Ilgar Velizade

On the eve of a summit of Turkic-speaking countries in Baku in late May, the discussion of their political integration is acquiring new dimensions.

At the Friendship, Brotherhood, and Cooperation Congress of Turkic States and Communities in Azerbaijan last November, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested the formation of a political alliance of Turkic-speaking countries (Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan) in order to coordinate major foreign policy decisions, for instance on Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

The reception, however, has been lukewarm. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan are interested in it, whereas Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are rather sceptical.

The idea of a Turkic political union dates back to the early 1990s. Nationalist sentiment in the post-Soviet Turkic republics was on the rise, and the ideas of Turkic unity or pan-Turkism were much in demand. Advocates of Turkic political unity were inspired by the economic and political successes of Turkey, with which Azerbaijan and all the Central Asian republics, with the exception of Tajikistan, have common ethnic roots. In Turkey, far-right nationalists demanded that the government speed up this process as much as possible, and become its vehicle rather than ideological proponent. A ministry in charge of contacts with Turkic countries was set up, and exists in Turkey up to this day.

During this period, the region’s political leaders often visited their wealthy Turkish brethren for advice and material aid. Turkish leaders also often came to the region to encourage their colleagues to promote Turkic integration.

These Turkish actions later turned out to be counterproductive. Displeased with Ankara’s attempts to impose its influence on the region, the ruling elites of the newly independent republics started elaborating their own ideology, in which national identity (Azerbaijani, Kazakh, or Uzbek) prevailed over Turkic integration. These countries opted for political and economic integration in the CIS and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation). Azerbaijan, which has always been close to Turkey, was the only exception. Beset by economic and domestic political problems, Turkey gradually lost its influence in the region.

Now the situation is changing. Unprecedented economic growth in post-Soviet countries, stronger energy security, and the growing geo-political weight of energy-rich countries have considerably consolidated their positions in Eurasia. Moreover, they have acquired the buffer role between the troubled regions of South-West Asia and prosperous Europe. The regional political elites have become more active and confident in the world arena. Participation in alliances is no longer a threat to their independence. Some can even come up with their own integration ideas.

Kazakhstan, the leading regional player, suggested the formation of an inter-parliamentary assembly of Turkic states. This idea was suggested by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the Turkic summit in 2006, which was also attended by Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Last February, deputy heads of parliaments from the four countries signed a letter of intent on the assembly’s formation. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan did not express any wish to join it, thereby demonstrating their attitude to Turkic integration.

But there is still time left. Most likely, the sides will reveal their final position on the issue at the Baku summit, which is expected to be attended by the leaders of the six states.

Recently, the relentless Nazarbayev proposed the formation of a Central Asian union for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Although the suggested formation is regional rather than ethnic, Kazakhstan is not averse to the idea of being a Turkic leader as well, considering the predominant position of Turkic countries. Sceptics maintain that it will be very hard to persuade Islam Karimov to accept this, as his recent visit to Astana has shown. Moreover, Ashgabat’s position clearly contradicts the Kazakh leader’s plans.

Meanwhile, Turkey needs a political Turkic union more than ever before. Prime Minister Erdogan is interested in its formation, because it may help him win the fight against his political opponents.

At the same time, observers predict that Ankara will only manage to persuade other Turkic capitals to form mechanisms for foreign policy coordination because there are no stable economic, military and political prerequisites towards association. Via the proposed alliance, Turkey may try to legalise its position on Cyprus and Iraqi Kurdistan, at least to some extent. Nonetheless, some countries may be interested in the proposed alliance as a vehicle for creating a semblance of foreign policy alternatives.

One thing is obvious. Turkic political unity is again on the regional agenda. — RIA Novosti