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Turkish-Russian Tensions Put Central Asia In A Tough Spot

  • Bruce Pannier

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan review a guard of honor during during the latter's visit to Astana earlier this year. Ankara has cultivated close relationships with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan review a guard of honor during during the latter's visit to Astana earlier this year. Ankara has cultivated close relationships with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane on November 24 has put most of the Central Asian states in an extremely awkward position. No one in Central Asia wants trouble with Russia, the former colonial master, but at the same time the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Uzbeks are Turkic peoples and in the nearly 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ankara has played on cultural and linguistic affinities to successfully develop relations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry on November 25 released a statement on the downing of the Russian Su-24 by Turkey, calling it a "tragic incident" that was "regrettable."

After expressing condolences over the deaths of Russian servicemen -- the jet's pilot and a crew member of a helicopter search-and-rescue team -- the ministry quickly moved on, saying: "These days, the international fight against terrorism is taking place. Both Russia and Turkey are acting in this direction. Kazakhstan, too, supports this fight."

The statement continues with calls for Russia and Turkey to deescalate tensions and focus attention on the fight against international terrorism.

It is an example of the tightrope Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are walking right now. Russia is a major trade partner and there are still many ties from Soviet times that bind the four Central Asian states to Moscow.

'Hostage To Power Politics'

At the same time, Turkey has been a natural friend and has become a major trade partner for the four Central Asian countries also. Students from Central Asia have been welcome at Turkish universities for more than two decades. Citizens of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan do not require visas to enter Turkey.

And, although Turkish construction firms are working in all four of these Central Asian states, in Turkmenistan they have a virtual monopoly -- the only other foreign company that has been consistently working in the construction sphere there is France's Bouygues.

Beyond Russia's long history in Central Asia, there is, of course, now a Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan (one in Tajikistan also, but Tajik is not a Turkic language) and Kazakhstan shares a nearly 7,000-kilometer border with Russia.

Small surprise then that media in these four Central Asian countries have been cautious and brief in reporting on the Russian warplane and the ensuing diplomatic row between Moscow and Ankara.

Kazakhstan's Tengrinews.kz online news agency published an interview with well-known political analyst Dosym Satpaev on November 25. Satpaev said, "Kazakhstan should not be a hostage to Russian power politics, because more and more often, Russia's actions are creating distinct problems for its partners…"

Satpaev said that, in the current stand-off between Russia and Turkey, there was no point in Kazakhstan taking a side. But he warned that, in the future, "a situation could arise that would demand Kazakhstan clearly declare on whose side it is, and to which camp it is going."

Such a scenario is something all the Central Asian governments must be contemplating in the wake of the November 24 incident along the Turkish-Syrian border.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service director Torokul Doorov and Shukhrat Babajanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service helped in preparing this report

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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