Principles of Turkey’s foreign policy towards the Caspian Sea region

From Ankara’s point of view, the significance of the Caspian Sea region stems from a number of factors including its geopolitical location, its position at the juncture of the Eurasian transport corridors as well as its ethno-cultural diversity. Geo-politically, the significance of the Caspian Sea basin stems mainly from the fact that it is located at the juncture of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and occupies a central position on the traditional ‘Silk Road’ from China to Europe. Due to this geopolitical position, the regional security complex in the Caspian region has been more volatile and vulnerable to the geopolitical pull and pushes of the neighboring regions as compared to most of other regions in the world. Besides, the region is very diverse in terms of its ethnic and cultural make-up adding internal dimension to the already very unstable external dimension of regional stability in the Caspian Sea basin.[1]

In this context, Turkey’s overall strategy towards the Caspian Sea region has been guided by two principles: the principle of weakening the regional influences of Russia and Iran by supporting independence of the Turkic countries of the Caspian Sea region, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and the principle of strengthening of the regional roles of these countries. In line with these principles, Turkey has intensified its cooperation with the Turkic republics in the Caspian Sea region by supporting their socio-economic development as well as their capacity to deal with the security challenges, such as international terrorism, organized crime, and human trafficking.[2]

Originally, Turkey’s policy towards the Caspian Sea region has also been guided by its search for regional leadership in its neighborhood during the 1990s. This is closely linked to Ankara’s perceived loss of its geopolitical importance after the end of Cold War, during which Turkey’s political elites hoped that Turkey could regain its lost strategic significance in the eyes of the international community if Ankara established its hegemony over the Turkic states in Caspian Sea region as their new ‘elder brother’ replacing Russia. To this purpose, Turkey supported the processes of post-Soviet transition in the Caucasus and Central Asia. It was also expected that if successful, this policy of integrating the Caspian Sea states into the Western institutions might have strengthened Turkey’s case for joining the European Union and consolidating its position in the Western world.[3]

In such a context, as the first country that established diplomatic relations with most of the post-Soviet Caspian Sea states, Turkey considered the support for the independence of these states essential for countering the hegemonic policies of Moscow and regional temptations of Iran as the former imperial centers of the region. To this purpose, Turkey supported the memberships of the Central Asian states into the international institutions, such as the United Nations, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The international community expected that Turkey could enable the Central Asian states to export their natural resources, mainly oil and natural gas, to the Western states through the “Silk Road” trade route bypassing Russia.[4]

Not surprisingly, the ‘romanticism’ and ‘utopianism’ of Turkey’s foreign policy elites was soon replaced by a sense of ‘realism’. This was evident in Turkey’s attitude to the Turkic states, which was too inclined to ‘elder brother’ approach and not based on a genuinely egalitarian idea of international partnership. Not surprisingly, it also turned out that Turkey is too weak to replace and counterbalance Russia in the post-Soviet region, including the Caspian Sea region. In addition, Ankara’s rivalry with Russia in the Caspian Sea region attracted criticisms from Turkey’s European allies since this rivalry contradicted with the spirit of cooperation in the post-Cold War Europe.[5]

Consequently, Turkey’s diplomatic establishment started to normalize its relations with Russia by pursuing a more non-confrontational policy in the Caspian Sea region as well as other parts of the post-Soviet space particularly after the end of the First Chechen War in August 1996. Between 1996 and 1999, Ankara and Moscow signed a number of bilateral agreements ranging from cooperation in the field of energy including the construction of the Blue Stream natural gas pipeline to cooperation in the area of counterterrorism. These agreements opened the way for a new era of cooperation between these countries in the 2000s.[6]

Starting from the 2000s, Turkey’s regional policy has been going through a process of transformation thanks to its Europeanization process in the aftermath of 1999 Helsinki Summit of the European Council when Turkey was granted an ‘accession country’ status. A series of domestic socio-economic as well as political reforms brought Turkey closer to its European and NATO allies too.[7] The Justice and Development Party, which came to power in 2002, has also continued to implement these Europeanizing reforms that contributed to democratization and liberalization of Turkey’s political system as well as market economy actively, especially during the period between 2002 and 2005. Reflecting Turkey’s Europeanized foreign policy, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is the architect of Turkey’s foreign policy under the Justice and Development Party, emphasized that Turkey should be oriented towards the peaceful settlement of international disputes among various international actors in any part of the world in addition to Ankara’s own disputes with its neighbors.[8]

Turkey’s desire to enhance its role in global politics and to advance its Europeanization have constituted the main reasons why Ankara has been very active in coming up with new initiatives that emphasizes the use of its soft power towards the Caspian Sea region particularly after the 2000s. In line with this tendency, Ankara has also changed its traditional understanding of security due to its neglect of international cooperation and its inadequacy in coping with the emerging soft security threats. The Europeanization and liberalization of Turkey’s conception of security led to the adoption of a ‘cooperative security’ understanding, which emphasizes the role of international cooperation through institutional frameworks.11 This new foreign policy approach also characterized Ankara’s policy towards the Caspian Sea region. This could be demonstrated better through the discussion of the geo-strategic, geo-economic geo-cultural as well as institutional dimensions of Turkey’s regional initiatives below.

  • [1] B. Ara, M. Croissant, Oil and Geopolitics in Caspian Sea Basin, Westport, CT, Prager, 1999.
  • [2] N. Devlet, “Taking Stock: Turkey and the Turkic World 20 Years Later” GMFUS On Turkey Policy Briefs, 10 November 2011, available at: World_Nov11 .pdf(Accessed last time on 10 February 2014).
  • [3] M. Aydin, “Turkiye’ninOrtaAsya - KafkaslarPolitikasi” in KureselPolitikadaOrtaAsya, ed. Mustafa Aydin, istanbul, Nobel, 2005, pp.101-148.
  • [4] G.M. Winrow, Turkey in Post-Soviet Central Asia, London, Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1995.
  • [5] M. Aydin, “Foucault’s Pendulum: Turkey in Central Asia and the Caucasus”, Turkish Studies, vol. 5, no. 2,2004, p. 5.
  • [6] O.F. Tanrisever, “Turkey and Russia in Eurasia”, in L.G. Martin, D. Kerides (eds.), The Future of Turkish Foreign Policy, Cambridge, Ma, MIT Press, 2004, pp. 127-155.
  • [7] E.F. Keyman, Z. Oni§, “Helsinki, Copenhagen and Beyond: Challenges to the New Europe and the TurkishState”, in M. Ugur (ed.), Europeanization and the Nation State, London, Routledge, 2004, pp. 173-193.
  • [8] Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu published several books and articles to clarify his foreign policyvision. The most well-known and the comprehensive one of these publications his following book which waspublished when he was working as a professor in a university, well before his appointment as Foreign Minister:A. Davutoglu, StratejikDerinlik, Istanbul, Kure, 2000.
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