Mainstream political science keeps misunderstanding Turkey’s moves in the international arena because every speech and action of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan is being read through the wrong interpretive category, that of so-called “neo-Ottomanism” (Yeni Osmanlıcılık).
Indeed, Ankara’s contemporary foreign policy is much more complex and variegated than Western political analysts used to think and the so-called neo-Ottomanism – a term coined in the West and used only by Westerners – is the mere gear wheel of a much wider ideological system based on the perfect mixture of pan-Islamism, pan-Turkism and Turanism; this is further informed by the presence of national security doctrines such as the Blue Motherland (Mavi Vatan) and the Zero Problems with Neighbors policy (Komşularla Sıfır Sorun Politikası).
Turkey’s Eyes on the -Stans
Turkey’s agenda for post-Soviet Central Asia can’t be understood by resorting to the idea of neo-Ottomanism. In this pivotal region, from whose control depends the hegemony over the so-called Heartland, Turkey is weaponizing religion, ethnicity and culture by means of NGOs, international organisations, mass media, universities and cultural centers promoting pan-Turkism and Turanism simultaneously.
Everything suggests that the Justice and Development Party’s Turn to the East is working. The Ankara-based Turkic Council competed successfully with the Kremlin-driven Eurasian Economic Union during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the -stans are being shaken up by an Islamic revival and their governments are more and more willing to open up their countries to new players such as Turkey.
In a few years Ankara has been able to dramatically expand the fields touched by the cooperation framework with the South Caucasus and the -stan countries, which are no longer limited to just trade and culture. Against the background of the increasingly high infrastructural interconnection, as shown by the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars rail line, Turkey is managing to interfere in a very sensitive domain: security.
Russia is No Longer the Only Player in Central Asia
In the post-Cold War there has been an epoch-making paradigm shift in Central Asia: no longer Russian-controlled, other players have been able to enter this region and build small spheres of influence. Russia tried (unsuccessfully) to avoid the opening of a new Great Game by resorting to the support of China, with which has set up a divide et impera policy based on a clear distribution of roles and competences: the former involved in military and security affairs, the latter involved in trade and investments.
But Chinese money didn’t prevent the West, the Gulf monarchies, Japan, Turkey and a number of other players from expanding in now-free Central Asia, and all of them gradually built their own spheres of influence.
As regards Turkey, it is not a mere question of anti-Russian containment, there is something much more important at stake from Ankara’s perspective: the very existence of the pan-Turkic and Turanist dream. It is in this context, for instance, that political analysts have to read Ankara’s involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh war; it is a way to secure the South Caucasus, the gate with which to connect Anatolia to Central Asia.
Turkey’s Next Focus: Defense
Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar recently travelled to Central Asia in the last week of October. During his tour he landed Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan. In Nur-Sultan he was greeted by his counterpart with the brotherly expression “welcome to the fatherland from the motherland” and the atmosphere was shaped by common trust. The visit ended up with several results, such as the promise to keep developing the bilateral ties, especially on defense and military cooperation. The same issues were raised in Bishkek and in Tashkent, but it is necessary to focus on what occurred in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan, in Turkey’s vision, is, possibly, even more important than Kazakhstan and the other -stans because it is known to be the region’s soft belly. The results, accordingly, have been much more numerous than those achieved in the rest of the tour. Akar confirmed that it was agreed “to enhance relations in every field. This includes trade, economic, social, political and, of course, military relations”. The most considerable outcome is related to the latter field, because the two defense ministers signed a military agreement aimed at furthering bilateral cooperation on defense and security.
Why is it important to give the proper importance to these aforementioned events is easy to understand: security was, until yesterday, an exclusive domain of the Kremlin. From now on Russia will have to follow the developments occurring in post-Soviet Central Asia even more closely, because the greatest dangers don’t come from China and the United States, but from the often overlooked Turkey.
From Hungary to Mongolia
Turkey is managing to build a Turkish-centered international order in Eurasia via the provision of powerful ideological glues to globalisation-hit identity-seeking peoples. The strategy is well-designed as it targets simultaneously the lowest and the highest levels of the societies, with the former being influenced by the work of media, culture centres, NGOs and universities and the latter being pressured by a changing public opinion and by the Turkish political assertiveness.
South Caucasus and Central Asia are the core of Turkey’s masterplan for Eurasia, but the borders of this world-overturning vision are not restricted to the Turkish-speaking word. Stressing the importance played by the fact of having common ancestral origins, that is to come from the ancient and magic lands of Turan, Ankara has established a strategic partnership with Hungary and it is increasing its exposition in Mongolia and within Russia itself.
The ‘Cultural and Spiritual Integration’ of Turkic Peoples
Two years ago the pan-Turkic and Turanist network was enlarged by the establishment of the Diyanet-funded and intelligence-linked endeavor World Turks Qurultai, another organization whose aim is to make the Turanian and Turkic peoples closer.
Russia should worry about the fact that some Turkic-inhabited republics have joined the body, like Yakutia and Tuva. Indeed, the World Turks Qurultai works for the “cultural and spiritual integration” of Turkic peoples and it wouldn’t be an unexpected outcome the appearance of separatist movements and feelings in the above-mentioned Russian republics.
Russia seems about to experience a new season of internal ethnic conflicts and Turkey is playing a key-role in the yet-to-come separatist insurgency. There are many alarm signals in historically war-plagued republics like Chechnya, Dagestan, Tatarstan, and even in less conflictual realities, like Bashkortostan. From the Caucasus to Siberia, it’s the presence of Turkish-backed entities that helped the separatist wave spread, making the polarization sharper between Slavs and non-Slavs.
The same scenario is likely to occur in Central Asia, where the growing radicalization of Muslim youth is widely attributable to the presence of foreign-funded culture centers, religious schools, and mosques, essentially backed by Turkey and the Persian Gulf oil monarchies. The more the civil society and the intellectual intellighenzia is tied to Turkey, the harder will be to keep the -stans in the Russian world (Russkiy Mir).
What is ‘Turanism?’
The Turanism is a school of thought born out of the mind of Turkish and Hungarian thinkers in late 19th century to counter the powerful influence exerted at the time by pan-Germanism and pan-Slavism in Central Europe and the Balkans. These were the two ideologies that contributed the most to redraw the geography of the Old Continent in that epoque of great nationalist ferment.
Hungary’s and Ottoman Turkey’s Turanist aimed at avoiding the fall of their empires via the building of a trans-continental and multi-national alliance made up by those States inhabited by the peoples from Turan, that is the region of Central Asia from which Turks, Magyars, Tatars, Finns, Karelians, Lapps, and a number of other peoples come from.
As history shows, Turanism didn’t work at the time of conception but Viktor Orban and Erdogan got to make it live again in the 21th century and, as proven by their achievements throughout Eurasia, they are having quite a success. Turanism, in short, is turning out to be a force to be reckoned with as it is contributing significantly to the global transition to multipolarism.