Central Asian republic, namely, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, are mostly Turkic countries. They have great similarities with Turkey in terms of ethnic, cultural, and religious composition. In addition to former-Soviet Central Asia, there is also a substantial Turkic population in Afghanistan. The Uighur Region in China, on the eastern sector of the region, is home to the Uighur Turks. As a matter of fact, the common historical name for Central Asia has been ’Turkistan’.
Known to be the homeland of present-day Anatolian Turks, the region has very vivid linguistic, religious and cultural ties with Turkey. These ties have surfaced very strongly with the collapse of the USSR. With the end of the Cold War, labeling the area covering Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Central Asia as the “Turkish world” points to the power of these ties.
The six republics of Central Asia are distinguishable by their energy resources, mostly oil and natural gas, as well as by their agricultural potential. However, it cannot be said that these countries are geographically at a very advantageous position: To the south there is Afghanistan with its chronic instability and proximity to Iran and Pakistan with their religious and ethnic fanaticism. To the north there is the Russian Federation, which is still trying to absorb the shock from its retreat caused by the disintegration of the USSR. Moreover, even though dependence on Russia in some areas has decreased, it still continues. To the east of the region is China with its gigantic power. Central Asia is prone to mounting tension from the Pakistan-India and China-India conflicts. Looking at this picture, it is clear that should the region take either of the Russian, Chinese, or Iranian models as an example, this would not be to the benefit of the EU and Turkey. Moreover, both the people and the elite of the region have made their choices for democracy and liberal economy. Central Asian republics have not been able to attract European and American companies as much as they would have liked, following the collapse of the USSR. Except for some energy and construction companies, the region seems forgotten in comparison to Central and Eastern Europe. Even though there was some action in the late 1990s with German and American investments, it was evident that financial solutions are not sufficient to bring about change in the region. In the aftermath of September 11, the US has developed a military interest towards the region, and has endeavored to open bases in Uzbekistan with the war in Afghanistan. However, just as with economic instruments, military options will fail to yield satisfactory results. At the present stage, the American initiative in the region consolidates authoritarian tendencies while it fails to bring meaningful contributions to economic, social, and political life. At the any rate, the approach with its “stability and security first” that has neglected other pillars of development, has done so much with the Palestinian question and the Iraq War. If a similar result is not solicited in Central Asia, economic instruments must be utilized together with military and political initiatives. However, the factor that will increase the effects of these instruments is an understanding that is not alien to the region. Turkey has the power to play a role with its strong social, linguistic, racial, and religious ties to the region.
Currently, many Turkish firms and citizens conduct business in these countries and this could be useful in integrating the region to Europe and the rest of the world. Moreover, bearing in mind that these countries look upon Turkey as a role model due to their kinship ties, as a strong and equal member of the West, Turkey can be most beneficial in protecting the EU’s interests in the region as well as encouraging democratization and liberalization over an area that stretches to the Great Wall. The expansion of EU’s values and principles as far as China, along with the addition of examples other than Turkey, will both prompt these newly independent Moslem countries to sincerely adhere to these principles and also relay a positive message to the Islamic axis to the south. The EU influence that will be projected on Central Asia towards Turkey will also enhance the EU’s Eurasia vision. Central Asia would enable the EU to stand more strongly on its policies towards Russia, China, and South Asia. Central Asia is the heart of Asia. Without the continent’s heart, sustaining life will prove impossible by retreating to one of the continent’s peninsula. Should the EU leave Central Asia to its fate, it will invite trouble in the middle run. So far, Turkey has spent much effort to project EU values to Central Asia and to integrate Central Asian countries with the West. However, Turkey’s limitations are clear. Turkey’s EU membership will both increase Turkey’s leverage in Central Asia and also convey a vision as the EU’s representative.
Dr. Sedat LACINER: Director of International Strategic Research Organization