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Central Asia: Analysis From Washington -- The Limits Of Language

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 18 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish President Ahmed Necdet Sezer's visit to Central Asia this week simultaneously calls attention to and highlights the limitations of linguistic and cultural affinities in defining geopolitical relationships.

Sezer arrived in Uzbekistan on Monday where he met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and signed documents on defense cooperation and international organized crime. He then visited Turkmenistan and will go to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan before returning home on Friday.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated a decade ago, many Western governments expected Turkey to play a key role in providing leadership for the five post-Soviet republics (the four he is visiting plus Azerbaijan) where members of the titular nationalities speak languages closely related to Turkish. And many observers would have predicted that any future visit there by a Turkish president would thus be a major event.

At least so far, however, both the leaders Sezer is meeting with and the world media covering his trip have treated his meetings in a very low-key way. On the one hand, such treatment suggests that a Turkish president's visit to these countries has become something entirely normal. But on the other, it inevitably raises questions as to why the dramatic predictions of a decade ago have failed to come true.

The reasons are not far to seek. When the countries of Central Asia gained their independence, many Western governments assumed that culture would play the key role in defining the future of the region. And some Western officials and commentators suggested that there would be a new "great game" for influence over these countries, this time between Turkey and Iran.

In this competition, the advocates of this view held, Turkey enjoyed certain advantages over Iran and therefore, many in the West hoped, would become the dominant regional power. Unlike Iran, which was radically Islamist and Shiite, Turkey was secular and Sunni, making it more like the leaders and peoples of Central Asia and thus potentially more attractive.

Moreover, Turkey was relatively well-off and could be expected to serve as both a source and a conduit of Western assistance to these countries. Iran, on the other hand, was poor and an even poorer candidate to become a channel of any Western assistance to that region. And finally and for many most importantly, the people of Turkey spoke a language similar to if not identical with the languages of four of the five Central Asian countries.

But in many ways, this competition never really took place, not because Turkey and Iran did not have the qualities ascribed to them but because these qualities -- largely linguistic and cultural -- have not played as great a role as three others which were largely ignored in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Soviet power.

First and foremost among these factors was geography. Central Asia is a landlocked region with few good options to reach the outside world. As a result, it has always been an area of immense natural resources but typically been one of equally immense poverty.

Turkey has not been able to play the role of bridge to the West because it is not immediately next door to Central Asia. To go from one to the other requires passing through third countries, many of which have their own interests, agendas which sometimes are antithetical to both. And Iran, largely because of American hostility to its regime, has been a cork rather than a bridge for these countries. The second critically neglected factor was economics. The Central Asian countries were and remain labor surplus but capital short. As economic theory would have predicted, they thus linked up with those countries able to supply the most capital. In the early 1990s, these were the capital-rich states of the Pacific rim, the so-called "little dragons of Asia."

Not surprisingly, for most of the last decade, three of the five presidents in Central Asia have had Koreans as economic advisors. As a result, Daewoo has proven to be a bigger player in the region--at least so far--than Mecca, something the cultural perspective did not predict.

And third, the linguistic and cultural assumptions behind a new great game neglected the political history of the region. In the absence of a concerted effort by a major outside power, Russia both as the center of the former imperial system in which the Central Asian elites were raised and as the country through which these states generally must try to reach the West, has remained the predominant power.

None of these factors was invisible a decade ago, but all of them were either ignored or downplayed by those who adopted a kind of cultural perspective they would not use elsewhere. Now, as the Turkish president makes his way through the region, the limitations of that approach are too obvious to be ignored, a factor that may lead to a more balanced and hence accurate assessment of just where Central Asia and its partners are headed.