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The five states of Central Asia, four of them Turkic countries, have been trying to keep a low profile in the new clash between Russia and Turkey and are looking for ways to maintain their economic ties with Ankara.
So far, only Kazakhstan has reacted officially to Russia’s anti-Turkish campaign, triggered by the shooting down of the Russian warplane on the Syrian border on November 24. In his annual State of the Nation address, the veteran of post-Soviet leaders, Nursultan Nazarbayev, urged Moscow and Ankara to “find common ground and not ruin the relations that have been built over many years.”
Nazarbayev also indicated quite clearly that he doesn’t believe Russia is responsible for the SU-24 incident. “The Russian bomber didn’t attack Turkey; it wasn’t going after Turkey; it went to fight the terrorists.” This apparent support for Moscow, however, hasn’t stopped Nazarbayev from communicating with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whom he has lobbied to seek a compromise with the Kremlin.
Just as he did during the war in Ukraine, Nazarbayev is trying to demonstrate his allegiance to Putin and Russia by donning the role of a peacemaker in the new Russian-Turkish conflict. But Moscow ignored those friendly signals then, and appears to be doing so now.
In fact, the Kremlin’s failure to respond to this initiative generated a wave of caustic comments in Russia’s nationalist media. Pundits quoted a speech Nazarbayev made in Istanbul a few years ago, in which he pledged allegiance to the Turkic world and recalled the age of Russian colonial rule over Kazakhstan.
The ideological differences between Moscow and Astana are not far below the surface. There was anger in the Kazakh elite last year, when Putin talked about expanding the concept of a cross-border Russian-speaking community known as “The Russian world” (Russkii mir) that was invoked in Ukraine to include Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev’s support for Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Union project, it appears, does not mean he wants to abandon the Turkic world or see his country dissolve in the Russian world.
The Central Asian states are used to having good relations with both Moscow and Ankara. But the anti-Turkish campaign started by the Kremlin is so sweeping that it could well develop into an anti-Turkic one and alienate even the most loyal Central Asian allies.
The Kyrgyz government and the country’s president, Almazbek Atambayev, are a case in point. For years, Atambayev never missed a chance to pledge his loyalty to the Kremlin or to Putin personally. He was Putin’s only partner in the CIS to support Russia’s military campaign in Syria. But his government chose to stay conspicuously silent after the shooting down of the Russian Su-24.
That is an understandable position. It is no secret that all of Atambayev’s business interests are based in Turkey, and that he often spends his vacations there. Facing a delicate choice between Moscow and Ankara, he is choosing to sit on the fence.
Uzbekistan is behaving in a similar way, but for somewhat different reasons. In the early 1990s, Turkey tried to replace Russia as the “older brother” to Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous country. Uzbek President Islam Karimov welcomed the idea at first, but later scaled back contacts with Ankara when Turkey started vigorously promoting pan-Turkic ideas in Uzbek society. Karimov also disliked the fact that Turkey offered asylum to a number of his political opponents, such as Muhammad Salih.
In this context, the conversation between Vladimir Putin and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov at the Gas Exporting Countries Forum in Tehran was very telling. Berdymukhamedov expressed concerns about Russia’s decision to launch missiles against Syria from the Caspian Sea. Putin replied that “Russia bears the biggest burden in combating terrorism” and that after the downing of the Russian passenger airliner over Sinai, “we will do this as long as we deem it necessary to punish those responsible.”
The exchange was a stark illustration of the limits of partnership between Russia and the Central Asian states.
Turkmenistan is no exception to the rule. It is also keeping demonstratively silent and trying to distance itself from the Russian-Turkish conflict. This is despite the fact that there are problems in Turkish-Turkmen relations. Turkish-run schools have become a hotbed of pan-Turkism and even radical Islamism in Turkmenistan, and the government in Ashgabat is critical of the Turkish companies that are setting up most of the infrastructure for the 2017 Asian Games, which will be held in Turkmenistan.
All of the Central Asian countries also have another real of bone of contention with the Turkish president. Turkey reportedly serves as a transit country for Central Asian volunteer jihadists traveling to Syria to fight for the so-called Islamic State.
The battle between Russia and Turkey is beginning to hurt economic cooperation within the Eurasian Economic Union, eliminating all of the advantages that prompted the establishment of that organization in the first place.
Russia stopped 150 trucks with Turkish products en route to Kazakhstan at the Georgia-Russia border as soon as the sanctions were announced. Moscow did the same thing last year, when it imposed an embargo against a range of products from the European Union. As Russia encircles itself with hostile neighbors to the south and west, Central Asian states have practically no chance of avoiding the economic fallout.
As a result of all this, Central Asia is seeking ways to reduce its dependence on Russia. On November 28, an agreement was signed in Istanbul that is the first step towards this goal. Turkey and China, along with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, agreed to form a consortium to organize the transport of goods from China to Europe, bypassing Russia.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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