Last week, the leaders of the Organization of Turkic States met in Astana, Kazakhstan, for their 10th anniversary summit. The theme of the forum was “Turktime” — an interesting use of English to create an acronym for “Traditions, Unification, Reforms, Knowledge, Trust, Investments, Mediation, Energy.”
Although this acronym might seem clumsy, Turktime does a good job summing up both the origins and future ambition of the OTS. The organization began as the Turkic Council in 2009 at a meeting between the four founding members, Turkiye, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan, in the latter’s Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan. The original idea behind the initiative was deepening the shared cultural, historic, and linguistic roots, and enhancing economic and trade relations, between the ethnically Turkic countries of Eurasia.
In addition to the four founding members, Uzbekistan joined as a full member in 2019. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan, Hungary, and the de facto Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus have joined as observers. Other countries have expressed interest in joining the OTS as observers, including some with sizable Turkic minorities, such as Moldova (home to the Gagauz people) and Ukraine (because of the Crimean Tatars).
Hungary’s observer status in the OTS is both interesting and telling. Some, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, believe that Hungarians are descended from Turkic people originating in Central Asia. During certain points in history, Hungary shared a border with the Ottoman Empire. Although Hungarian is a part of the Uralic language family, it contains many loanwords from Turkish. However, Orban’s motivation to build ties with Turkic states is more about economics and trade than about culture and history.
For example, in the last decade, trade between Hungary and the countries of the OTS has more than doubled. At a time of energy uncertainty across Europe, Hungary recently signed an agreement with OTS member Azerbaijan for more natural gas. The case of Hungary is worth highlighting because it demonstrates the appeal of the OTS to countries that have even the most tenuous link to Turkic culture and history.
In recent years, Turkic geopolitical and economic influence has been on the ascendancy across Eurasia. The drivers behind this rise of influence are threefold.
First, there is a growing economic and cultural appeal to the region. In total, the members and observers of the OTS account for roughly 158 million people. There are millions of other people of Turkic ethnicity living in countries not part of the OTS, but who are influenced by Turkish soft power through cinema, music, and television. It is even possible for someone to communicate using some variation of a Turkic language from the Balkans in southeastern Europe to eastern China — and in most places in between.
The countries of the OTS represent a relatively small, but increasingly important, portion of the world’s economy, and encompass a region rich in natural resources, with plenty of oil, gas and rare earth minerals. Some of the world’s most important transit routes and trade chokepoints, such as the Turkish Straits, Middle Corridor, and Ganja Gap, are located in member states of the OTS.
Second, other than Turkiye, all the other members of the OTS were once part of imperial Russia and the former Soviet Union. Since regaining independence in the early 1990s, the countries of Central Asia, along with Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus, have tried shedding their centuries-old, enforced cultural links to Slavic Russia, while boosting their own Turkic roots, culture, and shared history. At the most recent summit in Astana, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed adopting a common alphabet for Turkic peoples. In 2017, an announcement by Kazakhstan that it would change from a Cyrillic alphabet to a Latin alphabet by 2025 caused a lot of angst in Moscow.
Finally, Russia’s quagmire in Ukraine has weakened its influence across the former Soviet Union, a region where it once enjoyed a lot of clout. Many members of the OTS recognize that Moscow’s attention is almost solely focused on its war in Ukraine. After witnessing the devastating military blow Ukraine has delivered to the Russian armed forces, the states of the former Soviet Union are feeling more confident to act in ways that are less geopolitically aligned with Moscow. Before February 2022, this would have been unthinkable.
The most recent example of this was Azerbaijan’s military operation in September to liberate the remaining sections of its country that were under the control of Armenians and Armenian separatists with the protection of Russian troops. When Azerbaijani security forces started operations, Russian soldiers sat idly by and did nothing to stop them. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, such an audacious move by Azerbaijan would have been highly unlikely.
Another example showing that Turkic cohesion is challenging Russian influence was the fact that two OTS members, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, publicly supported fellow OTS member Azerbaijan against Armenia, despite being members of the same Moscow-backed security grouping — the Collective Security Treaty Organization — with Armenia.
It is important that global policymakers recognize the ascendancy of the OTS across the Eurasian landmass. In recent months, the Gulf Cooperation Council has done a considerable amount of work to increase trade and boost economic relations with the countries of Central Asia. With four out of five Central Asian states in the OTS, perhaps it is time for a GCC-OTS summit to discuss ways to improve regional interconnectivity and trade. Meanwhile, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has a unique opportunity to cooperate with the OTS due to Turkiye’s membership in both organizations.
As Russia’s influence wanes across Eurasia, regional groupings, such as the OTS, will become more active and popular. This is a fact that cannot be ignored, and decision-makers should develop policies accordingly.