THE TURKISH FACTOR IN THE GEOPOLITICS
OF THE POST-SOVIET SPACE
by Igor Torbakov / Toni Schoenfelder
January 10, 2003
THE TURKISH FACTOR IN THE GEOPOLITICS
OF THE POST-SOVIET SPACE
As the U.S.-led war on terror gains momentum and the Bush administration contemplates military operations against Iraq, Turkey gains in geostrategic importance. Americas
ally and a NATO member since 1953, Turkeys location, right in the middle of the Southern Caucasus/Northern Mesopotamia region, makes it a key player in several overlapping
regions: Western Europe, the Balkans, the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Caucasus-Caspian
complex, Central Asia, and the Black Sea. In close proximity to the major oil and gas deposits in the Caspian Sea and
northern Iraq, it is also a key player in the "Great Game" of pipeline politics in the region.
The post-Soviet world is rife with threats to Turkey, but presents opportunities as well: in economic relations with
Russia, as a hub for energy distribution, and in new regional cooperation schemes. Despite its unusually active
foreign policy in post-Soviet Eurasia, Turkey has failed to attain a leadership role in the former Soviet periphery.
This failure, exacerbated by Ankaras serious economic and political problems, has led Russia and other countries in
the region to perceive Turkey in much more neutral terms than they did in the early 1990s, when Ankara was seen as a
strategic competitor. Thus, the conventional picture of Moscow and Ankara as uncompromising archrivals jockeying for
position in the former Soviet Unions southern periphery is somewhat simplistic. The assumption that there are rigid,
opposing blocs of states (U.S.-Turkey-Azerbaijan-Georgia vs.
Russia-Iran-Armenia) does not correspond with the far more complex reality. To be sure, the Great Game is taking place in the post-Soviet space. However, it involves elements of
both competition and cooperation.
Turkeys November parliamentary elections introduced yet more uncertainty into the picture. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), a moderate Muslim party styled on
European Christian Democrats but with roots in Turkeys political Islam, won the majority of seats in parliament.
AKP leaders claim that their primary goal is Turkeys integration into the EU. However, Europes mistrust of Turkey and Turkeys own political and economic troubles may
well cause the AKP to shift its orientation.
TURKISH FOREIGN POLICY
The Turkish Republic built by Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s and 1930s is very much a frontier state. From the outset Ankara has been preoccupied with issues of national security and territorial integrity.This necessarily dictated a conservative approach to foreign policy,avoiding extraterritorial interests or activities extending beyond the countrys borders. This was encapsulated in Ataturks
famous dictum "Peace at home, peace in the world." Kemalism and the character of the Turkish state have also isolated
Turkey in its relations with it neighbors in the Arab world and Europe.
Turkey maintained a sometimes precarious neutrality during World War II, in part as an extension of Ataturks cautious policy of limiting international contact. It was Stalins claims on northeastern Turkey and the Turkish Straits that pushed Ankara into its Western alliance. The Cold War,
however, imposed a certain amount of order. Turkish foreign policy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union was restricted to just a few basic (if crucial) questions: how to ward off the Soviet
threat and how to maintain and strengthen ties with the United States and NATO.
The collapse of the Soviet empire and the acceleration of European integration challenged the very foundations of
Turkeys foreign policy. Turkeys geostrategic value to the West was no longer clear-cut. The EUs rejection of Turkeys bid to become a full member was widely interpreted by both
Turkeys political class and the broader public as exclusion on explicitly cultural grounds, which bred a sense of isolation and insecurity in Turkish elites.This paradoxically led to a more activist and assertive foreign
policy in the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Balkans.
Turkeys embrace of the Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union, argues Prof. Ziya Onis of Koc University in Istanbul, embodied an important psychological dimension. A closer bond with people of common historical descent was a means of overcoming Turkeys traditional fear of isolation.
This sense of isolation, Onis contends, is crucial in understanding both the initial euphoria concerning the Turkic republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia and the
subsequent development of close military and economic ties with Israel. Ankara seemed to hope that its active leadership in both regions would help revitalize Turkeys
strategic value to the West.
Significant changes in Turkeys domestic policy have contributed to Ankaras external activism, particularly in relation to the former Soviet republics. Where traditionally, Turkeys foreign policy was shaped by a
narrow group of political figures, state bureaucrats, and the militarys upper echelon, the recent resurgence of Islam and nationalism in Turkish politics has broadened the circle
of those concerned with foreign policy. A distinct emphasis on non-European or non-Western dimensions of Turkish identity became the hallmark of the Islamist and ultra-
nationalist parties, which have been gaining a voice over the last decade in the highly fragmented party system. The basic tenets of Turkish foreign policy remain pro-Western,
but Turkeys position at the edge of the Western world requires it to maintain a separate identity with a definable
role in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East.
ANKARAS EFFORTS IN THE CAUCASUS AND CENTRAL ASIA:
A Failure of the "Turkic World" Model
With the relative weakening of Russia, many officials in Ankara hoped to establish close ties with the newly- independent states, making Turkey a leading actor in the
former Soviet southern periphery. It formed the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization, Turkish Cooperation, and
Development Agency and set up annual "Turkic summits" of the presidents of Turkey and the Turkic republics. Turgut Ozal,prime minister and then president of Turkey from 1983 until
his death in 1993, entertained a sweeping project that included a vibrant Turkic Common Market and a powerful Turkic Trade and Development Bank. After Azerbaijans president Heydar Aliyev and Georgias president Eduard Shevardnadze called for a regional stability pact,Ankara proposed the Caucasus Stability Pact as a means to settle the regions conflicts and accommodate sometimes contradictory interests. A "Turkish model," based on Turkeys imperfect but seemingly workable market economy and somewhat restrictive parliamentary democracy, was projected
to the post-Soviet states as a roadmap for their transition. The Western governments encouraged this, since the alternatives seemed to be either an Islamist-based Iranian
model or a return to Soviet domination. However, Turkey failed to play a leadership role in the post-Soviet space.
Its recent activism in Eurasia is real but fragile, for several reasons.
First, the post-Soviet states have been wary of Ankaras acting as a new "big brother" when they just escaped the clutches of another big brother. The Turkic states, in
particular, sought to develop their own national identities.
The Caucasus and Central Asian states obviously preferred more limited and equal relations with Ankara. They were
unwilling to bind themselves exclusively to Turkey-dominated organizations and eager to secure political and economic support from other states, including Russia and Iran.
Second, Turkey is a relatively poor country recently in severe economic crisis. Indeed, Turkeys more ambitious regional schemes, including Black Sea cooperation and efforts in Central Asia and the Caucasus, have been hindered by Ankaras limited ability to fund sweeping geopolitical projects.
Third, while Moscow lost direct control over its former borderlands, its influence didnt disappear. The presence of Russian troops in a number of countries (Georgia, Armenia, Tajikistan), powerful economic levers (gas and electricity deliveries), and its ability to manipulate regional ethnic
conflicts compel the local leaders to take heed of Russias wishes.
Fourth, a Turkish model appears to have lost much of its appeal both for the post-Soviet states and the West. The democratic component in the Turkish system proved not so attractive to the authoritarian leaders in the Caucasus and Central Asia, who had little interest in fostering broader political participation and pluralism. The newly independent republics rulers styled their regimes more on the old Soviet system than on Turkeys. For its part, the West
realized that its initial fears concerning Irans influence had been exaggerated.
Nor did Turkeys identity-based foreign policy appear to help settle the South Caucasus conflicts, most notably the
one between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkey actively supported Baku on the grounds of common ethnicity and culture. However, even some Turkish commentators suggest a more far-sighted policy would have
developed closer links with both countries, thus possibly reducing the efforts of Yerevan and the Armenian lobby in the West to wage a hate campaign against Turkey.
Finally, Eurasias energy riches prompted the West, and the U.S. in particular, to opt for more direct involvement rather than relying on regional proxies like Turkey. The
deployment of American troops in Central Asia and the Caucasus within the framework of the war on terror
underscored its strategic decision to engage the region more actively, which had been taken even prior to 9/11/01 attacks.
RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA: COMPETITION AND COOPERATION
Ankaras relations with Moscow exhibit marked dualism. Historically, and perhaps in the longer-term, managing relations with Russia is Turkeys leading security issue.
But the magnitude of Turkish-Russian trade (including large- scale energy imports) and the need for coexistence at the political level work against more competitive policies.
For the first time in centuries, since the end of the Cold War, Turkey and Russia no longer share a border. However, since the Turkish and Russian "near abroads" overlap in the Caucasus and Central Asia, some degree of competition is inevitable. In the early 1990s, almost everyone predicted intense rivalry between Moscow and Ankara in Eurasia. This has ultimately not been realized: as discussed above, Turkey has been unsuccessful in gaining a leadership role in the
region. Besides, Ankara has focused on Turkeys own internal problems and other foreign policy priorities in Europe and the Middle East. Like Turkey, Russia has been troubled by
its own economic weakness and was diverted in the 1990s by competing foreign policy priorities, especially by its post- Cold War relationship with the United States.
Yet in the mid-1990s Russia appeared to perceive Turkey as a massive security challenge. For instance, The White Book of
Russian Special Services (Moscow: Obozrevatel,1996)described Turkey as an aspiring regional power that supported Muslim movements and cherished pan-Turkic ideas.
It argued that Turkey might move into the geostrategic niche in the Caucasus created by Russias weakening state. Moscow repeatedly accused Ankara of supporting the Chechen
separatists during the first Chechen war.
From the end of the 1990s, Moscow fundamentally revised its perception of Turkeys role in Eurasia. Pavel Baev of the
International Peace Research Institute in Oslo argues that Moscow now views Turkey primarily as a partner rather than a
threat, with one important reason being gas. Turkey and Europe compose Russias major market for gas. Some of the largest energy business deals in Russia have been signed
with Turkey. The recent completion of the Blue Stream gas pipeline under the Black Sea will increase Turkeys dependence on Russian natural gas,and Russia is beginning to see Turkey as a transit country for its energy resources rather than simply an export market.
Moscow also reevaluated Turkeys strategic potential. By 2000-01, Turkey came to be typically portrayed not as a geopolitical challenger but as a weakening competitor,
preoccupied with internal troubles. The Russian Security Council now perceives Turkeys penetration into the Caucasus
as a low-intensity risk, and the sharp political and economic crisis in Turkey in early 2001 only confirmed these assessments. Thus, issues such as the export of Russian gas
to Turkey, tanker traffic through the Straits, and the regulation of the "shuttle" trade dominate the agendas of intensive bilateral contacts at various levels. Strategic alliance with Armenia notwithstanding, Russia has stayed
clear of the international controversy around the genocide of 1915-18, in contrast to the proactive stance taken, say, by France. And Ankara has neither provided support to the
rebels in the second Chechen war nor shown any softness toward the Chechens inside Turkey.
With respect to the EU, Turkey and Russia are basically on the same page. Both countries have complex negotiations with the EU, not only for the development of their economies but
for their future political and cultural identities as European countries. Russia and Turkey also share similar views with respect to Iran and Iraq, which differ from those
of the U.S. Both countries have improved their relationships with Israel. Further improvements in U.S.-Russian relations
as well as in Turkish-Russian relations and the United States willingness to consult both countries on potentially contentious U.S. policies in the broader region could help
foster a real Russo-Turkish relationship, ultimately transforming the politics of the Southern Caucasus even more than any dramatic change in U.S.-Russian relations.
Moscow appears particularly keen these days to send friendly signals to Turkey. In a recent interview with the Turkish Daily News, Aleksandr Lebedev, Russias ambassador to
Ankara, stressed the unique Eurasian nature of both countries. Lebedev has also tried hard to prove the historic stereotypes wrong. The common impression that the Russian and Ottoman empires have been in a state of war most of the
time is absolutely untrue,said the ambassador. He referred to a study conducted by Russian and Turkish historians that concludes that over 500 years, the tsars and sultans were
engaged in direct conflict for only 25 years, and noted the past alliances against the British and the French.
There have also been remarkable shifts in the Great Game over the Caspian oil export pipeline routes. Until recently, Russia and Turkey have been rivals in the transportation of
Caspian oil to lucrative Western markets. Unlike the case with gas, Turkey is not seen as an important market for Russian crude oil. Turkish and Russian policy-makers competed for a main export oil pipeline across their
territory to carry Azerbaijani and possibly Kazak crude to the European market. Ankara (together with Washington) has pushed for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan main export pipeline
project that would bypass both Russia and Iran, while Moscow backed the "northern route" to Novorossiisk. By mid-2001, however, the Russian government--to the surprise of some
observers--had dropped its opposition to the BTC project. Instead, Russia has taken steps toward finishing the construction of the high-capacity Tengiz-Novorossiisk
pipeline (built by the Caspian Pipeline Consortium), cautiously but shrewdly playing Kazak oil against Azerbaijani oil on the world markets. With the CPC pipeline becoming operational it seems that officials in Moscow have come to believe that a BTC pipeline will not run counter to Russias interests. Thus, despite occasional over-heated statements, Moscow clearly prefers to present this issue in
geoeconomic rather than geopolitical terms, putting cost efficiency ahead of balance of power and emphasizing competition between economic actors rather than struggle for
spheres of influence with Ankara or Washington.
Of course, the potential for competition between Moscow and Ankara remains.A fundamental objective underlying Russias policies in Eurasia is to keep "outsiders" like Turkey and
Iran from interfering in its sphere of influence, while Ankaras primary objectives in Eurasia are consolidating the independence of former Soviet states and promoting "strategic pluralism" across the region. Thus Ankara is wary about the operation of Russian military bases in Georgia and Armenia. Turkey would also like to see the CIS peacekeeping
forces in the South Caucasus conflict zones (primarily in Abkhazia) replaced by international forces. For its part, Russia is obviously displeased with Turkish military and security officials cooperation with their counterparts in Georgia and Azerbaijan. In January 2002, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey concluded an agreement on regional
security. Given Georgias strategic location and the steady deterioration of relations between the Putin and Shevardnadze governments, Turkeys lively contacts with
Tbilisi cause concern in Moscow. As Zeyno Baran, director of the Caucasus Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently pointed out, "in the past,
Georgia had asked the Russians for help against the Ottomans, but today Georgia receives military, economic, and political assistance from Turkey." In 2000 Turkey even
surpassed Russia as Georgias largest trading partner. Georgias military contacts with Turkey make Moscow
especially unhappy. A particular irritant is Turkeys assistance in modernizing the Marneuli airbase near Tbilisi.
This seemingly confrontational tend,however, is
counterbalanced by continuing Russo-Turkish cooperation.Turkey was the first NATO member to start purchasing Russian arms in the 1990s: helicopters and armored personnel
carriers for use against the PKK. Military ties continue to develop as evidenced by the visit to Ankara of Russias Chief of General Staff Anatolii Kvashnin in January 2002.
Also, in November 2001 the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers signed a memorandum promising to coordinate their policies in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Thus, despite
Russias and Turkeys longer-term competing agendas, Moscow is now more open to cooperation with Turkey in the Caucasus, and Turkey is becoming more adept at framing its involvement
in the region in a way that does not offend other countries sensibilities.
IN THE AFTERMATH OF ELECTIONS: A PERIOD OF UNCERTAINTY
At present, it would seem that Turkeys relations with the EU have eclipsed whatever ambitions Ankara might still have in the post-Soviet Eurasia. Ankara is pushing hard to obtain
from the EU at its summit in Copenhagen in December a precise date for the beginning of the accession talks. EU
members appear to be split on the issue. Turkey is entering a potentially turbulent period fraught with many uncertainties. If Ankara encounters new obstacles and snubs
in its EU conquest, its inherent fear of being isolated and marginalized could reemerge. This might well strengthen the non-European elements in the peculiar Turkish dichotomy and
bring about changes in policy orientation, as has happened in the past. For instance, in 1994, then foreign minister Mumtaz Soysal called for Third Worldism, nationalism, and
anti-Westernism in contrast to Turkeys traditional Western- oriented policy. And while then Prime Minister Necmettin
Erbakan finally dropped the rhetoric about Turkey spearheading a new Islamic NATO or Common Market, in 1996-97 he promoted the establishment of a development group, the D-
8, consisting of Turkey, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Initially it was even
called the M-8 (M stands for Muslim). The Turkish military took care of Erbakan in the "post-modern coup" of 1997.
However, in spring 2002, a top Turkish commander, National Security Council Secretary-General Tuncer Kilinc, apparently frustrated with the discriminatory attitude of what he called a "Christian Club," suggested that stronger relations with Russia and Iran could be considered a viable alternative to EU membership.
In the November 3 parliamentary election, the AKP won a landslide victory and secured almost two thirds of the parliament seats. Its strong showing at the polls gives it a
rare opportunity to form a stable one-party government. The partys leader, Tayyip Erdogan, and top officials wasted no
time confirming their pro-European orientation and their eagerness for EU membership. It is not yet clear how the party will behave under the pressure from its grass-roots,
not all of whom share this enthusiasm, if their Europe- oriented policy is given a cold shoulder by Europe. The first test occurred on November 8, when Turkeys bid to join the EU was condemned by former French president Valery Giscard dEstaing, chairman of the EUs constitution
committee. He bluntly said that Turkey "is not a European country" and that its membership would represent the end of
the EU. The European Commission swiftly disassociated itself from Giscards comments, but he was probably not far from the truth when he claimed that most EU members are privately against admitting Turkey.
A number of Western analysts argue that the EU is playing a dangerous game treating Turkey in this way: Ankara is well aware that the EU is not its only option. One analyst, Simon
Allison, comments that the EU might regret its current stance vis-a-vis Ankara. The position of the West with regard to the war on terror and Iraq would become a lot more
difficult without Turkish support and cooperation.
The Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Founded in 1955, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) is an independent, nonprofit organization devoted to advanced research and public education on international affairs.
Igor Torbakov is an historian and visiting fellow at Harvard University. Currently working with the Central Eurasia Project, he holds degrees from Moscow University, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kiev. This paper draws from Dr. Torbakovs November 20 presentation to FPRIs Interuniversity Study Group on Russia, Europe, and the United States, which is chaired by Vladislav Zubok and William Anthony Hay.
He has been active for more than 30 years around the world, i.a in Europe, United States, Latin America, Russia and the Baltic States
His solid knowledge of the trade, coupled with unconventional innovations, has led to a number of international awards