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Turkey’s Comeback to Central Asia

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey emerged as an influential player in the Muslim and ethnically Turkic republics of Central Asia. Despite an unrealistic initial policy approach aimed at creating a wide-spanning Turkic union, Turkey reoriented its foreign policy toward the region and since the mid-1990s has relied on a sophisticated combination of bilateral engagement, multilateral institutions, economic linkages, and soft power vis-à-vis Central Asia. The recent thaw in Turkish-Uzbekistan relations offers new opportunities for cooperation, while Central Asia as a whole is likely to gain importance in Turkish foreign policy against the backdrop of Turkey’s deteriorating relations with traditional Western allies.

Turkey s Comeback to Central Asia
TİKA, one of the main soft power tools of Turkey, has completed a total of 761 projects in 26 years of operation in Kyrgyzstan. NEZIR ALIYEV / AA Photo

Introduction

As regularly noted in academic sources and regional analyses, Turkey is situated at the crossroads of several regions that were historically dominated or targeted by Ottoman rulers. Regardless of what the leadership of post-Ottoman Turkey may have intended, the country has always been sensitive to political developments in the Middle East, the Balkans, the wider Black Sea region and the Mediterranean. Although never part of the Ottoman Empire, post-Soviet Central Asia has garnered equally strong interest among Turkish policymakers, not least because of ethnic, linguistic, and religious commonalities. Yet, Central Asia’s position in Turkish foreign policy has received comparatively scant analytical attention in recent years, in part due to Turkey’s deepening involvement in the Syrian civil war since 2013 and the concomitant deterioration in relations with its traditional Western allies. Nevertheless, despite foreign policy failures close to its own borders, Turkey has developed and maintained mostly positive relations with the Central Asian republics.

This commentary provides an overview of Turkish foreign policy in Central Asia and aims to shed light on Ankara’s multifaceted approach to the region. Our main argument is that Turkey’s Central Asia policy –although initially shaped by a romanticized and unrealistic pan-Turkic worldview– witnessed a fundamental reorientation towards more achievable policy goals from the mid-1990s. While ethnolinguistic identity never completely disappeared from Turkish policy vis-à-vis Central Asia, Turkey has largely dispensed with its pan-Turkic aspirations and has increasingly relied on a sophisticated combination of bilateral relations, multilateral institutions, economic linkages, and soft power initiatives to further its aims in the region.

 

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