ISTANBUL – In the waning days of the conflict between Russia and Georgia last month, politicians in Turkey focused elsewhere—on Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Central Asian players in regional energy markets. Turkey's energy minister visited the two former Soviet states to discuss longterm energy strategies (Today'sZaman), just three weeks after a tentative ceasefire was inked between Moscow and Tbilisi. The meeting, which came on the heels of a costly trade dispute (Today'sZaman) with Russia over Ankara's decision to authorize U.S. naval access to the Black Sea during the Georgia fighting, has been widely interpreted as a warning shot to Russia that Turkey "is not about to be pushed around" (Stratfor).
Looking east in troubled times comes naturally to Turkey, which was among the first countries to recognize the independence of Central Asian states (TurkishWeekly) when they split away from the disintegrating Soviet Union in the 1990s. Under former President Turgut Ozal (1989-1993), political and economic ties between Turkey and these Turkic-brethren states took off. Since 2002, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) took office, a renewed focus on Central Asia has led to rising foreign investment and international trade with Turkey's eastern neighbors.
In the wake of the Russia-Georgia conflict, Turkish officials say, ties to newly independent former-Soviet states assume even greater importance. Ahmet Davutoglu, chief adviser to the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a meeting with journalists in Ankara, argues that Turkey has taken on an important role in keeping lines of communications open between antagonists—not only in the Caucasus but also in the greater Middle East where Turkey, uniquely, has good relations with Israel, Arab states, and Iran.
"In principle we are against isolation," says Davutoglu. "We were against isolation of Syria, we were against isolation of Iraq, because isolation creates economic stagnation. Isolation creates a barrier."
The emphasis on economics is not accidental. Exports to Near Asia and the Middle East region, for instance, have skyrocketed in recent years climbing to more than $15 billion in 2007 from $3.3 billion in 2001, according to statistics kept by the Turkish Undersecretariat of the Prime Ministry of Foreign Trade. Exports to North America, Africa, and other Asian states also gained during the same period, and Turkey is pursuing opportunities to expand trade with Africa, too (PDF). But Turkey's near-abroad partnerships have been among the biggest recipients of Turkish-made goods during the AKP tenure. (In Turkmenistan, for instance, Turkey has become the leading source for foreign direct investment, sending about $1.5 billion in 2007 (Jamestown).)
In the near-term, however, no amount of courting Central Asian and Middle Eastern states will supplant economic reality (Turkish Daily News): Russia is Turkey's largest trading partner. In 2007, bilateral trade totaled $28 billion (TurkishDailyNews), a figure that is expected to climb to $38 billion by the end of 2008. On the energy front, Turkey imports nearly two-thirds of its total natural gas supplies from Russia, a vital heating source for homes in Istanbul and Ankara that some analysts believe Turkey's ruling party will not interrupt (Jamestown) as winter approaches and March 2009 elections loom. Turkish heavy-construction firms, banks, and its energy services sector have been major players in the post-Soviet revival of the Russian economy.
Henri J. Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University, says logic argues for Turkey to avoid pushing Russia too hard. Barkey points to a recently proposed security agreement between Turkey, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—a so-called platform for security and cooperation in the South Caucasus—as evidence of Turkey's desire to maintain close relations with the Kremlin (Today'sZaman). "Turkey will always choose with the United States ... especially when it comes to a choice of the United States and Russia," said Hugh Pope, a Turkey expert at the International Crisis Group. "But Turkey's whole strategy will be to delay any such moment of truth. They do not want to be outed on this question."
Greg Bruno is in Turkey on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP) at The Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C.