Turkey’s Policy towards the Caspian Sea Region: Widenining Gap between Ankara’s Expectations and Capabilities

Oktay F. Tanrisever


The independence of three Turkic states, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse in 1991 has transformed the geo-strategic, geo-political, geo-economic and geo-cultural balance of power in the Caspian Sea regional order which had been previously shaped mainly by the policies of Russia and Iran as the key dominant powers of this region. This transformation in the regional balance of power has also presented Turkey, a country with special historical and cultural ties to these newly independent Turkic states in the Caspian Sea basin with an unique opportunity to exert its economic and political influence over the Caspian Sea region.

In fact, Turkey’s complex web of relations particularly with its Turkic partners in the Caspian Sea region have largely made Ankara an important player in this region, if not a strategic regional player; because unlike Russia and Iran, Turkey considered the independent Turkic republics as its potential strategic partners in the creation of New Silk Road between Europe and China where Turkey and its Turkic partners in the Caspian Sea region will play a key role. By contrast, Russia and Iran have obstructed the integration of the Turkic states in the Caspian Sea region into the global economic and political networks of cooperation. In particular, Moscow and Tehran have sought to prevent these states from exporting their hydrocarbon energy resources in the Caspian Sea region through pipelines bypassing Russian and Iranian territories. Remarkably, the Turkic states in the Caspian Sea region have managed to develop closer ties with countries other than Russia and Iran, partly thanks to

Turkey’s role as a bridge between the Caspian Sea region and the Western world.

Turkey’s foreign policy establishment has considered the importance of the Caspian Sea region not purely in terms of economic and energy resources, but in terms of its geo-strategic and geo-cultural importance since their independence declarations in 1991. Ankara considered the development of its relations with these states vital for the success of its geopolitical strategy of opening an East-West corridor between China and Europe. This corridor has been expected to marginalize its regional rivals, Russia and Iran, further while increasing Ankara’s geo-strategic value in the eyes of its Euro-Atlantic allies. Besides, significant parts of Turkey’s vibrant civil society have also been developing socio-cultural and economic relations with their partners in the region.[1] Consequently, Turkey’s relations with the Caspian Sea region have developed both at the inter-governmental and at the civil society levels too.

This chapter seeks to explore the characteristics of Turkey’s policies towards the Caspian Sea basin in terms of its key objectives and instruments as well as its strengths and weaknesses. The chapter also seeks to discuss Ankara’s policy towards this region by exploring its geo-strategic and diplomatic dimension, geo-economic and energy dimension as well as its socio-cultural dimensions. In addition, the chapter also aims at discussing the institutional dimension of Turkey’s policy towards the Caspian Sea region. Last but not least, the chapter also hopes to assess the performance of Turkey’s policy towards the Caspian Sea region by evaluating the relationship between Ankara’s ambitions and its capacity to realize these ambitions as well as its regional strengths and limitations.

The chapter argues that although the widening gap between Turkey’s expectations and capabilities concerning its Caspian Sea policy accounts for Turkey’s perceived poor performance in realizing some of its core strategic objective of weakening the Russian and Iranian influences in the region, Ankara’s policies have been largely successful in realizing energy and transportation projects which linked the Caspian Sea countries more closely with the European countries. In addition, although Turkey’s role in the region is seen positively by the Turkic speaking countries of the Caspian Sea region, Moscow and Tehran still consider Ankara as a potential rival for their own interests in this region. In this context, the shift in Turkey’s emphasis from the socio-cultural dimension as in the 1990s to mainly pragmatic economic and energy dimension of its regional policy during the 2000s almost eliminated the fears of Russia and Iran concerning the risk that Turkey might embrace the rhetoric of pan-Turkism as an ideological framework of its policies towards the region in the foreseeable future.[2]

This chapter is structured in the following order. To begin with, the chapter explores the principles and objectives of Turkey’s foreign policy towards the Caspian Sea region. Next, it discusses the development of Turkey’s geo-strategic and diplomatic relations with the regional actors in the Caspian Sea basin. Afterwards, the chapter examines the geo-economic and energy dimension of Turkey’s relations with the regional countries. This will be followed by the discussion of the socio-cultural dimensions of Ankara’s policies towards the Caspian Sea region. The penultimate part will discuss the institutional dimension of its policy towards the region by exploring the potential of the Turkic Council as as an institutional framework for regional cooperation. The concluding part will evaluate the performance of Ankara in realizing its regional foreign policy objectives.

  • [1] See G.M. Winrow, Turkey in Post-Soviet Central Asia, London, Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1995.
  • [2] O.F. Tanrisever, “Turkey’s Evolving Role in the Security of Afghanistan and Central Asia since 9/11: Sourcesand Limitations of Ankara’s Soft Power’ in O.F. Tanrisever (ed.), Afghanistan and Central Asia: NATO’s Rolein Regional Security since 9/11, Amsterdam, IOS Press, 2013, pp. 155-170.
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