Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 17

Turkey continues its diplomatic offensive in Central Asia

by Vladimir Socor

On August 14-18, Turkish prime minister Tansu Ciller and foreignminister Erdal Inonu headed a massive delegation of Ankara governmentofficials and business representatives on official visits to Kazakhstan,Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. It was the second Turkish high-levelvisit in as many months to the Turkic countries of the formerSoviet Union. In July, Ciller and Inonu had headed official delegationsto Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. (For an analysisof those visits and the motivations of regional elites in welcomingthe Turkish connection see my "Turkey Asserts Role in Ex-SovietOrbit," Prism, no. 14, August 4, 1995.) In the post-Sovietperiod, Turkey has emerged in these countries in the role of foreigninvestor, agent of economic modernization, and potential modelof a successfully developing secular society, one that providesan attractive alternative to Islamic radicalism. Ankara emphasizesthe economic dimension of its relations with the Turkic countries,avoiding political or security involvement. Yet Turkey’s growingrole as a trade partner and investor, coupled with the pull ofcultural ties, are beginning to translate into political clout,enabling Ankara to compete with Moscow for influence in the region.

Currently the most obvious object of that competition is thechoice of routes for pipelines to bring oil and gas from Kazakhstan,Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan to international markets. Moscowinsists on routes through Russian territory in order to controlthe flow of resources to the West and the economic and politicalfuture of these countries. Conversely, projected pipeline routesvia Turkey offer these countries a lifeline to the world marketand the chance of economic modernization and political independence.As could be expected, the issue of pipeline routes was centralto the discussions between the Turkish governmental delegationand its counterparts in Almaty and Ashgabat on this tour, justas it had been in Baku and Ashgabat during Ciller’s visits therein July. The discussions were colored in part by recent signalsof US support for involving Russia to some degree in the pipelineprojects and routing at least some part of the resource flow throughRussian territory. According to Ciller’s senior adviser Emre Gonensay,quoted by the Anatolian News Agency (August 17), US officialsnow favor Russia’s inclusion in some pipeline projects; "wehave the impression that such a collaboration will comfort them."

But Turkey’s current economic and other interests in the CentralAsian countries are far more diverse than the focus on futureoil and gas pipelines might suggest. Turkish private business,partly assisted by government loans through Turkey’s Export-ImportBank, has become a major source of investments in the CentralAsian countries’ construction, industrial consumer goods, andtrade sectors, and is making inroads into the food processing,energy, and other economic sectors. Although such an active economicpresence inevitably translates into political influence, Ankararemains very cautious about wielding it and avoids openly castingitself as Moscow’s political competitor in the region, even ifthis is what Ankara, in fact, is. Broadly defined, Turkey’s politicalinterests in ex-Soviet Central Asia consist of promoting thosecountries’ national consolidation, their independent development,free economic and political interaction with the outside world,and secular orientation. This agenda is also that of Turkey’sWestern allies in this region.


At their talks in Almaty, the political leaders reviewed theoptions for bringing Caspian oil to the international market.As a result the Turkish energy minister and the Kazakh oil andgas minister signed a protocol on building a pipeline to transportoil from Kazakhstan via Georgia to a Turkish terminal onthe Mediterranean.. The concept reportedly envisages setting upan international corporation with the participation of Westernand regional capital to build the pipeline, starting in 1997.Initial reports do not make clear whether the pipeline would reachGeorgia via Azerbaijan or via Russian Federation territory inthe North Caucasus. An option said to be under considerationis that of using the same pipeline to pump Azerbaijani oil toTurkey via Georgia, bypassing Russia entirely. Kazakhpresident Nursultan Nazarbayev appeared more keen than his Turkishguests to offer Russia a stake in the project as an incentiveto cooperate with it. But Nazarbayev shared his guests’ confidencein the project’s feasibility: "The construction of the oilpipeline is becoming a reality," he said at the concludingbriefing.

Overall Turkish investment in Kazakhstan is currently evaluatedat nearly $2 billion, focused chiefly on the construction sector.Kazakhstan has used $160 million out of a Turkish Eximbank creditline of $200 million. Ciller announced in Almaty the opening ofa second credit line of $300 million to finance new joint projectsin mining and in housing construction. The delegations signedan agreement on the avoidance of double taxation and discussedthe planned Istanbul-Beijing railroad, a section of which wouldcross Kazakhstan.


Capping the discussions in Ashgabat, President SaparmuradNiyazov agreed in principle to changing the existing plan forbuilding the main export pipeline for gas from his country. Theplan approved in late 1993 envisioned laying the pipeline viaIran and Turkey. The Turkish delegation, however, proposed avoidingIran and routing the pipeline through Georgia to Turkey. For thepipeline’s section between the Caspian Sea and Georgia, the Turkishand Turkmen leaders reportedly considered a route via Azerbaijanand one via Russian Federation territory in North Caucasus. Ankara’sproposal to avoid Iran and Niyazov’s apparent willingness to goalong represent in part a response to US objections to the Iranroute. In recent months the US State and Energy Departments havemade those objections clear to Ashgabat, reportedly also suggestingthat the US position would affect the level of international fundingfor the project, depending on the route chosen. Turkmenistan,for its part, is experiencing a growing sense of urgency aboutbringing its gas to international markets. Demand in the CIS membercountries, Turkmenistan’s main gas customers, has declined becauseof those countries’ balance of payments difficulties or outrightinsolvency. The shrinkage in that market has in turn caused Turkmenistan’sgas extraction to slump. This situation increases the pressureon Ashgabat to find viable routes to international markets andenlist political and financial support from Western and regionalstates for the pipeline projects.

Official statistics put current Turkish investments in Turkmenistanat $1.5 billion. The sector that has most attracted Turkish investmentsthus far is construction, with at least 20 Turkish firms involvedin some 90 construction projects at a total estimated cost of$600 million. But Turkish capital is also strong the consumergoods sector. While in Ashgabat, Ciller joined Niyazov in inauguratinga huge Turkish-built and owned denim factory with an annual productioncapacity of 12 million meters. The sides also signed agreementson avoidance of double taxation and on establishing an intergovernmentalcommission on trade and economic cooperation with the main aimof promoting Turkish investment in Turkmenistan.


In the Turkic country most distant from Turkey geographically,the Turkish leaders’ visit had mainly an exploratory character.Bilateral economic and political relations are only in an incipientstage. Most understandings reached on this visit amount to verbalstatements of intent. They include: Turkish funding of the conversionof several Kyrgyz military plants to civilian production; jointconstruction of a hydropower system in Kyrgyzstan to produce andexport electricity; identifying opportunities for joint venturesand projects in Kyrgyzstan’s industry and the construction sector;and more scholarships for Kyrgyz students in Turkey. Kyrgyzstanhas yet to fully use an earlier Turkish loan of $75 million. Cillerheld out the prospect of "much more than that" fromTurkey’s Eximbank to finance joint projects in the priority sectorsdiscussed. Ciller and her Kyrgyz counterpart Abbas Jumagulov signedan agreement setting up an intergovernmental commission on tradeand economic cooperation. A delegation of Turkey’s planning commissionis due to Bishkek shortly for detailed discussions on joint projects.Symbolic acknowledgments of Turkic kinship could not have missedfrom the proceedings: Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev termed Cillerthe brightest politician in the Turkic world; and the two leadersattended together the festive opening of a Bishkek park namedafter Ataturk.

The Outlook

Turkey’s economic and, by implication, political profilein ex-Soviet Central Asia looks set to continue rising in thenear term. Ankara appears confident of its ability to channeladditional loans and investments into the region; the local eliteswelcome Turkey’s entry and the economic and political opportunitiesit brings; Moscow has lost most of the means to interdict Turkish-CentralAsian ties even if it were provoked into trying to do so; andthe region’s anticipated oil and gas boom should increase Turkey’simportance as a connecting link between the Central Asian statesand the West.

Beyond the short-term, the limits to this process suggest themselves.Ankara will face overextension at some point; Central Asian elites,still constrained by various forms of dependency on Russia, willcarefully avoid any stark choice of partnership between Moscowand Ankara; Russia can still react aggressively, for example byplaying the Kurdish card against Turkey in retaliation for its"intrusion" into Central Asia; and the economic, technical,political, and security challenges to the extractive and pipelineprojects may substantially delay their start and completion, inwhich case Russia could well regain the upper hand in the regioneconomically and politically. The new contest for Central Asiaand its mineral resources thus looks set to evolve into a zero-sumcompetition and to acquire a protracted character, with Turkeyperforming some of the West’s functions in the region.

Vladimir Socor is a Senior Analyst at the Jamestown Foundation