Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 14

Turkey expands its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus

by Vladimir Socor

Recent and planned visits by high-level Turkish officials to Azerbaijan,Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan received only minimal attention inthe Western media, but these contacts may ultimately representa more important trend than more widely noted events. They suggestthat Turkey, after some initial false starts following the collapseof the Soviet Union, is once again prepared to compete with Russiain a late twentieth century version of the "Great Game"for influence in that part of Asia. Although the current GreatGame is being played in relative obscurity, its stakes are substantiallyhigher than those of its better known nineteenth-century version.The region´s demographic dynamics, the Islamic factor, andthe mineral resources amounting–as local leaders point out–toseveral "new Kuwaits," increase the region´s importancefar beyond what it was a hundred years ago

Nor are the local elites today the passive factor they were afterthe Russian conquest and, later, after the Soviet reconquest ofthe region. Moscow is no longer in a position to subsidize rulingestablishments in these countries, to deficit-finance their economies,and to create employment for at least some of their surplus labor–includingthe intelligentsia–as was the case during most of the Sovietperiod. Russia retains major levers of influence through pipelinepolitics, a near monopsony on major exports from the region, theability to play ethnic cards in these countries, and a residualtroop presence which may draw them into conflicts, as in Tajikistan.Ill-equipped for severing long-standing economic and securitylinks to Russia at this stage, the local elites nonetheless arereaching out to the West and to Turkey in the first instance,to obtain aid and secure a foreign market, both of which can beused to counterbalance Russian influence.

From July 8 through 11, Turkish prime minister Tansu Ciller, accompaniedby a large group of businessmen, paid official visits to Uzbekistanand Azerbaijan, and Turkish foreign minister Erdal Inonu heldtalks in Turkmenistan. The visits and conversations constitutedbut the latest high-level Turkish foray into the ex-Soviet orbit.Their course, and the understandings reached, illustrated Ankara´swill to actively promote geopolitical pluralism in the regionby focusing on issues of common interest to the local elites,itself, and implicitly its Western allies.

In Tashkent, Ciller conferred with Uzbek president Islam Karimovon expanding bilateral relations in the economic, consular, andcultural spheres. They signed agreements on simplifying visa proceduresbetween the two countries, and on setting up a joint commissionon trade and economic cooperation with both governmental and businessrepresentation. A Turkish loan to Uzbekistan was also discussed,and Karimov called for Turkish investment in his country. Jointlyvisiting Samarkand, Ciller and Karimov evoked the common rootsof their and other Central Asian peoples. Without promoting adoctrinaire pan-Turkism, Ciller and some Central Asian leadersstill find the Turkic idea useful as a stimulant for regionalcooperation, a counterweight to Russian influence, and a secularideological alternative to Islamic radicalism. Karimov used thisoccasion to express his belief that the future arrangement ofCentral Asian states should take place under the rubric of Turkestan(an idea developed by secular, Westernized Turkish leaders inthe last years of the Ottoman Empire). Also using the coincidental150th anniversary of the birth of Kazakh epic poet Abai, Karimovstated that Central Asian peoples "are united both by cultureand history and by common goals during the transition period."He called for creating a region-wide public movement under themotto "Turkestan Is Our Common Home" to promote theintegration of Central Asian states.

In Ashgabat during the same days, Turkish foreign minister ErdalInonu conferred with leaders of Turkmenistan, which he describedas a "fraternal country." The sides discussed expandingthe already substantial participation of Turkish capital in Turkmenistan´seconomy. Inonu welcomed the recent Ashgabat-Teheran agreementto build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Iran, to be continuedinto Turkey, under a trilateral deal to bring Turkmen gas to internationalmarkets, bypassing the Russian route. Turkmenistan is vitallyinterested in the project in order to consolidate independencefrom Russia and generate development funds. At a joint news conferencewith Inonu, Turkmen foreign minister and Deputy Prime MinisterBoris Shikhmuradov, regretfully alluded to US opposition to theIran alternative, but welcomed the recent endorsement of thatproject by Germany, Britain, and Austria, whose energy firms andgovernments have joined the number of those potentially interestedin participating in the project. Pending construction of the pipelineto Turkey, Ashgabat has agreed–and confirmed this accord duringInonu´s visit–to deliver 8 billion cubic meters of naturalgas to Iran, mainly for re-export, in the next two years.

The talks in Baku had the most complex agenda owing to the Karabakhconflict, Moscow´s gambit for a stranglehold on Caspian oil,and growing Russian pressure on Azerbaijan to join CIS securityarrangements. Azerbaijan´s president Heydar Aliyev publiclycalled for closer ties with Turkey as means to overcome his country´seconomic crisis. Ciller decided to defer from 1995 to 1997 therepayment of Turkey´s $250 million credit to Azerbaijan (whichhas thus far used $60 million to finance vital imports) and reactivatethat credit line, and Aliyev agreed to use it exclusively forhard-currency-generating Turkish-Azerbaijani ventures in Azerbaijan.Baku proposed using the funds for overhauling some of its Soviet-eraoil refineries and gas wells, and for turning 12 textile and shoefactories into joint ventures. Ankara is shortly to send a specialcommission to certify suitable projects, and Baku to create anagency to work with Turkish investors. Ciller and Aliyev inauguratedin Baku the joint Azerturkbank, meant to handle the financingof joint ventures. The sides also discussed simplifying trafficregulations and creating a joint economic commission, and Turkeyreaffirmed its support for routing the Eurasian highway plannedto run from Europe through Turkey to Central Asia via Baku.

Aliyev and Ciller used the occasion to continue promoting pipelineroutes which would bypass Russia. The international consortiumwhich has committed $8 billion to the project is considering apipeline route via Georgia for the "early" oil due onstream in autumn 1996, a route via Turkey for the larger quantitiesof "future" oil, and a route via Russia for both theearly and the future oil. Decisions are expected this Septemberfor the route for early oil, and in 1997 for the route for futureoil. In discussions with the consortium´s management as wellas publicly, Aliyev and Ciller reaffirmed their support for theGeorgian and Turkish routes. They jointly argued that the routesto Georgia´s Black Sea port Batumi for early oil, and toTurkey´s Mediterranean port Ceyhan for future oil, are moreeconomic and safer than the route wanted by Russia via Chechnyato Novorossiisk. Ciller for her gave assurances that Turkey wouldguarantee pipeline security against risks of terrorism. The twoleaders are also concerned to prevent a Russian stranglehold onthe oil to come from Kazakhstan´s sector of the Caspian Sea.They outlined the concept for pumping future oil from Kazakhstan´ssector to Azerbaijan for further transport via Georgia and Turkey,bypassing Russian territory.

On the eve of Ciller´s visit to Baku, Azerbaijan and Georgiaagreed to conduct within the next four weeks a feasibility studyregarding pipeline routes to Batumi and to Georgia´s otherBlack Sea port, Poti, as well as the question of Georgian politicalguarantees. The question of security guarantees is, however, becomingmore complex in view of the recently established Russian navalpresence in Poti, and the intention which has just been announcedto deploy Russian border troops in the Batumi area opposite Turkey.Dependent on Moscow for the settlements in Abkhazia and SouthOssetia, the Georgian leadership has been forced to accept thepresence of Russian forces in and around those ports.

Russian military pressure is also growing on Azerbaijan, the soleCIS member country completely free of Russian forces. Recently,Moscow has advanced demands for bases at Gyandzha and Gabala,"joint protection" of the "CIS external border,"joint naval patrolling of Azerbaijan´s sector of the CaspianSea, and Azerbaijan´s inclusion in the CIS collective airdefense system. Aliyev requested support both from Ciller duringher visit to Baku and from Turkey´s president Suleyman Demirelduring the meeting of Black Sea state leaders in Bucharest, Romania,the preceding week. Aliyev asked both Turkish leaders to requestthe support of the United States and to seek to include Washingtonin discussions on how to resist these demands.