Turkey and Uzbekistan are friends again

Turkey and Uzbekistan are friends again
Turkey and Uzbekistan are fostering tight relations as a regional Turkic world emerges in Central Asia. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin May 23, 2024

Turkey and Uzbekistan, the two largest countries in the Turkic world, are fostering a closer relationship, as the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS) emerges as a new regional alliance bringing together shared strategic, economic and security interests.

Historically Turkey has struggled to extend its influence in Central Asia, but since 2016, when Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over, all that changed. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party’s nationalist turn has helped rejuvenate ties between the two nations as Turkey turned away from its Islamic focus on the Middle East to Erdogan’s more secular goals and his desire to build up Turkey as a regional power in his own backyard, Svante Cornell, research director at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Programme Joint Centre, said in a recent paper on Uzbek-Turkish relations.

Turkey and Uzbekistan, with populations of 85mn and 35mn respectively, constitute the majority of the 165mn people in Turkic-majority states. Both nations have diverse economies and strong military capabilities, unlike resource-dependent Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Additionally, they are custodians of the Ottoman and Timurid empires' legacies.

Historical Challenges.

Turkey's relations with Uzbekistan initially followed a promising path, with Turkey being the first country to recognise Uzbekistan's independence in 1991. Uzbekistan’s first president Islam Karimov's visit to Turkey in December 1991 indicated enthusiasm for Turkic cooperation.

"Ataturk's principles are parallel to what we want to do in Uzbekistan. I am an admirer of Ataturk and I hope that the nations of Central Asia will achieve what he achieved in Turkey. I support the idea of unity of the Turkish people. This unity must be realised… we could call it the Turkic Common Market," Karimov said, referring to the founder of Turkey’s secular state.

However, divergent political systems and concerns over religious influences strained relations. Uzbekistan's leadership was wary of Turkish religious brotherhoods' influence and reacted strongly against perceived threats, leading to multiple diplomatic rifts and the expulsion of Uzbek students from Turkey. Karimov himself remained deeply suspicious of Erdogan’s motives, and put a brake on further deepening of relations.

At the same time, despite sharing Turkic and Islamic roots, Uzbekistan’s communist past and Karimov’s legacy as the former Soviet leader of the Republic, also pulled the two countries in different directions.

Improved relations

Relations began to improve with the rise of Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan and Turkey's shift away from Islamist policies. The failed coup in Turkey in 2016, which strengthened nationalist forces in Ankara, and Karimov's death were pivotal in this thaw. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Uzbekistan in November 2016, where Mirziyoyev hosted him in Samarkand, marked the start of new relations as the new president opened the former pariah state up to the rest of the world and sought deeper regional integration with all the countries of Central Asia, in addition to tighter ties with Turkey.

Since then the two nations have prioritised economic and security cooperation. They established a High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council and raised their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2022. Bilateral trade has surged, with Turkish investments in Uzbekistan growing from $20mn in 2017 to $500mn by 2020. Nearly 1,900 Turkish firms were operating in Uzbekistan by 2022, and trade volumes tripled from $1.2bn in 2016 to $3.6bn in 2021.

As the emerging regional power due to the size of its rapidly growing population, Uzbekistan’s engagement has been crucial for broader Turkic cooperation. The country joined the Turkic Council in 2018, which evolved into the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) in 2021. Uzbekistan hosted the OTS summit in 2022 and supported the creation of the Turkic Investment Fund, further cementing its role in regional cooperation.

Security has also been a cornerstone of the renewed relationship, in a region where instability in Afghanistan overshadows regional security. The end of the US occupation of Afghanistan and the latter’s takeover by the Taliban have threatened both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, both of which share borders with Afghanistan, and driven the five ‘Stans closer together out of mutual interest.

Rising geopolitical tensions between Russia, China and the West have also contributed to bring the ‘Stans together as they find themselves once again surrounded by competing superpowers and have united in the “C5” format to better represent their own interests to the competing powers. This format emerged even before the start of the war in Ukraine with a historic meeting in China in May 2021, but has become even more relevant since hostilities broke out. As a result, all five of the ‘Stans are now pursuing a multivector foreign policy where they attempt to navigate between the interests of the global heavy weights. The C5 team of presidents have also been careful to visit Moscow, the US and Europe, with a particular focus on Germany.

Gas matters

For its part, Russia has also embraced the growing unity in Central Asia and recently increased its clout in Uzbekistan by reversing the flow of Soviet-era gas pipelines to provide Tashkent with some 12bn cubic metres of gas per year, ending the Republic’s energy crisis of recent years at a stroke.

However, Mirziyoyev has been careful to keep Russia at arms’ length and baulked at creating a Central Asian gas hub together with Kazakhstan that Russian President Vladimir Putin was pushing for. Likewise, Mirziyoyev has sought to keep some space between Uzbekistan and China by turning to Beijing for investment and loans only if other investment from other countries cannot be found for his multiple investment projects. As a result, Qatar and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) are big investors into the Uzbekistan energy sector. KSA recently became the largest investor into Uzbekistan’s energy sector, as the Saudi de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) also looks to build up diplomatic clout in the wider region to counter the US dominance of global geopolitics.

Central Asia is once again enjoying the strategic importance it has not seen since the Victorian-era of the Great Game. Putin has his eye on extending gas exports out of Russia via a southern route via either Afghanistan or Iran that ultimately ends in India, said Chris Weafer, the founder and CEO of Macro Advisory, at the recent Berlin Energy Forum. The idea of a mooted gas pipeline connecting Iran to Pakistan has recently been revived despite strong US objections, as Putin’s long-term plan is to build new gas export infrastructure to the south and east, replacing the seven decades of dependence on gas exports to the west of Russia. While the focus has been on the construction of the Power of Siberia 2 (POS2) from Russia to China, in parallel talks of reversing the existing Soviet-era pipeline network that runs from Russia to Kazakhstan are already underway that could see 32 bcm of gas flowing on to China via Kazakhstan much sooner than waiting for the POS2 pipeline to be built. If Central Asia becomes a major transit route for Russian gas to Asia all the countries of the region will benefit.

Iran’s participation in this plan also plays an important role, which is one of the contributing factors to Moscow’s increasingly close relations with Tehran, but will have knock-on effects on Iran’s relations with Central Asia as well.

Security concerns

Uzbekistan and Turkey have also conducted joint military exercises and signed numerous agreements on military education and intelligence cooperation. Turkey's involvement in the Second Karabakh war and its support in developing Uzbekistan’s military capabilities highlight the depth of their security ties.

Security relations are a work in progress. Nominally, the ‘Stans are already united by the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a post-Soviet equivalent to Nato led by Russia which has long been the guarantor of security in the region – especially relevant after the Taliban’s return to power.

However, the credibility of the CSTO was dealt a heavy blow following Russia’s failure to intervene in the recent second Azeri-Armenia war and the invasion of Ukraine, which none of its partners were happy about, even if they maintain economic and diplomatic relations with Moscow.

The Central Asian governments are looking for alternative partners to shore up their collective security. Notably, Uzbekistan is not a member of the CSTO as it pursues a policy of neutrality but has promised to delegate detachments to take part in CSTO operations on an ad hoc basis. Russia’s military relations with Turkey likewise blow hot and cold depending on the political climate.

The burgeoning relationship between Turkey and Uzbekistan has revitalised Turkic cooperation as globalisation gives way to regionalisation. In the early days following the fall of the Soviet Union, many assumed that the world’s leading powers, starting with the US, would enter the new markets of Eurasia with heavy investment and lift them out of their poverty; it didn’t happen. Three decades on, and instead, while differences remain, particularly in religious matters, the shared nationalist and secular outlooks have paved the way for a robust Turkic partnership. This cooperation is poised to enhance Uzbekistan’s stature as a significant middle power in Central Asia and solidify Turkey’s influence in the region.

Cornell notes: "The rapid rapprochement between Turkey and Uzbekistan has allowed Turkic cooperation to bloom, providing a strong foundation for future collaboration and regional stability."