In the escalating global race for influence in Central Asia, Türkiye’s approach to the region is grounded more in pragmatism than ideology
The global race for influence in Central Asia is on, and as the recent flurry of visits over the last two weeks has shown, everyone from Europe to Asia is competing for Central Asian hearts and minds. As Russia’s focus has been monopolized by Ukraine since 2022 and Moscow’s traditional dominance in the region appears to be waning, leaders from France, China, the United States and the European Union have flocked to Astana, Tashkent and Bishkek like suitors attempting to charm a neglected wife.
However, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent tour of Central Asia has struck a different chord. Unlike in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Türkiye is no longer trying to be a big shot in the post-Soviet space. Ankara has slowly but surely figured out there’s a limit to how much sway they hold politically, geographically and economically in this region. It is not “Russia’s backyard” anymore – but not quite Turkic, either. In fact, a Bloomberg news headline about French President Emmanuel Macron landing in “Russia’s backyard” two weeks ago generated many a snide remark on Central Asian Twitter.
Erdoğan’s recent visits to Central Asian capitals indicate Türkiye’s intent to ramp up its presence in the region while calibrating its own relations with Russia, the West and China. Against the backdrop of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine and the Kremlin’s attacks in Ukraine, members of the post-Soviet bloc are reevaluating their relations and seeking to diversify partnerships. For the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Türkiye has represented a potential alternative to Russia’s dominance. Still, recent global developments have given Ankara’s overtures an unprecedented edge at this juncture.
On Nov. 2, Erdoğan traveled to energy-rich Kazakhstan for the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) summit. A week later, the Turkish president arrived in Tashkent for the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) summit. Both visits aimed to boost trade, transportation and communication ties – Ankara aims to reach a $10 billion (TL 286.89 billion) bilateral trade target with Kazakhstan, while Turkish companies’ investments in Uzbekistan have already reached $1.5 billion.
The growing momentum is largely due to Central Asia’s increasing reliance on Türkiye’s military industry.
The Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones have been used in several conflicts in the region and were notably a game changer in Azerbaijan’s war with Armenia in 2020. Central Asia’s leaders took notice. Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan were next in purchasing Turkish drones, and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have also discussed military cooperation with Türkiye, indicating a shift in thinking in Central Asian capitals.
Now, the Bayraktar drones are a big hit in Ukraine. In 2022, a few days after the Russian invasion, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, declared: “Behold the work of our life-giving Bayraktar!”
Ankara’s contribution to these wars, along with the presence of Turkish troops in Syria, have boosted Türkiye’s street cred in Central Asia.
Statesman and negotiator
Much of Türkiye’s foreign policy depends on President Erdoğan’s skills as a statesman and negotiator. Having played a crucial role in strengthening cooperation with Central Asia, Erdoğan’s popularity is palpable on the Central Asian street and has become a common topic of conversation “in the kitchen,” as the old Soviet saying goes.
Last October, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said Türkiye was his country’s “closest and most reliable” strategic partner.
“Thanks to (Erdoğan’s) constructive policy, Türkiye’s prestige in the world has increased,” he said. “The entire international community respects (Türkiye) as a developed state with great potential.”
Erdoğan has stood up to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Syria and regularly condemns China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang.
Central Asian leaders, who typically avoid confrontations with Russia and China, likely appreciate Türkiye’s assertiveness and recognize the benefits of forging a solid relationship with Türkiye as a counterbalance to Russia, China and the West.
More importantly, Türkiye offers Central Asia a consensual relationship that is perceived as a friendly alternative to the condescending and patronizing rhetoric of its northern “big brother.”
As Yaşar Sarı, a Eurasia specialist at Ibn Haldun University, says: “There is no ‘big brother’ here. That time has passed. We are sharing and building (the OTS) together. It is clearly expressed in the Turkic World Vision – 2040, which Kazakhstani experts and scientists mostly wrote. It shows that Central Asian countries own this vision.”
Of course, it would be unwise to diminish another motivation behind the accelerated rapprochement. As major energy exporters, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan rely on Russia’s pipelines to reach Europe. Türkiye’s trump card is that it now offers an alternative energy route. The proposed Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor along the bottom of the Caspian Sea promises to transport natural gas from Central Asia to European markets.
Central Asia is rich in oil, gas and minerals. In 2022 alone, Kazakhstan mined 43% of the world’s uranium used for electricity generation. Regarding natural gas reserves, Turkmenistan ranks sixth in the world, Kazakhstan 15th and Uzbekistan 19th. This puts energy at the center of the struggle for influence in a region habitually home to Russia – and China, too, is a contender. Through President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, many in Central Asia already believe Beijing has too much influence.
As for Erdoğan, when it comes to Central Asia, it is clear he has realized that Türkiye’s approach to nations of the region has had to adapt: less ideology and more pragmatism.
*Istanbul-based Kazakhstani journalist who covers Central Asian affairs and producer for the Central Asia Desk of TRT World Television.
Source: Daily Sabah