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Turkey: A Diplomatic Return To The Caucasus And Central Asia

Prague, 8 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - After a 13-month break during the rule of the pro-Islamic Welfare Party, Turkey is again focusing on the Turkic states of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Yesterday, Foreign Minister Ismail Cem arrived in Baku for talks with the Azerbaijani leadership. Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, too, will visit Azerbaijan either in late September or early October.

This diplomatic focus on relations with the Turkic successor states to the former Soviet Union constitutes a return to the system of foreign policy priorities espoused by the governments of first Suleyman Demiral and then Tansu Ciller in 1992-96. By contrast, the pro-Islamic Welfare Party headed by Necmettin Erbakan cultivated ties with other leading Muslim states, but virtually ignored Central Asia and the Caucasus. Acknowledging this fact, and the resulting decline of Turkey's influence and standing in the region, Yilmaz declared on being appointed premier in late June that his first trip abroad would be to Central Asia.

Since late 1991, when the Muslim republics of the USSR declared their independence, Turkey's relations with them have been less than harmonious, despite the linguistic and cultural similarities between the Anatolian Turks and related Turkic peoples. Western expectations that, following the demise of Communism as the state-imposed ideology, Turkey and Iran would engage in a struggle for the hearts and mindsof the Turkic peoples of Central Asia proved misplaced. The overriding concern of the newly independent Central Asian and Transcaucasus states was not to import a new ideology but to develop the broadest possible economic and infrastructural ties with the world at large.

Euphoric predictions by the late President Turgut Ozal of a Turkish sphere of influence extending, he said, "from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China" engendered hopes that Turkey would provide urgently needed investment in the newly independent Central Asian states. But these hopes proved misplaced, as did the aspirations of some Turkish political figures to secure for Turkey, with Western backing, the role of a regional power.

After several years of uninterrupted economic upswing between 1984-1990, by 1992 the Turkish economy was heading for crisis. Ankara was thus unable to provide economic aid in the desired quantities, but continued to fund a program of expanded cultural contacts, including satellite TV broadcasts to Central Asia and scholarships for Central Asian and Azerbaijani students to study in Turkey.

Because the Azerbaijanis are closer to the Anatolian Turks, both geographically and linguistically, than are the other Turkic peoples of the former USSR, Azerbaijani-Turkish relations were perceived as a barometer for measuring Turkey's influence throughout Central Asia. Moreover, by virtue of its geographic position, Azerbaijan was perceived as Turkey's gateway to Central Asia. Turkey's failure unequivocally to condemn the ouster in June 1993 of Azerbaijan's enthusiastically pro-Turkish president Abulfaz Elchibey served to highlight both the limits of Turkey's influence in the region, and Russia's undiminished ability to intervene in the domestic political affairs of the newly independent states.

Since 1993, the five Turkic Soviet successor states (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) have determined their respective foreign policy orientations and priorities. None of them regard Turkey as more than, at best, one of a number of economic partners. True, Azerbaijan hopes to build a major export pipeline for its Caspian oil from Baku through Georgia to the eastern Mediterranean terminal of Ceyhan --a project that Turkey is keen to implement but unable to finance, and which has the backing of the U.S. government. By contrast, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are reaping the benefits of U.S. and German investment while vying for the role of regional leader within Central Asia, and Kyrgyzstan is increasingly oriented towards China as a major economic partner.

Turkish Minister of State Ahad Andican recently formulated the new Turkish government's priorities with regard to the Turkic Soviet successor states as follows: First, to fortify the independence of these countries and thus enable them "to stand on their own feet." And second, to develop "a system of relations based on equality," abjuring what Andican described as the "sentimental" approach of the early 1990s. The old system, he said, treated these countries with condescension "as though they were part of the Third World."

In particular, Andican pointed out, this latter assumption was mistaken because the Central Asian states were more advanced than Turkey in certain infrastructural aspects, such as science and their education systems. Turkey's state ministry for relations with Central Asia last month established an Economic Cooperation Council and a Social and Cultural Coordination Council as part of this overall program to foster closer ties. Whether the activities of these bodies, and the visits this month of Prime Minister Yilmaz and Foreign Minister Cem will open a new chapter in relations between Turkey and Central Asia remains to be seen.