01/15/2022, 16.21
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Erdogan risks losing support in Kazakhstan

by Marta Ottaviani

Turkey invested a lot in Kazakhstan in recent years, not only in economic terms. Nazarbayev’s regime pulled the country away from Russian influence in favour of a Turkic-oriented nation-building process; now the call to CSTO troops will test the power relationship with Moscow.

Milan (AsiaNews) – One country closely monitoring unrest and its developments in Kazakhstan is Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was one of the first to call his Kazakh counterpart Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to express his sympathy.

A few days later, the Turkish parliament issued a statement expressing solidarity with the Kazakh people. For once, the resolution was voted by all parties, except for the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP[*]).

Going one step further, Turkey held a virtual meeting with the members of the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS). Created in 2009, the association brings together countries that share linguistic and religious ties.

Although less powerful than the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the OTS has been able to create synergies in recent years between its members, notably Turkey, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan.

Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, along with Erdoğan, was instrumental in setting up the organisation. After ruling the Central Asian nation from 1990 to 2019, Nazarbayev is increasingly becoming the main target of the unrest that has spread across the country.

Kazakhstan is an important partner for Turkey. Trade between the two countries has exceeded US$ 2 billion for several years. Turkey imports mainly energy resources and raw materials, whilst exporting textiles and above all agricultural products, which Kazakhstan absolutely needs.

Turkish investments in Kazakhstan have increased, but with a twist. Turkey has backed the Kazakh bid to join the World Trade Organisation, but in addition to business, geopolitical considerations have motivated its actions.

Whilst infrastructure development has been privileged, religious ties matter. In 2015 Erdoğan and Nazarbayev inaugurated a mosque in Kazakhstan managed by Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, better known as the Diyanet[†].

In the past 15 years, the two leaders have developed a close relationship, helping Turkey expand its influence throughout the region, eroding, albeit partially, that of Russia.

For Erdoğan, the bad news is that Kazakhstan’s recent unrest has substantially weakened Nazarbayev with serious consequences. “Within certain limits, Nazarbayev’s regime pursued a policy of nation-building as far from Russian influence as possible, certainly closer to Turkey,” academic sources in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan told AsiaNews.

Whilst Erdoğan saw opportunities, as the country shifts, the Turkish leader now finds himself forced to protect the positions he gained in recent years and this may not work. Facing him is Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. Although nominally a strong ally of Turkey, tensions with Russia just below the surface are pulling the two countries apart.

“The fact that Tokayev turned to the CSTO means that he needs the help of Russia as a guarantor of the country’s stability,” said Alexander Dubowy, an expert on Central Asia at the University of Vienna, speaking to AsiaNews.

“It should be noted that, unlike neighbouring countries, Kazakhstan has always maintained excellent relations with both the West and with China,” Dubowy explained.

What is more, it “has enjoyed a relative stable internal situation, despite the serious deterioration of the rights and economic welfare of its population. Appealing to the CSTO means accepting to have Russia intervene in the country’s domestic affairs and influence them.”

The Turkish president risks having to start all over, with the aggravating circumstances that Russia is not the only one set on making the most of the current situation.

Despite ups and downs, the marriage of convenience between Ankara and Moscow is holding for now.

On the one hand, Turkey and Russia share too many interests to get into a row; on the other, in other places where they are present, they are often at odds or trying to limiting each other’s influence, like in the Caucasus, Syria and Libya.

Even though the unrest in Kazakhstan is purely internal, it could put test again the relative balance of power between the two.

[*] Halkların Demokratik Partisi.

[†] Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı.

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