TURKISH PRESIDENT VISITS TURKIC COUNTRIES.
Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 197
Turkey’s new president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, paid official visits on October 16-20 to the four Turkic countries of Central Asia. Sezer had first visited Azerbaijan upon his election (see the Monitor, July 14). This series of early presidential visits points to a revigoration of Turkey’s policy to contain Russia’s push for control over the Turkic nations situated between the Caspian Sea and China.
Turkey’s effort is an uphill and at times even a solo act owing to Washington’s lukewarm political engagement and distorted priorities in the region, as illustrated by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s failed visits to the same countries earlier this year (see the Monitor, April 20; Fortnight in Review, April 28). The United States-Turkey tandem, which is working successfully in Azerbaijan and Georgia, is not in evidence in Central Asia. Moreover, the Central Asian regimes’ one-man foreign policies, marked in a few cases by the ruler’s idiosyncrasies, have at times created unnecessary complications in the way of Turkey’s policy. For this reason, the visit to Uzbekistan–the region’s strongest country, and the first leg of Sezer’ tour–was planned as a fence-mending effort by both sides.
Prepared by Foreign Affairs Minister Ismail Cem’s early October visit to Tashkent, Sezer’s discussions with President Islam Karimov seem to have removed those irritants, which had developed between 1997 and 1999. Sezer and Cem accepted Tashkent’s explanations for the closure of Turkish-run Muslim religious schools in Uzbekistan and the recall of most Uzbek students from Turkey. The Turkish side would no longer offer a haven to Uzbek political oppositionists, including those described by Tashkent as terrorism suspects. Karimov agreed to resume his attendance of the Turkic countries’ summits, instead of snubbing them.
According to Uzbek Foreign Affairs Minister Abdulaziz Komilov, “we have now settled our differences, cleared up all misunderstandings. We have decided not to allow problems like those to recur or to set conditions on one another. Turkey is a very influential and powerful state. We shall openly cooperate in the political and military arena, particularly as regards security and stability in this region.”
That statement identified the top priority in Uzbek-Turkish relations at present. To forestall Russian hegemony, Uzbekistan actively looks for allies other than Russia to stand up to real or perceived Islamist threats (see the Monitor, April 25, September 13). The Uzbek defense minister, Kadyr Gulamov, and the Turkish General Staff’s logistics department head, Lieutenant-General Unal Onsipahioglu, signed a military-technical cooperation agreement during this visit.
In a joint political statement, Karimov and Sezer called for establishing a Central Asian antiterrorism center under United Nations auspices. The proposal seems designed to counterbalance the plan for a Russian-led antiterrorism center, which Uzbekistan has declined to join. The presidents also decided to create a consultative mechanism of the Uzbek and Turkish law enforcement, military and intelligence agencies to prevent and investigate terrorism acts. And they agreed on the “need to settle regional security issues in coordination with the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and NATO.” The phrase signifies Uzbek rejection of Moscow’s latest plan for a “regional group of forces” under its own leadership, in the framework of the CIS Collective Security Treaty, against alleged “threats” from the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (see the Monitor, September 26, October 16).
The visit produced a significant change in the international context of the Afghan problem. Sezer declared that Turkey could accept any Afghan government which would establish control and tranquility in the entire country. That implies that Turkey, the model secular state for Muslim countries, is willing to work with the Taliban authorities which now control 95 percent of Afghanistan’s territory. Uzbekistan, the most rigidly secular government in Central Asia, had moved openly last month to make its peace with the Taliban. At the same time, Iran–an Islamic state and a sponsor of international terrorism–remains an ardent supporter of the anti-Taliban “northern Afghan alliance.” The latest Uzbek and Turkish moves make it difficult for others to justify the total ostracism of the Taliban authorities and the fueling of the war by Iran, Russia and Tajikistan. As Ankara, Tashkent and Ashgabat realize, continued turmoil in northern Afghanistan only plays into Moscow and Tehran’s hands.
In Ashgabat, President Saparmurat Niazov stopped short of clarifying his intentions regarding exports of Turkmen gas to Turkey through the planned Trans-Caspian pipeline. Pressed by both Moscow and Tehran, Niazov is apparently also hoping to squeeze the maximum in terms of short-term advantage from the pipeline consortium. Continued prevarication on his part would not only create a huge opening for Russian gas on the Turkish market, but would leave Turkmenistan totally dependent on Gazprom’s pipelines for any export of Turkmen gas. With Russia’s own gas extraction set to decline, Moscow intends to buy some Turkmen gas and resell it to Turkey at a profit as part of the Russian gas, should Russia’s “Blue Stream” pipeline reach Turkey ahead of the Western-sponsored Trans-Caspian pipeline from Turkmenistan. The damage to Turkmenistan’s independence and Turkmen-Turkish relations may in that case offset anything gained since 1991.
Turkey has since 1996 invested more than US$2 billion in Turkmenistan. Turkish construction firms are currently involved in projects worth a total of US$850 million. The textile industry ranks second to the construction sector in terms of Turkish investment. More than 1,700 young Turkmens are enrolled this year in Turkish universities and military schools.
In Bishkek, Presidents Askar Akaev and Sezer agreed to create a Turkish-Kyrgyz expert group to counteract international terrorism. The statement’s wording suggests that the scope and mission envisaged for this joint group are more modest than those of the Turkish-Uzbek group. The difference reflects that between the possibilities of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, respectively, to sustain a policy of independence from Moscow. The Turkish delegation brought with it a donation worth US$2.5 million for nonlethal military equipment to the Kyrgyz armed forces. This is the third Turkish donation on this scale since the 1999 incursion of Islamist insurgents in Kyrgyzstan.
In Astana, Sezer and President Nursultan Nazarbaev took stock of the successful development of Kazakh-Turkish economic relations. With US$1.5 billion worth of investments, Turkey is the third-largest direct investor in Kazakhstan, behind the United States and Britain. Bilateral trade turnover is projected at US$500 million to US$600 million this year. A total of 2,200 young Kazakhs are currently studying in Turkey while some 15,000 of them study at Turkish-sponsored schools in Kazakhstan, preeminently the Hajj Ahmed Yassavi Kazakh-Turkish University. Turkey is said to have spent US$71 million on this education program. But as in the case of Turkmenistan–though for different reasons–Kazakhstan hesitates before making a commitment to American- and Turkish-favored oil and gas export routes. A commitment of Kazakh oil would boost the commercial prospects of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan main export pipeline for Caspian oil. Sezer called for moving the starting point of that route to Kazakhstan’s Aktau port on the Caspian Sea, so as to lay an Aktau-Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline attractive to international investors (Tashkent Radio, Halk Sozi, October 16-17; Ashgabat Radio, Turkmen International News Service, October 17-18; KyrgyzKabar, Bishkek Radio, October 18-19; Astana Radio, Habar, October 19-20; Anatolia news agency, The Turkish Daily News, Dow Jones Newswires, October 16-21).
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