Turks Look to Strengthen Ties With Eastern Neighbors
ISTANBUL — AS Turkic peoples in the now-disintegrating Soviet Union assert their independence just beyond Turkey's eastern border, interest is rising here in the emergence of a new "Turkish world."But the sense of opportunity is tempered by concerns about straining relations with Moscow and other countries who may want to compete with Turkey in Central Asia. Turks share cultural and linguistic links with many of their eastern neighbors - people in the nearby republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and in more distant republics such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. "After the 'Turkish minorities' in the Balkans and the Middle East," says Haluk Ulman, a political scientist at Istanbul University, "the [former Soviet republics are] starting to be a top item on Turkey's foreign policy agenda." "We have historical, cultural and linguistic ties with some of these republics," says Foreign Minister Safa Giray. "Turkey is preparing to develop close relations with them." A Turkish Foreign Ministry delegation headed by Ambassador Bilal Simsir, an expert on Central Asia, is visiting the Turkic republics as a first step in Ankara's policy to develop bilateral ties. The Ministry of Culture is also planning cultural missions and to send textbooks (in the Roman alphabet, which these republics are now starting to use instead of Cyrillic letters) and other publications. The state-owned Turkish radio and TV network is extending its services to Azerbaijan, and Turkey's national ne wspapers are starting to sell in Baku, the Azeri capital. "For decades, Turkey has acted indifferently toward the Turkic peoples," writes noted conservative journalist Altemur Kilic. "Those who showed interest were branded as Pan-Turkists ... and this was considered a deviation from Turkey's policy, designed not to damage the relations with the Soviet Union ... But conditions are now changing - and so is Turkey's attitude." But what looks at first like an opportunity for Turkey to establish new relationships and increase its influence in the region presents some problems. Ankara does not, for instance, want to jeopardize existing good relations with Moscow. Albert Chernisev, the Soviet ambassador here, urged Turkey at a news conference not to act "as the big brother or father" of the Turkic republics and "not to provoke ultra-nationalist and Pan-Turkish tendencies." He noted that that trade between the two countries is reaching $2.5 billion and that Turkish contractors are at work on large-scale construction projects in the Soviet Union. Turkey also wants to see the dust settle internally in the republics. The political division in Azerbaijan - where democratic opposition groups have contested the legality of ex-communist Ayaz Mutalibov's administration - has in part kept Ankara from granting immediate recognition. The possibility of conflict among the republics is another reason for caution in the Turkish capital. "The least to be desired is to have conflicts and clashes along our eastern borders.... We just don't want to be dragged into any such encounter," says one Foreign Ministry official. Turkish diplomats know that a conflict between Armenians and Azeris, in which Turkey would be dragged in on Azerbaijan's side, would revive anti-Turkish passions among Armenians not only in their republic, but also in their diaspora, particularly in the United States. This friction might hurt Turkey's relations with the US and the West in general. One leading Turkish diplomat says his country could become the center of an "economic and cultural commonwealth," but Turkey isn't alone in scrutinizing Central Asia. Iran and Saudi Arabia are reportedly making efforts to enter the area, using Islam as a springboard. But the belief in Ankara is that for the Turkic peoples - particularly in Azerbaijan - fundamentalist Islam has no great appeal. The Turks hope their Westernized political and economic institutions will be more attractive. "We pin high hopes on Turkey," says Tamerlan Karayev, a leader of Azerbaijan's nationalist Popular Front. "We would look for inspiration and guidance from Turkey as we consolidate our independence." The Turks would not like to see Iran and other countries in the region take the Azeris and other Turkic peoples into their zone of influence, particularly by using religion as a vehicle. This possibility is seen as a "threat" by officials engaged in shaping Turkey's policy toward the Turkic republics. Turkey, they argue, should not leave the arena free for other countries to extend influence to what Turks regard primarily as a Turkic region.