It seems a long way from the time when the leader of the Republican’s People Party, Mustafa Kemal, summed up his country’s foreign policy in 1931 with the famous motto ‘Peace at home, peace in the world’. The Republic of Turkey has changed radically since then, as has its position in the world.
Despite its distance from the economic growth of the BRICS, and despite the internal political instability that has led to four military coups in the history of the Turkish Republic, Turkey has completely changed its approach to geopolitics in the last three decades: with the second largest army in NATO and a crucial geopolitical position straddling the Middle East and Europe, it has transformed itself from being a border country during the Cold War to considering and acting as a regional power in its own sphere of influence.
Taking advantage of its central position, the new Turkish leadership, under the aegis of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), has over the last two decades been able to create alternative synergies to EU membership, long frozen due to the political system of the Turkish Republic. Since 1989, with the European Community’s rejection of the Turkish Republic’s membership, Turkey has been looking eastwards, where in Central Asia great changes were looming due to the implosion of the Soviet Union. This keen interest, which was not dictated solely by political expediency, was based on an ethnic, cultural and linguistic affinity with the former Soviet Central Asian countries due to their common Turanian ancestry. Turkey was the first state to recognise the independent republics of the Central Asian area, promising not only diplomatic but also economic support. A sign of these intentions was the inauguration of Turkey’s international Development and Cooperation Agency (TIKA). The first attempts, however, despite regular summits between the leaders of Turkish nations that began in 1992, failed precisely because of the economic stagnation and instability of Turkey, which, in the post-Soviet context, was unable to maintain its role as Bridge Country between West and East.
It was not until the first decade of the 21st century that diplomatic exchanges between the Central Asian countries and Ankara regained vigour, and Turkey’s influence was such that it formed the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States in 2009 along with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Yet, despite increasing bilateral relations, Turkey has for several years directed its efforts almost exclusively towards the MENA region and Africa. This is demonstrated, for example, by its military intervention in Libya, Syria and Iraq, as well as its extensive humanitarian aid to a number of African countries, most notably Somalia.
Turkey’s commitment in the Central Asian area has only recently been reaffirmed with vigour, namely when, during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020, Ankara decisively sided with Baku with diplomatic support and substantial military aid sent during the 44 days of fighting. The Azerbaijani victory allowed Erdogan to relaunch Turkey’s role in the region, creating a solid bridge between the Caucasus and Central Asia. This has allowed the international renewal of the Turkish Council, which, as the latest statements by Foreign Minister Cavusoglu prove, aims at solid cooperation, especially in the defence sector. Nevertheless, despite its efforts, Turkey’s economic influence remains modest in the region, and it is outclassed by Russia and China, which also control most of the infrastructure in Central Asian countries. However, Ankara’s latest moves seem to suggest a more decisive approach to this area of the world than in the past, where Turkey can count not only on cultural affinities, but also on the willingness of Central Asian countries to diversify their economies: Turkey represents a strategic partner for the future, capable of opening a corridor to the West through the Caspian Sea, which would make it possible to escape from the ‘geographical trap’ that for centuries has condemned this area to dependence on China and Russia.