Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the head of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, has arrived in Baku as part of a tour designed to revive flagging ties with Turkic-speaking former Soviet republics. The five-day trip will also take Erdogan and a delegation of Turkish businesspeople to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. RFE/RL looks at the potential for improved economic relations between Turkey and the three oil- and gas-rich Central Asian states.
Prague, 7 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), embarked today on a five-day tour of Central Asia.
Erdogan is tipped to be Turkey's next prime minister after parliament overturned a law banning him from elected office because of an old criminal conviction.
Erdogan and a delegation of businesspeople arrived today in Azerbaijan and will head to Turkmenistan tomorrow evening. The delegation will then proceed to Kazakhstan on 9 January.
The AKP leader is expected to meet with the presidents of the three states: Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan, Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, and Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan. Talks are due to focus on bilateral relations, regional issues, and trade, and are designed to help tighten Ankara's relations with the three hydrocarbon-rich countries, which Turkey considers itself close to due to their common Turkic heritage.
Ibrahim Bayram, a spokesman for the AKP, spoke with RFE/RL about the purpose of the trip. "This visit aims at deepening further economic relations and friendship," Bayram said.
Tugrul Erkin will head a delegation of 30 Turkish businessmen from the Foreign Economic Relations Board, a nongovernmental organization working to develop Turkey's external economic relations. In his opinion, the visit shows that the new Turkish government places importance on its relations with Central Asia and is willing to look into what he called the "accumulation of problems" in bilateral ties. "[In the] last two years, the internal problems of Turkey couldn't give some opportunities -- some possibilities -- to recover the relations between these countries. And [former Prime Minister Bulent] Ecevit had no possibility to travel to these countries because of his health, and the [political] coalition also had many problems. Today, we have a strong government. That's why they have to create and they have to recover, first of all, our relations," Erkin said.
Turkey endeavored to forge closer alliances with the Turkic states of Central Asia when they became independent in 1991. But observers note that such hopes soon were dampened by the region's instability, its financial shortcomings, and Russia's remaining influence over the area.
Furthermore, they note, there was a noticeable drop in the number of bilateral meetings during the past few years as Ankara focused on its troubled bid to join the European Union.
Erkin suggested that Ankara is eager to try again. "Eurasia is a very huge area. More than 300 million people are living there, and we have many historical and economic relations in this area. The European Union is our target, but we have other possibilities, and one [of them is to develop ties with] the Caucasus, Central Asia, and [other] Eurasian countries," Erkin said.
Mevlut Katik, a London-based analyst on Eurasian affairs, agrees, saying that the current tour is part of a "balancing act" on the part of the Turkish government. "This is part of an aggressive foreign-policy activity on the part of the new [Turkish] government since it came to power after the November 3 election. They intensively lobbied for European Union membership. Of course, Turkey was disappointed by the result in the Copenhagen summit. Therefore, they wanted to go for different alternatives and then a more multilateral foreign-policy activity," Katik said.
At the European Union's Copenhagen summit in December, Ankara was given a promise of negotiation for membership with the EU in 2005 if it meets certain conditions in a review set for December 2004.
Officials in Azerbaijan view positively the fact that Erdogan is beginning his tour in Baku. Talks are expected to focus on matters connected with the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, regional security, and the transportation of Caspian energy resources.
According to Katik, Erdogan's visit to the three states will focus on energy issues. "During this trip, the main focus will be on making sure that Turkey will be an energy bridge for the Central Asian energy resources. I mean, transportation of [energy resources via Turkey] to the European markets and world markets in general," Katik said.
The French news agency AFP quoted Novruz Mamedov, Aliev's chief foreign-policy adviser, as saying the fate of the Shah Deniz gas-field project to export natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Turkey will be on Erdogan's agenda in Azerbaijan.
The plan is hanging in the balance because of worries that Turkey's stagnating economy will make the country unable to honor its commitment to purchase the gas. Azerbaijani officials have said that if the go-ahead is not given by February, the project will be mothballed.
Erkin is optimistic about the future construction of pipelines passing through Turkey. "Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, [and] Azerbaijan are very important energy producers of the world. And Turkey can be a real energy terminal of Europe. Via Turkey, gas and crude oil can pass through Turkey to European countries. We have the Baku-Ceyhan project. It's a huge project, but it is [only] one possibility," Erkin said.
The construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which bypasses Russia through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, started last September. The completion of the 1,760-kilometer pipeline, which is being built at an estimated cost of $3 billion, is scheduled for 2004.
There has also been flagging trade between Turkey and Eurasia, but Erkin stressed that there is great potential for growth. "We have trade totaling with Eurasian countries $7 billion a year. These figures are not enough. I mean, in the short term, with good political relations and good economic tools, we can reach $20 billion only with Russia [compared with $4.5 billion in 2001]. And with the Central Asian countries, we can reach also maybe five times today's figure," Erkin said.
According to Turkey's state institute of statistics, Turkey's annual trade volume with Central Asia declined by 30 percent in 2001 to $830 million, including $300 million with Azerbaijan, $210 million with Kazakhstan, and $180 million with Turkmenistan.
But Alex Vatanka, editor of "Jane's Sentinel Russia and CIS," argued that there is not really much the two parties can do for one another. The priority for the Central Asia countries is to get their economies going, while Turkey can't help much because of its small amount of economic interaction with the region. "I just wonder what the Turkish delegation, in terms of concrete and real proposals that will make a difference for the Central Asian state, what they can bring with them. The Central Asian states are pretty much commodity-based economies, heavily agricultural, or have hydrocarbon resources. Turkey does fine in terms of agricultural production [and] has its domestic demands met. It doesn't need to import from any Central Asian state. And when it comes to oil and gas, the economy right now is operating under its full capacity. So I don't expect any major deal signed on the economic front," Vatanka said.
Erkin maintained, however, that Turkish investors are extremely interested in developing a broad range of areas, such as tourism and textiles, and in establishing small-scale companies.
(Arne Goli of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)