Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Turkic Commonwealth

The Turkic peoples of Central and West Asia have a long and complex history, both as founders and subjects of empire. For almost a century, all that has seemed to be a thing of the past. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the absorption of most other Turkic peoples into the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, they have either been organized as discrete nation states (Turkey) or subjected to rule from afar (almost everyone else). Recently, most of these have emerged as a number of post-communist nation-states.

Set against this is the old idea of a pan-Turkic union, a state or association of states that would bring the members of these related ethnicities together, as a single voice on the global stage. Ankara, after a few years of silence on this, seems ready to have another go at it: they’re about to host a summit of Turkic heads of state.

The project makes lots of sense for the Turks themselves, at least in appearance. A Turkic Commonwealth makes a plausible Plan B should EU membership fall through, without all the troublesome human rights and economic reforms attached. True it would be a smaller pond, but Ankara would be by far the biggest fish—a Turkic international organisation would give it a significant sphere of influence, extending from the Mediterranean to the Chinese border, and controlling significant energy resources in and around the Caspian.

The other states, mostly one form or another of failed democracy or outright dictatorship, would get a club to join and a place they could belong without addressing their own quite significant political and developmental issues, which are far greater than those of relatively wealthy and progressive Turkey.

The big losers would be other former Soviet states, such as Georgia, which hosts an important international pipeline that is Turkic on either end. Armenia, is fenced in on two of four borders by hostile Turkic states. Tajikistan, the only non-Turkic Central Asian state and poorest former Soviet Republic, which would be more isolated than ever. A big coalition to the north and east might also scare Arab Middle Eastern states or Iran.

It would also scare the bejesus out of China, which has a large and potentially separatist Turkic region in its northwest, bordering Former Soviet Central Asia. Moscow probably wouldn’t like it much, in that it still likes to think of these countries as the ‘near abroad’—countries over which it has an imagined right of influence. It might annoy the Americans and the Europeans two, by disrupting energy security and slowing human rights reform.

All this, along with the possible cost of aiding the dilapidated states of Central Asia might well be enough to scar Ankara off, but it looks set to press ahead with at least an attempt at this. It will be interesting indeed to watch.

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