Turkey had a difficult start to 2022. Its foreign policy, which seemed triumphant and very effective in 2021, is having a difficult start to the year amid a collapsing currency and runaway inflation in the country.
The violent and unprecedented protests that erupted in Kazakhstan on January 2 betrayed the flaws in Turkey’s assertive foreign policy perhaps more clearly than any other incident in the past three years. Curiously, the protests have hardly received the attention they deserve in Turkey due to the country’s highly consuming domestic political and financial situation.
In 2020, Turkey’s military and political role in Libya has changed the tide of the war in favor of Tripoli-based forces in the country’s civil war. Turkey has challenged France, Greece and the European Union in a standoff over conflicting territorial claims in the eastern Mediterranean. In the fall of 2020, Turkey’s military, political and diplomatic support for Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh War dramatically shifted the balance of power in favor of Baku. So, with heightened Trans-Caspian ambitions extending to Turkish Central Asia via Azerbaijan, Turkey entered 2021 as a new revisionist power, though not on the same level as Russia and China.
Turkey has sought to use the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States to realize its ambitions in Central Asia. The brainchild of former leader of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, the council was planned in 2006 and launched in 2009. In line with his new political demagoguery, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the new chairman of the body in 2021 at a summit held in Istanbul on November 12.
Erdogan’s staunch ally, the leader of Turkey’s arch-nationalist party, Devlet Bahceli, presented him with a giant map of the Turkish world as a gift, encompassing large chunks of the Russian Federation, raising eyebrows in Moscow and irritating neighboring Beijing, which is busy with suppressing its Turkish minority, the Uyghurs.
Nevertheless, it only took two months for the Organization of Turkish States (OTS) to prove its impotence, demonstrating the uselessness of Turkey. On January 2, Kazakhstan imploded. And Kazakhstan’s security establishment has not knocked on the doors of the Turkish Council but rather on the doors of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to maintain its survival in the face of violence rocking its commercial capital, Almaty. . The CSTO, founded in 1992 and led by Russia, includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus and Armenia.
In a nutshell, Kazakh leaders – at a time when security needs were urgent – preferred Russia to Turkey and Vladimir Putin to Erdogan. Kazakhstan has special ties with Turkey. The two countries together with Azerbaijan have been the main pillars of the OTS. Kazakhstan has a military cooperation agreement with Turkey that encompasses cooperation in several areas, including defense industry, intelligence sharing, joint military exercises, information systems and cyber defense. The growing military ties between Turkey and Kazakhstan as well as with Uzbekistan had given rise in October 2020 to a fanciful idea of establishing a Turkish NATO.
In such a context, Kazakhstan’s choice to invite the CSTO instead of the OTS has a highly symbolic significance. The choice also indicated that – unlike Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan who did the exact opposite almost a year ago in the war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh – the Kazakh regime favored Russia by relation to Turkey to the detriment of any prestige the OTS may have.
The deployment of Armenian soldiers and Russian special forces units to Kazakhstan at the behest of the Kazakh President was more striking than anything else and perhaps added insult to injury for Turkish nationalists. The announcement of the deployment came from Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan – a stark irony showing the deterioration of Turkey’s foreign policy.
What is more intriguing is the anti-American and anti-Western obsession of some secular nationalists and leftists in Turkey. For example, reacting to the ongoing developments in Kazakhstan, the prominent retired Turkish friend Cem Gurdeniz blamed the unrest on “an imperialist plot.” Gurdeniz, who is also an ideologue of the controversial Blue Homeland doctrine which advocates a more aggressive policy in the Mediterranean, claimed the unrest stemmed from a ‘Soros-like provocation’ which was aimed at harboring ‘turmoil in Eurasia’. and was organized by “very resentful imperialists since the founding of the Organization of Turkish States.
On social media, many Turkish leftists expressed similar views. Pro-Erdogan circles, in turn, quoting a former Russian parliamentarian, claimed that supporters of Fethullah Gulen, an American cleric accused by Turkey of masterminding a 2016 coup attempt, may be the ones who stir up trouble in Kazakhstan.
Erdogan was quick to back his Kazakh counterpart, Kassym Jomart Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s hand-picked successor. He quickly expressed his support for Tokayev. However, Erdogan’s support for Tokayev was remarkably muted. He didn’t really understand the problem. Perhaps he was embarrassed by Tokayev’s choice to invite the CSTO troops, thus undermining his prestige. Erdogan’s quiet support could also be linked to the uncertainty around Nazarbayev.
In a Financial Times opinion piece, Gideon Rachman wrote: “Kazakhstan is a country where the average income is around $570 a month, but where the family of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the country from 1991 in 2019, acquired overseas properties. worth at least $785 million. The unrest in Kazakhstan may be linked to infighting within ruling circles. But such problems are inherent in corrupt autocracies. If wealth is distributed through a loot system, any hint of a change in direction creates instability.
On January 5, Tokayev fired and arrested longtime Nazarbayev loyalist Karim Massimov, head of Kazakhstan’s intelligence services. He also removed Nazarbayev as head of the National Security Council and named himself the new leader.
Turkey seems to have lost sight of developments in Kazakhstan. Almost two weeks after the unrest, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu convened a conference of OTS foreign ministers. In a speech on January 11, he expressed satisfaction that the situation in Kazakhstan had been brought under control, without mentioning that the fragile control was maintained by a Russian-led military intervention.
“Kazakhstan has a statehood tradition, experience and ability to overcome the current crisis,” Cavusoglu said.
Putin, for his part, was opaque in praising the role played by military troops in suppressing anti-government protests in Kazakhstan. “We will not let anyone destabilize the situation at home,” said the Russian president. His remarks reflected the irrelevance of Turkey and the Erdogan-led OTS at a critical moment in the Turkish world.
It is also a stark indicator of Turkey’s change of fortune in its assertive foreign policy. The crisis in Kazakhstan represents a defeat of Turkish nationalism in foreign policy.