Linking hands across the steppes

From The Economist print edition

Turning a Turkic ideal into reality involves hard decisions

SOON after the Soviet empire collapsed, Turkey’s then president Suleyman Demirel had a dream. He spoke of a revived Turkic commonwealth which would stretch from the Adriatic to China. Underpinning this vision was at least one hard fact: five of the new states which emerged from the Soviet wreckage speak languages related to Turkish. But as Turkey has discovered, turning fantasies of post-Soviet brotherhood into reality can involve tough choices’economic, diplomatic or even moral.

This week, at least, one very substantial link with Turkey’s closest linguistic cousin’Azerbaijan’was finally established, after a decade of hard slog by world leaders and captains of the oil industry. On May 28th, the first drop of oil from fields in the Caspian Sea was pumped through a new pipeline running from Baku, via Georgia, to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. The moment was a rare victory for American policy in this part of the world. It clinches Turkey’s role as an energy conduit between east and west and thereby weakens Russia’s hitherto tight grip on exports of gas and oil from the former Soviet south.

A British tanker moored off Ceyhan was standing ready to carry its first shipment of the oil from the $4 billion line. The project’s completion will enhance Turkey’s geopolitical bargaining power at a time of deepening worries about global energy security.

But pipelines aside, Russia’s strategic and cultural influence on its former dominions can get still get in the way of Turkey’s stated aims in Central Asia, which include the promotion of market-based democracy and the moderate brand of Islam which most Turkish Muslims practise.

One problem is that most of the Caucasus and Central Asia is still under the sway of harsh rulers whose power base is rooted in the Soviet system. In several countries, Turkey finds itself wondering whether it is wiser to support autocratic, well-established regimes or their democratic opponents.

Another difficulty is that, to put it mildly, Turkey feels it must deal warily with Russia at a time when business between the two countries is undergoing a spectacular expansion.

For example, in a response to Russian complaints, Turkey has quietly stopped offering medical care to wounded Chechen fighters. Meanwhile, some of the Kremlin’s economic concerns will get an airing in Ankara this week. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, was expected to discuss with his Turkish counterparts the outlook for a pipeline across Anatolia that would take Russian and Kazakh oil from the Turkish port of Samsun to Ceyhan.

At a big Russian-Turkish ceremony last November, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin lauded the importance of another line that since last year has been carrying Russian gas under the Black Sea to Samsun, despite American efforts to stop the project. The Russians now want to build a second gas pipeline under the Black Sea to Turkey for export to Europe.

In some ways, Turkey has a more dynamic relationship with Russia than it does with the European Union it is striving to join. Bilateral trade last year amounted to $15 billion, making Russia Turkey’s second-largest partner. By 2007, the total could rise as high as $25 billion, with Turkey selling consumer goods and construction services in return for Russia’s energy.

But however much Russian money talks, there is more to Turkey’s policy in the ex-Soviet Union than cynical, mercantilist calculations. In certain ways, Turkey’s stance is becoming more principled than it was few years ago. One example is the changing attitude in Ankara to Muhammad Salih, Uzbekistan’s best-known dissident. As leader of the opposition Erk (Freedom) movement, Mr Salih has been campaigning from a base in Germany against Islam Karimov, the Uzbek president. He insists that behind its self-confident exterior, the Karimov regime is brittle and nervous, because it knows that it would lose any electoral contest that was minimally fair.

Mr Salih first fled to Turkey in 1993 but was asked to leave by then President Demirel, under pressure from Mr Karimov. These days Mr Salih seems welcome in Turkey. His condemnation of his homeland’s rulers as a brutal, unrepresentative clique has gained moral force since last year’s massacre of civilians in the Uzbek town of Andijan, and many NATO nations are willing to give him a hearing at least. By opening its doors to Mr Salih, Turkey may be risking the ire of Russia, which has been increasingly protective of Mr Karimov, but it is following a moral lead set by many other Western governments.

If Mr Salih is right’in his prediction that democracy will eventually come to Uzbekistan, with benign consequences for the whole region then Turkey’s change of policy will seem a wise one. Not just for the cause of democracy and open markets in Central Asia, but also for Mr Demirel’s shadowy dream of a free Turkic commonwealth.