In the early 1990s, many policymakers in Kazakhstan and in Turkey were euphoric about the prospects of intense cooperation between ethnically related nations that had for decades been divided by an ideological iron curtain. Turkey, hoping to expand its influence in Russia-dominated but Turkic-speaking Central Asia, opened its doors wide to Kazakh students and cultural delegations. In practice, however, these endeavors did not yield much, and disappointment with Turkey for having little to offer in terms of high-tech industries and machinery, is growing.
Smoldering grievances against the allegedly discriminatory policies of Turkish employers culminated in a violent scuffle this February, involving more than 400 Turkish and Kazakh workers employed by the Turkish GATE construction company, which was hired to rebuild the Atyrau oil-processing plant in western Kazakhstan. Several workers were severely injured in the skirmish, and company executives called police detachments to stop the violence. Reportedly, the fighting began after a Kazakh worker was beaten by his Turkish supervisor (Zhas Qazaq, March 4). Although this was the first large-scale incident involving a Turkish company, it is a clear symptom of deteriorating labor relations. In similar circumstances, a fight broke out in April between Turkish employers and Kazakh hired workers of the Senimdi Kurylys construction company, which resulted in 40 Turkish workers being sent home by company managers who had flown in from Turkey to settle the conflict (Aikyn, April 19).
But the real cause of the conflict is rooted in unequal labor rights for Turkish and Kazakh workers. GATE employs 1,132 workers in Kazakhstan, but only 422 of them are citizens of Kazakhstan. It has been common practice for Turkish companies to bring in workers from their country rather than employ local residents. More often than not, Kazakhs are seen merely as a pool of cheap labor. Recent investigations conducted by Kazakhstan’s Prosecutor-General’s Office revealed that Kazakh construction workers at the Turkish Senimdi Kurylys company make around 27,000 tenge ($207) per month, while Turkish workers are paid 230,000 tenge ($1,769). Even these meager payments are often delayed for months. During a recent raid on a construction firm in Astana, immigration police detained 18 Turkish workers who had been illegally smuggled into the country. They were later expelled from Kazakhstan for violating visa requirements (Khabar TV, April 27).
In a country where disrespect for the Labor Code and contracts is commonplace, recent inspections carried out by the Prosecutor-General’s Office registered numerous violations at 129 foreign-owned companies, such discriminations will likely not damage bilateral relations.
Although Turkey can no longer compete with the United States, China, and Russia for a priority role in the region and has lost many of its opportunities to develop long-lasting trade and economic ties with Central Asian countries, it still has some potential to expand its political and economic influence on the Turkic-speaking nations of the region through its membership in NATO and the OECD. Kazakhstan also pins hopes on the still-uncertain possibility of Turkey joining the EU. Despite all the problems with bilateral ties, the Turkish model of economic development, according to political scientist Maulen Ashimbayev, can still serve as a guideline for Kazakhstan (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, April 30).
Turkey, with its modest niche in the construction and textiles industries, appears to be an outsider in the global rush for Kazakhstan’s rich hydrocarbons resources. In reality, the government’s oil-and-gas sector development program views Turkey as a potentially important transit country for exporting Kazakh gas to Europe and as an important consumer of gas. As part of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project, Kazakhstan declared its readiness to supply 20 billion cubic meters of gas to Turkey (government.kz, September14, 2004). Kazakhstan has long expressed interest in the BTC route, which would consolidate its economic and political ties with Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, as well as with the West, but Astana has postponed signing any intergovernmental agreements on this issue.
Kazakhstan cannot ignore the growing weight of the GUAM organization, which includes Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova (and, at times, Uzbekistan), nor can it question Turkey’s promises to help Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Ukraine join NATO. That leaves Kazakhstan wavering between the Russian-engineered Single Economic Space and GUAM’s future offerings. Political observer Sharipbek Amirbek believes that Kazakhstan should not stay aloof from GUAM, but Astana should use this organization to help deliver gas supplies to Turkey and Europe at competitive prices. That would bring not only economic, but political benefits for Kazakhstan and reduce Turkey’s dependence on Russian gas supplies. Algatbek Balgabekuly, a professor of world economics at Kazakh National University, also supports that view, stressing that closer relations GUAM and Turkey would eliminate Russian-imposed restrictions on Kazakhstan’s oil exports, thus enabling Kazakhstan to use the pipeline now under construction from Azerbaijan to Georgia (Aikyn, April 7).
Apart from economic interests, Kazakhstan and Turkey are linked by common security concerns and shared Turkic values. Kazakhstan has officially banned the Kurdish People’s Congress and the Turkish nationalist Boz Gurt (Grey Wolves) organization for being “terrorist organizations.” The Ministry of Defense of Kazakhstan reported that Kazakhstan received Turkish military equipment amounting to $6 million in recent years.
Turkey is actively engaged in the TURKSOY project for promoting the shared culture and language of Turkic-speaking nations, expanding the activities of TURKSOY to Russian domains such as Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Khakasia, and Tuva. Kazakhstan is also torn between pan-Turkism and globalization, and the ongoing dispute over the adoption of Latin script is not likely to end in the near future. But the continued intensification of Turkish-Kazakh relations is an imperative that cannot be questioned.