[Opinion] Turkey: from common heritage to security and mosque diplomacy in Central Asia

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Türkmen Terzi

Following the dissolution of the communist Soviet Union, the leaders of Central Asia’s newly established states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan largely welcomed “secular” Turkey’s brotherly approach as well as the Gülen movement’s educational and business activities during the early years of independence.  However, relations between Turkey and the Turkic Central Asian countries have since then evolved into something of a more complex nature as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) pursues an Islamist and jihadist ideology in Central Asia.

Culture, politics and the economy have constituted the foundation of the Turkey-Central Asian countries for the last 30 years. Previous Turkish governments maintained strong political relations with the Turkic states, with the private sector having substantial economic investments. Turkish NGOs as well as religious and cultural groups carry out various educational and social activities.  However, military and security issues have become increasingly dominant in Ankara’s recent relations with the Central Asian Turkic states.

History books indicate that the Central Asian steppes are a mainland of the Turks and that Turkic empires extended as far as from the Republic of Sakha to South India and Rome over the centuries. As Turkic states lost their independence to Soviet rule during the last century and the Turkic people were largely assimilated under communist rule, one may argue whether or not a Turkic world exists. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan won independence from Soviet Russia two decades ago, and while the people of these major Turkic-speaking states do not necessarily admit their Turkish roots, they instead define their ethnicity by their country names. A citizen of Kazakhstan says he is a Kazakh, and a citizen of Kyrgyzstan says he is a Kyrgyz, while people from Azerbaijan would refer to themselves as Azeri. Ironically, during the 19th century, a person in Anatolia would refer to himself as an Ottoman, while a person in Azerbaijan would call himself a Turk.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Russia in 1989, these Central Asian states have been re-establishing their Turkic and Islamic identities after a 70-year communist regime during the 20th century. The Republic of Turkey remained the only independent Turkic state following the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate in 1920, the successful war of independence against European colonial powers and Russia’s invasion after World War I. The Turkish state established strong cultural and political relations with the newly independent Central Asian Turkic republics. Turkey’s former presidents Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel visited these countries in the ’90s, establishing strong diplomatic relations with these “brother countries.” The Gülen movement’s educational institutions in these counties played a major role in re-connecting these Turkic nations.

Turkey’s Central Asian strategy has changed as Erdoğan no longer supports the Gülen movement’s science-oriented schools. Erdoğan does not share the secular politics of previous counterparts and has done a great deal to ensure the discontinuation of these schools and instead uses an Islamist ideology to influence Central Asia’s Turkic population. Turkey’s Diyanet religious authority built many mosques in the Central Asian countries, and the state-run Maarif (Education) Foundation has started opening schools in the region. Compared to other Turkic countries, the powerful Diyanet is more visible in Kyrgyzstan since Turkey’s strong religious directorate built many schools, mosques and madrassas throughout the country. One of the largest mosques in Central Asia, the Bishkek Central Mosque, designed in the tradition of Ottoman architecture, was built with the help of Turkey and was opened on September 2, 2018, by former Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov and Turkish President Erdoğan.

For Erdoğan, who uses religious rhetoric to influence Central Asian Turks, the relationship with Uzbekistan is especially important as the Central Asian country has the largest population in the region, and its people retain a strong Islamic identity and a strong sense of national pride. Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, who died in September 2016, had always distanced his country from Turkey during his 27 years in office. Erdoğan visited Uzbekistan’s new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, in Tashkent in November 2016, with a large delegation, including his wife Emine, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar and several ministers and businessmen. Erdoğan’s AKP signed a $3 billion deal with the Uzbek government. Erdoğan was the first Turkish president to visit Uzbekistan in 16 years, and more interestingly, the Turkish president, Akar and Fidan were the three key people who did not testify before a Turkish parliamentary commission regarding a coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016 but who together visited Uzbekistan just four months after the abortive putsch. Defense was the key area in a recent agreement signed between Turkey and Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan borders Afghanistan, one of the most unstable countries in the world, and jihadist movements from the Middle East to Central Asia means Turkey is a vital security partner in Central Asia.

Turkey’s recent military success in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh came as a result of its drone technology. Turkish air supremacy stopped eastern-based General Khalifa Haftar’s dreams of capturing the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Thanks to its drone technology, the Turkish army also prevented Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s forces from entering Idlib. Turkey’s’ successful role in Azerbaijan’s war with Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh led to the close relationship between Ankara and Baku. Well-known writer Francis Fukuyama commented in his article titled “Droning On in the Middle East” that Turkey has become the main actor in drone technology under its autocratic president Erdoğan. Fukuyama mentioned that the Turkish army uses drones more effectively than the US, Russia and China as Turkey has developed domestic drones and has used them to devastating effect in several recent military conflicts as well as in the fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) within its own borders.

The Erdoğan regime has no interest in pursuing the “Peace at home, peace in the world” policy of Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, nor former Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu’s “Zero problems with neighbors” strategy. Ankara recently established military bases in Qatar and Somalia and has been involved in many conflicts in the region. The Erdoğan government has received major support from the Turkish public for his military interventions in many parts of the world as the ruling AKP formed an electoral alliance with Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Erdoğan’s Islamic-fascist regime increasingly risks peace at home and in the region with the destructive drone technology, produced by Erdoğan’s own son-in-law Selçuk Bayraktar.

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