It has been more than 1,000 years since Turkic tribes migrated west from the Asian steppe to establish most of the great empires of Central Asia and the Middle East. The Turkic countries share a common history of horseback riding, sheep-raising and a focus on military organisation – most political and social organisation of Turkic societies followed their military development. But today they don’t have much in common other than geographic and linguistic ties.
But that didn’t stop the presidents and foreign ministers of five of today’s six Turkic-speaking states – Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan – from meeting in Istanbul’s opulent Ciragan Palace to proclaim the virtues of stepping up mutual cooperation. The sixth – Uzbekistan, an international pariah thanks to its appalling human rights record – stayed away.
“We are six states but one nation,” the host Turkish President Abdullah Gul said at the joint press conference. The Turkic languages are among the world’s 10 largest language groups – spoken by more than 140 million people – but there are big differences in each country’s dialects. As President Gul spoke, three of the other four heads of state had to listen through headphones to a translator.
The Summit of the Turkic Speaking Countries is no International Organization of La Francophonie but it has the potential to exert some influence. Turkic people inhabit some strategically important chunks of the globe – a buffer zone between Russia, China and Iran. The council is mainly cultural but Turkey hopes that cooperation will develop commercially, economically and politically.
The group had its first meeting in 1992 in Ankara. At the time, the newly independent former Soviet states of Central Asia were concerned about Turkey trying to take Russia’s place as the region’s new big brother, according to Hugh Pope, author of Sons of the Conquerors: the Rise of the Turkic World.
They needn’t have worried. Turkey was in bad economic shape in 1992 and in no position to lead anyone. But things have changed. Turkey is now a rising economic power. The Central Asian countries are more concerned by the economic might of China than Turkey or Russia, says Pope. “Now they see that Turkey is full of interesting things and that is changing their perceptions as well,” he says.
“It’s a new dimension to the importance of Turkey,” Pope says. “I think their presence in Istanbul has more to do with the rising power and charisma of Turkey as a country than the idea of a Turkic union as a useful tool.”