Turkish Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Space

December 22, 2002, by Igor Torbakov
Part I of Igor Torbakov’s The Turkish Factor in the Geopolitics of the Post-Soviet Space.
As the US-led war on terror gains momentum and the Bush Administration contemplates military operations against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, regional analysts point to the growing geo-strategic importance of Turkey – America’s staunch ally and NATO member since 1953. This is explained, naturally, by the country’s unique geographic location. Turkey sits right in the middle of the Southern Caucasus/Northern Mesopotamia region – the area one observer recently termed as “probably the most geo-strategically important piece of real estate in the world.”

In fact, Turkey plays a direct role in at least seven different, if overlapping, regions: Western Europe, the Balkans, the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Caucasus-Caspian complex, Central Asia and the Black Sea. As the specialists at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy point out, the United States, being a global power, values Turkey “primarily for geo-strategic reasons.” Washington’s concerns about Balkan instability, Caucasus conflicts, Russia’s future direction, Iranian fundamentalism, Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and protracted conflict in the Middle East all reinforce the interest of US policy-makers in Turkey.

The importance of Turkey’s strategic position is further enhanced by its close proximity to the major oil and gas deposits – those in the Caspian Sea and in Northern Iraq. This makes Turkey a key player – as a prospective energy consumer and transit country – in what was dubbed the “Great Game” of pipeline politics in the region.

Here I will limit myself to discussing only one aspect of Turkey’s foreign policy – namely, its relationship with the post-Soviet world. This world is still rife with threats to Turkey but it presents opportunities as well – economic relations with Russia, a hub for energy distribution, new regional cooperation schemes. This paper intends to explore the role the Turkish factor plays in the Black Sea, Caucasus and Caspian geopolitics and, specifically, the nature of the current stage of Turkish-Russian relations. I would argue that despite the unusually active foreign policy in post-Soviet Eurasia in at least the first half of the past decade, Turkey failed to attain the leadership role in the former Soviet periphery.

This failure, exacerbated by Ankara’s serious economic and political problems, has influenced the shift in Moscow’s perception of Turkey’s role in the Caucasus and Central Asian context. Russia and other countries in the region now tend to perceive Turkey in much more neutral terms than they did in the early 1990s, when Ankara was seen as something of a strategic competitor. Thus, the picture portraying Moscow and Ankara as the uncompromising arch-rivals jockeying for position in the former Soviet Union’s southern periphery is somewhat simplistic. The assumption that there are rigid, monolithic, and opposing blocs of states (like, say, US-Turkey-Azerbaijan-Georgia versus Russia-Iran-Armenia) also does not correspond with far more complex reality.

To be sure, the Great Game does take place in the post-Soviet space. However, as Gareth Winrow perceptively notes, it “consists of a number of various games being played simultaneously at different levels within states, between states and among firms and businesses.” This game involves elements of both competition and cooperation.

The results of the November parliamentary elections in Turkey have introduced a significant amount of uncertainty into the picture. A moderate Muslim party that styles itself on the model of European Christian Democrats but with its roots in Turkey’s political Islam has won the majority of seats in parliament. At the moment, the leaders of the winning political force claim their primary goal is Turkey’s integration into the European Union. However, the lack of trust on the part of the Europeans and Turkey’s own political and economic troubles may well influence a shift in policy orientation.

It is common practice to explain much of Turkey’s foreign policy through an appeal to the country’s geography and twentieth-century history. Geographically and culturally, a modern Turkish Republic built by Ataturk in the 1920s and 1930s is very much a frontier state. From the very outset Ankara has been preoccupied with the issues of national security and territorial integrity. This necessarily dictated a conservative or defensive approach to foreign policy which has tried to avoid extra-territorial interests or activities extending beyond the country’s borders. This type of cautious policy was encapsulated in the Ataturk’s famous dictum “Peace at home, peace in the world.” Kemalism and the character of the Turkish state have also had an isolating effect on Ankara’s relations with its neighbors – the Arab world, and arguably with Europe.

During the Second World War Turkey maintained a sometimes precarious neutrality – in part as an extension of Ataturk’s cautious policy of limiting international contact during the years when the Republic was being created. It was Stalin’s claims on northeastern Turkey and the Turkish Straits that pushed Ankara into the Western alliance. The Cold War, however, imposed a certain amount of order, regularity, and predictability. During the long Cold War era, Turkish foreign policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union was restricted to just a few basic (if difficult and crucial) questions: how to ward off the Soviet threat and how to maintain and strengthen ties with the United States and NATO.

The collapse of the Soviet empire, the end of the Cold War and the accelerated pace of European integration challenged the very foundations of Turkey’s traditional foreign policy. The new geopolitical situation presented Ankara with both new opportunities and new constraints. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Turkey’s geo-strategic value to the West was no longer as clear-cut as it had been. Moreover, the rejection of Turkey’s bid to become a full member of the European Union was widely interpreted by both Turkey’s political class and broader public as exclusion on explicitly “cultural” i.e. religious and ethnic grounds. These developments caused a deep sense of isolation and insecurity on the part of Turkish elites and paradoxically – led to a more activist and assertive foreign policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as in the Middle East and the Balkans.

Turkey’s embrace of the “Turkic republics” of the former Soviet Union, argues Professor Ziya Onis of Koc University in Istanbul, embodied an important psychological dimension. A closer bond with people of common historical descent was a means of overcoming Turkey’s traditional fear of isolation and insecurity – a feeling compounded by the negative attitude on the part of Europe and the Arab Middle East as well as several ongoing conflicts around the country’s own borders. The sense of isolation, contends Onis, is crucial in understanding both the initial euphoria concerning the “Turkic republics” of the Caucasus and Central Asia and the subsequent development of close military and economic ties with Israel in the Middle Eastern context. Ankara also seemed to hope that an active leadership role in both regions would help revitalize Turkey’s strategic value to the West and, thereby, enhance its own economic and security interests.

Some commentators also point out the significant changes in Turkey’s domestic policy that contributed to Ankara’s external activism – particularly in relation to the former Soviet republics. Traditionally, Turkey’s foreign policy was shaped by the narrow group of political figures, state bureaucrats and military top brass. Yet the recent resurgence of Islam and nationalism in Turkish politics broadened the circle of those concerned with foreign policy and trying to influence it. A distinct foreign policy orientation emphasizing non-European or non-Western dimensions of Turkish identity became the hallmark of the Islamist and ultra-nationalist parties which gained over the last decade more weight in the highly fragmented party system.

To be sure, the basic tenets of Turkish foreign policy remain pro-Western, but Turkey’s position at the edge of the Western world requires it to maintain a separate identity with a definable role in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. In fact, one commentator (Malcolm Cooper) suggests, there is a genuine and fluctuating polarization of policy that in many ways reflects the European/Asian dichotomy in Turkish identity. “In practice,” he writes, “Turkey’s courtship with the European Union and Turkish policy towards its Asian neighbors represent opposing views of the country’s trans-regional alignment, and prioritization of one is often a product of lack of progress with the other.”

Editor’s note:
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1988-1997; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 1995, and a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York, 2000. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey. This article is excerpted from a paper originally delivered at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia, November 20, 2002

Part II: Ankara’s Post-Soviet Efforts in the Caucasus and Central Asia: The Failure of the Turkic World Model
December 25, 2002
Central Asia and the South Caucasus are important for Turkey’s interests in terms of the regions’ internal conflicts, Russian influence, energy resources and trade opportunities. Following the disintegration of the USSR and relative weakening of Russia, many officials in Ankara had high hopes of establishing close ties with the newly-independent states, making Turkey a leading actor in the former Soviet southern periphery. Turkey’s growing interest in the region quickly led to the formation of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization, Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency and the setting up of annual “Turkic summits,” bringing together the presidents of Turkey and all other post-Soviet Turkic republics. The late Turkish president Turgut Ozal entertained a sweeping project that included a vibrant Turkic Common Market and a powerful Turkic Trade and Development Bank.

After Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze called for a regional stability pact, Ankara proposed the concept of the Caucasus Stability Pact as a means to settle the region’s many conflicts and accommodate sometimes contradictory interests. A so-called “Turkish model” (based on the country’s imperfect but seemingly workable market economy and somewhat restrictive parliamentary democracy) was projected to the post-Soviet states as a roadmap for their transition. The Western governments encouraged both Ankara’s involvement and spreading of the “Turkish model,” since the likely alternatives seemed to be an Islamist-based Iranian model or simply a return to Russian domination.

However, Turkey appears to have failed to play a leadership role in the post-Soviet space. As many regional analysts contend, Turkey’s recent activism in Eurasia is real but fragile. Several factors explain this failure. Firstly, the post-Soviet states have been wary of Ankara acting as a new “big brother” while they just escaped the clutches of another big brother. The newly independent Turkic states in particular – Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – were seeking to develop and consolidate their own national identities. One commentator suggested that Turkey’s “excessive emphasis on commonalities” between the Turks and the Turkic states’ peoples has even caused resentment in Central Asia. The Caucasus and Central Asian states obviously preferred more limited and more equal relations with Ankara. Their leaders (particularly in Azerbaijan) were also suspicious of Turkey’s attempts to influence their domestic politics. Besides, these countries were unwilling to bind themselves exclusively to Turkey-dominated organizations and eager to secure political and economic support from other states including Russia and Iran.

Secondly, Turkey is a relatively poor country. Indeed, Turkey’s more ambitious regional schemes, including Black Sea cooperation and efforts in Central Asia and the Caucasus, have been hindered by Ankara’s limited ability to fund sweeping geopolitical projects. The recent severe economic crisis additionally cast doubt on the value of Turkish connection.

Thirdly, Moscow did lose direct control over its former borderlands but Russia’s influence didn’t disappear. The presence of Russian troops in a number of countries (Georgia, Armenia, Tajikistan and now Kyrgyzstan), powerful economic levers (gas and electricity deliveries) and the ability to manipulate regional ethnic conflicts compel the local leaders to take heed of Russia’s wishes.

Fourthly, a “Turkish model” appears to have lost much of its appeal both for the post-Soviet states and the West. The democratic component present in the Turkish system proved not so attractive to the authoritarian leaders in the Caucasus and Central Asia who obviously didn’t have much interest in fostering broader political participation and pluralism. Arguably, the newly independent republics’ rulers styled their regimes more on the old Soviet communist system than on Turkey’s. For its part, the West has also reconsidered the usefulness of the “Turkish model,” having realized that the initial fears concerning Iran’s influence had been exaggerated.

In addition, Turkey’s identity-based foreign policy didn’t appear to help settle the South Caucasus conflicts, most notably the one between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Instead, Turkey actively supported Baku on the grounds of common ethnicity and culture. However, even some Turkish commentators suggest a more far-sighted policy would have developed closer links with both countries, thus possibly reducing the efforts of Yerevan and the Armenian lobby in the West to wage a propaganda campaign against Turkey. To ease the tension between Armenia and Turkey, some Turkish analysts argue, Ankara might have suggested that the oil and gas export pipeline routes run across Armenia rather than following a roundabout path.

Finally, Eurasia’s energy riches prompted the West and the United States in particular to opt for a more direct involvement rather than rely on the regional proxies like Turkey. The deployment of American troops in Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan) and the Caucasus (Georgia) within the framework of the US-led war on terror has underscored the strategic decision to engage the region more actively than had been taken even prior to the September 11 attacks.


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