The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Tashkent’s increasingly critical approach toward Russia and its deepening role in the Organization of Turkic States has positioned the country as Ankara’s most important bridgehead in Central Asia.

Amid Russia’s military intervention in Kazakhstan in January and its invasion of Ukraine in March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid a historical visit to Uzbekistan.

The timing of the visit at the end of March is meaningful since Turkey’s public discourse focused on whether Russia’s deployments constitute a security threat to Ankara or other Central Asian Turkic states.

Ukraine’s effective resistance against Russia’s stalled invasion and, more importantly, NATO and the West’s stance in support of Ukraine resulted in punitive sanctions against Moscow, causing a relief not only in Turkey but in all states afraid of Russia.

Unlike other states in the region, Uzbekistan maintains an independent foreign policy approach vis-à-vis Russia. Therefore, Uzbekistan appears to be Turkey’s natural partner in strengthening the Pan-Turkist Organization of Turkic States (OTS) as an emerging power center in Central Asia.

Since creating the 2010 National Security Policy Document (a.k.a. the Red Book), Ankara adopted a foreign policy that included multiple rapprochements. Turkey changed its traditional pro-Western stance and began cooperation with Russia and China, especially on energy and trade.

However, Ankara failed to satisfy Moscow and Beijing due to its continuous affiliation with the West and its desire to penetrate Central Asian states. This created skepticism in Moscow and Beijing toward Ankara. Therefore, Russia and China remained reluctant to admit Turkey into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Traditionally, the Ottoman Empire, and later Turkey, saw Russia as its historical nemesis. This attitude led Turkish decision-makers to join the ranks of NATO in 1952. In the same spirit, Turkey regarded the collapse of the Soviet Union as a relief and an opportunity to expand its area of influence in Turkic Central Asia.

The Turkish-sponsored Azeri victory against Armenia in 2021 and Erdoğan’s coalition with nationalists at home turned Turkey’s penetration in Central Asia into a strategic asset. Thus, the OTS, founded in November last year, functions as a Turkish-led security alliance and is the ultimate vehicle to enable this strategy.

The OTS was created following the Azeri victory in the Nagorno Karabakh war.[1] This can be considered the last phase of the 1991 Pan-Turkish initiative named the “Summit of the Turkish Speaking Countries’ Presidents,” which was later called the “Turkic Council.”[2]

The OTS comprises Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan (joined in 2019), while Turkmenistan and Hungary have observer status.[3]

Apart from creating a Pan-Turkic identity with a new flag and coat of arms, the OTS also seeks to project influence, stating its “2040 Vision of the Turkic World.”[4] Accordingly, the OTS seeks to unite member states under one political umbrella. The OTS desires to become a key regional hub.

The OTS vision document states that it will not hesitate to enforce its will on other states by implementing measures, especially in trade. Unsurprisingly both Russia and China sense a challenge from this vision.[5]

Russian and Chinese Reactions to the OTS

Under the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow has not welcomed the Turkic states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union and their new alliance with Turkey.

During the latest political crisis in Kazakhstan in January, Moscow did not allow Kazakh President Kassym Jomart Tokayev to contact the OTS and pushed him to accept the assistance of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Despite OTS calls of support and even offers of military assistance[6], the Tokayev administration preferred to collaborate with Russia and the CSTO.

The CSTO was founded in 1992. Today Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan are acting together not only to defend member states from external threats but also to provide internal stability.[7]

The current composition of the CSTO shows the significance of Uzbekistan to Turkey. Apart from its close ally Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan withdrew from the CSTO in 2006 and is the only Central Asian Turkic state not part of this organization.

As far as Uzbekistan’s SCO membership is concerned, thanks to China, the SCO cannot be considered a unilateral Russia-dominated apparatus like the CSTO. Instead, it is a bipolar entity in which Moscow’s influence is balanced.

As far as China’s position is concerned, Beijing felt relieved after seeing OTS’s failure to get involved in the Kazakh unrest. Nevertheless, China did not hesitate to warn Turkey that it would not tolerate any Pan-Turkist moves that would cause instability in its Uyghur populated Xinjiang province. Therefore, to lower the tensions, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu paid a visit to China and had to convince his Chinese counterpart that both Turkey and the OTS respect China’s territorial integrity. [8]

Turkey’s Uzbek Card

The death of former Uzbek president Islam Karimov and his replacement, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, in 2016 can be considered a milestone for Turkish-Uzbek relations. Karimov adopted a critical stance toward Turkey due to Ankara’s close ties with central Uzbek opposition figure Muhammad Salih, who was held responsible for inciting Uzbek students abroad.

Relations deteriorated in 1999 when a Turkish citizen was accused of organizing an assassination attempt against Karimov. Thus, the death of Karimov, who ruled his country with an iron fist for 25 years, became a new beginning for Turkish-Uzbek relations.

Erdoğan saw Karimov’s death as a historical opportunity to mend fences with Tashkent. After expressing his condolences for Karimov’s death, the Turkish president visited Samarkand in 2016. Mirziyoyev’s ascension to power and visit to Turkey a year later ushered in a new era of bilateral relations.[9] 

Indeed, that same year, Turkish-Uzbek relations were upgraded into a strategic partnership. Today, Turkish companies are heavily involved in construction, textiles, and foodstuffs. In addition, Turkish Airlines also operates in the country.

In 2021, the flourishing bilateral trade volume reached its all-time high of $3.64 billion. From Turkey’s perspective, Uzbekistan’s growing involvement in the OTS, such as hosting the 2022 annual OTS summit, has turned Tashkent into a valuable partner for Ankara.[10]

These accomplishments could not have been possible without the close ties between Mirziyoyev and Erdoğan. Both leaders use similar rhetoric, such as speaking of a “new Uzbekistan” and “new Turkey.” Further, they act in harmony when it comes to religion. Unlike Karimov, Mirziyoyev adopts a more tolerant stance vis-à-vis religion. Together with Erdoğan, Mirziyoyev openly promotes the “Buhari-Maturidi” tolerant-rational Sunni – Hanafi Islam against the radical Wahabi-Salafism.[11]  

Apart from religion, Uzbekistan’s critical stance against Russia concerning the war in Ukraine is seen as brave. That can pave the way for Turkish-Uzbek cooperation free from Russian pressure. In this context, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov’s statement on March 17 on the need for the protection of Ukraine’s territorial integrity highlights Uzbekistan’s desire to distinguish itself from the rest of the CSTO member Turkic Central Asian states.[12]

To maintain this independent foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia, Tashkent improved its relations with Turkey. Indeed, Erdoğan’s latest visit to Uzbekistan paved the way for signing ten separate treaties, including a “military framework agreement” similar to those Turkey signed with Ukraine[13] and Ethiopia.[14] They can be seen as the first tangible step of this strategic partnership.

In light of this development, Uzbekistan may further enhance its military cooperation with Turkey by acquiring the Turkish-made Bayraktar UAVs. The Ukrainians already received these aircraft and, according to some sources, perhaps also the Ethiopians.[15] Uzbekistan is likely to continue its independent foreign policy and not be dependent on Moscow.

Conclusion

The unrest in Kazakhstan was put down with the help of Russian military forces. At that time, the OTS was seen as a weak actor. However, the ongoing war in Ukraine and Russia’s international isolation and its failures on the ground have once again turned the OTS into an alternative for Central Asian Turkic states that feel threatened by Russia.

Tashkent’s increasingly critical approach toward Russia and its deepening role in the OTS has positioned the country as Ankara’s most important bridgehead in Central Asia.

The growing Turkish penetration in the region and the loss of Russian deterrence may pave the way for other Turkic states to follow Tashkent. Such a step could turn the OTS into a strong power center.


[1]  “Aliyev: Türk dünyası ülkeleri arasında ortak bir vizyonumuz var,” TRT Haber, November 12, 2021, https://www.trthaber.com/haber/gundem/aliyev-turk-dunyasi-ulkeleri-arasinda-ortak-bir-vizyonumuz-var-625544.html [Accessed: April 3, 2022]

[2] “Dünyanın yükselen gücü: Türk Devletleri Teşkilatı,” TRT Haber, January 13, 2022, https://www.trthaber.com/haber/dunya/dunyanin-yukselen-gucu-turk-devletleri-teskilati-644709.html [Accessed: April 3, 2022]

[3] “Macaristan Büyükelçisi Matis: Türk kökenli olduğumuz net bir şekilde ifade edildi,” TRT Haber, February 19, 2021, https://www.trthaber.com/haber/dunya/macaristan-buyukelcisi-matis-turk-kokenli-oldugumuz-net-bir-sekilde-ifade-edildi-557788.html [Accessed: April 3, 2022]

[4]  “Türk Dünyası 2040 Vizyonu”, Türkkon, https://www.turkkon.org/assets/pdf/haberler/turk-dunyasi-2040-vizyonu-2396-98.pdf [Accessed: April 3, 2022]

[5] Tarihi dönüm noktası: Türk Dünyası 2040 Vizyon Belgesi, https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/analiz/tarihi-donum-noktasi-turk-dunyasi-2040-vizyon-belgesi/2425103 [Accessed: April 3, 2022]

[6] “Bakan Çavuşoğlu’ndan Kazakistan açıklaması,” NTV, January 9, 2022, https://www.ntv.com.tr/dunya/bakan-cavusoglundan-kazakistan-aciklamasi,W-CHvbXnMUOMMsmwp4hCeQ [Accessed: April 3, 2022]

[7] “Collective Security Treaty,” May 15, 1992, https://en.odkb-csto.org/documents/documents/dogovor_o_kollektivnoy_bezopasnosti/  [Accessed: April 3, 2022]

[8]  “Aydınlık Gazetesi yazdı: Türkiye ile Çin arasında 4 alanda iş birliği,” Ulusal, January 14, 2022, https://www.ulusal.com.tr/haber/9111886/aydinlik-gazetesi-yazdi-turkiye-ile-cin-arasinda-4-alanda-is-birligi [Accessed: January 17, 2022]

[9] “Özbekistan’la inişli-çıkışlı ilişkiler,” Al Jazeera, September 1, 2016,  http://www.aljazeera.com.tr/haber/ozbekistanla-inisli-cikisli-iliskiler [Accessed: April 3, 2022]

[10] “Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan’ın Özbekistan ziyaretiyle stratejik ilişkiler en üst seviyeye çıkacak,” AA, March 28, 2022, https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/gundem/cumhurbaskani-Erdoganin-ozbekistan-ziyaretiyle-stratejik-iliskiler-en-ust-seviyeye-cikacak/2547880 [Accessed: April 3, 2022]

[11] Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, “Özbekistan-Türkiye Stratejik İlişkilerinin Yeni Dönemi,” ANKASAM, July 1, 2020, https://www.ankasam.org/ozbekistan-turkiye-stratejik-iliskilerinin-yeni-donemi/ [Accessed: April 4, 2022]

[12] “Uzbekistan calls for an end to aggression in Ukraine,” Eurasianet, March 17, 2022,  https://eurasianet.org/uzbekistan-calls-for-an-end-to-aggression-in-ukraine [Accessed: April 3, 2022]

[13] “Türkiye ile Ukrayna arasında ‘Askeri Çerçeve Anlaşması’ imzalandı,” Cumhuriyet, October 17, 2020   https://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/turkiye-ile-ukrayna-arasinda-askeri-cerceve-anlasmasi-imzalandi-1774049 [Accessed: April 4, 2022]

[14] “Türkiye’nin Etiyopya ile geçen yıl imzaladığı anlaşmanın ayrıntıları ortaya çıktı,” Cumhuriyet, March 31, 2022, https://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/dunya/turkiyenin-etiyopya-ile-gecen-yil-imzaladigi-anlasmanin-ayrintilari-ortaya-cikti-1921051 [Accessed: April 4, 2022]

[15] “Turkish Drones Join Ethiopia’s war, Satellite Imagery Confirms,” Pax for Peace, January 11, 2022,  https://paxforpeace.nl/news/blogs/turkish-drones-join-ethiopias-war-satellite-imagery-confirms [Accessed: April 4, 2022]


JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.


Photo: Wikimedia/Aquintero82