Turkey and Central Asia, a Slow-burn Story to Watch

Turkey has been much in the news lately, most recently with the suicide bombing at the very heart of Istanbul. Its relation with Syria, Islamic State, Europe, and Russia has properly been the focus of attention in past months. But even in times of crisis, an observer needs to keep longer stories and trends also in view.

One slower-burn story I've been following concerns Turkey's relation with the Muslim-majority states in Central Asia. The so-called "stans" (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) were part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. Their native populations are mostly Turkic, meaning they reckon a common heritage that extends centuries back. Since then, Turkic peoples have lived in societies that developed differently under the Ottoman, Russian, and Chinese empires, and more recently under modern Turkey, Russia, and (looking beyond the "stans") China. With all of Turkey's more immediate foreign policy concerns these days, how is it relating to Central Asia?

Let's go a little back. Turkey was one of the first countries to establish bilateral ties with each of the Central Asian states immediately after the Soviet Union dissolved into independent republics. Turkey quickly established embassies in the Central Asian capitals, usually in prime spots in the cities, and promoted a visible presence there during the 1990s. Turkish television and newspapers appeared, often trying to teach Turkish to the Central Asians, who speak languages related to Turkish but are distinctly different from Turkish. It also funded scholarships for Central Asians to study in Turkey. The idea that the Turks had was that Central Asia was their long-lost cousins, and this was a grand reunion.

What was Ankara's motivation? Partly it was ideology: Kemalist ideas emphasized the pre-Ottoman, Central Asian heritage of Turks, and the Soviet collapse was seen as a great opportunity to reconnect with separated "relatives". Partly it was economics: Central Asia represented new markets for the Turkish economy, which had just opened up to global markets in the 1980s. Central Asia also was a place where Turkey would be in a proud position of offering assistance, rather than being seen as trying to catch up (to Europe).

Central Asian governments welcomed the attention, and the monies, coming from Turkey. But ordinary Central Asians mostly did not feel the same way. Many resented the posture of Turkey, coming in as a kind of patronizing Big Brother. They did not feel close kindred spirit with Turks, whose culture was actually quite different from that of Central Asians.

Moreover, Turks who came to Central Asia to do business were often very disappointed -- I've talked to some. First, Central Asians turned out to be quite different from what Turks expected, and Central Asia was a land that has many distinct traditions that do not resemble Turkish ones. Frankly, Turks were shocked by how Soviet Central Asians were in culture and mentality. These were strange cousins indeed.

Turks were also disappointed because Central Asians did not want the products that Turkey was selling as much as they anticipated. The formerly nomadic Kyrgyz do not know what to do with the Mediterranean delicacy, baklava! And it was much harder to make money than they thought. By the end of the 1990s, many Turkish businesses left Central Asia. Most who have remained or started since then are religiously affiliated, so that they are businessmen-Islamic missionaries, often associated loosely with the Gülen movement.

Turkey as a country is still engaged with Central Asian states today, but the euphoria of a special relationship has much faded. In the past 5-10 years, the current AKP government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not emphasized relations with Central Asia, for several reasons.

First, their ideology promotes the Ottoman, Islamic past, not the more remote Central Asian past of Turks. Second, they had other foreign policy priorities: originally for EU accession, then as a broker in the Middle East and Muslim world. These roles have foundered with the current Syrian crisis, and tensions with Russia over Syria and Crimea (which has a Turkic population).

Meanwhile, Central Asian nations have increasingly turned to Russia for aid, economic links, and geopolitical orientation, being much disillusioned with relations with Europe, the U.S., Japan, and even Turkey. Those relations did not yield the kind of economic property or security that they had hoped during the 1990s. So the Turkey-Central Asia relation is not a top priority for any of these sides at the moment.

Longer term, Central Asia is still important for Turkey. Central Asian markets are still valuable for Turkish goods. Turkish Islamic missionary activity continues in that region. But more importantly, Turkey also needs the petroleum that some Central Asian states can supply, namely Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and (looking across the Caspian Sea to the Caucasus) Azerbaijan. On the other side, the relatively isolated Central Asian states need Turkey for its investment and engagement. This is a slow-burn relation worth following.