The modern Turkic nations trace their origins back to historical Turkic peoples who dominated the Eurasian landmass during the Middle Ages and early modern times, reaching their apex in the sixteenth century when the Ottoman, Safavid, Baburid, and Mamluk Empires—all essentially Turkic dynasties—ruled much of the Old World. Their mutual relations were not always harmonious; rivalry and violent clashes were not uncommon.
Dreams of once again renewing past glory are still very much present. Pan-Turkism is the name given to the idea of uniting all Turkic-speaking peoples of the Caucasus, the Volga-Ural region, Crimea, and Western and Central Asia under the aegis of a greater Turkic state. In recent years, certain nations have begun presenting their culture as an alternative to Western “universal values” and rule-based global order. These “civilizational states,” like China and Russia, have developed narratives that depict their values as fundamentally different from, and inherently distinct to, that of the West. This is pretty much the line of thought exposed by the Organization of Turkic States (OTS).
Astana is set to host the tenth-anniversary summit of the Organization of Turkic States on November 3. The event will be a significant gathering of leaders from member and observer states to reinforce cooperation and mutual understanding among Turkic nations. Discussions during the event are expected to touch on a wide range of issues, including economic cooperation, cultural exchange, and regional stability. In addition to the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the heads of state of Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan, the Chairman of the Halk Maslakhaty of Turkmenistan, and the Prime Minister of Hungary will also attend.
The current geopolitical tension and the resulting turbulence in world politics create new conditions for the growing importance of non-politicized and non-military organizations. Certain Turkic countries, such as Turkey and Kazakhstan, believe that the Organization of Turkic States could play such a role and provide Central Asian and Caucasian states with a much-needed “third option.” The OTS, covering over 173 million inhabitants, is a significant market. The total GDP of member states and observers is about $1.4 trillion. Geographically, it represents a vast region from Europe (Turkey, Hungary), the Caucasus (Azerbaijan), and the Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan) to the borders of China. The blocking of certain transport arteries through the territories of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shed light on the OTS as a critical factor in establishing alternative transport and communication routes passing through Central Asia and the Caucasus with access to the Middle East and Europe.
The concept of leadership within the Turkic world is multifaceted, embracing cultural, economic, and geopolitical dimensions. Among the Turkic nations, Kazakhstan has emerged as a pivotal player, harboring the potential to ascend to the vanguard of the contemporary Turkic community. Although Turkey likes to float the idea as its own, the actual initiative for establishing the Turkic Council is unanimously ascribed to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was the only Head of State to have participated in all Turkic summits since 1992 until stepping aside.
Once the most Russified of the non-Slavic Soviet republics, Kazakhstan has strived to strike a balance between different powers and geopolitical interests. Its multi-vector foreign policy has been instrumental in serving the nation’s economic interests as well as avoiding tensions with neighbors. Endowed with abundant reserves of natural resources, including oil, gas, and minerals, the country has leveraged its resource wealth to foster economic growth and diversification. This evolution has been a cornerstone of its rising influence within the Turkic world and improving relations with the European Union. Astutely navigating the global market, Kazakhstan has cemented its position as a regional economic powerhouse, fostering stability and growth within the Central Asian region. The successful management of its vast energy resources, coupled with strategic investments in infrastructure and technology, has bolstered Kazakhstan’s potential to lead the Turkic world economically.
The Organization of Turkic States has made strides to take unanimous political positions. Member states have adopted a collective perspective on various regional issues, such as the Afghanistan crisis, the Kazakhstan unrest, the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflicts, and the Kyrgyz-Tajik border issue. Another primary objective of the alliance is to establish a logistical link between Turkic states by empowering the Trans-Caspian East-West-Middle Corridor and merging with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. With this objective, member states have the collective political and economic clout to challenge Beijing’s influence in Central Asia.
Much of the long-term plan of the OTS is codified in the Turkic World 2040 Vision document, which outlines how the Turkic organization will harness member states’ collective resources and become a force to reckon with on the global stage. Only time will tell whether this vision will succeed or not. But apart from external influence, internal issues may also compromise the goal of the OTS. Some member states have questioned Ankara’s leading role in the union. However, it seems that by cooperating, Central Asian leaders seek agency in a shifting geopolitical and economic landscape.
Differing from the emotional sloganeering of pan-Turkists, this integration within the Organization of Turkic States seems to be carried out in a coolheaded, pragmatic, and businesslike manner. This tendency constitutes the raison d'être of the then Turkic Council, which, in the words of Halil Akinci, the founding Secretary-General of the organization, has become the first voluntary alliance of Turkic states in history.
Central Asian leaders have been playing a difficult game in maintaining this “multi-vector” friends-with-all foreign policy alignment—especially in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, where they’re trying to keep their vital economic relationship with Russia while also trying to avoid running afoul of sanctions against Russia. The region, after all, relies on Russia as a trading partner, as a destination for migrant laborers, and for transporting its hydrocarbons to market.
The fact that the geostrategic context of Eurasia, as well as the global tectonic shifts, including the rise of regionalization, call for strengthened bonds, cooperation, and coordination, does not ensure that the right strategy and policies will be implemented. Turkic integration must be buttressed by sound intellectual groundwork, effective structures, and appropriately educated and motivated domestic and international bureaucracies.
For now, the dream of a union of Turkic nations remains a chimera, but the strength of business and political ties within the region augurs well for its future. Increasing regional solidarity and coordination makes succeeding in this more likely. Regardless of how the conflict in Ukraine ends or how the situation in Afghanistan develops, these Turkic states stand a better chance together than as rivals.
Harun Karčić is a journalist and political analyst covering the Balkans and Turkey. Over the past decade, he has authored numerous articles on Islam and foreign influence in the region, including Saudi, Iranian, Turkish, and more recently Chinese and Russian. He also regularly reports on Muslim minorities in Europe and rising right-wing nationalism. He tweets @HarunKarcic.