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Walking The Tightrope Between Russia And Turkey

  • Bruce Pannier

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) and his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbaev, are two leaders of Turkic-speaking, former Soviet nations who will be nervously monitoring relations between Moscow and Ankara in the coming months.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) and his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbaev, are two leaders of Turkic-speaking, former Soviet nations who will be nervously monitoring relations between Moscow and Ankara in the coming months.

Tensions between Moscow and Ankara show no sign of abating in the wake of Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane last month. It seemed inevitable that there would be spillover into countries that have ties with both Russia and Turkey, and that these third-party governments would be forced to make some careful statements and difficult decisions.

This process is already evident in Central Asia and Azerbaijan.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to explore the balancing acts of diplomacy as the Russian-Turkish relationship deteriorates.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the discussion. Participating in the talk was Nikita Mendkovich, expert at the Center for Modern Afghanistan Studies and the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow, and Vugar Imanbeyli, professor of international relations at Sehir University in Istanbul. I had some things to say on this topic also.

It was noted at the start of the discussion that the Turkic-speaking countries that are also formerly part of the Soviet Union -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- face some of the greatest challenges in balancing ties between Russia and Turkey.

Imanbeyli noted these difficulties, saying the Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan "try to preserve their positions and to distance [themselves] from this conflict because…these regional countries have developed good relations with Russia and also with Turkey."

But there are already indications some of these countries are choosing sides.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev suggested Turkey was wrong to shoot down the Russian warplane, whether it violated Turkish airspace or not. Speaking on November 30, Nazarbaev said: "The fact is that the Russian bomber did not attack Turkey. It was not on its way against Turkey, but to fight terrorists" Those words echoed remarks by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said that the Russian warplane posed no threat to Turkey. Attempting to keep a balance, Nazarbaev added, "As hard as it may be, I believe there is a necessity to set up a joint commission, get...[an investigation] over with fast, determine the culprits, punish them, acknowledge mistakes, and restore ties. I call on our friends -- both in Russia and in Turkey -- to do so."

Mendkovich interpreted Nazarbaev’s comments this way: "A lot of countries, including Kazakhstan, have been quite disappointed at this situation and they think Turkey is the one that must do something to deescalate the situation. That's the reason for the comment by Nazarbaev."

Gas, Media Issues

On the other side of the Caspian Sea, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Baku a few days after Nazarbaev spoke. On December 4, Davutoglu told university students in Baku, "Turkey and Azerbaijan have always supported and will continue to support each other." Davutoglu met the same day with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who echoed the Turkish premier’s words to Baku students and added, "This is an unchangeable policy. This policy is based on both justice and our historical past."

Azerbaijani officials said prior to Davutoglu's visit that work on the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) would be speeded up and Davutoglu and President Aliyev spoke about this in their joint press briefing. TANAP is meant to bring Azerbaijani gas to Europe but Turkey, as the transit country for TANAP, stands to receive some of that gas also.

Turkey is on the verge of losing the 16 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas it purchases annually from Russia via the Blue Stream gas pipeline but once TANAP is finished, and that now is estimated to happen in late 2018, Turkey will initially receive some 6 bcm of gas and that amount will grow as the pipeline is expanded.

But Imanbeyli said despite this seeming preference for Turkey over Russia, Azerbaijani officials "don't want any deterioration in Turkish-Russian relations because…they will suffer also from the deterioration of relations."

Interesting, it was precisely Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan that Imanbeyli said Turkey contacted "to mediate with Russia, with Mr. Putin" after the Russian warplane was shot down.

Russia's sanctions on Turkey in the wake of the downing of the Russian bomber promise to have a detrimental effect on Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he would be talking to members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which include Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, about the limitation or possible suspension of the movement of Turkish goods through Russian territory.

Mendkovich said that "Turkish goods [sent to Central Asia] in most situations do transit through Russian territory" so "of course, all countries that are part of this union (EEU) are to discuss the situation because it's a new topic and so everybody should be informed how they're going to work in new conditions."

The discussion also touched on reasons why individual countries in Central Asia might favor Russia or Turkey if they needed to make a choice.

Nazarbaev's stance could, for example, reflect the fact that Kazakhstan has a 6,800-kilometer border with Russia. Turkmenistan, on the other hand, has deep economic ties with Turkey while its trade with Russia is far less and continues to decline.

The panelists also talked about public sentiment, noting, in some cases, that the people of individual countries could be swayed through their access to Russian media. But at the same time Imanbeyli recalled that "it’s not the 1990s" and that nearly 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union there are many people in Central Asia and Azerbaijan who have studied or worked in Turkey at some point and continue to follow world events through the eyes of Turkish media.

These issues were examined in greater detail during the round table event and other topics concerning Central Asia and Azerbaijan’s relations with Russia and Turkey were also discussed.

An audio recording of the roundtable can be heard here:

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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