Turkish Eurasianism vs. Central Asian Union

by Nathan Hamm on 9/25/2006 · 8 comments

A month ago, Turkish Daily News had a two-part series on Turkish Eurasianism, Turkey’s strategy for linking itself with the larger Turkic world. While the first part provides background, it is the second part that contains the meat. The author, Ali Kulebi, who is the acting head of the National Security Strategies Research Center, says that a Turkish Eurasianism should start within the boundaries of Turan (see this and this for background), the lands east of the Urals, where he says that Turks and Mongols are dominant. (Whether he includes the eastern parts of the Russian Federation, where, if I am not mistaken, Russians are the largest nationality, is not entirely clear to me. He at least hopes for cooperation with Russia in the wider region, even if he ultimately sees its own form of Eurasianism as an obstacle.)

It is not entirely clear what form Turkish Eurasianism should take. Kulebi says that Turkey should maintain its state structure, but “summon the Turks, Persians, Uzbeks, Azerbaijanis, Kyrgyzs, Kazaks and Turkmen under a geographical unity.” He also says that full integration with Azerbaijan should be in the cards. The most concrete proposal Kulebi mentions is a reinvigoration of economic ties to the Turkic world that would eventually allow Turkey to serve as an economic bridge and center of an energy network between Europe and Central Asia.

But will Central Asia go for it?

IWPR’s new News Briefing Central Asia reports that Kazakhstan’s plans for a Central Asia Union are much more popular than Turkish proposals for integration.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement of a plan to create a commonwealth of Turkic states was a key event at the congress, but NBCentralAsia analysts are sceptical that this could ever work. Their doubts were only strengthened by Erdogan’s suggestion that a common historical narrative should be written for all these countries, and that they should act as a unified bloc on the international stage.

The support that Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev’s Central Asian union proposal got from participants counts for a lot more, the analysts say.

They suggest that this is a sign that Kazakhstan is not just a potential leader for Central Asia, but for the wider Turkic world. Insofar as Turkey must depend on Kazakhstan if it hopes to become an energy middleman, there is some truth to that. And since Kazakhstan’s plans for integration do not come with baggage seeking to redefine the culture, language, and history of Turkic nations (if history is any indication, Turkey would seek to classify other Turkic nations’ laguages, cultures, and histories in terms of derivations from Anatolian Turks’), it is far more likely that any kind of integration in the Turkic world will not ultimately take the form Turkey would hope for. And if Turkey really does want to achieve some kind of integration with Central Asia’s Turks, it might do good to start working hand-in-hand with Kazakhstan on creating a Central Asia Union.


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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 8 comments }

Nick September 25, 2006 at 4:21 pm

Still, wonderful news for academic departments with hitherto unwieldy and unfeasible remits 😉

Ataman Rakin September 26, 2006 at 3:46 am

It is interesting to see that this concept pops u again (it was popular in certain circles in the early ‘90s then waned).

Anyway, the *economic* ties between Turkey and the southern ex-USSR are real though (Turkey is, along with Russia, one of Kyrgyzstan’s and Azerbaijan’s main trading partners, for instance). Many a Sovok might not *like* the Turks, but they are there in certain sectors (construction, agro-industry, financial services, transport) and a number of Turkish achievements are respected. In some cases, liak Kyrgyzstan, it would not be exaggerated to say that Turks, along with local minorities Uighurs and Dungan, play an active role in keeping the country’s ‘daily economy’ turning.

“Today, it could be possible for Turkey, Iran, the Turkic republics, Ukraine, Russia, China and even Japan to unite around a certain Eurasianism defined in terms of politics and economics. (…) However, as a realistic Eurasianism requires geographical and cultural unity, and the above-mentioned countries lack such unity, especially with respect to their cultural identities: this version of Eurasianism does not seem to be a viable option.”

In a way, yes, if you start from the cultural reality that the actual identity of the bulk of the Southern ex-USSR is characterised by two key components:

1) a continuing Russian influence due to the common Russian-imperial and Soviet-colonial experience;

2) a geographic position on the edges of the Muslim world combined with a historical legacy nevertheless rooted in Islam – and Sufism, its mystical form, in particular – the cultural sphere that was dominant during the region’s heyday.

These may seem strange bedfellows yet the common denominator for, say, an Azerbaijani, Tajik, Dungan or Uzbek is, that they are Eurasian Muslims with a common Soviet past and Russian as lingua franca. Hence I strongly believe that a ‘suitable’ (i.e. Turkic-Eurasian) form of Islam could bring constructive input in Muslim Eurasia, at least in certain areas and segments of society where Islam is more prominent. Much remains speculative at present, yet a few core characteristics of a Eurasian Islam can already be identified:

1) it will be Russian-speaking;

2) it will be an Islam that is not so much revolving around formal religiosity or politics, but one that serves as a social-normative system and a catalyst for social initiaves instead; in fact, this is compatible with what many former Soviet Muslim appreciate in the Islamic religion, as is show by empirical studies like those by Azerbaijani sociologist Tahir Faradov did for his country, for instance;

3) its international vectors will not come from the Arab world; instead, Russian Muslims and Turkish faith-based civil society are better placed because of the existing economic and linguistic ties with most Muslim-majority ex-Soviet countries.

A Eurasian Islam can be part of a new identity at a time when ethnic traditions and Soviet codes of conduct erode. It can be part of a social framework for an emerging middle class at least in parts of the region and foster a higher level of resistance against social decay. It could also inspire initiatives to build certain social services where overburdened governments can not. Let’s not act as if it’s a ‘threat to stability’ or ‘Islamic radicalism’ if social networks around mosques, Sufi groups or Muslim faith-based charities take care of impoverished pensioners, addicts or help to set up sports’ facilities and computer classes.

We should not be naïve or idealist about the position and role of Islam even as outlined above. Yet the question is to what extent the main alternatives have been so gratifying over the last one and a half decades: stagnating regimes with mothballed secular nationalist ideologies; and ‘imported’, IFI-driven Western norms and concepts that, in this region, are often too far out of their element to be viable or credible.

What the vast majority of the region’s people want is clear and fair: a decent life and a minimum of social justice and security for themselves and their families. Opinions may differ on the way that is going to be achieved for the majority, yet there is sense in a statement made by Samuel Huntington in ‘The clash of civilisations’: «People do not live by bread and reason alone. They cannot calculate and act rationally in pursuit of their self-interests until they define their self. Interest politics presupposes identity.»

That bring up another question : the position and role of ‘civil society’ and what represents ‘the middle class’, the part of society that basically ‘carries’ a society’s identity and social framework, herein. In his article ‘Soviet legacies and Western aid imperatives in Central Asia’, Olivier Roy wrote: «(It is more fruitful to) engage with the real actors in the region’s new republics, even when they do not share exactly the same agenda: apparatchik-farmers, entrepreneurs and local notables and religious figures, when they have a social agenda. Building civil society is going to be more meaningful if it is predicated on the social fabric as it exists, rather than on window-dressing civil society based on abstract, perceptual models derived from elsewhere of what civil culture ought to be.»

In finding an alternative, certain elements from Turkish society can certainly be of use herein, like social faith-based initiatives e.g. the Fetüllaçi movement (see http://en.fgulen.com/ or Russian http://ru.fgulen.com/) in the field of education to name but one example.

Some may argue that this line stand no chance under, ahem, some of the present regimes (take a guess…). Then again, these regimes are not eternal for the simple reason that: 1) they are pranged in a region with too many conflicting interests and socially mobile populations, and 2) that they cling to political concepts and a politcial culture that have failed/collapse anywhere else. Hence we have to think beyond them.

Brian II September 26, 2006 at 3:55 am

Either version is tough to envision in the near-term, but who knows?

Kazakhstan, clearly the most progressive of all Central Asian republics (and in a few ways more progressive than Turkey), doesn’t really have the buy-in from all the Republics on the Central Asian Union concept. That type of Union is certainly more appealing and neater to deal with than Eurosec, but it doesn’t seem to be very close by.

Uzbekistan will not consider a Central Asian Union under the current regime. Regretfully, even the common man-on-the-street in Tashkent, while envious of the current Kazakh wealth, does not consider Kazakh’s legitimate counterparts in those other ways that ‘make Uzbeks, Uzbek’ – culture, language, food. Laugh all you want – it is what it is. Also have a hard time seeing Turkmenistan joining into the Central Asian fold prior to the exit of the Bash-meister.

Regrets on the cynicism, but given the mutual-disrespect that these countries showed each other in ‘the early days (1992-97, especially Turkey-Uzbek-Turkey), the whole pan-Turkish union concept just doesn’t feel that warm, even now….sounds a lot like Turkey wanting to jump on the Energy bandwagon as an option to China…

Brian II September 26, 2006 at 4:19 am

Concept of Eurasian Islam is a very valid point. The present-day concern would be that if Islam were to be stated as (one of the main) foundations for creating a cultural/economic union in Central Asia, that it would risk alienating a big chunk of the regional population – specifically Christian Russians in northern Kazakhstan, as well as the Jewish population which is very powerful, economically. Nazarbayev and the others are really pushing hard for ‘secular’ definitions and sovereignty, for that reason.

An engaged, moderate Islamic (or ‘faith based’) society could have a very positive influence on some of the pervasive social problems in modern Central Asian. Yet it is that exact complex fusion of faith and economics which freaked the Uzbeks out in Andijon, and led to the disaster.

My point: the ‘suggestion’ of an infusion of Islamic based cultural heritage could be interpreted negatively in the current Central Asian environment.

Ataman Rakin September 26, 2006 at 5:34 am

Thanks Brian II.

“The present-day concern would be that if Islam were to be stated as (one of the main) foundations for creating a cultural/economic union in Central Asia (…)”

Nonono… I do not believe that a Eurasian Islam is to serve as a base for any formal structure or ‘union’, ‘commonwealth’ or ‘caliphate’ for that matter :)))).

My concept of a Eurasian Islam — whose spiritual centres will include Bukhara after the overthrow of the satanist-monafiq regime there; Turkestan and Konya — is situated at the social-cultural level (cultural in the broad sociological sense of the term that is), not at the state of institutional level. There can be no ‘state Islam’ nor an ‘Islamic state’!

“that it would risk alienating a big chunk of the regional population – specifically Christian Russians in northern Kazakhstan, as well as the Jewish population which is very powerful, economically. Nazarbayev and the others are really pushing hard for ’secular’ definitions and sovereignty, for that reason”

This is why I stressed “at least in certain areas and segments of society where Islam is more prominent.” By this I do not only mean the ‘traditional’ ‘Islamic’ strongholds (Namangan, Garm, Shymkent/Turkestan, Osh/Jalalabad, … ) but also places where you woudl not expect it: parts of/around the region’s large cities with large numbers of rural migrants, even factions within socially mobile parts of the elite that look to reaffirm themselves.

What you say about the 45-50% of Christians in Kazakhstan is true for Northern Kazakhstan, the centre of Almaty and other urban centres, yet not so much for the rest of Central Asia incl. Southern Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in particular.

As for the Jewish influence you probably refer to the entourage and economic imperium around Alexander Mashkevich and his Grazhdanskaya Partiya? Again, that is an important factor *in Kazakhstan*.

For the rest, with all affinity for the Jews (fellow ‘ahl al kitap’) and respect for the achievements of Jewish civilisation, it would be fair to say that the Jewish presence is on the wane all over the region (economic migration to Israël, the West, Russia).

Yes, ‘more Islam’ will indeed antagonise the region’s ethnic Russians yet *how real* is the ‘threat’ posed to them by Islam? Or is that ‘threat’, and the preception of it, more the product of mass hysteria, the boulevard media and a popular imagination among that *part* of the Russians whose mindset is not free of post-colonial frustrations and primal racism?

I mean, let’s be serious: how many cases of *religiously inspired/framed* violence (I am not talking about drunk inter-ethnic brawls) have there been against ethnic Russians in Central Asia since 1989-91? Is it due to ‘Islamists’ that ethnic Russians were pushed out of the adminstration, police, … in most of the region? Were the attacks/lootings of ethnic Russian businesses during the 2005 uprising/coup in Kyrgyzstan the work of ‘Islamists’?

Also, there is no real history of Christian/Islamic hostility in the region. What there is, started after the arrival of the *evangelist sects*. Let’s not underestimate that.

BTW, ‘Russians’ and ‘Islam’ are not necessarily incompatible (http://www.islam.ru/addis/added2.html and http://www.islam.ru/addis/added1.html ). 😉

“My point: the ’suggestion’ of an infusion of Islamic based cultural heritage could be interpreted negatively in the current Central Asian environment.”

Yes: *”in the current Central Asian environment.”* But as I said, nobody says that several of the present regimes/actors are eternal…

Nick September 26, 2006 at 5:50 am

How does the proverb go (Italian, I think)?:

Don’t reheat old soup

If Turkey is interested in expanding its interest in the region beyond trade, then it could do worse than try and worm its way into EurAsEC, which has already swallowed up CACO.

Ataman Rakin September 26, 2006 at 6:12 am

BTW, for those who read Russian, Alexander Dudin, the ideologue of Eurasianism, sees it in a Russian-Turkish axis:
http://evrazia.org/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=3196 http://www.evrazia.org/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=1772

korosh October 5, 2006 at 3:05 pm

great site

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