paulaRussian President Vladimir Putin is well-known for being a man who does not do things by half measures.

The anti-Turkish campaign launched by the Kremlin is proof of this. Ever since Turkey shot down a Russian jet over the Turkey-Syria border on Nov. 24, Moscow has been looking for ways to avenge Ankara economically and politically, including by taking measures to undermine its role in its neighborhood, including Central Asia.


Turkey has always had big eyes for Central Asia. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s Turkey gave significant attention to building ties with the newly independent states with a stated goal of assisting the “Turkic sister republics to become functioning, stable states that were integrated into the international system.” Turkey believed that common linguistic, cultural, religious, ethnic and historical ties would ultimately lead to the creation of a pan-Turkic community which it would lead. However, after decades of Soviet rule, these states did not want a new Big Brother, hence there was little or no interest for the sort of pan-Turkic idea that Ankara was peddling and the project failed.


Nowadays while Turkey's role as a regional player falls far behind that of Russia, China and Iran, Ankara has nevertheless built good relations with all the Central Asia states, with the exception of Uzbekistan. Not only has Turkey provided the republics with billions of dollars of financial assistance and investment, Turkey has developed important economic and trade ties throughout the region. For the Central Asian states, while they rejected the pan-Turkic concept, they have welcomed an opportunity to further diversify their foreign and economic policies, which has helped reduce Russia's regional stake. Of course relations are not all problem-free. For example, there have been concerns over Turkey acting as a transit state for foreign fighters traveling to Syria.


Balancing regional powers has become a fine art. With the rise of China, Russia may have less of a stake than it once did, yet Moscow still has significant levers, including economic and cultural, that it can use. While the Central Asian states tried to keep a low profile following the Russian plane shoot-down, calls were made at the Summit of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Moscow in December for Ankara to apologize to Russia.


Furthermore, comments by the presidents of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, who are both members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), seemed to underline their support for Russia. In his annual state of the union address, the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, while imploring Moscow and Ankara to find common ground and not destroy the good relationship they have built over the years, also said that the Russian plane “did not attack Turkey ... it was fighting terrorists.”


Pretty much the same line has been taken by Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, who has stated that "even if the jet strayed into Turkish air space for only 17 seconds, as Ankara claims, shooting it with a missile was a blow to relations that had developed over 25 years." Atambayev's comments were particularly devastating for Ankara because of the close relationship he has developed with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.


Russia has also canceled negotiations for a free trade zone between the EEU and Turkey, with Putin announcing that negotiations would begin with Iran instead. Turkey has also encountered problems as a consequence of Russia freezing the issuing of transit permits for Turkish truck drivers. This has disrupted the export of goods to Central Asia and Turkey had to look for alternative routes, namely via Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. While Azerbaijan is helping Turkey, including by increasing port capacity, Baku, despite its “two states one people” rhetoric, has at the same time tried to remain more or less silent on the issue of the jet-shoot down.


Ultimately, I do not believe the current crisis will have any significant (particularly long-term) impact on relations between Turkey and the Central Asian states, although we may expect some of the regional leaders to continue to come out with words that will please the Kremlin. The current relationships are mutually beneficial for Turkey and the Central Asian states. Furthermore, after having spent years forging new relations to help balance out Russia's influence and become increasingly independent in their foreign policy, there seems little chance of a huge reversal.

www.todayszaman.com, 09.12.2016