E-Notes

The Turkish Factor in the Geopolitics of the Post-Soviet Space

January 10, 2003

by Igor Torbakov

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. Torbakov’s November 20 presentation to FPRI’s Interuniversity Study Group on Russia, Europe, and the United States, which is chaired by Vladislav Zubok and William Anthony Hay.

As the U.S.-led war on terror gains momentum and the Bush administration contemplates military operations against Iraq, Turkey gains in geostrategic importance. America’s ally and a NATO member since 1953, Turkey’s 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 Ankara’s 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 Union’s 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.

Turkey’s 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 Turkey’s political Islam, won the majority of seats in parliament. AKP leaders claim that their primary goal is Turkey’s integration into the EU. However, Europe’s mistrust of Turkey and Turkey’s 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 country’s borders. This was encapsulated in Ataturk’s 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 Ataturk’s cautious policy of limiting international contact. It was Stalin’s 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 Turkey’s foreign policy. Turkey’s geostrategic value to the West was no longer clear-cut. The EU’s rejection of Turkey’s bid to become a full member was widely interpreted by both Turkey’s 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.

Turkey’s 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 Turkey’s 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 Turkey’s strategic value to the West.

Significant changes in Turkey’s domestic policy have contributed to Ankara’s external activism, particularly in relation to the former Soviet republics. Where traditionally, Turkey’s foreign policy was shaped by a narrow group of political figures, state bureaucrats, and the military’s 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 Turkey’s 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.

Ankara’s 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 Azerbaijan’s president Heydar Aliyev and Georgia’s president Eduard Shevardnadze called for a regional stability pact, Ankara proposed the Caucasus Stability Pact as a means to settle the region’s conflicts and accommodate sometimes contradictory interests. A “Turkish model,” based on Turkey’s 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 Ankara’s acting as a new “big brother” when they just escaped the clutches of another big brother. The Turkic states, 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, Turkey’s more ambitious regional schemes, including Black Sea cooperation and efforts in Central Asia and the Caucasus, have been hindered by Ankara’s limited ability to fund sweeping geopolitical projects.

Third, while Moscow lost direct control over its former borderlands, its influence didn’t 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 Russia’s 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 Turkey’s. For its part, the West realized that its initial fears concerning Iran’s influence had been exaggerated.

Nor did Turkey’s 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, Eurasia’s 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

Ankara’s relations with Moscow exhibit marked dualism. Historically, and perhaps in the longer-term, managing relations with Russia is Turkey’s 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 Turkey’s 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 Russia’s 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 Turkey’s 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 Russia’s 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 Turkey’s 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 Turkey’s 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 Turkey’s 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, Russia’s 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 Russia’s 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 Russia’s policies in Eurasia is to keep "outsiders" like Turkey and Iran from interfering in its sphere of influence, while Ankara’s 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 Georgia’s strategic location and the steady deterioration of relations between the Putin and Shevardnadze governments, Turkey’s 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 Georgia’s largest trading partner. Georgia’s military contacts with Turkey make Moscow especially unhappy. A particular irritant is Turkey’s assistance in modernizing the Marneuli airbase near Tbilisi.

This seemingly confrontational trend, 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 Russia’s 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 Russia’s and Turkey’s 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 Turkey’s 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 Turkey’s 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 party’s 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 Turkey’s bid to join the EU was condemned by former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, chairman of the EU’s 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 Giscard’s 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.

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