Ankara Has Unique Chance To Sharply Increase Its Political Presence In Central Asia – Analysis

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The meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the Organization of Turkic States Summit was held on November 11, 2022, in Samarkand amid ongoing struggle between Russia and the West over influence in Central Asia, taking on increasingly non-compromising character.

On September 29, i.e. a little over a month earlier, at a meeting with youths at Pamukkale University, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that Turkmenistan would become a full-fledged member of the Organization of Turkic States (OTC) at a heads of state summit of the bloc that was to take place in Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan was admitted to the organization as an observer even more recently than Hungary, a non-Turkic nation, located at the center of Europe, in November 2021. “I would like to share wonderful news. Turkmenistan, which previously was an observer, will also become a full member at the Organization of Turkic States summit that we will hold in Samarkand on November 11. In this way, we will complete the family portrait”, Mevlut Cavusoglu told a Pamukkale University audience in Denizli.

But his expectations were not met. On November 11, what Turkish Foreign Minister had earlier announced as ‘wonderful news’, didn’t come true. Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov refrained from going to Samarkand. At the 2022 Organization of Turkic States summit, Turkmenistan was represented instead by his father, chairman of the People’s Council of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. Thus, Ashgabat made it clear that it was not yet ready to join the Turkic club as a full member. In actual fact, what had been presented by the Turkish top diplomat to the world as almost a fait accompli turned out to be no more than giving out desirable for valid. This seems to be something like the idée fixe of Ankara’s policy towards Central Asian countries. 

It’s no wonder, then, that on November 28, Mevlut Cavusoglu, playing host to Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, returned to the subject. “We are pleased that Turkmenistan is an observer member of the OTS. Our biggest wish is for Turkmenistan to become a full member of OTS and host the summits”, he said at the press conference after a meeting with his Turkmen counterpart in Ankara. 

They saw each other again just two weeks later, at the Turkey-Azerbaijan-Turkmenistan trilateral foreign ministers meeting held before the ‘Avaza Summit’. On 14 December 2022, the first trilateral summit of the heads of state of Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Turkey took place in the Avaza tourist zone on the Caspian coast. According to official information, the agenda of the summit focused on three main topics – energy, transport and trade and economic relations. There were some expectations for a big announcement on a new supplier of natural gas to Europe when the father and son Berdimuhamedovs met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Ilham Aliyev in Avaza. The impetus for this had been given by the Turkish President. Before leaving for Avaza, he said that the trilateral summit between Turkey, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan would focus on the Turkish side’s plans to carry Turkmen gas to Turkey and from there to Europe amid Russian supply cuts. Having arrived there, he told his counterparts the following: “We are getting Caspian gas to Europe. We need to start working on the delivery of Turkmen natural gas to Western markets”.

Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedow seemed to be much more prudent and cautious, when he addressed the topic of his highest guests’ particular interest. He emphasized that ‘diversifying [gas] supply routes and their functioning should be based on clear and precise standards that would take into account multilateral interests, as well as guarantees of reliability and security’. According to him, ‘it is from this standpoint that joint initiatives to establish cooperation for the supply of natural gas from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to Turkey and further to world markets should be considered’. He simply called things by their name, as is normal between the countries considering the possibilities for joint action in the areas of energy, transport and trade. Which in essence means it is too early to talk about the need to immediately ‘start working on the delivery of Turkmen natural gas to Western markets’. As if wishing to soften the impression, given by the above statements, Turkmen President then added: “We share [your] view on the need for close trilateral cooperation based on a joint strategy for creating transport and transit corridors between Asia and Europe, running through our countries”. But this could no longer significantly change the situation at the talks in Avaza. The result is what was described by Eurasianet.com in this way: “A vaunted meeting to discuss shipping Turkmen gas to Turkey and Europe ended without a breakthrough”

Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems completely unconcerned at this. After he got home he started talking about plans to determine, with the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, a roadmap for the supply of Turkmen gas to Turkey. “Relevant instructions have now been given to the Turkish Ministry of Energy, which will carry out the preparatory work with its counterparts in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. After this preliminary work, we will meet again and determine the roadmap and make a decision. The supply of gas from Turkmenistan to our country through Azerbaijan will facilitate our work and our life”, Turkish President said during an event held in Mardin.

Observers are puzzled as to why he would not have initially determined such a sequence of actions instead of going to Avaza with pledges to deliver a ‘decisive breakthrough’ on ensuring Turkmen gas supplies to Turkish and European consumers. It is not yet quite clear what exactly Ankara has in mind. 

But the thing, apparently, is that Turkish leadership has a wider range of pressing tasks concerning Central Asia than it may seem at first glance. In particular, there is the one which was formulated by Mevlut Cavusoglu as follows: “Our biggest wish is for Turkmenistan to become a full member of OTS”. Turkmenistan’s joining the OTS as a full member is important for Ankara not only in and of itself, but also because it opens the way to ‘completing the family portrait’ and embodying a slogan which goes like this – ‘Altı devlet bir millet: Toprağımız, yurdumuz, ilimiz bir’ (‘Six states, one nation: we have a common land, a common country, and we are one people’). If one speaks from the practical side of things, then one has to draw attention to the fact that as of now, the OTS is not a defined commercial block, nor a military and political alliance.

First proposed by the then President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2006, it was founded on 3 October 2009, in Nakhchivan. It was then known as the Turkic Council or the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States. During the first decade of its existence, in 2009-2019, there were only four member States in it – Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey.  Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for a long time did not agree to join the Turkic club. In those days, they apparently did not believe there was much point becoming part of it. Things seemingly began to change by the end of the first decade of its functioning. Uzbekistan formally applied for membership on 12 September 2019. Turkmenistan got the observer status in 2021. Yet actually everything has remained as it was before. What the Turkic club does provide is a symbolic unity around a shared ‘Turkicness’ , and nothing else. What is currently being done between its member States and/or their companies on a commercial basis, is merely the result of bilateral agreements between those nations and their businessmen.  

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that there are no significant tangible benefits that the Turkic club can bring to its Central Asian member States (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) in its current state. Instead it can bring trouble to those who had the imprudence to be overly involved in advancing its cause. In 2021, the former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev made a proposal to give a new name to the Turkic Council or the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States. So he gained fame as the founding father of the Organization of Turkic States (Türk devletleri örgütü). In 2022, Nursultan Nazarbayev was estopped from making such kind of proposals on behalf of Kazakhstan, because he no longer holds the title of Elbasy, or leader of the nation.

In view of the above, Ankara is faced with the need to ‘complete the family portrait’ in Central Asia and proceed to give the OTS the form of a commercial block, and/or a military and political alliance. In terms of Turkish interests, it now seems to be more important than ‘working on the delivery of Turkmen natural gas to Western markets’. Since Ankara currently has a unique chance to sharply increase its political presence in Central Asia, capitalizing on Russia’s preoccupation with the war against Ukraine. And the OTS can serve as an excellent basis for that purpose.

Akhas Tazhutov, a political analyst   

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analysts from Kazakhstan.

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