A common espousal is that Turkey and Azerbaijan constitute “two states, one nation,” and this is not a belief shared among fringe pan-Turkic ultra-nationalists, but is regularly said by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev. Pan-Turkism is founded on the belief that Turkic-language speakers in Western China, Central Asia, Siberia, the Caucasus, Crimea, Cyprus, the Balkans, Anatolia and areas of the Middle East, constitute a single nation.
Pan-Turkism is a nationalist ideology that was philosophized in the 1880s by Turkic-speaking peoples living in Tsarist Russia, and then later developed in Anatolia. Without ever being established as the official ideology of the Turkish state, it has always been supported by successive governments of Ankara, sometimes openly and sometimes secretly.
Neo-Ottomanism is a religious-political movement with a Turkish Caliph at the head, and differs from Pan-Turkism which is an ethno-linguistic movement. Neo-Ottomans want an “empire” to replace the political manifestations of nation-states in which they inhabit. It is with a syncretism of Pan-Turkism and Neo-Ottomanism that Erdoğan pursues the expansion of Turkish influence, and perhaps even expand the borders of Turkey.
Erdoğan pursues a policy of Neo-Ottomanism in Syria by even appealing to radical Arab Sunnis to overthrow the secular government of President Bashar al-Assad. With Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates withdrawing their support for Syrian militants, Turkey remains the only regional state to continue funding, arming and training radical Islamists in the country.
Although Erdoğan claims to support the unity of the Syrian state, this has not deterred him from illegally opening Turkish banks in northern Syria, putting the Turkish lira into circulation, flying the Turkish flag on Syrian government buildings, using the Turkish education curriculum in Syrian schools, or from having Free Syrian Army commanders pose with maps of the Ottoman Empire.
Neo-Ottomanism is the dream of rebuilding the Ottoman Empire, or at least expand Turkish influence over the former territories of the Ottoman Empire, which stretched from Algeria to Egypt and down to Somalia, from Yemen to Syria and Iraq, the entirety of Anatolia and the Balkans, and most of the shoreline of the Black Sea, including Crimea. Pan-Turkism however is Erdoğan’s justification for expanding Turkey’s influence outside of the Ottoman Empire’s former borders.
The Ottoman Empire never directly ruled over Azerbaijan and Artsakh, or more commonly known as Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azeris in fact do have a common ancestor with Turkish people – that being the Oghuz Turks. The Oghuz Turks migrated to Central Asia from the Altay Mountains in the border region of Siberia, Mongolia, Xinjiang and Kazakhstan. From Central Asia they began a new migration and invasion into the Caucasus and Anatolia.
With the Turkish-backed Azerbaijani military successfully capturing large swathes of Artsakh from Armenian control, the dream of connecting Azerbaijan proper with its Nakhichevan exclave is one step closer to realization. Part of the ceasefire agreement is to allow a road connecting the two detached Azeri regions. This road will be constructed across Armenia’s southern Syunik province. Although Russian peacekeepers will ensure no further outbreak of violence, their mandate is only for five years. As it stands today and not accounting for potential future developments, the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers will surely restart the conflict as both Turkey and Azerbaijan have vowed to control all of Artsakh. Turkey and Azerbaijan desperately need to capture Armenia’s Syunik province so that there will be contiguous Turkic states stretching from the Aegean to the Caspian, and thus Turkey will have direct access to Caspian Sea oil and gas.
Emboldened by the advancement of Pan-Turkism in the Caucasus, newly elected Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar said last week that Turkey, Azerbaijan and the UN resolution defying “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (recognized only by Turkey), constitutes “One Nation, Three States,” expanding on the widely publicized “one nation, two states” of Turkey and Azerbaijan. This came as Erdoğan and his ultra-nationalist coalition partner, Devlet Bahçeli, visited the recently opened Varoshia beach in occupied Cyprus in defiance of UN resolutions 550 and 789.
So long as Russian peacekeepers remain in Artsakh, Erdoğan’s syncretism of neo-Ottomanism and pan-Turkism has hit a roadblock in the Caucasus, despite the eventual opening of a Russian-patrolled road to the Nakhichevan exclave that is wedged between Armenia, Iran and Turkey. None-the-less, despite not controlling all of Artsakh or invading Syunik province, this was still a significant step towards Erdoğan’s project of a Greater Turkey.
Erdoğan’s ambitions are not only reduced to Syria, Artsakh and Cyprus though. Evidence of his syncretism of neo-Ottomanism and pan-Turkism is seen with the building of a narrative that the Greek islands belong to Turkey, the continued allegation that Russia mistreats Crimean Tartars, intervention in Libya in defense of ethnic Turk Fayez al-Sarraj, and the opening of a naval base in Albania – a country that was once considered the most loyal subject of the Ottoman Empire.
One of the most powerful mechanisms that Erdoğan is using to build his project however is the Turkic Council. The Turkic Council constitutes Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Uzbekistan, and was inaugurated, and surely with a purpose, in the Nakhichevan exclave. In fact, Erdoğan has even strongly supported Hungary’s accession into the Council by first making it an observer member. Hungary even opened a representative office of the Turkic Council in 2019 and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán promotes the theory that Hungarians are “Kipchak Turks.” He also boasts that Hungary “is Christian Turkish lands.” This too explains why Hungary is one of the five states in the 27 member European Union to veto sanctions against Turkey despite its daily violations of Greek and Cypriot sovereignty.
With this, we can see how Erdoğan’s project for a Greater Turkey does not only utilize military might, but is highly successful in the diplomatic field too as he exploits weaknesses in the European Union system. By absorbing a single European Union member state into the Turkic-world sphere, Erdoğan advances pan-Turkism by using Hungary to defend Turkish interests from any retaliations from the European bloc.
Erdoğan’s continued insults against Europe also includes instigating terrorist attacks across the continent. By branding France, and often the entirety of Western Europe, as Islamophobic, Erdoğan knows that there will be a response. This response is not only from the millions of Turks in the European diaspora, but also from radical Islamists, including Arabs and Chechens, who view him as a Caliph.
Through this syncretism of neo-Ottomanism and pan-Turkism, Erdoğan has successfully expanded Turkish influence in violation of the sovereignty of other states. This is seen with the military operations in Syria, Libya and Artsakh, and the occupation of northern Cyprus and violations of Greece’s air and maritime space. However, soft power has also been successful as he uses neo-Ottomanism to build Turkophilia and a naval base in Albania, and pan-Turkism to make Hungary a representative of Turkey in the European Union. Although Russia has blocked the expansion of a Greater Turkey into the Caucasus, the European Union remains inactive to Turkish aggression against Greece and Cyprus, while allowing Turkey to gain a significant foothold in the Balkans.