Turkey’s penetration into Central Asia threatens to export Panturic extremism
For thousands of years, the Central Asian region has been the scene of endless conflict and competition between the great powers, as it is a crossroads for East-West trade routes. The Scythians, Huns and various tribes of Turks and Mongols, among a plethora of other groups, swept the region. In the 19th century, Central Asia hosted the so-called Great Game between the British and Russian Empires, and over the past two decades the United States has made a serious attempt to establish a permanent presence. However, just as the United States retreats from Afghanistan, Ankara is making serious attempts to supplant the dominant Russian and Chinese influences in the region.
In 2010, Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his ambitious vision of 2023 as the year of the celebration of the centenary of the Republic of Turkey. Vision 2023 aimed for Turkey to have a vigorous foreign policy and involvement in all major world organizations and events. It was also envisioned that Turkey would become a key transportation, trade and pipeline hub, as, like Central Asia, it is also a crossroads for East-West trade routes.
Under this ambitious vision of uplifting the power and influence of Turkey was the “Zero Problems Policy with Our Neighbors”, created by former Foreign Minister and current party leader of the future Ahmet Davutoğlu. Ankara went very quickly from “Zero problems with neighbors” to “Problems with almost all neighbors” as the outbreak of war in Syria offered Turkey a rare opportunity to significantly expand its influence – if President Bashar al -Assad was dismissed. The Syrian war was the first giveaway that the so-called “Zero Problems with Neighbors” policy, implemented in 2010, did not even last into 2011 before Erdoğan abandoned Davutoğlu’s vision and quickly collapsed. in an ideology of syncretic neo-Ottomanism and pan-Turkism.
The Republic of Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal following a campaign to create a “Turkey for the Turks” which resulted in the genocide of 3 million Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians. The surviving Christian populations who were not deported to Greece, the Soviet Union or allowed to remain in Istanbul were forcibly Turkified and Islamized.
Because identity was fluid during the Ottoman Empire, all Muslims were labeled as Ottomans in censuses, whether their ethnicity was Greek, Serbian, or otherwise. Kemal himself was born to Dönme parents (hidden Jews but publicly Muslims) of Albanian descent. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal embarked on a massive Turkification campaign to eliminate any identity that was not Turkish, and even adopted the nickname Ataturk (Turkish Father). Atatürk imposed the Turkification of a country which had escaped the total collapse of the Greek army only thanks to Bolshevik military aid. Turkey as a new country made up of diverse Muslim peoples from the Balkans, Anatolia and the Caucasus who were quickly Turkified to consolidate a united national identity and mythology for the newly established country.
Due to such a policy of Turkification, most Turkish citizens believe they are descended from Turkish tribes who conquered Anatolia, rather than indigenous peoples who were forcibly Turkified. Modern genetic testing has revealed that the majority of Turkish citizens have very little or no Turkic mixture, with professors born in Turkey like Mehmet Efe Caman and Ihsan Yilmaz points it out.
However, this forced Turkification also ideologically guided Ankara’s foreign policy. It is on this basis that Turkey today actively introduces pan-Turkishism with political Islam in Azerbaijan and the Turkish countries of Central Asia. To challenge Russian influence on these countries, recalling that it was the Soviets who introduced secularism in the region, Turkey is funding NGOs and institutions in these countries to consolidate a Pan-Turkish ideology also rooted in Islam.
This poses major problems, including for Russia’s security concerns, as far-right ultra-nationalist Turkish organizations like the Gray Wolves once funded by Gladio have the stated goal of uniting all Turkish-speaking peoples into one. State stretching from the Balkans to Central Asia. The group has fought in Chechnya, has forged links with Tartar groups in Crimea, and encourages its members to fight in Syria. One of their mottos is “Your doctor will be a Turk and your medicine will be Islam”. Erdoğan, his coalition partner Devlet Bahçeli and several opposition leaders are frequently seen waving from the group, which several countries recognize as a terrorist organization.
Erdoğan hopes that through the Turkish Council, which also includes Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, Turkish ideological influence can begin to penetrate these countries. One of the objectives of the Turkish Council’s mission is to “develop common positions on foreign policy issues”. Indeed, Ankara sees itself at the center of a Turkish arc stretching from Kyrgyzstan to Istanbul, and hopes to be able to lock Central Asia into its own sphere of influence at the expense of Russia and China.
This will prove problematic as the synthesis of Pan-Turkic identity and political Islam will ultimately result in the expansion of the Gray Wolves or other ideologically aligned organizations in Central Asia. Just as the gray wolves are responsible for the export of terrorism to Syria and the Caucasus, and have committed massacres against the Kurds, Alevis and other minority groups, such extremism will eventually be exported to the United States as well. Central Asia if these countries allow themselves to be consumed by the current Turkey ideological conjecture and foreign policy – just as it seeks to do through the Turkish Council.
For Russia, a growth of terrorism in Central Asia will be a direct affront to its own national security, especially since the Panturites have Crimea in their sights, and the most extreme elements are turning even to the Russian regions around. from the Altai Mountains, the homeland mythology of the Turkish people. For China, the threat is just as great, especially since the Pan-Turkic ideology also includes the Chinese province of Xinjiang in its great territorial aspirations.
Thus ensues a real ideological struggle for Central Asia.
Central Asia has a choice to make: adopt Turkmenistan’s example of neutrality (hence the reason why it is not a member state of the Turkish Council), or embark on the path of becoming states outcasts who could become hotbeds of extremism and instability, which push away serious investment opportunities and projects from China and Russia that cannot be replaced by a Turkey with a battered economy.
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