President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Ankara, Turkey, May 10, 2022. (AA Photo).
In May 2022, the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, paid an official visit to Ankara, where he met with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This meeting was significant for the two countries as several agreements were signed. One of the most important of them was the license agreement that gave Kazakhstan the possibility to manufacture Turkish-designed ANKA attack drones. This will make the Central Asian country the first to produce this kind of drone. The two countries` rapprochement goes well beyond a simple agreement package.
The war in Ukraine is reshaping the geopolitical scenario sharply; Kazakhstan, a strong Russian ally and member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has not taken a position on the ongoing conflict. The country abstained on the UN General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, urging both sides to reconsider their positions. Moreover, the country refused to recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic early this year, as well as the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Also, the official military parade traditionally held on May 9 to celebrate Victory Day was not held. At first sight, this could look like an ambiguous position since the country relies heavily on Russia`s support. A telling example of this is the Russian-led CSTO intervention to quell the manifestations that occurred in January. This is explained by Nur-Sultan's pursuit of a multi-vector foreign policy aimed at engaging with a variety of economic partners while gradually eroding Russia's traditional influence in the region.
This tendency matches Ankara's willingness to engage more intensively in Central Asia. Erdogan has never hidden his plan to fuel further relations with Turkey's Turkic brothers. By stressing the importance of solidarity in the current uncertain geopolitics, Turkic states should strengthen their ties both on a bilateral level and within the Organization of Turkic States, where Turkey sees itself as the leader. In doing so, Ankara is proposing itself as another alternative to Russia and China, which are already massively engaged in the region. After a rocky start in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey could not manage to channel its economic, security, and cultural support to the five Central Asian countries. In this regard, the Organization of Turkic States, founded in 2009, has not produced outstanding results in the past years. Now the situation seems to have changed favorably for Ankara and its Turkic brothers, especially Kazakhstan, with its traditionally multi-vector policies open to cooperation with new partners.
Kazakhstan has the infrastructural facilities and a suitable geographic location for Turkey to build transportation links. Kazakhstan shares a border with Turkey-friendly Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea. Not coincidentally, Erdogan calls Azerbaijan and Turkey "two states, one nation". The two nations' trade turnover was just over $3 billion in 2020, placing Turkey in the top five among Kazakhstan's biggest trading partners. The two countries` bilateral trade amounted to 3.9 billion in 2019 and 4.1 billion in 2021. Now they are both planning to boost it to $10 billion. Kazakhstan's relevance to Turkey has risen even more because Azerbaijan won the right to build a road corridor. This will link the country's eastern and western regions under the terms of a deal signed in November 2020, following the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
With Russia currently out of the picture, Kazakh-Turkish relations are taking off at an incredible speed. In February, right after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Kazakh Defense Ministry’s international cooperation department's head, Olzhas Khussainov, organized a meeting with the military attaché of Turkey, Fatih Pala, in Kazakhstan. This was followed by President Tokaev's visit to Ankara in May to strengthen trade, economic, investment, cultural, and humanitarian cooperation. The two presidents signed a joint statement on an expanded strategic partnership. Some of the most relevant points for their future cooperation were enshrined in the agreements on international combined transportation of goods, organization of information exchange, simplification of customs control procedures, and cooperation in the field of education. Likewise, the memoranda in the fields of information technology and environmental protection, as well as the protocol on cooperation in the field of military intelligence, will contribute to stronger relations.
This helps Kazakhstan achieve its overall goal of becoming a strategic logistical hub between China and Europe. Kazakhstan has already taken steps to develop its transit potential as a member of the Unified Transport and Logistics Company (UTLC) and the Trans Caspian International Transport Route (TITR). Major global participants in the transportation business, such as China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) and Dubai Port World, are already responding positively to Nur-Sultan`s initiatives by expanding infrastructure logistics in the country.
The Central Asia country`s role in this capacity was highlighted in 2017 when Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Georgia inaugurated the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. This line connects Baku, the Azerbaijani capital on the Caspian Sea, to the Turkish border city of Kars, through the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi. Back then, the three countries sought to expand the project through an alternative route for China's Belt and Road Initiative. The new line dubbed the "new iron silk road", would bypass a Russian railway route to the north. As a result, Kazakhstan's and Turkmenistan's roles will be required as new routes passing through the two countries are developed.
Kazakhstan's example exemplifies a broader trend in Central Asia of gradual detachment from Russia's traditional sphere of influence. This could be seen also in Uzbekistan where Uzbek Foreign Minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov, openly condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine by recognizing the latter's independence and sovereignty on March 17th. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan allowed also some public anti-war protests and did not hinder some humanitarian NGOs in their attempt to send humanitarian help to Ukraine.
However, the five countries must follow cautious policies when it comes to their critiques of Russia as they fear future expansionist claims in their area. This is even more crucial for Kazakhstan, a country that shares a long border with Russia in the north in an area densely populated by a strong Russian minority. Nevertheless, by declaring its neutrality and refusing to send troops to support Russia in Ukraine, Nur-Sultan is considerably shifting its attitude. The recent Turkish endeavors in the country are proof of it.
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