Turkic Council presents new opportunities for Turkey

Facing U.S. sanctions and an European arms export bans for his invasion of northern Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan found rhetorical support from regional leaders at the 7th Turkic Council Summit, the primary vehicle for Turkey’s multilateral political efforts in Central Asia.

In a joint statement at the Summit in Baku on Tuesday, the Turkic Council member states expressed “their hope and belief that Turkey's Operation Peace Spring will contribute to fighting terrorism, ensuring the territorial integrity of Syria, liberating local Syrians from the oppression of terrorists and creating conditions for the safe and voluntary return of displaced Syrians to their homeland." 

The council, created in 2009 when Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey signed the Nakhchivan Agreement, has long struggled for relevance in Central Asia, a region where great powers compete for political, economic, and security influence via a jumbled web of multilateral organisations. That could be changing to some degree.

Erdoğan called the summit historic due to the council’s growing influence in international affairs. Although this is far from a foregone conclusion, Turkey’s successful diplomatic efforts to secure Uzbekistan’s ascension to full membership does offer new potential opportunities for Ankara to shape a more substantial role for the council in Central Asian affairs.

This year’s summit, like last year’s, continues the council’s recent shift to focus on economic themes. At the summit, Erdoğan encouraged his fellow heads of state to lift customs quotas to increase trade across the region.

Uzbekistan’s geostrategic location at the heart of Central Asia, its large population and relatively broad manufacturing base make it a crucial partner for any regional economic integration project. After applying for membership in September, Uzbekistan was officially accepted at the summit, leaving the isolationist Turkmenistan as the only Turkic state that is not a member.

Uzbekistan was also notorious for avoiding multilateral commitments and maintaining rigid border controls under its long-serving first president, Islam Karimov, who died in 2016. His successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has been far more open to developing international relationships.

Long held back by Karimov’s emphasis on import substitution, Uzbekistan has the potential to experience robust economic growth. Turkey could be a key partner in its development.

Ties between Turkey and Uzbekistan have warmed considerably since Karimov’s death. In 2017, Mirziyoyev became the first Uzbek president to visit Ankara in 18 years, re-introduced visa free travel between the countries, and signed trade and investment deals with Turkey worth $5.5 billion. Uzbekistan’s desire to deepen trade and relations matches Erdoğan’s expansionist diplomacy and Turkey’s need for new export markets.

In April 2018, Erdoğan visited Uzbekistan to further solidify the burgeoning bilateral strategic relationship. Following the visit, Uzbekistan agreed to join the Turkic Council, formally known as the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States.

However, the further deepening of a political alliance between the Turkic speaking states is complicated by their divergent memberships in regional multilateral security and economic structures. In the security realm, Turkey is a NATO member, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan are also members of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Agency (SCO), which develops security, military, economic cooperation across Eurasia. Although Turkey was granted dialogue partner status of the SCO in 2012, Erdoğan never followed through on threats to abandon EU ascension in exchange for full SCO membership.

Although EU membership is currently off the table for Turkey, the majority of its export-import economy is still oriented to European countries. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are conversely members of the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

Uzbekistan’s economic opening has not only attracted Turkey’s attention. Russia is also keenly interested in pulling Uzbekistan, whose population of 32 million is the third largest of the former Soviet republics after Russia and Ukraine, into the EAEU.

After a meeting with Mirziyoyev in Tashkent earlier this month, Valentina Matviyenko, chairwoman of the Russian Parliament’s Federation Council, announced Uzbekistan would join the EAEU, a move that would temper Uzbekistan’s potential to boost the Turkic Council’s trending focus on economic relations.

Uzbek politicians though quickly downplayed Matviyenko’s statement. They are right to be wary of the organisation, which is more of a tool of political control for Russia than an effective generator of mutually beneficial economic mechanisms.

The Turkic Council is more attractive to Uzbekistan, because it does not present the same threat to the preservation of Uzbek sovereignty that hegemonic Russia-led organisations do. The council is committed to the purpose and principles of the UN Charter, including sovereign equality and territorial integrity.

Despite the challenges posed by the major multilateral organisations that overlap the Turkic Council’s network and mission, Turkey increasingly endeavours to use the grouping to strengthen economic relations among the member states. The participation of Uzbekistan, which does not appear ready to join the EAEU and left the CSTO in 2012, could jumpstart trade between members to the benefit of both Tashkent and Ankara.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.