On February 6, the pyramidal Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in the Kazakh capital of Astana hosted Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
Referring to the 25th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence, the visiting Turkish leader said, to the joy of the hosts, that Kazakhstan will “live as an independent country on Asian soil for 25 centuries, and Turkey will always be on Kazakhstan’s side.”
These two countries have indeed had favorable relations over the past quarter century since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, based on their shared Turkish heritage for sure, but also and perhaps more so on strong trade and investment linkages.
Davutoğlu’s visit could have been regarded as a routine diplomatic exchange confirming what has been a more or less positive status quo in the relationship for many years. However, coming at a time of profound geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts as well as broken friendships and new alliances on the Eurasian landmass, the visit assumed a special significance. There are two big questions on the table, and Davutoğlu’s visit to Astana provides a number of clues.
The first question is about how Turkey’s relations with Central Asia is going to develop after the stand-off with Russia, with no easy solution to the crisis between Ankara and Moscow appearing in sight, at least in the near to medium term.
Ever since the gaining of independence by the Turkic states of Central Asia and the Caucasus, these countries formed the backbone of Turkey’s Eurasian imagination. Turkey’s official policy has been to build and maintain relations with these countries on strong economic fundamentals, through commerce, investment, and aid; celebrating Turkic identity collectively in a cultural way, but at the same time refraining from politicking along this identity.
Recognizing Moscow’s continuing political clout in the region and the futility of trying to challenge it, also not seeing any point in jeopardizing the cordiality with Russia (and the gas trade on which Turkey is heavily dependent), Turkey’s involvement in this region took to the form of an economic Eurasianism refraining from actions that would politically alienate Moscow.
Could this be changing now? Under current circumstances, Turkey may feel less need to observe Russian sensitivities in the region for obvious reasons, but at the same time it also needs to make sure that the “Stans” are not distancing themselves in order to not upset the Kremlin.
More importantly, Turkey needs to revitalize its relations with Central Asia, given the extremely troubled foreign policy environment in the country’s near neighborhood which also adversely affects Turkey’s trade and hence its fragile economy. Taking all these parameters together, Turkey has few options but to renew its drive towards Eurasia, whether Russia objects or not. Davutoğlu’s remarks in Kazakhstan hint at how this is going to happen.
In Astana, Davutoğlu emphasized economics and made references to “more trade, more effective transportation and more intensive cultural interaction”. Not only did he declare that Turkish FDI in Kazakhstan will be increased from $2 billion to $10 billion and the volume of Turkish construction business in Kazakhstan from $20 billion to $30 billion, he also announced that the economy minister of the two sides will meet each other in person every month in order to exchange ideas about how to further improve the economic relationship between the two countries.
Davutoğlu did not mention Russia by name and did not say a single word indicating possible attempts to challenge Russian hegemony in the region, but he made numerous references to the importance of Eurasia, to how “political competition has divided the geography” and to the “dominance of complementarity rather than challenge, peace and stability rather than conflict” in this region.
In other words, Turkey will be more active in the Eurasian region; it will capitalize on its already existing economic power in the region (Turkey is currently the largest foreign investor in Kazakhstan in non-hydrocarbon sectors and is the main supplier of construction services).
Ankara has nothing to gain (but much to lose) from challenging Russia’s dominance in the region, and its worry will not be about alienating Russia, but about losing the countries of the region which might gravitate towards the priorities of Moscow thus distancing themselves from Turkey. One can expect more trade, investment and aid flowing from Turkey to Eurasia, and more political discourse emphasizing cultural affinity between Turkey and the countries of the region.
The second question, which is related to the first one, is where China is and/or can be located in this picture.
Turkey’s Middle Corridor project, which aims to connect Turkish transportation network with Central Asia through the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, had been on hold for years. But now new life is breathed into it as Turkey has a greater need for this route given the total blockage of routes into the Middle East and North Africa due to conflict and political instability, and also with Turkey and China concluding a deal last November to harmonize the Middle Corridor project with China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ project.
In Astana, Davutoğlu said the Middle Corridor will be active soon. He made several references to the ‘Silk Road’ clearly implying China’s role in the region, and he even said he is writing a book about the Silk Road. Quoting his words, the Middle Corridor “will reach China through Kazakhstan in the east” and “Central Asia will be connected to the Mediterranean”.
Turkey needs greater connectivity, and the Chinese are ready to provide the means. So not much Russia, but a lot of China in this picture.
Turkey needs to do more business with the Central Asian republics and Ankara is commencing renewed efforts into the Eurasian region.
Crisis with Russia and activism by China are shaping the playing field. Pragmatism is the key word here, and capabilities will have to match objectives for Turkey’s renewed Eurasia drive to be successful.
Dr. Altay Atlı is a lecturer at the Asian Studies graduate program of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, and a senior research associate at Turkey’s International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).