Erdogan and Putin La Presse

Russo-Turkish Rivalry in Central Asia in the Time of COVID-19

Against the background of Chinese-American arm wrestling, there is a hegemonic struggle underway in Eurasia between Russia and Turkey. The battle is currently being fought through competing humanitarian cargoes and trying to gain dominance in the respective platforms that leverage regional cooperation.

The Balkans, South Caucasus and Central Asia: these are the main theaters where COVID-19 is exacerbating an already-existing rivalry, and the latter is the most noteworthy case study because the winner is going to gain ground, influence and prestige over the Turkic powder keg, an extremely important area in terms of geostrategic value for the destinies of Mackinder’s Heartland.

Moscow’s Model: the Eurasian Economic Union

The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU or EEU) was established in 2014 by Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, becoming operational the year later, on January 1. To date it also incorporates Armenia and Kyrgyzistan and has signed free trade agreements with Russia’s main partners, like Serbia, and the main regional players, like China and Iran. The EEU has no ambition of political supranational unity, it merely pursues the goals of integrating Eurasian economies into one common space and of functioning as a platform of dialogue and coordination for investment and trade policies.

COVID-19 is straining the resilience of the world’s most important organizations of regional cooperation, whose solidarity-based nature and self-proclaimed capability of being better than the inefficient and selfish nation-states are now being tested. The European Union is losing this challenge since no real solidarity nor efficiency has been achieved, and the EEU — which is EU-inspired — seems to be following the same path.

Kyrgyzstan Questions EEU Actions

The Kyrgyz government, one of the most enthusiast supporters of the organization up to date, is now questioning its membership because of the mistreatment received by the EEU in the early stages of the pandemic. The country hasn’t been particularly hit by the COVID-19 — it has less than 1,000 recorded cases — but the damages to the production system derived from the imposition of the state of emergency are being aggravated by the decisions of the EEU to freeze the import-export of some goods and the refusal of the EEU to back the funding of the government’s anti-crisis plan. For Kyrgyzistan, which is highly integrated in the regional economic network and tends to import more than it exports, the sudden stop of trade led to the bankruptcy of numerous small- and medium-sized enterprises and accordingly a bitter political debate has arisen.

The single actions of the member states have contributed to complicate further the situation. Kazakhstan, for instance, in the early phases of the pandemic introduced quotas to the sale of grain and wheat products and banned the export of many foodstuffs. In doing so it violated openly the EEU’s customs regime. The best metric for understanding the extent of the discontent are the words of Kyrgyz politicians. In early April Kyrgyz politicain Altynbek Sulaymon said: “Is the Customs Union currently working? Actually, it doesn’t work. In this case, it is necessary to agree on the suspension of the EAEU regimes until the situation with the coronavirus is completed, and then each member state of the union will solve its own problems.”

Time for the West to Seize the Day

The crisis has been wisely exploited by some Western entities, like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is set to deliver up to $150 million, the International Monetary Fund, which sent $121 million, and the World Bank, with which talks are ongoing for a $12 million aid.

Kyrgyzistan and even Armenia — Russia’s loyal and longtime ally — have expressed concerns about the way the EEU managed the early stages of the pandemic, concerned about the gradual imposition of tariffs and the reduction of trade.

Russia’s Response

The Kremlin hasn’t stood by indifferently in the face of the mounting discontent: it started bilateral talks with Bishkek with the goal of using the Russo-Kyrgyz Development Fund to finance the anti-crisis plan, against the background of the delivery of humanitarian aid to both countries, and it sponsored a video-conference, on April 14, aiming at spurring the EEU members to help one other.

The much-awaited Russian entrance on the scene proved fruitful: the member states agreed to make an anti-COVID-19 joint action plan based on states-regional financial institutions collaboration, mutual support in the implementation of anti-crisis plans, privileged access to credit and loans for the import of medical goods, fall of the barriers to trade, and so on.

The same month, on April 29, on Kazakhstan’s initiative, a video-meeting took place with the Russian counterparts to discuss the strengthening of the cooperation within the EEU framework and possible solutions for the economy recovery in the post-pandemic. The meeting seems to have marked the end of selfish phase, since the two parts have agreed to widen the bilateral and multilateral cooperation, considering it the only way to ensure a future to the organization.

But it’s not only within and through the EEU that the Kremlin is trying to preserve its influence in the post-soviet space. Cargoes of humanitarian aid have been delivered in the above-mentioned Armenia and Kyrgyzistan and also to Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The last two powers, on the other hand, are backing Moscow’s health diplomacy by sending tons of food and medical goods both within the EEU, including Russia, and in other important places in the Russian sphere of influence, like Moldova, Serbia and Belarus.

Ankara’s model: the Turkic Council

COVID-19 has clearly revealed Turkey’s inherently imperial nature and global ambitions. Ankara has defined itself a “great power reborn” in the days of the pandemic and is leading the world battle of humanitarian aid, positioning itself just behind China in terms of donations delivered and countries helped.

Ankara’s neo-ottoman, turanist and pan-turkic ambitions naturally and inevitably clash against Moscow’s foreign agenda and it’s arguable that nothing has changed from the Crimean war to date: the two powers are fighting in the same geopolitical theaters and for the same reasons. The pandemic is merely contributing to exacerbating this already-existing reality of conflict in light of the Turkish protagonism in the main Russian-influenced areas: Western Balkans, Moldova, Central Asia.

Aid Battle: Ankara vs. Moscow

Moreover it’s pretty evident that the powers are engaged in an antagonistic competition as their strategies are modeled to satisfy very precise ethno-religious criteria: indeed, Moscow is delivering aid to Bosnia’s Serb republic and to Moldova, whereas Ankara is focusing the efforts on Bosnian Muslims and Gagauzs.

But it’s in Central Asia that the competition is more intense than elsewhere, because the bilateral diplomacy is strengthened by the existence of important and influential platforms of regional cooperation, like the Turkic Council, the International Organization of Turkic Culture and the more recently-established World Turks Qurultai.

Contrarily to the EEU, the Turkic Council member states acted orderly and concertedly since the pandemic’s earliest stages, working within the framework provided by the organization and held a first video-meeting on April 10. This is in the same period in which Moscow was dealing with the EEU’s internal divisions and finding out how much it is tremendously exposed to the risk of anarchy in the absence of a strong leadership.

Turkey’s Bold Moves

Turkey has been the example for the other member countries via the fast greenlighting of humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan and the preponderant entrance on the scene amidst the Kyrgyz-EEU arm wrestling by converting the Bishkek-based Hospital for the Kyrgyz-Turkish Friendship into the government’s main operational center in the battle against COVID-19. Moreover, the Turkish big business is backing the country’s health diplomacy: the YDA Group collected medical goods, like masks, protective gloves and goggles to be sent to the Kazakh hospitals.

The -stans are showing an incredible mutual solidarity, a meaningful event considering their conflicted-filled history, and part of the credit is undoubtedly owed to the excellent ideological work carried out by Ankara in the last thirty years with the spreading out in the region of pan-turkism. Kazakhstan’s humanitarian assistance to Kyrgyzistan and Tajikistan didn’t limit to the delivery of medical goods but also the sending of foods, including 5,000 tons of flour each. Also Kazakhstan led the evacuation of Kyrgyz citizens from India and China, repatriated on flights organized and paid for by Nur-Sultan, and launched a very intense partnership with Uzbekistan to better coordinate the efforts. The latter, instead, has turned into the main donor of Turkestan countries, playing a primary role also in helping Afghanistan.

Ultimately, the Turkic Council member states provided much support to a country tied to the organization by an observer status but which aspires to full membership in the next future: Hungary. Budapest entered the entity in accordance with Fidesz’s turanism-influenced foreign agenda and to date has received about 8 tons of textiles from Turkey to make masks and 150,000 masks from Uzbekistan. This is another commendable outcome for Turkish diplomacy.

What Happens Post-Pandemic?

It’s unclear if Kazakhstan’s humanitarian turnaround in Turkestan, especially addressed to the needy Kyrgyzistan — which is member of both the EEU and Turkic Council — is due to Moscow’s or Ankara’s pressures. Surely, both diplomatic corps played a role in convincing Nur-Sultan’s ruling elite to put aside isolationist and selfish tendencies in favor of solidarity.

The EEU-based Russian model proved inefficient in the age of COVID-19, whereas conversely the Turkic Council proved able to develop a common policy based on dialogue and concerted actions since the beginning. Both models are already bearing fruits and everything seems to indicate that Ankara is ahead.

Turkey is Winning

Indeed, while Kyrgyzistan is questioning its own participation in the EEU and Uzbekistan — after carefully monitoring the situation — is more and more reluctant as regard to its eventual inclusion. Turkey is bringing home the biggest and most important achievements in this diplomatic war.

Aselsan, Turkey’s giant of the defense industry, on 20 April signed a cooperation agreement with Kazakhstan for the production of remote-controlled weapon systems, which are going to be made by the subsidiary on site, the KAE (Kazakhstan Aselsan Engineering). The Daily Sabah, the megaphone of Turkey’s deep state, reported the news in triumphal tones: “The deal with Kazakhstan will boost up the operations in Central Asia”.

Since Nur-Sultan is Turkestan’s main power, it can be expected a domino effect in the area and it’s also emblematic that, despite the pandemic, the overall trade volume with Ankara is increasing in several sectors: timber, electrical products, chemicals, steel. The EEU’s protectionist retreat has probably influenced this trend.

Where Moscow is Absent, Turkey is Ready to Replace Russian Power

The pandemic highlighted the Turkic Council’s superiority in terms of organizational model in comparison with the EEU’s: celerity, coordination, mutual solidarity. The Kyrgyz and Armenian discontent represent a hard hit for the Kremlin and the fact that it was Turkey the first player to exploit the crisis, backed by the Western financial institutions, has to be considered a very important sounding alarm: where Moscow is absent, Ankara is ready to replace it.

Turkey is already working on its post-pandemic approach, and Central Asia is one of the regions where the health diplomacy has been designed to maximize the profits as much as possible. The idea isn’t only to extend the powers, tasks and range of action of the Turkic Council, but to take advantage of the increased trade volume among Ankara, the South Caucasus and the Turkestan countries to promote the strengthening and expansion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway network.

If this is to happen, the appearance of frictions with the EEU will be inevitable. In a way this attrition of relations already exists as shown by Uzbekistan’s case. The country has finalized its adhesion to the Turkic Council in a month whereas it still hasn’t taken a stand as regard to the Kremlin’s Eurasian EEU dreams even after four years of frustrating talks.