Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be testing the waters for yet another military push into Syria, as he stated October 11 referring to Kurdish-controlled Tell Rifaat, a city in northwestern Syria. Turkish forces and their proxies have also controlled the northern Syrian city of Afrin since 2018. It seems Ankara seeks to further annex and to “turkify” an even larger chunk of the rebel areas of Northern Syria: it has backed Turkic militants in the Syrian-Turkish border, especially in Idlib and Latakia and imposed a Turkified school curriculum in some areas. This is an example of the threats to regional stability in the Middle East posed by Pan-Turkism. But Ankara has its eyes elsewhere too. It has interests in Afghanistan, for one. Turkish authorities have been negotiating with the Taliban to set a permanent military base in the country. And such is part of Turkish projects and ambitions in the whole Central Asian region.
The Turkic Council – which aims to promote cooperation among Turkic-speaking states – held an extraordinary meeting in Istanbul on September 27 on the situation in Afghanistan and discussed a free trade agreement between the Council’s members. The Council will meet again on November 12, as announced by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. Ankara has built deep ties with Afghanistan neighbors, signing a memorandum of understanding with Uzbekistan in March and sending its Defense Minister Hulusi Akar to visit Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in June.
Recently, Turkey has been engaging and seeking rapprochement with its traditional foes. This is part of a persistent Neo-Ottomanist agenda. Since the Proclamation of the Republic, Turkish identity has been at the crossroads between the religious values of lslam and the ethnolinguistic based nationalist ideology of Pan-Turkism. It has also been at the crossroads between “East” and “West”, so to speak. Turkey invested in the European project (much to no avail), starting accession negotiations with the European Union in 2005. In March 2019, the European Parliament called on the EU members to suspend talks with Ankara, citing human rights violations. Negotiations remain active but they are basically stalled.
At the end of March this year, the European Council published a report on EU-Turkey relations which noted negative trends, as exemplified in Ankara’s aggressive policies pertaining to Cyprus, Greece, and other countries. Ankara has been fomenting ethnic conflicts in the European continent (as it does in the Middle East) and has been seeking to create a pro-Turkey worldview, by means of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency and other bodies.
The Republic of Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952, but experts have been talking about a Turkish “Eastern turn” since at least 2016, when Ankara started pursuing a much more aggressive and independent foreign policy seeking integration with Arab and Muslim nations. This can further complicate Turkey’s already complex relationship with Russia.
Since the Soviet collapse, Pan-Turkist and Turanist ideas (partly inherited from the Ottoman Empire) have been employed by Ankara as a tool for soft power. Late 19th century Pan-Turkism called for the political unification of all Turkic peoples. Turanism, in its turn, has wider ambitions (encompassing peoples of both Inner and Central Asia origin), but both terms are sometimes used interchangeably.
Having closer bilateral relations and strategic partnerships with Turkey is crucial for many Central Asian nations, which are further enhancing their defence relations with Ankara and thus seeking to balance the geopolitical state of affairs in the region. Meanwhile, Turkey has been trying to expand its influence in ways that go way beyond harmonic cooperation. The support it lent to Azerbaijan, for example, during the Karabakh war, was announced in Pan-Turkist terms, which certainly troubles Iran. The latter is home to a large ethnic Azeri population that often expresses Pan-Turkist separatists’ sentiments.
The idea of a “Great Turan” and of the unity of Turks is thus spreading across Central Asia and South Caucasus and also amid parts of The Russian Federation, which are home to a number of Turkic-speaking peoples.
As for the ethnic-linguistic merit of both Turanism and Pan-Turkism, one should always keep in mind that ethnological concepts and constructs – just like geopolitical notions – are attempts to describe reality, based on solid empirical data as well as on theoretical deductions, but they often are also attempts to change and shape reality, highlighting certain aspects and shadowing others, depending on the many ways social science can be instrumentalized to serve political agendas.
Sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein in his often quoted 1987 article (pertaining to the Polisario question in Western Sahara) wrote that “if by the year 2000 or perhaps 2020, Polisario wins the current war, there will have been a Sahrawi nation. And if Morocco wins, there will not have been. Any historian writing in 2100 will take it as a settled question, or more probably still as a non-question.” Such a statement is in line with Wallerstein’s position that statehood often precedes nationhood and not the other way around. Well, the same goes for larger ethnic-linguistic identities. The Western Sahara’s dispute (where Ankara has its own agenda too) remains unsettled, and at this point one can only wonder about the possible outcomes of Ankara’s larger claims and aspirations.
Is the Republic of Turkey trying to promote a national awakening towards the creation of a Greater Turkey in Central Asia and beyond? It appears so, at least as a kind of “dormant project” and this is troublesome. For example, in August last year, Metin Külünk, a deputy of Erdogan’s AKP party called for a “Greater Turkey” that would encompass large areas of Bulgaria, Cyprus and Armenia, as well as part of Northern Greece and the Aegean Islands. This is an alarming statement in itself. Later Erdogan selected the same deputy as a top manager of his party in the AKP Convention this year.
So, behind the masks of Pan-Turkism and Turanism, one can see the reality of Neo-Ottomanism. Regardless of the many civilizational and cultural similarities the supposed Turanic area may have, we are talking about a very diverse and complex region which comprises a myriad of cultures and societies with multi-layered and ambiguous identities. Of course ethnolinguistic connections are a factor that has helped Ankara improve its relations with the Central Asian nations since the fall of the Soviet Union, but each one of these states makes its own calculations regarding such relationships and each one has its own interests. Any Ankara-led “Turanic” project would inevitably lead to a weakening of national identities in the region and thus a weakening of national sovereignty, with undesired consequences.
We are in the age of great blocs and new groupings with complex formal or informal alignments, such as the Quad, the so-called New Quad, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and so on. Navigating through all these groupings is a huge diplomatic challenge for any global or regional actor nowadays. The Turkic Council (consisting of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan) can be seen as such a grouping. Secretary-General of the Turkic Council Baghdad Amreyev’s statement (in March) that the Turkic Council aims for a “United States of the Turkic World” is worrisome, though. In today’s geopolitical chessboard there is no longer room for irredentism. Turkey now pursues a very risky foreign policy, maneuvering between global and regional players and threatening peace in Central Asia and beyond.
Uriel Araujo is a researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.