Turkey's Plan B, Turks rediscover Central Asia
Thu Jun 23, 2005 09:14 PM ET , By Gareth Jones
ANKARA (Reuters) - Billed as a "Silk Road for the 21st century," a new pipeline ferrying Caspian oil via Turkey to global markets has highlighted a growing web of business and cultural ties between Turks and their Central Asian cousins.
However, notions of a pan-Turkic commonwealth stretching from Istanbul to Samarkand remain as romantically far-fetched now as they proved 15 years ago when a first wave of Turkish businessmen swept into the region as the Soviet Union collapsed.
"Turkey is looking at Central Asia more attentively again but we have a more realistic view of the possibilities than before," said Sinan Ogan of the ASAM think-tank in Ankara.
"There was a lot of excitement in the early 1990s. Turkey saw itself as the elder brother rediscovering long-lost members of the Turkic family. But we then found the Central Asians no more wanted a Turkish elder brother than a Russian one."
"I am more optimistic now. Young people in Central Asia are looking west, first of all to Turkey. They grew up in the post-Soviet period, they have traveled, speak languages other than Russian. For them Turkey is a natural partner," he said.
The $4 billion, U.S.-backed oil pipeline inaugurated on May 25 linking the Azeri capital Baku to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan is the most visible sign of burgeoning business links.
The pipeline will eventually pump more than 1 million barrels a day from Azerbaijan -- and later in the decade probably much more from emerging energy giant Kazakhstan -- thereby reducing the region's economic reliance on Russia.
A natural gas pipeline following the same circuitous route via mountainous Georgia is due to open next year.
TUG OF HISTORY
Turkey's President Ahmet Necdet Sezer evoked the ancient Silk Road -- which carried trade and ideas between East and West -- during the ceremonial launch of the pipeline in Baku. Tankers will start loading the first oil at Ceyhan later this year.
Hugh Pope, the Istanbul-based author of a new book on the Turkic world called "Sons of the Conquerors," said the pipeline was psychologically important for Turkey, but added Central Asia -- a region stretching from the Caspian to the borders of China -- had been exerting a steady pull on Turks for some time.
"A third to a half of foreign businessmen in Central Asian cities tend to be Turkish. Who is building the airports, the pipelines, running the hotels and supermarkets? Turks. But much of this activity is below the international radar," he said.
Azeris, Uzbeks and Turkmens have dropped the Russian-imposed Cyrillic alphabet and now write their languages in Latin script, mimicking the decision of Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, to scrap the Arabic script for Turkish in the 1920s.
Central Asians listen to Turkish pop music and Istanbul draws many artists and musicians from the region.
Turkey, with one of the Muslim world's biggest economies, most powerful militaries and most functioning democracies, is an obvious role model for the newly independent republics of Central Asia, given its linguistic, cultural and ethnic links.
"Central Asians are also following Ataturk's secular model of national development, eschewing pan-Turkic ideas," Pope said.
Turkish nationalists sometimes posit close ties with Central Asia as an alternative vision to Ankara's increasingly rocky road to European Union membership.
Most analysts dismiss this idea, saying Central Asia is no substitute for the EU. The EU buys more than half of all Turkish exports, for example, against Central Asia's mere two percent.
But they also argue that Turkey's own appeal for Brussels lies partly in its proximity to countries such as Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan, key suppliers of Europe's future energy needs.
"Central Asia has always been Turkey's Plan B, Plan A of course being Europe and the West," said Hasan Ali Karasar of Ankara's Bilkent University.
"But the EU and Central Asia are not mutually exclusive. And even if Turkey ends up only with a 'privileged partnership' with Europe instead of full EU membership, Turkey could still help project EU economic and political interests in Central Asia."
Turkey is due to start EU entry talks on Oct. 3, but many in the EU -- including some senior French and German politicians -- want to offer the large, relatively poor, Muslim country a special partnership falling well short of full membership.
As an EU candidate country, Turkey is required to align its foreign policy with that of the 25-nation bloc. This means Ankara has become more sensitive to issues of human rights and political freedoms in Central Asia, some diplomats say.
"In the past, Turkey forged good relations with the rulers of Central Asia but neglected the opposition parties and non-governmental organizations," said one Turkish diplomat.
"That is changing," he said, noting Turkey had been critical of Uzbekistan's crackdown last month on a revolt in its eastern town of Andizhan in which witnesses say 500 people were killed. The Uzbeks put the death toll at 176, mostly "terrorists."
But political analysts are skeptical about Turkey's willingness or ability to promote democracy in Central Asia.
"The Turks have to move cautiously. After all, they are family," said Pope.