After many years in the pipeline (just do a quick search on my blog if you want to check the archives!), the University of Central Asia (UCA) has today welcomed its very first undergraduate students. True, they are a select few: just 71 students selected from the three UCA countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it’s also true that just one of the three envisaged campuses is up and running… but nonetheless, this is quite some achievement. Creating any new organisation is a challenge, but UCA has deliberately added to the complexity by working over three countries and physically building campuses in somewhat remote mountainous areas of those countries.
The university also grapples with other challenges such as dealing with endemic corruption in the region, raising awareness of and interest in an American style English-language education, proving that a good higher education can be obtained at home as well as abroad and more. Some of these issues are not specific to UCA but are issues all institutions in the region must deal with. Having worked for UCA (in a different guise) nearly 15 years ago when it was in the early stages of development, I sense that some of the great creativity and genuine innovation in earlier versions of the undergraduate curriculum have been lost or overtaken by other ideas and needs. Time will tell how the UCA offering is received and whether the concept will catch on.
For today, though, I would simply like to pass my congratulations to everyone involved in the grand UCA project, and to wish the students, staff and faculty all the very best of luck. An exciting adventure awaits!
I’m excited to share the results of new original research on corruption in Uzbek higher education, written by Albina Yun. Yun is a graduate of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and the Uzbek State World Languages University. She is a higher education professional currently working at Westminster University in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Yun’s research, written up as a policy brief for the OSCE Academy, is a hard-hitting account of the crippling effect of corruption on the quality and accessibility of higher education in Uzbekistan. It is one of very few works in this area: not only in its focus on corruption in the Uzbek context, but also generated by a locally based researcher.
Whilst the Uzbek government took an important step forward by implementing its first anti-corruption action plan in 2015, Yun is quick to point out that corruption in higher education remains systemic, “a massive issue with prejudicial effects” (p. 15). The results of corruption lead to graduates entering the employment market with inadequate academic and professional skills, and hugely undermine the transformative role that higher education can play at individual and societal level. The normalization of corruption both by students and faculty members/administrative staff is a major concern.
Ultimately, as Yun observes, unless measures are taken from the top down to address corruption, the very future of Uzbekistan may be at risk.
After a recent blog post I published on Women in higher education in Central Asia, I was approached by University World News to write more about why it is that some women in Central Asia – particularly those in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – are doing so much better (better even than the world average) in getting to university than their counterparts in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
This led to some fascinating further research trying to understand more about this conundrum.
I am hugely grateful to Aksana Ismailbekova, Albina Yun and another researcher who chose to remain anonymous for their expert insights and support for this article, which I am delighted to say has now been published:
I would love to get your comments on this important issue, and ideas / practices from elsewhere in the world that might support greater gender equality in the parts of Central Asia where opportunities to enter higher education are not (yet) as accessible for women.
During the past week I’ve been attending and presenting at the World Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN) in magnificent New York, and wanted to use this blog post to follow up and share some reflections from an excellent conference.
ASN is a large conference with two overarching sets of themes. Firstly, topic-based, covering nationalities, nationalism, ethnicity and migration. The second area is regional, with almost all events focussed on the Balkans, Eurasia, Central Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Greece and Turkey. The three day conference has over 600 panellists organized into around 150 panels/events, and there is also a film festival although I didn’t manage to get to any showings this time.
As you might appreciate, I focussed on panels with a Central Asia remit. I managed to get to nine panel sessions (plus my own!) and fit in some one-on-one meetings as well over a jam packed few days. The presentations were wide ranging, covering everything from an historical comparison of 19th century imperial education strategies used in the US on the Sioux and the Russians on the Kazakhs to being gay and religious in contemporary Kazakhstan.
What follows are some personal reflections on three individual presentations and two panels, as well as my top ten conference tips for presenters – all based on my observations from ASN (though naming no names where I’m suggesting improvements!).
Three notable presentations
Hélène Thibault: Impact of labour migration on matrimonial arrangements in Tajikistan
In an interesting and somewhat controversial presentation, Hélène Thibault of the Université de Montréal in Canada suggested that second marriages can be “emancipating” for Tajik women, particularly if their first experience of matrimony was unsuccessful. Marrying for a second time can be seen as a way to ensure economic security and ensure moral respectability. However, Thibault also argued that the growth in polygyny (her preferred term for Tajikistan as it refers to a man with multiple wives rather than polygamy in which either the man or the woman could have multiple spouses) could be described as “adultery reframed” – legitimising men undertaking multiple relationships rather than carrying out affairs in private.
Adrienne Edgar: Names and Naming in Ethnically Mixed Families in Soviet Central Asia
Well-known Soviet historian Adrienne Edgar spoke with great expression as part of a packed out panel on language, cultural production and national identity. To begin with, I thought her topic was going to be quite simplistic: how did families of mixed Russian and Central Asian heritage (the most common ethnic mixing) choose their babies’ names? But as she explained the results of this oral history project it became apparent that there was much more to a name: in Edgar’s words, naming was a “low cost but clear way to express identity and preferences”. How you named your child spoke volumes about how you imagined them fitting into the society around them (and indeed, how you as parents imagined that society to be).
Rico Isaacs: Exit, Voice, Loyalty…and Sanctions: Options and Strategies for Opposition Movements in Kazakhstan
In this presentation, Rico Isaacs outlined how he has applied Hirschman’s 1970 frame of Exit/Voice/Loyalty to understand the situation for the opposition in Kazakhstan. Here, exit means leaving the regime, system or country; voice means making your complaints known publicly or privately, and loyalty (to which Isaacs added sanctions) was noted as being a particularly valued concept in Central Asia. These stages aren’t linear and none, some or all may happen in varying degrees at different times. But the bottom line is that in 2016 Kazakhstan, the opposition is “moribund”, according to Isaacs, so the focus needs to shift to understanding where the spaces for dissent (if not outright opposition) can be found.
Two fascinating panels
Panel: Normative Orders and Kazakhstani Practices: Outcomes of Contestation in a Post-Soviet Field
Zhaniya Turlubekova: Political Institutions in the Fight against Drug-Trafficking: How Kazakhstani Law Enforcement Fights Transnational Crime
Aslan Sataibekov: Gay and Religious: The Contexts of Post-Soviet Kazakhstan
Raikhan Satymbekova: Female Political Representation and Barriers that Women Face in Politics
Ainur Jyekyei: Why Kazakhstan Increased Its Greenhouse Gas Emissions, While Poland Decreased under the Kyoto Protocol from 2005-2012
This was one of the best panels I attended, made up of Master’s students from Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. Each of the presenters discussed the findings from their Master’s thesis and you can see from the titles above that they did not shy away from hard-hitting and important topics. All four presenters were incredibly well prepared, had good slides, kept to time, and gave thoughtful answers to the audience questions. Stand-out findings were from Zhaniya Turlubekova, who argued that modern Central Asian states are “too weak” to prosecute relatively new types of transnational crime such as drug trafficking, and from Aslan Sataibekov who managed to secure interviews with gay and religious Kazakhstanis even though the gay community aspires to remain secretive in order to minimise attention paid to them by government and society at large.
Panel: Teaching, Branding, Remembering
Leah Haus: Ideas, Institutions, and School Curricula: A Comparative Perspective
Hannah Moscovitz: Nation-Branding Through International Education: Exploring the Sub-National Context
Anna Kyriazi: The Education of National Minorities: A Thematic Analysis of Claims, Arguments, and Justifications
Sabrina Sotiriu: Online/Offline Scottishness: Strategies, Values, Norms and Procedures
My other contender for favourite panel, this session used education as a way of exploring identities in comparative settings. None of the presenters were using the former Soviet states as case studies and this made it even more fascinating for me, a chance to rest my Central Asia hat and put on my comparative and education hats instead! I enjoyed the range of approaches to comparison, which covered historical approaches, discourse analysis, interviews and quantitative data. I also found the way each presenter interacted with the others – even though they didn’t know each other – and the quality of discussion after the talks to add a great deal of value to the session.
Top ten conference tips for presenters
- Do be clear about what’s new and/or important in your study. You care a lot about your topic so you need to tell your audience why they should care too.
- At the beginning of your presentation, do outline what you’re going to talk about.
- Do be up front about any limitations in your study… otherwise someone will ask you about it and you will look defensive!
- If using slides, do limit how many you use so you don’t have to skip any because you ran out of time.
- Similarly, do limit how much information goes onto each slide and try to break up text with visuals or at the very least bullet points – you don’t want your audience trying desperately to read a large chunk of text and not listening to you.
- If presenting data, do cite your source(s).
- Do be honest if you can’t answer an audience member’s question – ideally, tell them what you do know about something similar instead.
- Do stick to the topic that got you accepted to the conference – if it’s really not possible then communicate with the conference organizers and fellow panel members about the alternative options. [Don’t announce a change of topic as you begin your presentation!]
- Do submit your paper by the deadline to give your panel discussant (assuming you have one) and co-presenters as much time as possible to read and think about what you have written.
- If the conference has a Twitter feed (ours was #nationalities2016) and you are OK with using Twitter, then upload a few tweets as the conference progresses. It’s a nice way to show your engagement and support fellow presenters.
Irreverent, funny and informative – higher education does the internet really well.
So says The Guardian’s Higher Education Network, which has today named my blog as one of its favourite social media accounts: http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2016/mar/23/follow-the-leaders-the-best-social-media-accounts-for-academics.
What an excitement and a privilege, particularly looking at who else is featured on their list! Many thanks to The Guardian for this recognition, and for the additional motivation to keep sharing news, views and analyses about education, society and politics in Central Asia.
I’d better get back to work…
Following on from my post at the beginning of January 2016, Central Asia: what lies ahead?, I’m going to dedicate the rest of this month to thinking about the situation in the region in the coming year. I plan to do this at both a macro (state, regional) level as well as considering the implications at a meso (institutional) level, focussing where possible on higher education. This plan is facilitated by reports and news stories that have already been coming my way.
I open the series with an article from Kazakhstan-based Astana Times of 18 January that does a wonderful job of setting the global picture for the region. In the article,
journalist Aiman Turebekova reports on the findings of the state-sponsored Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Kazakhstan (which I wish used the English acronym KISS rather than its actual abbreviation, KazISS!), which an organization has the aim of providing analytical support to the President.
The KazISS report focusses on global events that could have important implications for the political and economic development, stability and security of Central Asian countries. This is beautifully presented through an infographic which I have copied below, and is (c) KazISS. The infographic offers an immediate visual interpretation of the extent to which the world interacts/intersects with Central Asia, and thus the importance of what is happening globally to what happens in Central Asia. An English translation of these headlines and the full Astana Times story [en] can be accessed on the Astana Times website or downloaded as a pdf here: Top Kazakh Think Tank Anticipates 10 Most Important Events in Central Asia in 2016 18.01.16.
The ten headlines, using the same numerical order as in the infographic, are:
- The deterioration of conditions in world markets and the slowdown in economic growth in Central Asian countries
- Finding new means of economic cooperation in Eurasia
- Expanding Chinese investment presence in Central Asia
- Continuing instability in Afghanistan and implications for the regional security agenda
- The increased terrorist threat arising from the Syrian conflict
- Increased efforts by Central Asian countries in the field of regional security
- Next election cycle in Central Asian countries
- A new stage in the development of regional transport and energy projects
- Iran’s return to regional processes
- A decision on Kazakhstan’s bid for non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council for 2017-2018
Breaking these points down, we can identify three overarching themes that relate to the regional, global and national levels:
- Regional: The importance of regional cooperation, both at the level of the Central Asian countries and in partnership with other regional players such as Russia, China and Iran. The Central Asian countries have varying degrees of influence in the direction of regional processes (2, 3, 6, 8, 9);
- Global: The impact of transnational activities and processes, where the Central Asian countries may have limited ability to effect or control change (1, 10);
- National: Political and security concerns arising both from external factors such as terrorism and Syria and ongoing instability in Afghanistan, as well as internal factors such as forthcoming elections (4, 5, 7).
The analysis draws extensively on the Kazakh experience (the other Central Asian countries, for example, have little direct involvement in Kazakhstan’s bid to join the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member) and this serves as a reminder that whilst we frequently think about the five Central Asian countries in their regional form, that they are all at different stages from one another, with different contexts and varying priorities. It’s a bit like describing France and Poland or Spain and Sweden in the same breath simply because they are all members of the European Union. This should not undermine the importance of analysis at the regional level, but help us recognize that we must also understand what is happening at the individual country level.
Happy new year! This is my fifth year of blogging on Central Asia, focussing on issues relating to higher education and social change. I open the year with an interesting analytical think piece from global intelligence agency Stratfor that attempts to surmise what the future might hold for the region. It’s available on their website at https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/central-asia-different-kind-threat and copied below, (c) Stratfor 2016.
*UPDATE* 7 January 2016: Hot on the heels of Stratfor’s piece, I read another similar ‘future gazing’ article from Middle Eastern site Al-Monitor. This one is authored by Turkish journalist Zülfikar Doğan. It is written in the same realist vein as the Stratfor article, i.e. using states as the main actors of analysis. Though focussing more on Turkey’s role, I’d argue that the piece comes to somewhat similar conclusions. This article is copied below underneath the Stratfor article, is (c) Al-Monitor/Zülfikar Doğan and is also available at http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/01/turkey-losing-its-standing-in-central-asia-after-middle-east.html.
The Stratfor article generated some interesting discussions (see the Comments section at the end of the piece) and I’d love to know your thoughts on the Al-Monitor story too.
Central Asia: A Different Kind of Threat
Editor’s Note: This is the last installment of a five-part series that explores the past, present and future of the confrontation between Russia and the West on the Eurasian landmass. Part one explored the origins of the conflict, part two examined Ukraine, part three looked at Eastern Europe, and part four considered the Caucasus.
Much like the Caucasus, Central Asia serves as a relatively new but no less important staging ground for the ongoing competition between Russia and the West. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the region has been somewhat of a melange of indecision and opportunism: Kazakhstan has stayed close with Russia, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have stayed relatively neutral. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, on the other hand, have had difficulty settling on which foreign patron to support as violent upheavals have swung their foreign policies back and forth.
Over the coming decades, instability and internal conflict will continue to pose the greatest threats to the region as the influence of Russia and the West in Central Asia fades. But in their place, two new powers will rise that will shape the future of the region: Turkey and China.
Throughout history, powerful empires, including Persian, Mongol and Turkish empires, have fought to control Central Asia. Russia did not join the fray until the late 18th century. When it did, its expansion into the region was gradual, starting in the area that is now Kazakhstan. From there, it slowly penetrated southward into modern-day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The Russian Empire’s initial forays into Central Asia coincided with the British Empire’s expansion into the Indian subcontinent, giving rise to what would be known as the Great Game, a long-running battle for regional control. Imperial Russia wanted an outlet to the sea and a buffer between potentially hostile powers in Asia, be they indigenous peoples or imperial armies. Afghanistan would later become just that, separating the Russian and British empires and eventually playing an important role in subsequent conflicts between Russia and the West in Central Asia.
Though the Russian Empire’s collapse in 1917 led to a brief and unstable period of independence in Central Asia, its Soviet successor would once again pull the region into its orbit in the following decade. Soviet rule dramatically changed the politics of Central Asia. Peoples from other parts of the Soviet bloc were forced to resettle throughout the region, while Russification programs emphasized the adoption of Russian language and customs. Central Asia became closed off to the West and to the Muslim states surrounding it, including Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.
However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 accelerated the bloc’s undoing and gave the West the upper hand in the Cold War. Substantial support from the West, especially the United States, enabled the Afghan mujahideen to counter the Soviet military’s efforts to prop up the communist government in Kabul. This exposed the Soviet Union’s military weakness and drained its economic and political resources, reducing Moscow’s ability to continue contending with the West on a global scale.
The Past 25 Years: The Afghan Conflict Creates Volatility
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, each of the five Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — gained their independence. With the exception of Tajikistan, which descended into a chaotic civil war almost immediately, all installed their former Communist Party secretaries as their new presidents.
In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s two largest states, these presidents have remained in power at the head of highly centralized political systems ever since. Under President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan has maintained a close relationship with Russia by joining the Moscow-led Customs Union (now the Eurasian Union) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance. Though it has relied on the West to develop its large oil and natural gas resources, Kazakhstan has remained tied to Russia strategically. Uzbekistan, however, has remained neutralunder President Islam Karimov’s rule, eschewing alliances with both Russia and the West. While it did host U.S. and NATO military bases for a time during the West’s war in Afghanistan, it later closed them after the West raised concerns over human rights abuses. Uzbekistan has also retained close economic ties with Russia but has avoided participating in Moscow-led integration projects.
Like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan has attempted to keep its distance from both Russia and the West. President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov has maintained his predecessor’s isolationist policies, keeping power highly centralized under his office. Though Turkmenistan initially sent most of its considerable natural gas output to Russia, in recent years it has rerouted much of its supplies to China amid a steep drop in Russian imports. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan continues to explore other export options, including the Trans-Caspian and TAPI pipelines to Europe and South Asia. In the wake of the crisis in Ukraine, Europe has been particularly interested in courting Turkmenistan as an alternative natural gas supplier to Russia, though the Kremlin has so far been successful in halting projects that would send Turkmen natural gas to the Continent. Now approached by the West, Russia and China, Turkmenistan continues to seek a balance between all three without formally aligning with any of them.
Unlike their other Central Asian neighbors, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been politically unstable since the fall of the Soviet Union. In Kyrgyzstan, revolutions took place in 2005 and 2010; the first brought to power an administration friendly with the West and the second replaced that government with one that favors Russia. Since then, Kyrgyzstan has strengthened its ties to the Kremlin, joining the Eurasian Union and allowing Russia to expand its military presence in the country while expelling the United States from the Manas air base in 2014. In Tajikistan, civil war raged from 1992 to 1997, when the pro-Russia faction led by President Emomali Rakhmon emerged victorious. Rakhmon has ruled the country ever since, pulling it closer to Russia, particularly in terms of security and military cooperation.
Along with each country’s unique circumstances, the evolution of Russia’s relationship with the West inAfghanistan has shaped the rivalry in Central Asia. At the start of the U.S. invasion and during NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan in the early 2000s, both sides cooperated extensively. In fact, Russia brokered access to strategic military bases and lines of supply in Central Asia on behalf of U.S. and Western forces. But as the war dragged on, Moscow grew fearful of the West’s intention to maintain a long-term military presence in the region, potentially challenging Russia’s role as a regional heavyweight. Central Asian states then evicted Western forces from their bases and severed their supply routes. Now, with the Taliban and the Islamic State gaining strength in Afghanistan, Russia and the United States are lobbying for competing border security initiatives with the countries of Central Asia.
The Next 25 Years: Other Powers Overtake Russia and the West
As in the rest of the former Soviet periphery, the competition between Russia and the West will be heavily influenced by the demographic changes set to take place in Central Asia in the next 25 years. But unlike Eastern Europe and the Orthodox countries in the Caucasus, Central Asia is on the verge of a tremendous population increase. By 2050, Kazakhstan’s population will rise by 27 percent (from 17.6 million people to 22.4 million), Uzbekistan’s by 24 percent (from 29.9 million people to 37.1 million) and Turkmenistan’s by 22 percent (from 5.4 million people to 6.6 million). At the same time, Kyrgyzstan’s population will grow by 39 percent (from 5.9 million people to 8.2 million) while Tajikistan’s will rise by an astonishing 70 percent (from 8.4 million people to 14.3 million).
While such population growth is normally conducive to economic growth and military strength, it will occur in Central Asia at a time when the region’s resources, including water and food, are already strained. The population explosion will hit hardest in the Fergana Valley, which is the region’s demographic core and is shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There, the Soviets designed convoluted borders to intentionally create divisions between the Central Asian states. The area has already been the site of several ethnic conflicts. With the number of people expected to rise dramatically in the next 25-35 years, the Fergana Valley will likely become a hotbed of tension and conflict in the region.
Meanwhile, Central Asia’s cultural makeup will undoubtedly change. The widespread use of Russian as a lingua franca, which is rooted in the Soviet period, will probably decline as new generations with no memory of their countries’ Soviet past grow up. Russia will see its influence over the region decline as such cultural bonds — as well as its own capabilities to project economic and military power — weaken. The transition from Soviet-era leaders like Nazarbayev and Rakhmon, who have favored Russia over the West, to new rulers from the post-Soviet generation will make Central Asia a more unpredictable place that is open to contestation — a change that is unlikely to favor Russia.
However, the West will also see its ability to influence Central Asia decline as the regionalization of Europe forces the Continent to focus on matters closer to home. Still, countries in Central and Eastern Europe may seek to import Central Asian energy supplies through the Caspian corridor to diversify away from Russia. Meanwhile, the United States will remain an important player in the region. As in the Caucasus, it will be selective in how it engages in Central Asia, preferring to step in from time to time to keep any single external power from gaining too much influence.
While the reach of Russia and the West recedes over the coming decades, two other powers will rise in their place: Turkey and China. Four of the five states in Central Asia are ethnically Turkic, and as Russia’s cultural bonds in the region fade, Turkey’s will strengthen. Because Turkey’s population is predicted to grow by more than 20 percent, reaching 96 million people, it will have greater economic and military power to match its rising soft power. China, for its part, has already made economic inroads into the region over the past decade, and its economic influence will likely continue to grow. Such growth will be aided by the fact that Russia will not continue to be able to financially support many Central Asian states. That said, China will still have to contend with Turkey, which will be more active in the region. But this contest is unlikely to take on a military dimension; China and Turkey will have more immediate security concerns in East Asia and the Middle East.
Afghanistan will continue to have a significant impact in Central Asia, not as a regional power with influence but as a weak state with the potential to destabilize the region. Cross-border ties between ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens on either side of the boundary between Afghanistan and Central Asia will grow. This could increase the likelihood of Islamist and militant elements spilling over into the region. Although they will continue to compete at a strategic level, Russia, Turkey, China and the United States will cooperate at a tactical level to prevent the rise of powerful radical Islamist groups in Central Asia. For the foreseeable future, instability and conflict within and between Central Asian states will continue to pose the largest threat to the region, one that will be far more difficult to contain.
Lead Analyst: Eugene Chausovsky
First the Middle East, now Central Asia slipping away from Turkey
The sanctions Moscow imposed after the Nov. 24 downing of a Russian plane are spreading to Russian spheres of influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, as Central Asian countries that had established close ties with Ankara after the collapse of the Soviet Union appear to be preparing to distance themselves from Turkey. At the December 2015 Moscow summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) — which includes the Turkic states of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan in addition to Russia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Belarus and Armenia — calls were made for Turkey to apologize to Russia.
Armenia holds the term presidency of the CIS-Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of former Soviet republics. The military chiefs of member states met before the gathering of heads of state to hear their term chairman, Gen. Yuri Khachaturov, Armenian chief of the General Staff, harshly criticize Turkey. Khachaturov noted, “Chiefs of staff of all member states of the organization supported the Russian actions and denounced Turkey’s attack against the Su-24 plane that was seen as an incendiary, shameless aggression. As Russia said immediately after the attack, we also saw it as a stab in the back.”
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, term chairman of CIS, also asked the summit to express its support for Russia and denounce Turkey. He said, “As member states, we declared our support for the Russian position and decided to urgently declare unity to combat terror. Turkey’s attitude and its shooting down of the Russian plane have been a setback to the struggle against terror.”
The real shock for Ankara was not Sargsyan’s words, but those of the Kyrgyzstan head of state, President Almazbek Atambayev, who in the past had addressed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “my older brother.” After the August 2014 presidential elections, Atambayev had appeared with Erdogan, who was delivering his victory speech, andlavishly praised him. At the CIS summit, Atambayev expressed support for Moscow and President Vladimir Putin and suggested Erdogan and Turkey apologize to Russia.
The support for Russia among the Central Asian Turkic republics, which have received billions of dollars of credit and financing support from Turkey, and Atambayev’s call for an apology shocked Turkey, disillusioning Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party government. In 2014, the Cooperation and Coordination Agency of Turkey had provided the republics more than $3.5 billion. When asked about Atambayev’s comment, Erdogan spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said, “If nothing else, it was an unfortunate statement.”
Russia’s freeze on issuing transit permits to Turkish truckers in October has severely disrupted Turkish exports to the Central Asian republics. Concerned with the prospect of losing the Central Asian market, where Turkey has sizable construction contracts and investments, Ankara began using the Caspian Sea for its exports thanks to Azerbaijan opening its gates.
Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, ordered that Caspian port capacity be increased and transit documents waived for Turkish trucks. Even if Turkish truck traffic through the Caspian reaches 50,000 a year, it would still fall far short of sustaining exports to the Central Asian market.
With the sharp decline in oil and natural gas prices, Azerbaijan had to devalue its currency 47% against the dollar and euro. Given the economic bottlenecks it faces, no one can be sure that the country can indefinitely be a contributor in regard to Turkey’s commercial and energy needs.
Moreover, an Aliyev-Sargsyan meeting in Switzerland Dec. 19 did not yield a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. Instead, both countries announced that their cease-fire had ended. This development greatly concerns Turkey, because it could negatively affect its use of the Azerbaijani route for its exports. Meanwhile, Russia and Armenia, which have been boosting political and economic links, in late December decided to also expand their military cooperation.
In mid-December, Putin announced that visa requirements for Georgian nationals would be eased and soon thereafter abolished. It has become clear that the Russian-Armenian air defense agreement, normalization of Russian-Georgian relations and resumption of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia will impede Turkey’s access to the Caucasus. There are also fears that Russia, which has been firing cruise missiles from its navy based in the Caspian, could block passage through that sea, severely restricting Turkey’s access to Central Asia via that route.
Russia also made use of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to move against Turkey’s relations with the Turkic republics. Turkey-EEU negotiations to establish a free trade zone were suspended, and instead, Putin announced, the EEU would enter into talks with Iran. Thus, Russia is helping advance Iranian economic interests in Central Asia by closing the doors on Turkey advocating a customs union and regional free trade. No doubt, this brought Turkey one step closer to losing Central Asia in the wake of its isolation in the Middle East.