In the last several years, Turkey has shifted from promoting pan-Turkism in the Turkic-speaking countries of the post-Soviet space to backing neo-Ottomanism, a move which reflects both developments inside Turkey and Ankara’s assessments of what will best work for its interests in the post-Soviet space. And while Ankara has not officially acknowledged this change—nor have many in Moscow or the West recognized it—that new reality has particularly affected the Turkic states of Central Asia. Some are attracted by Ankara’s new position, while others are fearful of what the adoption of this alternative ideology may mean for them. Regional and Russian commentators are now also expressing concern (Sodrugestvo.info, February 27).
Many observers, especially in the West, continue to treat pan-Turkism and neo-Ottomanism as essentially the same thing. But in fact, they are fundamentally different concepts, offering an opposing vision of the basis for unity of states under Turkey’s presumed leadership. The first is secular, democratic and Western looking; and the second is more Islamic, authoritarian-leaning and oriented away from the West. Thirty years ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed, some in Europe and the United States saw the extension of Turkish influence into the post-Soviet space as a positive development that could help countries there move closer toward the West. But now, Turkey’s influence in the region is progressively being viewed rather differently and, often, far less positively.
The shift from pan-Turkism to neo-Ottomanism has been obscured in Russian commentaries for two reasons. On the one hand, over the last several years, Moscow has focused on fighting pan-Turkism less in Central Asia than within its own borders, even setting up special “Turkish departments” in its Economic Security Service to combat the ideology (Idelreal.org, February 14, 2019), thus keeping the much-used earlier term at the center of discussions. And on the other hand, Moscow has subtly redefined pan-Turkism to include promotion of Islam and a turn away from the West as components of that ideology, even though these represent a major shift from pan-Turkism as it is historically understood (Evrazia.org, January 2, 2016; Jacob Landau, Pan-Turkism: From Irredentism to Cooperation, Bloomington, 1995).
But recently neo-Ottomanism has been attracting increasing attention, and Russian and Central Asian writers have begun to speak about it as an ideology that poses quite different problems for Moscow and the governments of Central Asia. Gulshat Abdullayeva, who writes regularly on Central Asia and its relations with Ankara, argues, for example, that both Russia and the Central Asian countries must now take into account the fact that Turkey has been pursuing a “special” domestic and foreign policy over the last two decades as it seeks to become a more independent and important player on the global scene. And one critical aspect of this approach has notably been the “projection of neo-Ottomanism onto Central Asia” (Sodrugestvo.info, February 27, 2020).
Neo-Ottomanism, Abdullayeva suggests, is today “the political ideology of Turkey. Its content includes the promotion of the political influence of Turkey in countries that earlier were within the Ottoman Empire” or whose cultures and histories link them to that power; and “in recent times, the term has also been associated with attempts at reviving the culture and traditions of the Ottoman Empire,” as opposed to those of the first president of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Sodrugestvo.info, February 27). In this, she is supported by Stanislav Tarasov, who argued in an essay published on March 4 that “Erdoğan is not Atatürk but Putin is Not Lenin” (Regnum, March 4).
“In the 21st century,” Abdullayeva writes, “neo-Ottomanism has represented a trend in Turkish policy involving the revival of Ottoman cultural traditions” and has gained popularity because of the increasing re-Islamization of Turkish policy inside Turkey itself. As a doctrine, it “has served there as the basis for the transition from a parliamentary system to a presidential republic” leading to the establishment of “a strong centralized government of the kind that existed in the Ottoman Empire.” Both presidentialism and Islam make neo-Ottomanism more attractive than pan-Turkism to many leaders in the Turkic republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, she argues.
This neo-Ottoman impulse, the analyst continues, is seen in Ankara’s establishment of “all kinds of international organizations” for promoting Turkish influence beyond its borders. “One of these is the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States [more commonly known as the Turkic Council].” While this body, founded in 2009, focuses primarily on economic issues, it carries with it some important ideological messages, including increasingly anti-Western views, support for authoritarian regimes and the revival of Islam as a political force. While Moscow may appreciate the first and second, it certainly does not welcome the third—and Russian officials who deal with Central Asia must recognize that they are now faced with an ideology that, despite all its ostensibly “positive” notes, contains one that is a threat to Russian influence.
At the end of her lengthy article on the ways in which this shift from pan-Turkism to neo-Ottomanism has occurred, Abdullayev suggests that the adoption of the latter, however much it appears to be helping Ankara abroad in the short term, is causing Turkey itself to lose its own national identity and national unity. And it may ultimately cost it influence in Central Asia as well. One reason for that conclusion, she argues, is that states in that region could internally suffer in the same way if they adopt a similar approach under the banner of neo-Ottomanism.
The Russian media is now full of discussions of neo-Ottomanism, a reflection of the growing tensions between Moscow and Ankara over Syria and the desire by some constituencies within Russian officialdom to make Turkey into the traditional bugbear of Russian history. The Western media, in contrast, has largely ignored this ideological shift. That may prove to be a consequential oversight because the continued strength and influence of pan-Turkism in the region is clearly not what it once was, and the neo-Ottomanism that is taking its place may pose even greater challenges to the West than to the Russian Federation.