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Central Asia: Turkey Lifts Visa Requirement For Post-Soviet States

(RFE/RL) July 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Ankara has lifted its visa requirement for tourist visits to Turkey of up to 30 days by citizens of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Mongolia.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Mehmet Gunay told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on July 30 that Ankara has unilaterally abolished short-term visas for citizens of the four former Soviet republics as well as Mongolia starting on August 1.

Visa-Free Regime

"The decision of the cabinet of ministers was announced in the [official] 'Resmi Gazete' newspaper and came into force," he said. "According to the decree, holders of passports from Azerbaijan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan do not need a visa for tourist visits of up to 30 days. They can come [to Turkey] without visas."

The number of tourists and labor migrants -- both legal and illegal -- is likely to rise in the aftermath of the abolition of the short-term visa.

Turkey has had a visa-free regime with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan along with Georgia have also enjoyed visa-free relations with Turkey.

Officials in Ankara first voiced the intention to abolish visa regimes with the four former Soviet republics and Mongolia earlier this month. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told the Istanbul-based daily "Zaman" that Turkey would become the second home for all Turks and Muslims.

The decision comes after the victory of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development (AK) Party in parliamentary polls July 22.

Authorities in the affected countries welcomed the move.

An Aid To Businesses

Tajik Economy and Trade Ministry spokesman Ghafurjon Rasuli spoke to RFE/RL’s Tajik Service.

"Of course, it will help strengthen [mutual] cooperation," he said. "It will also give an opportunity to Tajik businessmen to go to that country without difficulties and do business there."

Turkish entrepreneurs doing business in the post-Soviet countries also see Ankara’s decision as opening a door to new business opportunities.

Kenan Saglikli is the head of the Turkish company Akgul in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.

"Turkish businessmen who wanted to come here have faced many difficulties," he said. "Now, the abolition of the visa regime opens a great opportunity for businessmen from both Turkey and Azerbaijan. It's a great move. It will be even better when the Azerbaijani government will make a similar decision."

Turkey was one of the first countries to declare its support for the newly independent countries of Central Asia and Azerbaijan after the 1991 Soviet collapse. Turkish people have also said they were happy to embrace their Turkic-speaking "brother nations."

Reviving Pan-Turkism?

Turkish businesses brought a great deal of investment to Central Asia, Turkish colleges opened throughout the region, while many Central Asian students also came to Turkey to study at universities.

Turkey has also quickly become one of the major destinations for shuttle-traders from the post-Soviet republics, while Turkish resorts like Antalya have become a familiar place for some of the wealthier people from Central Asia and Azerbaijan to spend their vacations.

But the closer ties between Turkey and Central Asian countries have also brought some drawbacks. Turkey has become a transit route and a destination country for prostitutes and other illegal migrants from the former Soviet republics.

Shortly after the euphoria of independence passed, some Central Asian politicians started voicing concern over Ankara's possible intention to replace an old "big brother" -- Russia -- while some scholars worried about the possible revival of pan-Turkism.

Over the years the relationships between the former Soviet republics and Turkey have calmed and become more pragmatic.

Turkic-Speaking Countries 'Flagman'

However, Ankara's decision now to lift visa requirements seems to have stirred up concern about Turkey's possible hegemonic intentions.

Qubat Ibadoglu, the director of the Baku-based Center for Economic Research, spoke to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.

"One of the important goals of Turkey is to become the flagman of the Turkic-speaking countries and to expand its hegemonic opportunities among them," Ibadoglu said. "It wants to expand cooperation in the fields of foreign trade, currency exchange, and exports. [The recent move to end the visa regime] is the first step."

Among the new countries included in the visa-free policy, Uzbekistan has had the most politicized relations with Turkey.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov made critical remarks about the Turkish leadership's alleged support for Uzbek opposition members who found refuge in Turkey. Among them was the leader of the Uzbek opposition party Erk, Muhammad Solih, who fled Uzbekistan in 1993 after facing harassment at home.

Turkish-Uzbek Problems

The relations between Ankara and Tashkent soured even further after the February 1999 bombings in Tashkent.

The Karimov government accused Solih of masterminding the bombings. Solih was tried in absentia and sentenced to a lengthy prison term on terrorism charges.

Solih was forced to leave Turkey and received political asylum in Europe.

Uzbekistan citizens were able to buy $10 visas at airports and other border points until June 1, 2003.

Afterwards, Turkey introduced a full-visa regime for Uzbek citizens after reports of Turkish businessmen having difficulties getting Uzbek visas.

The new $80 visa fee did not stop Uzbeks from traveling to Turkey: numerous shuttle-traders continued to go to Istanbul and other Turkish cities, while many others stayed and worked there illegally.

Muhsin recently spoke to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service from Istanbul.

Vacation Destination

"Yes, there are many of them," he said. "One can see a lot of young Uzbeks, mostly in big cities like Istanbul, Ankara, and Antalya. There are very few among them who came to study here. Others have come to work and earn money."

The number of tourists and labor migrants -- both legal and illegal -- is likely to rise in the aftermath of the abolition of the short-term visa.

Over 40,000 Kazakhs and nearly 2,000 Uzbeks visited Antalya resorts in 2006.

Ankara has lifted these short-term visa requirements for the four post-Soviet countries unilaterally.

Turkish citizens willing to visit Uzbekistan or Tajikistan have so far had to go through a regular procedure to get visas from the embassy and consulates. Will Central Asians reciprocate to Turkey with a similar friendly move?

"It is up to them," said Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Gunay.

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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