Turkic Ties and Their Influence in The Caspian Region
Recent meetings between Turkic leaders, notably the presidents of Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkiye and Kazakhstan, have been greeted by some social media observers as a sign of growing nationalist sentiments. For example, “Long live Uzbekistan, long live Azerbaijan, long live Turkic unity!” were typical comments left by viewers of a YouTube video about Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s visit to Tashkent back in June. Other comments can get more fiery: “the 21st century will be a Turkic century!!!” wrote one Twitter user, retweeting news about a meeting between Mr. Aliyev and Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Baku last August.
But before getting lost down an overblown pan-Turkism rabbit hole, let’s get a better idea of what it means to be Turkic.
The Caspian region and its surroundings are home to a variety of culturally Turkic people. They make up most of the population in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as neighbouring Turkiye. There are also notable Turkic minorities in Russia, Iran, Georgia, China, the Balkans and beyond.
Turkic people originated as nomads in the Altai region of Central Asia, near present-day Mongolia. Historically, like the Mongols, they were skilled horseback archers. In fact, many of Genghis Khan’s warriors came from Turkic tribes. These nomads also left their mark on world cuisine. New Yorkers tucking into a pastrami on rye may be surprised to learn that pastrami was first eaten as pastirma, a Turkic dish consisting of thin slices of dried beef preserved with spices and stored under a rider’s saddle. Though produced differently, pastirma and other dried meat dishes are still enjoyed in Turkic countries today.
The Ties that Bind
Turkic peoples also have an impressive history of scholarship and architectural grandeur. For instance, the fifteenth-century ruler Ulugh Beg was a keen astronomer renowned for building an observatory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. A crater on the moon has since been named after him. Another relative of Ulugh Beg’s, the Indian Emperor Shah Jahan, would later build the iconic Taj Mahal, borrowing designs from his ancestral home in Samarkand.
Many Turkic people share a faith, too, with the majority identifying as Muslim. Language is another connection, perhaps one of their strongest. While some Turkic languages differ considerably, most have at least a degree of mutual intelligibility. Turkish and Azerbaijani, for instance, are considered “first cousins” with a good level of comprehension between speakers, more so for Azerbaijanis (who regularly watch Turkish TV shows) than for Turks.
Due to a shared Soviet past, the Caspian region’s Turkic leaders have historically done diplomacy amongst themselves in Russian. They still do, but lately, a newer generation of presidents are cautiously breaking with tradition and making at least token displays of speaking to each other in their native languages without translators.
On a trip to Uzbekistan last June, President Aliyev used only Azerbaijani to tell a reception with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev about his experiences of travelling the country and how pleased he had been to see what he called “our,” meaning Turkic, culture. Mr. Aliyev had a similar exchange with President Tokayev, who spoke some Kazakh during their Baku meetings in August.
Conversing together like this is rare for these leaders, but that did not stop supporters of pan-Turkism from expressing highly exaggerated fantasies that the foundations of a united Turkic country were being laid after viewing the clips online.
What is Pan-Turkism?
Pan-Turkism is a radical political philosophy that calls for unity between Turkic peoples, with its supporters typically dreaming of establishing a single state stretching from Turkiye to Western China. The ideology has its roots in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and was once part of the Ottoman Empire’s strategy to deter Russian expansion into its lands. Pan-Turkism has since found followers in different political movements, some of which do not shy away from violence.
Of course, most Turkic leaders, many of whom govern multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-confessional countries, have little time for such divisive, radical sentiments. They – and their citizens – do, however, share genuine sympathies for one another based on common heritage.
While it is true that Turkic leaders are bringing their countries closer little by little, forming a pan-Turkic union simply isn’t on the mainstream political radar.
Rather, these countries have been strengthening mutual ties and especially their bonds with Turkiye. These moves have grown more critical due to recent events in Ukraine, which suggest Moscow is a less reliable partner, creating an urgency to find alternative alliances. While cordial ties with Russia remain a pragmatic necessity - after all, Russia borders both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan - recent developments hint that a looser relationship with Moscow is what they would really prefer.
On Kazakhstan, for example, Temur Umarov, a Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a regional specialist, told the Caspian Post, “Although Kazakhstan is very dependent on economic cooperation with Russia, after the war and Russia’s isolation from the world, Kazakhstan will actively be seeking for diversifying its economic ties and replace Russia where it is possible with other partners including China and Turkiye.”
Image: Bilal Kocabas/Shutterstock
During the recent presidential visits, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan also signed new deals with Azerbaijan. Both committed to strengthening transport links, particularly around a rail, road and ferry freight system known as the Trans-Caspian International Transportation Route, or the Middle Corridor. The corridor connects the European Union and China via Central Asia, the Caucasus and Turkey, bypassing Russia and avoiding the supply line disruption caused by the war in Ukraine. But it will also serve to strengthen inter-Turkic communications.
Similarly, as European countries scramble to reduce reliance on Russian fuel, oil- and gas-rich Caspian region nations are likely to coordinate efforts to help make up some of the shortfall. A five-year plan agreed last month between Baku and Brussels aims to double Azerbaijani gas exports to the EU through the Southern Gas Corridor via Turkiye. There are hopes that gas from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan will eventually feed into this route. And Kazakh, Azerbaijani, Turkish and Hungarian ministers met in Almaty late September to discuss further energy cooperation possibilities.
Undoubtedly Turkic nations do share elements of a common culture, an increasing convergence of economic interests and many genuine sympathies. Many have made small moves to increase cooperation in uncertain and changing times. Still, no one should extrapolate such relationships with any defined notions of a pan-Turkic state in the offing.