Uzbekistan opens its doors and doors for others
The news that Uzbekistan is about to join the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States, otherwise known as the Turkic Council means that Turkey is on the verge of completing its fraternal body designed to increase economic, diplomatic and cultural inter-connectivity between the Turkic majority nations of the world. After Uzbekistan becomes a full member, only Turkmenistan will be on the list of prospective members that have not yet joined the pan-Turkic group. The Istanbul based Turkic-Council is often chided by critics, often with a racist motivation, as little more than an attempt to revitalise the Ottoman Empire but with the characteristics of Turkic nationalism rather than traditional Ottoman multi-culturalism. In reality the Turkic Council follows the modern trend of using historical bonds between common peoples of different nation states to create international projects for greater inter-connectivity and multilateral cohesion across modern borders.
During the lengthy rule of President Islam Karimov Uzbekistan was among the most economically and politically isolated of any central Asian nation. The transition from the rule of the late Karimov to his successor, the highly politically experienced Shavkat Mirziyoyev has defied the ‘wishes’ of many in the US and EU and has been seamless, his policies have turned away from Karimov’s almost autarky driven agenda and has instead guided his nation towards embracing the country’s historic Turkic identity while also embracing its Russo-Soviet experience. Based on both its historic characteristics and present day needs, Uzbekistan has become a model for countries that seek to use the common Russo-Turkic influence to help create a geopolitically harmonious space where Turkey and Russia’s often fraught history becomes a point of mutual cooperation in 21st century where mature nations seek to move beyond historical hatreds and a zero-sum mentality. But if Uzbekistan proves that multi-polarity is possible in a nation shaped both by its Turkic roots and Russo-Soviet experience, it is even more important to understand how in the 20th century Moscow and Ankara are working to make this happen.
Turkey and Russia – A fractious history with a common destiny
Much of the late modern period in Eurasia has been shaped by wars between the Ottoman Empire and Tsarist Russia. While the flourishing relationship between Presidents Putin and Erdogan is correctly cited as a partnership that seeks to turn a lose-lose history into a win-win future, there is a clear antecedent for this in relatively recent history.
After the Russian civil war in which the Bolsheviks emerged victorious, the first foreign states that Soviet leader Lenin signed friendship treaties with were Republican Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. As the late modern period was fraught with both Russo-Turkish wars, Russo-Persian wars and Turko-Persian wars, this was highly significant in the 1920s and it remains so today.
In the 19th century in particular, the western European powers Britain and France made a habit of propping up a declining Ottoman Empire in wars against an increasingly powerful Russia that had re-entered the western European consciousness during the Napoleonic wars which Russia won decisively. But while Britain and Russia, along with the Germanic states fought on the same side against Napoleonic France in the late 18th and ealry 19th century, by the mid 19th century, both Britain and France had adopted an anti-Russian policy while Bismarck’s Germany attempted to act as a balanceer between the powers which book-ended the European space.
Throughout this period, France and Britain exploited Turkey’s weakness in order gain an upper hand against Russia. Nowhere was this more apparent than when Britain forced Russia to accept the 1841 London Straits Convention which declared that during a time of war, the Ottoman Sultan would close the Turkish Straits to all foreign ships. The joint Anglo-French Aggression against Russia in the Crimea in the 1850s which ended with the destruction of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, further demonstrated to Moscow that Russia’s real enemies were not in Turkey but in western Europe.
These events had the effect of allowing Turkey to turn the Black Sea into a lake which would box Russian ships in and prevent them from entering the Mediterranean. It was this far more than any emotional desire to secure the national liberty of fellow Orthodox Slavs in the Balkans, which convinced Russia to fight Turkey. The logical modus operandi behind the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish war was for Russia to gain allied footholds in the Balkans in order to have access to the Mediterranean that did not rely on receiving safe passage through the Turkish straits. In this sense, it was Anglo-French provocations and aggression against Moscow which was the decisive factor in motivating Russia to involve itself in Orthodox insurgencies against a Sunni Muslim Ottoman overlord. If anything, these events proved that Russia needs Turkey one way or another.
The Anglo-French aggression against Ottoman Turkey during the First World War also proved to Turkey that if attacked from both west (western Europe) and north-east (Russia) it could not survive. Ataturk and Lenin both took the mature post-war view that the greatest threats to both Russia and Turkey came from the imperial powers of western Europe and consequently signed a friendship agreement which led to Russia receiving a favourable agreement in respect of access in and out of the Turkish straits.
This agreement was formalised with the still valid Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits of 1936. According to this agreement, Turkey retained full control of its Straits and all countries with Black Sea ports would be able to move their vessels in and out of the Straits in war time. This was a complete reversal of the 1841 agreement which saw Russia boxed into the Black Sea. Now it was western European navies that would be kept from entering the Black Sea by Turkey during war time.
While some Russian hyper-nationalists continued to view Turkey as an enemy in the early 20th century and while former Ottoman wartime triumvir Enver Pasha at one point helped to organise the Turkic hyper-nationalist Basmachi Revolt against Moscow’s sovereignty over Central Asia, characters like Enver Pasha were loathed by Ataturk who sought genuine friendship with the USSR, albeit a friendship based on pragmatism rather than emotion.
The Tsar and the Sultan in 2018
Today, the Cold War which saw the USSR and Turkey return to a period of suspicion and a limited rivalry is over. Instead, one is witnessing a return to the friendship of the Lenin/Ataturk days only with the trappings of a Turkish leader (Erdogan) both affectionately and disparagingly called a ‘Sultan’ on the one side and a Russian leader both affectionately and disparagingly called a Tsar on the other.
The result is that while neither Putin nor Erdogan are interested in revolutionary politics at home, both are coming to gradually cherish the importance of Moscow and Ankara over their respective historic hinterlands. In areas where these historic hinterlands overlap (Central Asia, The Caucasus, The Balkans), the modern Tsar and modern Sultan are embracing cooperation rather than confrontation. In this sense, in spite of the political upheavals in Armenia, it may one day be possible to build a Transcaucasian economic corridor linking the Caspian to the Black Sea. It is also becoming increasingly clear that as the EU and US seek a policy of provocation in the Balkans, it is Turkey and Russia with their historical ties to the Sunni Muslim and Orthodox Christian populations in the Balkans, that are capable of bringing a meaningful peace to Europe’s most volatile region. Likewise it is through Russo-Turkic central Asia that Turkey and China will be able to connect to one another through economic projects which could include a Turkey-Eurasian Economic Union free trade agreement that intersects with a China-Eurasian Economic Union Free Trade Agreement. All of this could lay an important foundation for the expansion of One Belt–One Road into central Asia. It is also entirely possible that in the future, Turkey could join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which brings together, China, Russia, South Asia and central Asia in a format of security cooperation.
When hypernationalists in Russia or Turkey claim that the two countries are destined for conflict, such voices are merely playing into the hands of those in Europe and the United States who seek to divide and rule Eurasia by exploiting conflicts between the Russia, Turkey and also Iran.
The reality is that Presidents Erdogan and Putin are not rebuilding the Ottoman Empire or Soviet Union but instead are working together to give their respective nations and respective fraternal peoples across national borders the benefits that come from large inter-continental empires but without the often blood-soaked rivalries that accompany the land-empire rivalries of the 19th century and previous centuries.
The only people frightened of this new reality are the western neo-imperialists who can only dominate Eurasia if Turkey, Russia and Iran remain divided against one another, while the other set of people who are frightened by this reality are the hyper-nationalist simpletons who harbour the same zero-sum mentality as the western aggressors.