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Russia: Turkey Challenges Leadership Role In Caspian Region

As fears of instability spread through the Caspian region, Turkey is pressing its leadership role. But its initiatives may bring it increasingly into conflict with Russia, which would likely resent any trespass on its power.

Boston, 24 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- It was perhaps only a matter of time before some Russian interests would come to regard Turkey as a threat in the Caucasus and Central Asia. That appears to be the point of a front-page article in the Russian newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on Friday.

The daily, owned by Boris Berezovsky, reacted strongly to a Turkish statement last week calling for creation of a cooperative group to include countries with Turkic populations. Abdulhaluk Cay, a state minister in charge of relations with the ethnically-linked nations of the region, compared the proposed organization to the Arab League.

But "Nezavisimaya gazeta" characterized the plan as a Turkish challenge to Russia, charging that Cay had called Moscow "too weak" to oppose the formation of such a group. In fact, Cay's interview with the Reuters news agency on January 19 made no reference to Russian weakness. Instead, he was quoted as saying that such an association could be formed even if Russia objected, because of the strong historical ties among Turkic countries.

"They will get used to it," Cay said, according to Reuters. "They have to. We governed the Ottoman Empire for centuries. But today in our relations with ex-Ottoman states we do not act like the big brother," he said.

Cay may have exaggerated the reach of the Ottoman Empire, which even at its height in the 16th century did not cover the entire Caucasus or include Central Asia. But the point of citing Turkey's modern-day ethnic influence in the Caspian region was clearly to draw a contrast with Russia's waning power. Ankara also sees itself as a unifying force at a time when the war in Chechnya threatens to break the Caucasus apart.

Cay's comments followed a less inflammatory call by President Suleyman Demirel for a "Caucasus stability pact," which was also a reaction to the chaos in Chechnya. Although Russia is technically welcome to join both initiatives, Turkey has made itself the driving force.

Even without the strained interpretation by "Nezavisimaya gazeta," it is little wonder that Russia would view Turkey's proposals as a challenge to its position. Instead of bringing control to the region with a short and overwhelming war to stamp out terrorism, Moscow has heightened fears across several borders. The Turkish proposals follow concerns over refugee problems and Russian charges of aid to the rebel Chechens.

It is ironic that Russia's attempt to safeguard the unity of its federation has proved instead to be a divisive force, not only in the region but also in its relations with the West. Perhaps in reaction, Turkey is seeking to provide a new orientation, if not a unifying force.

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" was quick to pick apart the logic of the Turkish proposals, claiming that "Armenia may become the first victim" of the attempt to create a "Turkish commonwealth." But the appeal to historic hatreds and fears may only add to the divisiveness that has already opened the door for Turkish ambitions.

The remarkable recent changes in Turkey's external relations could soon make it a more logical gateway to the Caspian region than Russia can be. Beyond ethnicity, the most obvious link is the thread of petroleum pipelines that is slowly forming between the Caspian countries and Turkey. These will eventually provide export routes for the region's oil and gas, returning hard currency to countries that must often settle for Russian bartered goods.

Turkey's position as a large energy-consuming country, drawing supplies from both Russia and the Caspian, is now being regarded as a source of influence and strength, rather than weakness. This in itself is a remarkable change in Ankara's position relative to Moscow.

But even beyond energy and pipelines, Turkey's recent warming toward Greece suggests that it can play a more important role in east-west linkages. Last week's series of accords between the two countries and the visit to Ankara by Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou raise hope that relations may continue to improve.

Turkey's easing toward its westward rival has smoothed its way toward membership in the European Union. That in turn may raise hopes for countries with Turkic ties that see their future in drawing closer not only to NATO and its members but also to Europe as a trading partner.

If Turkey is representing itself as a bridge to survival, security and prosperity, it is only because the protections of Russia have failed. While it is preoccupied with war, Moscow appears heedless to the damage it has caused, both within and beyond its borders. By sowing divisions, Russia may harvest a future in which it can no longer be a unifying power.