BACKGROUND: The modern Turkic nations trace their origins back to historical Turkic peoples, states, and empires, which dominated the Central Eurasian landmass during the Middle Ages and early modern times. The apex of the Turkic dominance in Eurasia and Northern Africa was presumably the 16th century when the Ottoman, Safavid, Baburid, and Mamluk Empires, all led by Turkic dynasties, exerted power over various parts of the Old World. The Turkic peoples and states, however, were rarely united and continuously clashed with each other, in their Central Asian homeland and beyond. Ultimately, the Turks were subdued, their territories partitioned and incorporated into peripheral empires.
In 1991, five independent Turkic republics emerged in the heart of Eurasia after the downfall of the Soviet Union. Together with the already existing Republic of Turkey, there were now six sovereign states that were Turkic in nature.
Believing history had offered it a unique chance to assert itself in the region, Turkey under late President Turgut Özal moved swiftly to strengthen its ties with the new republics, primarily through investment and education initiatives. However, not only did the frequently repeated slogans of the time promoting “the Turkic world from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China” or claiming that “the 21st century will be the century of Turks” annoy other international actors in the region, as one would expect, but they were also met with caution in the newly independent states.
In 1992, these leaders joined President Özal in Ankara for the First Summit of the Presidents of the Turkic Speaking States as early as 1992. This first summit was followed by nine more, but the only multilateral outcome of these meetings was summit declarations that consisted of mostly non-binding provisions. The newly emergent Turkic republics spent the first two decades of independence consolidating their sovereignty, showing little interest in committing themselves to any sort of multilateral cooperation or regional integration.
Yet in 2009, at the Ninth Summit of the Presidents of the Turkic Speaking States, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey signed the Nakhchivan Agreement on the establishment of the Cooperation Council of the Turkic Speaking States, a permanent structure for Turkic collaboration. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the two remaining Turkic states, dropped out of the integration process along the way and chose not to join the Nakhchivan Agreement.
IMPLICATIONS: The overarching goal of the Turkic Council is to promote comprehensive cooperation among the member states, in the political, economic, and cultural spheres. To this end, the international organization also functions as an umbrella body for all other autonomous collaboration mechanisms like the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA), International Organization of Turkic Culture (TURKSOY), and Turkic Academy.
Apart from honoring the common historical, linguistic and cultural heritage, each of the Turkic Council member states joined the alliance for hard-headed reasons. Most importantly, the underlying aim is to sustain and promote the members’ position as subjects rather than objects of the geopolitical relations in Eurasia in a unified effort.
Although the primary focus of the Turkish foreign policy under the AK Party government has been to (re)build ties with the immediate neighborhood, including the Middle East, Balkans, and Caucasus, strengthening relations with Turkic republics maintains a special importance on the list of priorities. The mood has changed from the 1990s as a more pragmatic and realistic modus operandi has supplanted romantic and excessively enthusiastic expectations of the first decade. Turkic republics and more generally Central Eurasia will always be one of the key directions of Turkish foreign policy as the country is keen to capitalize on the advantages of its geostrategic location, historical experiences, and cultural affinity with all relevant regions to the greatest extent possible.
The idea of establishing the Turkic Council is unanimously ascribed to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev is also the only Head of State who has participated in all Turkic summits since 1992. This should come as no surprise since Kazakhstan, once the most Russified of the non-Slavic Soviet republics, has strived to strike a balance between different powers and geopolitical interests. Kazakhstan's multi-vector foreign policy has been instrumental in serving the nation’s economic interests as well as avoiding significant tension with any country. The Turkic vector and particularly multilateral cooperation within the framework of the Turkic Council is, therefore, viewed as an important dimension diversifying Kazakhstan’s foreign policy “basket” and opening up additional room for maneuver.
President Nazarbayev’s talk on Turkic unity in the context of the Russia-led Eurasian project is a clear illustration of multi-vector diplomacy in action. One particular example of these “Turkic orations” that stirred up debate was Nazarbayev’s speech during his official visit to Turkey in October 2012 in which he maintained that “Kazakhs live in the motherland of all Turkic peoples" and that "after the regicide of the last Kazakh khan, Kazakhstan became a colony of the Russian Empire and subsequently the Soviet Union”. Another example was Nazarbayev's proposal at the meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in October 2013 to admit Turkey to the Customs Union in order “to cease speculations over Russia’s plans to rebuild the Soviet Union”.
The diversification incentive is also true for Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan. Turkey has become Azerbaijan’s major strategic partner, and strengthened ties with other Turkic republics are considered beneficial considering the country's uneasy environment and its predicament over Nagorno-Karabakh. Cooperation in developing transport corridors and energy pipelines is another motive for Azerbaijan to develop relations across the Caspian Sea. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, has become a major strategic partner of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have hitherto abstained from joining the Turkic Council but it is clear that, in the final analysis, the jigsaw puzzle of Turkic integration will not be complete without them.
During the past decade, the young Turkic republics have solidified their independence and are now skilled, albeit to varying degrees, at the game of multi-vectoring. Thus the Turkic geography is different from what it was two decades ago with a multipolar configuration now in place, featuring relatively affluent Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. This provides a better and more stable ground for coalescing.
Challenges also exist since the countries stretch across three crucial and unstable or potentially volatile regions: the Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. They also rely on different security alliances: NATO in Turkey’s case and the CSTO and SCO for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Complicating matters even more is the fact that Kazakhstan is a member of the Customs Union with Russia and Belarus while Turkey still aspires to becoming part of the EU.
CONCLUSIONS: In 1991, the vast swath of Central Eurasia was drastically reshaped by the reemergence of Turkic states. The establishment of the Turkic Council as a permanent broad-gauge cooperation mechanism among these states is, no doubt, the most important milestone of Turkic integration. Differing from the emotional sloganeering of pan-Turkists, this integration is being carried out in a coolheaded, pragmatic, and businesslike manner. Its architects have been at pains to persuade external powers the Council was not conceived as an alliance against third parties, but that countries which share so much in common should naturally desire to form a union of some sort and promote collective identity. This tendency constitutes the raison d'être of the Turkic Council, which, in the words of Halil Akinci, the founding Secretary-General of the organization, has become the first voluntary alliance of Turkic states in history.
Whether this alliance will evolve into a comprehensive union possessing significant geopolitical clout depends on a number of factors, most importantly on the strategic vision and political will of the national elites. The fact that the geostrategic context of Eurasia as well as the global tectonic shifts, including the rise of regionalization, call for strengthened bonds, cooperation, and coordination does not ensure that the right strategy and policies will be implemented. Turkic integration will have to be buttressed by sound intellectual groundwork, effective structures, and appropriately educated and motivated domestic and international bureaucracies.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Alim Bayaliyev is an expert employed by the Turkic Council.