On 11 November, the Uzbek capital, Samarkand, hosted the ninth summit of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) under the theme of “New Era for Turkic Civilization: Towards Common Development and Prosperity”. The summit was attended by the presidents of Turkey, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, and the Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary as an observer state along with Turkmenistan represented by Gurbangulu Berdimuhamedov, former Chairman of the People’s Council of Turkmenistan.
During the summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for promoting cooperation between Turkic States, which some circles considered an attempt by the Turkish president to take advantage of the current context brought about by Russia’s preoccupation with the Ukraine war. Erdogan seeks bolstering his country’s influence in the Central Asian region and its relations with the former Soviet republics. Perhaps several indicators reinforce this premise, including Turkey’s heightened diplomatic activity in the region over the past years.
Organization of Turkic States
The Organization of Turkic States (OTS) was established in October 2009. It was formerly known as the Turkic Council before the Turkish president announced its renaming in November 2021. The OTS’ membership comprises Turkey and former Soviet republics, namely Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, along with Hungary and Turkmenistan as observer states. The OTS maintains a headquarters in Istanbul.
According to its founding statement, the OTS aims at promoting cooperation between the Turkic-speaking countries in various areas. However, any close observer of Turkey’s foreign policy under the Justice and Development Party’s led by President Erdogan finds that establishing the so-called “Turkic World League” or the “Turkish Commonwealth” has taken top priority on Turkey’s foreign policy agenda. In this vein, the Turkish government introduced, in 2010, a special division attached to the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs called “Turkish World Affairs”, a division aimed at achieving economic, cultural, educational and religious openness to societies of Turkic origin as well as countries that Ankara considers to be within the Turkish Commonwealth. This step, along with the establishment of the OTS, reflected Turkey’s “institutionalization” of its approach. In tandem with this, the Turkish government intensified its political, economic, and security activity to achieve more rapprochement with these countries.
Outcomes of the Ninth Summit of the OTS
Turkish President Erdogan gave a speech at the ninth summit of the OTS in which he called on the OTS to promote cooperation with Ankara, saying, “we are going through a fragile period that offers our countries risks as well as opportunities. We see that it is critical more than ever for us to strengthen the cooperation, solidarity, and harmony among us during this period.” He called for “putting into practice the Turkic Investment Fund as soon as possible.”
However, the most significant outcome was Erdogan’s announcement of OTS’ members approving Northern Cyprus as an observer member, a step that was rejected by European Union (EU) which sees “any action that facilitates or assists in any way the international recognition of Turkish Cypriot secessionist entity as severely damaging efforts to create an environment conducive to resuming settlement talks under the auspices of the UN.” In this respect, Peter Stano, Lead Spokesperson for EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said that “this decision, pending ratification of Organization’s members, is regrettable and is contradicting the fact that several members of the Organization expressed strong support to the principle of territorial integrity and the UN Charter.”
During the summit, the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, affirmed that his country is interested in promoting cooperation with Turkic countries, taking it to a new level, adding “Kazakhstan is the land of the fathers of the Turkic world; therefore, our country attaches particular importance to the development of comprehensive cooperation within the framework of the OTS”, pointing out that the “current geopolitical and geo-economic contradictions hurt the Eurasian continent’s economy, transport, and logistics system. We should confront all challenges and threats jointly.”
From the keynote talks at the summit, it becomes evident that the OTS member states focused, in their vision, on rapprochement among them during the coming period and the need to strengthen economic cooperation, which was manifested in Erdogan’s declaration of the need to “put into practice the Turkic Investment Fund as soon as possible” and build logistical corridors linking these countries together.
Motives of Turkey’s Interest in the OTS
Over the past years, countries within the Turkic Commonwealth received much attention from Ankara, manifested in the volume of official visits by Turkish officials to these countries, including primarily Turkish President, as well as the level of cooperation between these countries and Ankara. Turkey’s approach can be understood in light of the following motives:
1- Endeavors to Establish the “Turkic World League”: Since coming to power, establishing the “Turkic World League” or the “Turkish Commonwealth” has been one of the main goals of the AKP. This pursuit is one of the main mechanisms that comes within the framework of the imperial and expansionist approach adopted by the AKP. For the Turkish decision-maker, the sectarian and ethnic approach is a key approach that serves “neo-Ottomanism” and the restoration of “Grand Turkey”.
2- Bolstering Ankara’s Geopolitical Influence: Turkey’s growing interest in the OTS is associated with Turkey’s endeavor to consolidate its geopolitical influence in its regional environment, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, particularly given the dynamics that are giving rise to a new global scene in which middle powers, led by Turkey, seek to utilize their diplomatic, security, and economic tools to bolster their geopolitical influence globally. In this context, Ankara’s influence in the regional arena is a major determinant of its standing in the global order.
3- Making Economic Gains: The economic factor is one of the key governing determinants of Turkish endeavors to enhance cooperation with the OTS member states, especially in light of the deep structural crises the Turkish economy has been experiencing in recent years. These countries, which have a population of 300 million people, represent a significant market for Turkey. In effect, the volume of bilateral trade between Turkey and the OTS member states amounted to about $ 7 billion and Ankara seeks to increase the volume of its investments and commercial transactions with them.
4- Expanding International Options for Ankara: Turkey’s interest in the OTS comes in a context marred by tensions between Ankara and some other international blocs, especially NATO and the EU, which Turkey has failed to join since 1963. Ergo, Ankara sees using the OTS bloc as an alternative regional organization to its traditional alliances with the West. This cannot be separated from Turkey’s recent endeavors to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), as President Erdogan announced in mid-September that Turkey is seeking full membership in the Eurasian organization.
5- Capitalizing on the Ukraine War: Turkey’s endeavor to build alliance and promote cooperation with the OTS member states can be understood in view of Russia’s preoccupation with the Ukraine war. In his speech at the summit, Erdogan confirmed this trend noting that “the Ukraine war makes strengthening cooperation between OTS members more pressing.” At the summit, Turkey made sure to make use of the outrage of some OTS members over the intervention of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) led by Russia to squash the unrest in Kazakhstan early last year. By this, Turkey aims at promoting its presence in the region while restraining Russian influence. Additionally, the Ukraine war and its repercussions, particularly the sanctions imposed on Russia, would weaken Russia’s role as a regional leader and open the door for Ankara to enhance its geopolitical influence.
Turkey’s approach to the Ukrainian crisis reinforces this assumption, where it held “diplomatic neutrality” to enhance its international standing. Turkish mediation between Ukraine and Russia was one of the main manifestations of this approach.
The Turkish approach aimed at strengthening relations with the OTS member states employs several main tools, including:
1- Soft Power Tools: Turkey’s approach is based primarily on an identity, ethnic, and cultural dimension. As such, soft power is one of the main tools on which the Turkish approach is based. In this vein, Ankara established the Academia and Turkish Culture Organization and the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) has built many mosques and religious schools in Central Asian countries, including primarily the Bishkek Central Mosque, which was inaugurated in 2018, designed according to the Ottoman architecture style, and is the largest mosque in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia. Diyanet is also expanding in implementing activities that aim at consolidating Turkish language and culture among the OTS member states. It is no exaggeration to say that the efforts of Turkish non-governmental organizations have become a primary tool of Turkish influence in the Central Asia and Caucasus region.
2- Diplomatic Tools: By establishing the OTS, Turkey sought to pour large amounts of money into the organization to ensure control over it and employ it to promote cooperation with countries of the region. In essence, OTS relies on “summit diplomacy” to achieve its goals. So far, the OTS has held nine summits that have contributed greatly to bringing the views of member states closer together on many issues. This approach has been coupled with increasing visits and official talks between Turkish officials and their counterparts from the OTS member states.
3- The Economic Tool: Besides diplomatic and soft power tools, the economic tool remains key to Turkey’s approach in the region. Reports indicate that Turkish investments in Central Asia exceed $85 billion. In recent years, Turkey has implemented significant projects, including the construction of an international port in Ashgabat and the renovation of the buildings of the city of Turkmenbashi. Furthermore, in 2020, TAV Airports acquired 100 percent of the shares of Almaty International Airport, located in one of the largest cities in Kazakhstan. Moreover, Ankara seeks to increase the supply of Kazakh oil through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and Turkmen gas through the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline, which is part of the Southern Gas Corridor project.
4- Security and Military Tools: Security and military issues have an influential place in Turkey’s relations with the OTS members. Turkey’s growing reliance on the security tool started in 2013 with the establishment of the CSTO which comprised Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. In October 2020, Turkish media called for the establishment of the Turan Army. These calls came in tandem with the visit of Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In this context, the Turkish military role was a major determinant of the Azerbaijani victory over Armenia, in 2020, in the war on Nagorno-Karabakh. Relatedly, Kyrgyzstan bought Turkish Bayraktar TB2 aircraft last year and Tajikistan expressed interest in purchasing Turkish drones, which reflects the advanced position of security and military tools in the Turkish approach to states of the region.
In short, Turkey’s approach to countries of the OTS and strengthening relations with them comes primarily within the AKP expansive project. Within the framework of its approach, Turkey drew on a number of cultural, ethnic, economic, political, and security tools that help strengthen its influence in the Central Asian region and its position in the global system.
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