Why Russia Should Worry About Turkey’s Growing Presence in the -stans

Recent events in Idlib have shown the fragility of the marriage of convenience signed four years ago by Russia and Turkey. While the former seemed — and still seems — willing to de-escalate tensions with Ankara, mostly for reasons of realpolitik, the latter periodically exploits instability and worsens crises as leverage with which to oblige Moscow to re-open the negotiating tables and get new benefits and more concessions.

It’s happening right now in Syria but the truth is that Turkey is pursuing an anti-Russian agenda in every battlefield and geopolitical theater where both powers have interests: from the Balkans to the Middle East, from North Africa to Central Asia, and within the Russian territory itself as shown by the cases of Crimea, Tatarstan, and other Turkic-inhabited republics.

Dreams of the Pan-Turkic Nation

There is no the theater where the two powers share a common vision and have common interests, that’s why for them it will prove hard to find a viable solution for a long-term peaceful co-existence. Indeed, in Putin’s times as well as in Catherine the Great’s era, Russia and Turkey have been — and still are — bitter rivals for reasons that go beyond mere geopolitics and touch on the fields of geo-philosophy and unchangeable historic recurrence. The post-Soviet Central Asia is the best example of their endless rivalry.

Russia keeps exerting a high degree of political influence over the -stan countries but is counter-balanced by ever-increasing Chinese economic engagement and by the Turkish ethnic-oriented soft power. Central Asian countries host the world-largest Turkic community and modern-day Anatolian-living Turkish people also come from this region.

After a two-centuries-long period of Russian rule, the collapse of the Soviet Union offered new opportunities of action in the -stans for the main regional players, such as Iran, Saudi ArabiaPakistan, China, and Turkey. While China has incomparable potential in terms of economic aid, Turkey doesn’t need a lot of money to pursue its expansionist agenda: it’s the principal spiritual and cultural point of reference for the world-inhabiting Turkic peoples and this is enough. The only thing that Turkey needs is to properly exploit the identity factor of Turkic peoples and it is doing this very well.

The Turkic Council

Since 2009 relations between Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have been regulated by the Istanbul-headquartered Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States (Türk Dili Konuşan Ülkeler İşbirliği Konseyi), also known as the Turkic Council, which is an intergovernmental international organization built for enhancing multilevel cooperation among Turkic countries.

Recently, the Turkic Council was joined by Hungary as an observer state, which is increasingly tied to Turkey by Fidesz’s Turanist agenda, and by Uzbekistan, which applied for full membership on September 20019 and was quickly accepted the following month.

The Turkic Council matters because its mission is to create a pan-Turkic alliance and to date it has succeeded in promoting many relevant projects and goals: the re-writing of historic textbooks to give emphasis on the common ethnic heritage and on Ankara’s world-view, academic collaboration, student exchange programs, religious and cultural initiatives aimed at making Turkish-sponsored Sunni Islam an element of transnational cohesion. It has also succeeded in increasing the volume of trade exchanges between member nations.

Central Asian Countries are Looking For New Friends

The Soviet-era ruling elite is slowly dying and is being replaced by open-minded statesmen less interested in keeping their countries reliant on Moscow and more willing to diversify their partners. It’s the case with Uzbekistan, where the new president Shavkat Mirziyoyev is making the Kremlin nervous by playing for time with regards to the offer of joining the Eurasian Economic Union. However, Mirziyoyev entered the Turkic Council very quickly, despite the fact that it offers less opportunities in terms of economic return.

Soft power doesn’t require huge investments. Turkey’s strategy to conquer the -stans is based on a model already successfully tested in other countries: soap operas, mass media indoctrination, culture centres, coranic schools, mosques, tourism, trade and investments. As regards the last point, Turkey is today one of the most important trading partners of, and investors in, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Turkic Council’s Predecessor: the International Organization of Turkic Culture

But long before the establishment of the Turkic Council, in 1993 the International Organization of Turkic Culture (IOTC) was founded with the statutory mission to “protect Turkic culture, art, language and historical heritage”. It’s this entity that firstly promoted student exchange programs and university-level collaboration among Turkic-speaking countries.

The IOTC supervised the construction of hundreds of educational institutions in the -stans, from universities to high schools, from research centers to primary schools, and all of them are Ankara-funded and, naturally, they are megaphones for the promotion and the engraftment in society, culture, and politics, of neo-Ottomanism, pan-Turkism and Turkish-friendly conservative Sunni islam.

One of Kazakhstan’s top universities was opened in the context of the IOCT’s agenda, the International Hoca Ahmet Yesevi University, and the country alone hosts over than 30 Kazakh-Turkish high schools; the same in Kyrgyzistan where the Manas University, the country’s most popular, is Turkish-financed. What is really curious is that all these entities which today stand for high status symbol and prestige used to be targeted by Soviet-trained rulers for their allegedly suspicious and malicious activities, including radicalization, extremism, espionage in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

What to Expect for the Pan-Turkic Alliance Going Forward

Two years ago the pan-Turkic network was enlarged by the establishment of the Diyanet-funded and intelligence-linked World Turks Qurultai, another organization whose aim is to make the 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 centres, 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).

US Policy Should Take Advantage of Turkey’s Central Asian Ambitions

The issue is that Turkey doesn’t act alone and many of its actions, from Idlib to the increasingly warlike behavior towards the European Union, are explainable this way: the Trump administration is using Erdogan’s imperial appetite for both anti-EU and anti-Russian purposes. It is no secret that the United States wants to enter the Central Asian game, as shown by the recent trip by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and it might help Ankara weaponize pan-Turkism to the detriment of Moscow.

By using Ankara as a fifth column in the -stans, Washington would protect itself from any accusation coming from Moscow and, at the same time, it might achieve the goal of setting foot in the region. Some events will prove fundamental to understand whether the US is set to use Turkey to enter the -stans and, thus, are to be monitored very carefully: the countries’ position as regard to the Xinjiang, Uzbekistan’s decision about joining the EEU, and the -stans behavior within the EEU.

Russia’s Perspective

The Russian perspective is, of course, entirely different. Despite Turkey’s advances in the region, the -stans keep being very close to the Kremlin, they still host important Russian minorities, and the self-identification with the Russkiy Mir is high; therefore Russia has all the cards to win the game and should opt for a Turkish-model soft power strategy in order to get high benefits at a low cost. Cultural centers and educational institutions spreading pan-Russian beliefs might prove useful to counter-balance the growing pan-Turkism and would serve to complete what the EEU has started.