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Aug 15, 2013 | 21:00 GMT

Turkey's Influence in Caucasus and Central Asia

A summit of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States is being held in Azerbaijan on Aug. 15-16, with the presidents and foreign ministers of the member states of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in attendance. This organization has served as little more than a talk shop between the member countries, and the summit will likely lead to little in terms of substantial agreements beyond broad declarations of cooperation. However, it does serve as a reminder of Turkey's importance as a regional power and its historical interests and influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia that could see a re-emergence in the coming years. 

The Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States, otherwise known as the Turkic Council, was founded in 2009 with the goal of promoting political, economic, and cultural cooperation between Turkic-speaking states. Turkey is the largest such state and is the natural leader of the group, which is just one of several platforms that Ankara uses to interact with the other members. Indeed, Turkey's engagement with countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia has deep historical roots. Central Asia is the original homeland of Turkic groups that came to dominate Anatolia and eventually establish the Ottoman Empire, while Azerbaijan was for centuries contested between the Ottomans and Persians. 

Turkey's position in these regions would eventually come to be challenged by the Russians, first as the Russian Empire expanded into these territories in the 18th and 19th centuries and then as the Soviet Union solidified control. These regions were integrated into Russia's centralized military-industrial complex, and in the Soviet era they underwent a process of Russification that favored the Russian language at the expense of their indigenous language and customs. 

While this substantially diluted Turkey's influence in both a political and cultural sense, the breakup of the Soviet Union provided Ankara with an opportunity to re-establish ties to its Turkic brethren. Turkey increased economic ties with Azerbaijan and the Central Asian countries, with Ankara serving as one of the leading trade and investment partners in these countries. Turkey has also sought to build cultural and grassroots influence through different avenues such as Gulen schools and Turkic language programs. Turkey's ties with Azerbaijan are particularly strong with Turkey serving as a major destination for Azerbaijan's energy exports, and the two countries have a close military and security relationship as well. 

Still, Turkey's influence in this region remains significantly outmatched by that of Russia. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are closely integrated with Russia, with the former a member of the Moscow-led Customs Union and the latter having plans to join next year. Furthermore, Russia has troops stationed in Kyrgyzstan, while Kazakhstan is a loyal member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, two other Turkic countries in Central Asia, are more independent-minded and have preferred to stay out of any foreign alliances with either Russia or Turkey, though they have closer economic ties with Moscow.

While Turkey is no match for Russia in the region in terms of hard military power or political influence, the cultural Turkic tie is an important lever for Ankara. Since the end of the Soviet Union, the cultural bonds to Russia in Azerbaijan and some of the Central Asian states have weakened, and this is likely to continue with each passing generation. In the meantime, Turkey has a growing population with a dynamic economy, while Russia's longer-term demographic and economic prospects are not as positive. These factors, combined with cultural Turkic ties, will likely serve as a platform for Turkey to become an increasingly important player in the region over the longer term.

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