Central Asia *

Oktay Aksoy, Rtd. Ambassador


Despite the fact that contacts were kept at the minimum during the Soviet period, Turkey has close historical, ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural relations with the peoples of the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia. It was, therefore, natural that mutual interest as well as political will for closer ties with these countries already existed when they declared independence. In fact, this is Central Eurasian region stretching from the Bosphorus in the west to the eastern borders of the Chinese province of Xingiiang, and from    the Kazak steppes in the north to the India-Pakistan subcontinent in the south. The States in    this region are land locked. As a result, their interest in the stability to their south and in the developments in Afghanistan is understandable.

The States in this region have become independent when the Soviet Union disintegrated. It was an abrupt independence. In spite of the existence of some minor opposition groups they had not fought for it, nor had they prepared for such an eventuality.

Turkey had great interest in strengthening their independence, in fostering democratic and pluralistic societies, consequently in encouraging them to establish secular democratic institutions, in their smooth transition to market economy, in their adjustment in the globalizing international scene. Moreover, it was very important to have a stable Central Asia, natural resources of which were attracting a lot of attention. When the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia gained their independence, Turkey was in a position to understand their immediate requirements for nationhood. First, they needed to be firmly established in the international community. Turkey,  therefore, was to help them secure membership in international and regional organizations such as the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe and ECO, and to ensure their participation in the PfP programs of NATO.

Turkey's approach to the newly independent states in Central Asia was to develop friendly relations with all of them on the basis of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and mutual benefit. With this understanding Turkey warmly welcomed their emergence on the world scene and became the first country to recognize them without discrffiiination after they attained their independence. Starting from the end of 1991, the relations between these States and Turkey developed. In early 1992 Turkey had established Embassies in all of them. Turkish engagement with the region over the past decade, while Western attention was lacking has proved to be vital in many respects.

By extending political and diplomatic support to these newly independent states, at a time they were particularly weak, vulnerable and surrounded by nuclear regional powers, Turkey has helped them to integrate with the international community and consolidate their independence and sovereignty. Turkey has also helped them to surmount the grave economic hardships resulting from the dissolution of highly centralized command economy of the Soviet Union and become self sufficient through economic assistance it has provided to the best of its capabilities.

 They needed trained people and legal infrastructure. But most pressing problems were in economic field. Turkey was ready to be of assistance even to the extent of over stretching its means. For the purpose of providing technical assistance it created in 1992 a special agency. The Turkish International Cooperation Agency. The Agency tries to assist these countries in their development, providing economic, commercial, technical, social, cultural and educational cooperation.

Programs and projects depend on each country's special requirements. In some, programs are geared to the implementation of economic reform and include the restructuring of public economic enterprises, privatization and the establishment of efficient business management. Projects may include anything from highways and mines to tourism. In

others, training is the main focus of attention, covering a large spectrum from banking to health care. Turkey also concluded as many as 500 bilateral and multilateral agreements with the countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia to create a framework within which the Turkish private sector could Operate and invest. The Turkish Eximbank extended loans exceeding 1.5 billion US Dollars to companies doing business in the region. As a result. many joint ventures were launched. Some of them are major infrastructure projects. including industrial plants, hospitals and hotels. Others are small and medium sized enterprises concentrating mainly on consumer goods. The Turkish Foreign Economic Board estimates that Turkish companies have invested or made commitments to invest as much as 8.4 billion US Dollars in those countries. All of these investments have created employment opportunities. (To give an idea: in Azerbaijan alone, 40,000 new jobs were created.) The activities of the Turkish companies in those countries were also an incentive to businesses from other nations. Many important international firms observed the Turkish companies' experiences and were sufficiently impressed to invest and take the risks themselves. In addition, the European Union took steps to provide assistance, spending large sums in technical aid. It seems that the EU now wants to move into a partnership in trade and investment.

Education is an important component of the cooperation between Turkey and the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Wide range of scholarships were provided to      the students of these countries in order to ensure that the youth of these countries be inculcated with the notions of democracy and market economy. Since 1992, total number of scholarships provided to the students from the region amounts to 10.000. Currently nearly 7.000 Central Asian students continue their education in the Turkish vocational high schools and universities. Turkey is also cooperating with these countries in setting up vocational schools and high schools. The schools which are supplied with equipment, training materials and where feasible with teachers envisage. Along with the scholarship program, to provide qualified labor and foreign language speaking personnel facilitating their adjustment to the globalizing world beyond their borders.

Turkish efforts were also instrumental in the adoption of the Latin alphabet by Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as well as in Azerbaijan. Despite some minor differences in the alphabets, this will also serve as a facilitating factor in bringing the peoples of the region with similar linguistic backgrounds closer. As is known, Turkey has changed its alphabet from the Arabic scripture into Latin in 1928. Azerbaijan had made a similar attempt earlier but had to adopt the Cyrillic after the Soviet hegemony. Latin alphabet reminiscent of those earlier times can now be seen on the grave stones.

The support given by Turkey has not been preconditioned upon progress in democratization and market reform with the belief that democratic institutions would develop gradually as stability enhanced, restructuring of the states proceeded and the level of education reached international standards. Inarguably, the assistance provided by Turkey is modest compared to larger economic means of Western countries. However, during the initial years of independence, it was precious to these countries, as it was stated many times at the highest level by the leaders of these States.

This support given at a time they were vulnerable and unprepared for independence, has provided these countries with a sense of belonging and self-confidence. This support, along with the model position of Turkey -a secular democratic country, member of the Western alliance, aiming at full membership in EU- encouraged a more outward looking perspective in Central Asia. It has, thus eased the improvement of relations between Central Asian states and the West.

Overall, Turkey has granted 1.5 billion US dollars in credit, total annual trade is approximately 1.5 billion US dollars, more than 2500 Turkish firms operate in the region and as mentioned earlier Turkish companies have invested more than 8.4 billion US dollars in the region.

Turkey has also extended significant military assistance and training to help them counter the threats to their security and independence, and has not left these countries to their fate while the political price for seeking security assistance from other sources could have been high. Military assistance provided to Central Asian states between 1992-2001 amounts to 28.5 million US dollars.                  

Various internal and external elements threaten the stability of the countries in the region. However, despite the existence of these threats, within the past decade, Central Asia has not become a crisis point like the Balkans, and there has been no major chaos in the region, except in Tadjikistan between 1992-1997 partly due to spill over effects of developments in neighboring Afghanistan.        

The Central Asian countries are usually considered together, as if there were no differences between them. However, it is misleading to regard them as identical nor should we incline to explain the region as politically and culturally homogeneous. These countries, which have gained independence recently, are promoting their own 'national'  identities and do not welcome an approach of considering them as a whole.

Although countries of the region share the same geography, a common history  and similar cultural traits, it would be misleading to regard them identical they do not constitute a monolithic entity. They have not gone through the nation building stage. They differ greatly in size of territory, population, ethnic characteristics, levels of development, per capita GDP, defense capabilities and resource capacity. Their domestic and foreign policies are shaped by different considerations. They have adopted divergent political and economic systems. They are trying to promote their own "national" identity.

In their relations with each other, there have been cases of rivalry and jealousy. There is an ongoing rivalry between Kazakhistan and Uzbekistan over regional  leadership. Polarization of these two larger states seems to be the most serious obstacle to regional cooperation.

These factors along with the sensitivity in protecting their national sovereignty, have rendered the numerous attempts to forge regional organizations to find regional  responses to their common problems more or less futile.

It is a fact that Russian role has not removed the influence of Islam in Central Asia. In their attempt to eliminate the Central Asian peoples' ethnic identity they have somehow tolerated the influence of religion hoping, to exploit it in their relations with the Islamic countries and as a result Islam has become the only unifying identity in the  region. This may well be due to the peculiarities of Islam as it can be individual practiced.  However, after independence, all these countries have embraced a secular way of life enshrined in their constitutions and have accepted the principle of separation of religious and temporal affairs. On the other hand, the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, movements such as Vahabism, Hizb-ut Tahrir, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which have Rained ground in Central Asia and terrorist attacks in Krgyzistan and Uzbekistan in 1999 and 2000 have demonstrated that radical Islam could be a serious threat in the region.                  

 

 The 11 September terrorist attacks on the US and the subsequent operation in  Afghanistan have led to a fundamental change in the way the region is perceived. These  developments have highlighted the strategic importance of the region and enhanced the Western interest. The international community has acknowledged the importance of stability in Central Asia and the need to support reform efforts to prevent it from becoming a breeding ground for extremism and terrorist network.

After the attacks these countries have become a frontline in the war against terrorism. Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan and Kyrgzistan have allowed the US and European forces  to use their airbases and airspace, while Turkmenistan has opened its airspace for manitarian purposes.                                                          

We welcome the strong assistance provided by the Central Asian countries to the international coalition against terrorism. We believe that the recent developments have increased their room for maneuver in their external relations and prepared the groundwork for their strengthening of their independence. It can be said that by supporting international struggle against terrorism, these countries have hoped on the one hand, to get much needed economic assistance from the West and on the other, to eliminate the threats to their security and stability, namely radical religious movements, terrorism and drug trafficking. This way, the leadership in Central Asian countries have seized the opportunity to develop cooperative relations with the US, NATO and the EU. The question of whether the renewed attention of the US and Europe in Central Asia will be with a long term perspective is of utmost  significance for stability. transition to democracy and market economy. We believe that the international community should not leave the Central Asian countries alone in dealing with the broad security and economic challenges by themselves and collectively consider how to assist these countries to achieve sustainable growth and stability.

The way in which the new circumstances might affect the authoritarian regimes in the region is yet unclear. It is a fact that the Central Asian countries have not been able to make progress in the field of democratization and protection of human rights as the quest for stability outweighed democratization during the initial years of independence. Most Central Asian countries still have Soviet-type governments, with upper leaderships comprised of Communist-trained officials. However, it was the only choice as these countries did not have any other cadres to replace them or to be immediately installed after independence.                            

Transition to democracy and rule of law in Central Asia, after 70 years of destructive effects of the Soviet rule, should be seen as a long term process to be completed incrementally as political stability and economic conditions gradually improve. Too hasty introduction of democracy in an unprepared, uneducated environment carries its own risks, easily leading to anarchy, which in return invites more authoritarian rule. We should    therefore acknowledge the modest steps already being taken in this direction. The cultivation of better relations and sustaining dialogue with the Central Asian countries will increase the self confidence in these countries where leaderships are sensitive on maters of stability and independence. We believe that there is need for a process of democratization before we witness democracy.                           

 It is an undeniable fact that Russia has a deep rooted interest in the region, let alone the presence of considerably big Russian minorities, particularly in Kazakhistan. However prudent it may be, the Turkish involvement in the region after these former Soviet Republics gained their independence gave rise to a lot of suspicion and Russia took it as a rivalry. While some in Turkey may have Pan-Turkic sentiments in their approach towards these countries, the official policy is not oriented by these outdated factors, it is based on the principles of sovereign equality and mutual benefit and respect. Turkey does not intend  to wage a battle for influence with any country. Its approach has been transparent and it has not considered the region as its backyard. Neither has Turkey been intolerant to the presence of other countries. Turkey has pursued an approach which is peaceful, constructive and open  to cooperation. No other country has been so forthcoming to encourage others to join in this new endeavor of building new states. It could be argued that Turkey's engagement in the region, as a member of the Western alliance, to a certain extent compensated Western neglect, thus irritating Russia and exposing Turkey. Despite certain misunderstandings, a new and significant stage in the Turkish-Russian relations has been reached. This is partly due to changes in international circumstances, but also as the result of awareness of the dangers the  two countries may encounter and the realization of the benefits of improved relations. The  Eurasia Cooperation Action Plan signed last year by the Foreign Ministers of the two countries in New York during the last session of the UN General Assembly qualify this stage as multidimensional partnership. This shift in relations indicates that their attention in the developments in Central Asia will no longer be based on rivalry but will be derived through friendly competition in the sense that this will provide benefits to the region in question, as well as to the two countries. Now it needs to see the results of its implementation.                                  

The changing international circumstances have also provided some positive elements for Russia, too. The Taliban regime which was a "headache" for Russia for  the last few years has been eliminated. The danger of importing instability to Central Asia from Afghanistan is decreased. And finally an opportunity has emerged to deliver a blow at  the drug trafficking trade. While President Putin has gone along with the West, he faces a backlash from Russia's defense and civil bureaucracy who are deeply suspicious that close  relations between Western countries and Central Asian countries will undermine Russia's  position in the region.                                

Iran continues her attempts to expand her influence, but she has not been able to correct her image as a country attempting to export its fundamentalist ideology.                               

China is attempting to fill the political, economic and military vacuum  which emerged in Central Asia after Soviet dissolution. The independence of the Central Asian countries had at first caused in China concern because of the precedent it might set for  the Xingjiang-Uygur autonomous region. In time this concern has abated and China begun to cultivate cooperative mechanisms. China is concerned that fundamentalist movements might take root in Central Asia and that this might in turn spread to their own Muslim  communities. Chinese leaders are concerned about the duration of Western military presence in Central Asia despite the fact that it has reduced the fundamentalist threats in the region. The establishment of the Shangay Cooperation Organization has been interpreted as a sign of  growing Chinese influence in Central Asia and as a means of containing West's role in the region. The common objective of restricting Western influence has provided a unity of interest between Russia and China.                               

When considering Central Asia, it will be unrealistic not to touch briefly on Afghanistan, a strategically very important country in Central Asia, which was a source of grave concern even before September 11, as it had become a hotbed of terrorist training and illegal drug production. Since the removal of the Taliban from power world attention has produced a broader appreciation of the need to extend urgent reconstruction assistance. Turkey's interest in Afghanistan is not new. Turkey has helped Afghanistan with its modernization efforts, ranging from sending Turkish officers to train the Afghan army, to establish educational health and cultural facilities. We maintained a balanced dialogue with all Afghan groups and made sure that our assistance benefited all the ethnicities. Therefore, while giving support to the US led campaign to clear Afghanistan of terrorist elements, as it has deployed a contingent of 1400 troops there and is also at the moment commanding International Security Assistance Force it hopes to contribute to the Afghan recovery.       

Continued US engagement and commitment by the international community will be a strong  incentive for Afghan groups as they work towards national reconciliation. Our common goal of fostering democracy, the rule of law and human rights will only be achieved when the countries in the region are at peace with each other and are cooperating for the development,  prosperity and stability of the region as a whole.                             

It needs to see how all this attention will increase interest in regional developments and how these states will be enticed into cooperative relationship with each other.


(*) Conference notes