WPR: What has been the recent evolution of Turkey's relationship with Central Asia, and why does Turkey prioritize the region in terms of its foreign aid?
Bayram Balci: The last major political event between Turkey and Central Asia was the 10th summit of Turkey and the other Turkic republics—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan—which took place in Istanbul in 2010. The summit launched just after the collapse of the Soviet Union with big political ambitions, but because Central Asian countries wanted to preserve their complete sovereignty, the summit progressively came to prioritize cultural exchanges.
The Turkish government continues to place real importance on this region because Ankara wants to develop the common heritage of Turkey and Central Asia, in terms of language, ethnicity and even religion. It is difficult for Turkey to maintain strong relations with Central Asian countries at the moment, mainly because of their authoritarian political and even economic systems, but in the future Ankara hopes these obstacles will be overcome and Turkey will become more influential in this region.
WPR: To what extent does Turkey have, or aim to have, influence over democratic reforms in Central Asian countries?
Balci: All of the Central Asian republics were formed during Soviet times, and since they are purely products of this authoritarian legacy, they still face real difficulties in reforming and creating more plural and democratic political systems and societies. Turkey wanted to support democratic reforms in these countries and was even charged by its Western allies at the beginning of 1990s to encourage this transition. But the situation was more complex than it had seemed at first, and Turkish authorities were forced to accept local regimes as they are. Like many Western countries, Turkey supported existing regimes out of concern for regional security and stability.
A good example of this policy is the Turkey-Uzbekistan relationship. In 1993, the two main opposition figures in Uzbekistan—Muhammad Salih, chairman of the Erk political party, and Abdurrahman Polat, chairman of the Birlik political party—were expelled from Uzbekistan and took refuge in Turkey. Ankara wanted to help them, but when Turkish-Uzbek relations soured because of their presence in Turkey, the Turkish government asked them to leave, which they did.
WPR: What are the longer-term goals of Turkish engagement in Central Asia in terms of defense and energy cooperation, and what steps is the Erdogan government taking to achieve them?
Balci: Turkey initially had huge ambitions in Central Asia, even with regard to security or strategic partnerships. However, when Turkey realized that its capacities were limited and that Central Asian countries were cautious and even suspicious about Turkish ambitions, they clearly opted for more cultural and economic cooperation. That is why Turkey now has more of a soft-power presence in Central Asia, through education and culture, than through political influence and energy diplomacy. The Turkish strategy seems to be “reinforce the cultural cooperation and then the rest will come automatically.”
Central Asia was a higher priority for Turkish governments before Erdogan, whose foreign policy was more focused on European Union membership from his election in 2002 through 2009. After Turkey was disappointed by EU responses to its membership plan, Ankara instead turned its focus toward an assertive policy in the Middle East.