s at Ankara’s initiative. They have continued without being institutionalized and the number of participating countries have fluctuated. During the last decade, contacts between parliamentarians of the Turkic countries have practically ceased. However, at the summit of the Chairmen of the national assemblies held in Istanbul in November 2008, an agreement was signed regarding the establishment of a parliamentary assembly of Turkic-speaking countries.

IMPLICATIONS: In a summit recently held in Baku, Azerbaijan, a General Secretariat of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Turkic-speaking countries was established. Baku will be the seat of the general secretariat, and Ramil Hasanov from Azerbaijan was appointed as its first secretary-general for a period of four years. The office of the secretary-general will change hands every four years according to the alphabetic order among the member states, namely: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have yet to join. The names of three holders of offices of deputy secretary general have been announced by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey. The assembly will consist of twenty-four deputies.

On October 2-3, the summit of the Turkic Heads of state was held in Nakhichevan, an autonomous republic of Azerbaijan. This marked another important step in the evolving relations among Turkic states. The summit was the ninth summit since the start in 1992, at the initiative of then Turkish President Turgut Özal. The presidents of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey participated in the summit, while Turkmenistan’s vice-president attended. An agreement about the establishment of a Cooperation Council between the Turkic-speaking countries was signed by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey. With the treaty of Nakhichevan, a Turkic Council has been formally established. The council will have the following organs: a Council of Heads of State, a Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, a Council of Elders, a Council of Senior Public Servants of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, and a Permanent Secretariat.

The seat of the Turkic Council will be Istanbul, and the first term chairmanship was accorded to Turkey. Turkey will appoint the first secretary general, which will rotate every three years.

The Turkic presidents seized the occasion of the Nakhichevan summit to deliver messages of Turkic unity: President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan stated that “We should teach our Turkic identity to our children and to the whole world”. Revisiting history, the negative impacts of previous wars in which Turks were pitted against Turks, such as the war between Tamerlane and the Ottoman sultan Beyazid and the attacks of Genghis Khan were presented at a televised show, with accompanying wishes that such events never be repeated in the future. A decision was taken to establish a Turkic World Academy in Kazakhstan.

Despite persistent invitations that it be represented at the highest level, Turkmenistan, holding on to a policy of neutrality in its foreign policy, continued to attend the summits only at the level of vice president. Meanwhile, the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, continued his policy of non-attendance. However, the other participating Turkic states reaffirmed their intention to continue their attempts to convince Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to enter the Council.

CONCLUSIONS: The relations between Turkey and the rest of the Turkic world have entered a new era with the establishment of the Assembly of Turkic-speaking parliamentarians and of the Turkic Council. Initially, the development of the relations between Turkey and the Turkic states was hampered by the perception that Turkey was seeking a role as “the elder brother” and was thus met with suspicion by the countries of the region. Tt that time, these countries had only recently obtained their independence, after experiencing a long period of Russian hegemony; therefore they hesitated to enter into a relationship with Turkey, which seemed to harbor hegemonic aspirations of its own. The Turkic states generally remained aloof from Turkey’s proposals for deeper cooperation. However, after twenty years of independence, the Turkic states of the former Soviet Union have accomplished very much in their efforts to become institutionalized and stable states. In particular, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have grown self-confident in their international interactions, as a consequence of the improvements of their economies due to the rise in oil and gas prices. These two countries have started to interact more actively with their historical and cultural hinterlands.

The Turkic institutions have all experienced a significant vitalization during the last year. It is notable that this has taken place mainly as a result of initiatives taken by Astana and Baku, rather than by Ankara. Turkey is no longer the driving force behind Turkic cooperation; Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have taken over part of this role. In fact, the AKP’s policy of paying less attention to the relations with the Turkic world has inadvertently given an impetus to the development of inter-Turkic relations. The AKP’s lack of attention to the Turkic world helped the Turkic countries realize that Turkey’s cooperation proposals were not based on hegemonic intentions. Turkey’s development of close relations with Russia has also had a significant impact on Turkic perceptions. The rapprochement between Turkey and Russia has encouraged the Central Asian Turkic countries to further develop Turkic cooperation; paradoxically, they now felt that doing so would not incur Moscow’s wrath as had previously been the case, while nevertheless serving as a counterweight to the growth of Russian influence. Finally, the rise of Turkic nationalism that can be observed throughout the region has encouraged the Turkic countries to establish institutions such as the Turkish Council. The cooperation agreements that have been signed between the Turkic states are destined to eventually have far-reaching cultural, economic and political repercussions.

Although uncertainty and complications remain, the implementation of the agreements that have been signed between Turkey and Armenia hold the potential of expanding Turkey’s possibilities of access to the Caucasus and Central Asia. Of course, this is likely only under certain conditions. First, Ankara has to succeed in building its relations with Armenia without that occurring at the cost of ruining its relations with Baku (See September 14, 2009, issue of the Turkey Analyst). Indeed, the danger of Ankara contributing to pushing Azerbaijan into Russia’s arms should not be underestimated, given the high degree of mistrust in Baku concerning the AKP government’s objectives in its rapprochement with Armenia. But if Ankara can succeed in walking this tightrope, that may help Armenia slowly and gradually relieve itself of Moscow’s dominance, enabling a broadening of Turkey’s corridor to Central Asia.  

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.

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