Ideas of Turkic unity have been present in the Eurasian continent since time immemorial, but so far they have failed to materialize into concrete action.
There are six sovereign countries populated predominantly by Turkic peoples (Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) and while the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 has paved the way for constructive interaction between them, hardly any steps could be taken for formal integration.
“One nation, six states” remains a popular motto among politicians, but rhetoric alone does not bring countries closer together.
The Turkic Council, an international organization founded in 2009, is trying to change this by facilitating cooperation between Turkic states based on shared ethnic identity and common cultural heritage. The council is actively undertaking projects and establishing dialogue with other international institutions. There are, however, limits to how far the idea of Turkic unity can be taken.
The council has so far had a remarkable performance in enhancing the cultural bonds and people-to-people interaction between its member countries.
During its annual summit held last week in Astana, documents were signed for the establishment of the Turkic Academy, Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation and the Center of Nomadic Civilization.
The council is also preparing to launch the International Turkic News Channel as well as a series of history books on Turkic heritage. Moreover, the council is opening Turkic regional diaspora centers in non-member countries. The first center was opened last December in Kiev, and new offices are planned for Paris, Berlin and Washington DC.
All of these activities help to improve cultural ties between the Turkic states, but when it comes to economic integration, political convergence and security cooperation there is a different story.
The Turkic Council is active in the economic field and has a number of initiatives to increase business and tourism ties between member countries. However in terms of fully fledged economic integration, it is still Russia which is setting the rules in the post-Soviet realm.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are already members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) where Russia is the leading power. All of the members of the Turkic Council are economically dependent on Russia to varying extents, and this includes not only the former Soviet states but also Turkey which relies on Russian gas to meet its energy needs.
If there is going to be economic integration in this part of the world, Russia will be playing the leading role, and this is why Turkic Council is not going to evolve into an economic integration project rivaling the EEU.
In the political/security realm there is a similar story. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of both the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where Russia has a significant weight.
Turkey, on the other hand, is a NATO member who has often expressed interest in becoming a partner to SCO, whereas Azerbaijan is interested in having closer relations with the Euro-Atlantic structures. In short, members of the Turkic Council have divergent political and security related interests. Realpolitik triumphs over shared identity limiting the prospects for Turkic unity.
These limitations do not necessity mean that the Turkic Council will account to little more than a celebration of Turkic culture. As stated in its web site, the Turkic Council aims “to serve as a new regional instrument for advancing international cooperation in Eurasian continent, particularly in Central Asia and Caucasus.”
The organization can indeed achieve this goal, but there are a number of questions that will be decisive.
First, the extent to which the council will engage with Russia will be important. So far, Moscow has not shown interest in the Turkic Council. However, given the economic and political linkages dominating the Eurasian landscape, a constructive dialogue with Russia is a must if the Turkic Council is to increase its influence in regional affairs.
Second, to which direction Turkey’s position in the council will evolve is a key issue. Ankara is playing a leading role in the organization for the time being. It was a Turkish president, Turgut Özal, who had launched the predecessor of the Turkic Council, the Summit of the Presidents of Turkic Speaking Countries, back in 1992.
The secretariat of the council is hosted by Turkey and the founding secretary general of the organization was a senior Turkish diplomat. However, whether Turkey will maintain the same level of enthusiasm and energy for this organization is an open question.
Last week in the Astana summit, presidents of three of the four member countries were present, while Turkey was represented by the parliament speaker. It would be premature to conclude that President Erdoğan’s no-show in the summit is a signal of Turkey losing interest, but in any case this remains a possibility that can undercut the clout of the Turkic Council.
Third, there is the question of representation. Currently, the Turkic Council covers only four of the six Turkic states, as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are not members. Turkmenistan did not join due to its principle of permanent neutrality. However, the fact that its deputy prime minister attended the Astana summit as a guest is an indicator that Ashgabat is interested in the work of the council.
Uzbekistan, on the other hand, remains uninvolved. The Turkic Council can increase its influence only if it represents the entire Turkic world.
The Turkic Council is the first and so far the only integration project in history bringing together Turkic states and peoples. Over the six years since its establishment it has done a good job in promoting the cultural bonds between its members. However, when it comes to forming economic and security alliances, it is still national interests and realpolitik that matter.
Dr. Altay Atlı is a lecturer at the Asian Studies program of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul and a non-resident research fellow at the Center for Global Studies of Shanghai University.
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