A New Turkish Empire in the East from the Bosphorus to China

Vladimir Pachkov, SJ

 Vladimir Pachkov, SJ / Economics / 12 April 2021

Paid Article

Will there be a union of all Turkic peoples?

For the first time in the 100-year history of the Turkish Republic, restoration of past greatness has become the policy of the Turkish government.[1] The failure of integration with Europe makes the idea of a new “empire” very attractive. Alongside the neo-Ottoman idea that focuses on the Arab countries of the Mediterranean and on the Balkans, a union of all the Turkic peoples based on ethnic ties, extending from the Bosphorus to China, has become a real possibility.

The transformation of relations between Turkey and Turkic populations in Central Asia and the Caucasus has become a reality with the latest conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.[2] It is not only a matter of “soft power” – exercised on culture or religion – and economic relations: Turkey is now also present militarily – the Turkish Ministry of Defense has proposed sending Turkish units to Azerbaijan[3] – and shows that it is certainly ready to support its “brothers” by any means at its disposal.

This is just one example of how Pan-Turkism ideology is translated into practice. Turkey is not only active in the geographically neighboring regions of the South Caucasus, and not only with the help of the Azeris – in this regard, both Turks and Azeris say that they are one people living in two different states – but also in the whole of Central Asia, from Iran and Afghanistan to Russia.

This region is considered as a whole, something homogeneous, a “Turkic world.” And it is not only a matter of cold, rational thinking, but an emotional aspect comes into play here as well, something that comes from a common history, language, culture and religion. The Turks of Turkey are concerned about the needs of the Turkish-speaking communities in the Caucasus and Central Asia. For them this region is important, not only because of its strategic location, but also because they consider it the “homeland” of the Turkish peoples. Many of the immigrants arriving in Turkey come from the Caucasus.[4]

The dream of a “Turkish world,” extending from the Balkans to Xinjiang, seemed unattainable at the beginning of this century. The differences and contradictions between Turkey and some important Turkic states in Central Asia – in particular Uzbekistan – were too strong and the influence of Turkey itself too weak to aim at true unity. Over time, thanks to the irreversible process of “derussification” and, in particular, thanks to Turkey’s soft power policy (which is expressed by the foundation of educational establishments, such as schools and universities, with the aim of forming a Turkish-oriented elite), that dream seemed to be becoming, little by little, a reality. Improving relations with Uzbekistan and the opening up of Turkmenistan – which had previously always maintained its neutrality – to  closer cooperation in establishing an alliance between Turkish peoples, have given new impetus to this process. Today there is even talk, in very specific terms, of establishing a common army among the Turkish states, the so-called “Turan army.”[5]

Are we then faced with the establishment of a new Federation, or even a “super-state,” stretching from the Bosphorus to China, which would take the place of the old Soviet Union?

From the ideology of Panturkism to Realpolitik in the East

The beginnings of the ideology of Panturkism share the same timeframe as those of Panslavism. The first ideologist of the unity – then still only cultural – of the Turkic peoples was Ismail Gasprinski (1851-1914).[6] His ideas were spread by the newspaper Tercüman (“The Translator”), whose motto was “The unity of language, idea and action.” In Turkey itself, interest in the Turkish-related peoples of the Russian Empire was based on religious grounds rather than ethnic ones.

Panturkism made its appearance in the Ottoman Empire only after the revolution of the “Young Turks.” This ideology was presented as an alternative to Ottomanism and Islamism. The first opportunity to put the ideas of Panturkism into practice came after the collapse of the Tsarist Empire. However, although there was mutual sympathy between the Ottoman Turks and the Turkic peoples in the old Russian Empire, it cannot be said that at the time it was stronger than the national identities of individual peoples.

The young Turkish republic, which had taken the place of the Ottoman Empire, rejected the ideas of Panturkism, focusing primarily on strengthening the nation state within its own borders.[7]

The restoration of Panturkism occurred only with the end of the Soviet Union.[8] When this was about to collapse, Turkey still avoided any interference in the Turkic Republics. When in January 1990 the president of Azerbaijan visited Turkey, the Turkish president did not want to take a position on the events in Azerbaijan,[9] considering them an internal matter for the Soviet Union. Since then, Turkey’s policy has changed.

Turkey turns to the East

The emergence of the new independent states in Central Asia and the Caucasus meant that, alongside Turkey, there were other countries in which Turks, whose languages and culture were very similar to those of Turkey itself, played a dominant role. The time of Turkey’s isolation in its position between Europe and the Arab world, in which the era of Ottoman rule was only a beautiful memory, was finally over.

Moreover, the fact that the new republics were relatively less developed gave Turkey a sense of superiority, arousing in it an ambition to take a leading role and to serve as a model for their further development. These ambitions spread in Turkey, not only among Turkish nationalists, but also among Islamists, with the difference that, while the former dreamed of an alliance of the Turkish peoples based on the principle of ethnicity, for the latter the leading role in the world of the Turkish peoples constituted only the first step toward restoring dominance over the entire Islamic world.[10]

The Turkish ruling class also immediately sought to exploit this possibility of becoming the leading nation in a broad alliance of states stretching from the Bosphorus to China. Already in 1991 Turkish President Özal – who stated that the 21st century would be “the Turkish century” – visited not only Moscow, but also Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and other republics. With the founding on December 8 of that year of the Community of Independent States, which replaced the Soviet Union, Turkey was the first nation to recognize the independence of the Turkish states from the former Soviet Union, thus laying the foundation for its subsequent policy.[11]

The plans were very ambitious. In 1992, during a visit to Central Asia, Turkish Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel spoke of the possibility of founding a “Union of Turkish States,” the exit from the rouble zone, military cooperation and the construction of gas and oil pipelines by Turkey, as well as the introduction of the Turkish alphabet.[12]

However, those envisaged projects at that time were much greater than the real possibilities. There were many obstacles on the way to the realization of the Panturkish dream, not least the perplexity of the Central Asian elites, who were unwilling to replace Moscow with Ankara as their point of reference. The emphasis placed on the affinities between Turkic peoples did not take into account the differences that existed between them, the many contradictions and problems that divided them: for example, the border issue between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which was recently settled; the ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, which ended in violence[13]; and the fact that they wanted to assert their own identity.

Moreover, Turkey appeared too weak to assume leadership in the region. What would further hinder Turkish aspirations was the fact that, despite the rhetoric about equal relations, the country had tried in every way to establish “special relations” with Turkish countries, but always maintaining “a dominant position.”[14] On the other hand, the elites of the countries of Central Asia have also opposed the attempts of other nations to define their identities on the basis of religion (Islam) or of belonging to a particular ethnic group (Turkish): they prefer to concentrate above all on economic collaboration, keeping all possibilities open.[15]

Education and culture: important tools of influence

Turkey has established economic, diplomatic and even military relations with several countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In this region, however, it cannot compete economically with superpower China, and militarily (not yet?) with Russia. But it does not need to, because Ankara’s real power lies in the intellectual sphere.

Due to the impossibility of directly achieving the union of the Turkish peoples under the aegis of Turkey, great efforts have been made in the diplomatic and cultural fields, particularly education. In order to shape the future of the country, a slow but sure path has been chosen, namely, that of building a new elite, destined to replace the old one that dates back to the Soviet era.

Already in 1992, while establishing diplomatic relations with Kyrgyzstan, Turkey offered education and training for 1,000 Kyrgyz students in its colleges and universities. Shortly afterward, television broadcasting in Turkish began in Kyrgyzstan. A clear example of cooperation in education between Turkey and the Kyrgyz Republic is the Turkish-Kyrgyz “University Manas,” founded in 1995. It has become the best university in Kyrgyzstan due to the absence of corruption among teachers, excellence of education, quality of technology and it is fee-free. From its founding until 2014, Turkey has invested $289 million in the university. Since the victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, cooperation between the two countries in this field has become increasingly close.[16]

At the same time, some representatives of Kyrgyz culture have been very critical about cooperation with Turkey. Among them were some who distanced themselves from those who consider linguistic affinity as a proof of ethnic kinship. Thus, the former ambassador of Kyrgyzstan to Turkey said that Turkish languages have been adopted by different peoples and that there is no reason to say that ethnic kinship exists between Kyrgyz and Turks. In addition, he criticized the Turkish idea of a unity of the Turkish peoples, which he said would force individual peoples to give up their identities.[17]

Similarly to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan began a cultural collaboration with Turkey after independence. Turkish television is also broadcast in this country. In addition, in 1992 a university in the southern city of Türkistan was transformed into a Kazakh-Turkish university. Currently 22,000 students, coming from different nations, are enrolled there The Turks have founded their own university in this country, which bears the name of the former Turkish president, Demirel, and which has been established as the “Academy of Turkish Peoples” in the capital, Astana.[18] As well as cooperating in education and media, Turkey provides expertise and funding for the preservation of cultural heritage. Thus Turkey contributed to the restoration of the mausoleum of a revered Sufi with funding of USD54 million.

Relations between Turkey and the other major Central Asian state, Uzbekistan, which also aspires to a leading role, have proved much more complicated than those with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The beginnings, however, had been very promising. In 1992 a meeting took place between the Ministers of Culture of Turkey, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan. On that occasion the foundation of a common linguistic and cultural area was discussed. One initiative aimed at promoting such a common area was the reception in Turkey of students from various Turkish-speaking countries. Uzbekistan, being the most populous country, also obtained a greater number of scholarships than the others. But by 1994 this cultural collaboration was suspended due to political problems in bilateral relations. The official reason was that “after the strengthening of the positions of Islamists in the Turkish Republic, the government of the Republic of Uzbekistan had immediately blocked the access of Uzbek students to educational institutions in Turkey.”[19]

Although in the 1990s Turkish schools in Uzbekistan had increased to 65, in 1999 they were all closed. The reason was that Turkey was supporting the opposition (very often of Islamic orientation) in Uzbekistan.[20]

In Turkmenistan, relations with Turkey were initially modest, partly because of the isolationist policy of the first Turkmen president, Saparmyrat Nyýazow. Although relations then improved after his successor came to power, there remained in any case the suspicion that Turkish schools were leading their pupils in the direction of Islamism and Turkish nationalism. Therefore, in 2013 those schools were nationalized and placed under the control of the Ministry of Culture. However, in the same year the Turkmen-Turkish International University, where 400 students are currently studying, was inaugurated.[21] In the last 20 years, Turkey has provided 26,000 scholarships to students from Turkish states.[22] Thus, the soft power of Turkey and the Panturkish concept has been further strengthened in the youth who are destined to shape the future of the region.

The main features of the educational system that the Turks offer in the Central Asian countries are: first, excellence (the universities and schools founded by Turkey are considered the best); second, education along the Turkish model; third, patriotism; finally, religious education. A good education is intended to enable pupils to occupy key positions in politics and economics in the future, while also educating them in the values of Panturkism, in which Turkey plays the main role.

The new development of Panturkism

Interestingly, the rise to power – after the November 2002 elections – of the AKP, with its Islamist and conservative rhetoric, initially raised several doubts about Turkish engagement in the region. It was believed that Turkey should rather focus on a pan-Islamic agenda. This assumption, however, soon proved to be unfounded.

Quite the opposite proved to be the case. With the AKP government Turkey’s activity in the Turkic region has been decisively strengthened. The reason for this is to be found in the fact that two other orientations of Turkish foreign policy: European integration (for various reasons), and the policy of neo-Ottomanism, in which Turkey had high hopes after the beginning of the uprisings in the Arab countries (in particular, after the beginning of the Syrian crisis) were precluded. These hopes, however, did not materialize.

Instead, the ideas of Panturkism have become a reality in many fields. Beyond economic integration, the idea of unity and common destiny of the Turkic peoples is taking shape more and more. All consider themselves bound by mutual responsibility.[23] The President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, stated that the problem of one Turkish state must become the problem of all Turkish states. He also stated his idea (which is also the idea of the political elite of Azerbaijan) about the future of the Turkish countries: “We aspire to strengthen the independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan,” but at the same time, “our goal is the foundation of the ‘greater Turkey’ and the union of all Turks under the aegis of Turkey.”[24]

Even Turkmenistan, which for a long time kept to a policy of neutrality, has now begun to move in a pro-Turkish direction for a number of reasons[25]: the proximity to Afghanistan but also to Iran[26] leaves no alternative in the search for allies from those countries that can help not only economically (as Turkey does extensively), but also militarily (36 percent of all imported armaments come from Turkey, 27 percent from China and 20 percent from Russia).[27]

In 2019, after the meeting of the Council of Turkish Peoples, Erdoğan said, “We always talk about one nation in two states (Turkey and Azerbaijan). Yesterday I said that we have become one nation in five states. God willing, Turkmenistan will also join us and we will become one nation in six states, strengthening our cooperation in the region.”[28]


In summary, we can say that although the prospect of a true alliance between the various Turkish states, particularly under the leadership of Turkey, appears unlikely, there is currently a real transformation in the position of the Central Asian countries regarding the possibility of closer cooperation with Turkey and among themselves. The generation of those who ruled these republics as party leaders is coming to an end,[29] and their place is being taken by people open to the perspectives we have outlined above.

The fact that Turkey, despite its considerable economic power, is too weak to succeed on its own in uniting this extensive region makes such collaboration all the more attractive as an alternative to other powers, especially China (many in Central Asia fear being swept away by this nation).

The current elites want to establish multipolar relations, and from this point of view Turkey is a definite option, alongside China, Russia, the European Union and the United States. However, as we have already said, the real power of Ankara does not lie primarily in the economic or military sector, but in the brains, especially of those young people who, born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, are looking for a new ideal and a new identity. For them the idea of a Turkish and Islamic “super-state” could become very attractive.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 4 art. 12, 0421: 10.32009/22072446.0421.12

[1].    Cf. “Султан не настоящий?”, in www.kommersant.ru/doc/4583207

[2].    Cf. V. Pachkov, “Nagorno-Karabakh: One Hundred Years of Conflict,” in Civ. Catt. En. Dec. 2020 https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/nagorno-karabakh-one-hundred-years-of-conflict/

[3].    Cf. “Форум: Что в мире творится… (750/752)”, in Павел Дартс (https://news.mail.ru/politics/44246047/?frommail=1).

[4].    Cf. M. E. Çaman – M. A. Akyurt, “Caucasus and Central Asia in Turkish Foreign Policy: The Time Has Come for a New Regional Policy”, in Alternatives Journal (www.researchgate.net/publication/337404537_Caucasus_and_Central_Asia_in_Turkish_Foreign_Policy_The_Time_Has_Come_for_a_New_Regional_Policy), November 2011.

[5].    “Армия ‘Великого Турана’ выстраивается против ОДКБ”, in https://regnum.ru/news/polit/3058187.html

[6].    Cf. V. Pachkov, “Islam in Russia”, in Civ. Catt. En. Feb. 2018, https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/islam-in-russia/

[7].    Cf. Iskander Gilyazov, Turkism: Formation and Development (Characteristics of the Main Stages). Textbook for students of Turkism. Kazan, 2002. Cf. http://window.edu.ru/catalog/pdf2txt/062/53062/25968

[8].    Cf. P. Üre, “Panturkism,” in www.academia.edu/39806236/Panturkism

[9].    Cf. V. Pachkov, “Nagorno-Karabakh: one hundred years of conflict,” op. cit.

[10].   Cf. H. A. Kramer, “Will Central Asia Become Turkey’s Sphere of Influence”, in http://sam.gov.tr/pdf/perceptions/Volume-I/march-may-1996/8.-will-central-asia-become-turkeys-sphere-of-influence.pdf

[11].   Cf. M. E. Caman – M. A. Akyurt, “Caucasus and Central Asia in Turkish Foreign Policy…”, op. cit.

[12].   Cf. M. Aydin, “Foucault’s Pendulum: Turkey in Central Asia and the Caucasus”, in Turkish Studies (www.researchgate.net/publication/233466117_Foucault’s_Pendulum_Turkey_in_Central_Asia_and_the_Caucasus1), June 2004.

[13].   Cf. V. Pachkov, “Uzbekistan. A Key Country in Central Asia,” in Civ. Catt. En. Jan., 2020 https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/uzbekistan-a-key-central-asia-nation/

[14].   H. A. Kramer, “Will Central Asia Become Turkey’s Sphere of Influence”, op. cit.

[15].   Cf. M. Aydin, “Foucault’s Pendulum: Turkey in Central Asia and the Caucasus”, op. cit.

[16].   Cf. R. Weizel, Turkey’s Influence on Central Asian Culture and Education. (Journal: Islam in the Modern World. 2014 -1[33]), in https://islamjournal.idmedina.ru/jour/article/view/55

[17].   Cf. Maria Yanovskaya. Former Kyrgyz Ambassador to Turkey: No Need to Consider Kyrgyz as Turkmens (https://subscribe.ru/archive/news.world.turkestan/200911/18180143.html), Nov. 17, 2009.

[18].   In 2019 the capital of Kazakhstan took the name of Nur-Sultan.

[19].   Peculiarities of Uzbek-Turkish relations in the 1990s. Abstract on the subject of International Law. Published (www.bibliofond.ru/view.aspx?id=460749), Jan. 8, 2011.

[20].   Cf. R. Weitzel, Turkey’s Influence on Central Asian Culture and Education. (Journal: Islam in the Modern World), op. cit.

[21].   Cf. ibid.

[22].   Cf. Alexei Gryazev. Beating Moscow: How Ankara is Building a Turkic World (www.gazeta.ru/politics/2020/07/18_a_13157329.shtml), July 18, 2020.

[23].   Cf. E. Nikulin, “The concept of pan-Turkism in the modern foreign policy doctrine of the Republic of Turkey”, in https://nauka.me/s241328880000081-3-1

[24].   Ibid.

[25].   Cf. ibid.

[26].   On what Turks think about this, the words of a Turkish student I met in Kyrgyzstan are very significant: “Iran has always tried to subdue us!”

[27].   Cf. Turkey’s Cooperation with Central Asia. (editorial edition) (https://platon.asia/politika/sotrudnichestvo-turtsii-s-tsentralnoj-aziej), Feb. 1, 2020.

[28].   Alexei Gryazev. Beating Moscow: How Ankara is Building a Turkic World (www.gazeta.ru/politics/2020/07/18_a_13157329.shtml), July 18, 2020.

[29].   Cf. V. Pachkov, “Uzbekistan. A Key Country in Central Asia,” op. cit.; Id., “Kazakhstan, the Path after Independence,” in Civ. Catt. En.  Oct. 2019 https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/kazakhstans-post-independence-faultlines/