Are China, Russia, and Turkey locked in a battle for control over Central Asia, historic Turkestan? Are there prospects for one – or any combination of two against the other – to win? How much should this matter to the United States and the West?
Historically, Central Asia formed one cultural unit, but wrote in two languages: Cagatay, also known as Turki, a Turkic language closely related to the Turkish of Turkey; and Farsi, today called Tajik or Dari, almost 100 percent intelligible to Persian-speakers.
The two most important centers of civilization and trade were Samarkand and Bukhara in today’s Uzbekistan, and Khotan and Kashgar in today’s Xinjiang province of China. Both the Soviets and Chinese, in their attempt to divide and conquer the locals, created myriad so-called “national languages” based on local dialects spoken by these people. The goal was to divide people so those living in the Soviet Union would look to Moscow, while those living in China were expected to look toward Beijing.
Outwardly, those living in the Soviet Union were “linguistically Russianized” but not assimilated. There was – and still is – almost no intermarriage between the Soviet Slavic non-Muslim rulers and the Muslim Turkic-speaking and Persian/Tajik-speaking subjects. The same is even more true in China.
After World War I, Turkey’s rulers abandoned the connections their Ottoman predecessors had cultivated with Central Asia and did their best to cultivate connections with Europe and the U.S. But Turkey’s intellectual class studied their long-ago Central Asian ancestors and adopted many Central Asian Turkic words – long forgotten by or unknown to their immediate Turkish Central Asian descendants – in place of Arabic or Persian words which had so thoroughly penetrated the Ottoman Turkish language.
All of this set the stage for contemporary developments, and helps put into context the policies that the Chinese, Turks, and Russians have developed for historic Turkestan.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the creation of Turkic states in Central Asia [Ed. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan in the southern Caucasus], the Turkish elite “rediscovered” the descendants of their Central Asian ancestors and thought they would be natural allies with whom they could easily communicate. They were wrong. Even the words Turkish and Turkic – part of the 19th-century divide-and-conquer policy of Russia and the West – were irrelevant. The Turkish elites had worked hard to remove the Arabic and Persian vocabulary from Turkish, but their cousins in Central Asia still used most of those loan words. They could not understand each other.
In 1993, Turkish President/PM Turgut Ozal took a trip to Central Asia. It seemed promising at first, but the schism was already apparent. Uzbekistan’s dictator, Islam Karimov, summarized the differences when he toasted Ozal saying, “We sent you out of here with slanted eyes, and you come back with rounded eyes.” I.e., we were the same but now are different.
Further complicating was the fact that the Central Turkic people had lived under dictatorial Soviet rule while Turkey by that time had experienced some form of “guided democracy” for almost 60 years. The Central Asian rulers were much more connected and familiar with their Russian overlords than with the then-alien political culture of Turkey.
In the meantime, the Turks realized that their dream of a common Turk bond was not enough to meld Central Asia and Turkey into one cultural unit. However, there was another, much stronger, bond that united the people, if not the leaders: Islamic culture. Turkish Islamic-oriented businessmen, in the footsteps of their ancient Silk Road ancestors, began to travel throughout Central Asia and to Xinjiang. These newly formed Central Asian states and China established direct flights between Istanbul and the Central Asian states, and non-stop flights between Istanbul and Urumqi, the capital of Chinese Xinjiang.
This quiet re-Islamification project gained momentum when, in 2002, the Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took over Turkey. He and his aides worked behind the scenes to “re-Islamize” former Soviet Central Asia. Very quickly, the former Soviet Central Asian rulers understood that this could be a serious source of trouble for their regimes. Turkish educational institutions mushroomed all over, focusing on the young people, but the rulers of these republics have since done their best to blunt Turkish influence.
China & The Uyghurs
Is China an option for the Central Asians? Central Asians are deeply suspicious of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, fearing that Beijing could bear-hug them economically, and then slowly make them vassals. The memory of how the Russians treated them as colonies from the 19th century onward is deeply etched in their psyches.
In no way do they want to trade Russian domination for Chinese domination.
These land-locked countries do see China as an economic necessity to help them connect with the outside world. The only other bridge would be via Iran. But as long as Iran is ruled by radical Islamists, Central Asian access to the outside world remains blocked. As such, both Iran and Turkey remain serious obstacles to Central Asian progress. If regime change took place in Iran, the Central Asian Republics would have another access point, empowering them to be more independent from China and Russia. But not yet.
At the same time, China seems not to have taken Turkey’s “re-Islamification” policy very seriously at first, much to its detriment. In Xinjiang, which the Uyghurs call “East Turkestan,” things worked somewhat differently than in the independent countries. The above-mentioned Turkish businessmen, encouraged by Erdoğan and his cohorts, distributed Islamic materials in Turkish inside China. The Turkish language of Turkey – which is about 60% intelligible to Uyghurs, began to be understood by more and more people. Young Uyghurs easily picked up what is, in essence, a dialect of their own language. Moreover, the Uyghurs and Uzbeks of Central Asia – both highly settled people – also share a bond. All in all, the young Uyghurs were hungry to learn who they were and realized they had natural allies outside of China.
It took some time for the Islamic materials the Turks were distributing to create a consciousness among the Uyghurs – especially the youth – that they were members of a vast Turko-Islamic community with potential allies all over the world. That scared the Chinese, and certainly was a major factor in how the Chinese decided to handle their Uyghur-Islamic problem.
In short, both the Central Asians and Chinese have identified what Turkey has been doing behind the scenes and are doing their best – in their own ways – to thwart the Turks.
But now, Erdoğan is in serious financial trouble and desperately needs China’s help, so he has exchanged silence about what China is doing to his Sunni Muslim Turkic brothers for Chinese aid. But the Chinese should have no illusions.
Erdoğan is the informal leader of the Worldwide Muslim Brotherhood, which, like other Islamist groups, models its behavior after their prophet Muhammad. When weak, Muhammad signed a truce (hudna) with his enemies and lay in wait until he was strong enough to defeat them. It is understood that Erdoğan functions behind the scenes in the former Ottoman Empire, in Israel, and throughout Europe, quietly biding his time in these places, preparing to strike against them when it becomes opportune. It is therefore hard to imagine that Erdoğan is acting any differently toward the Chinese government regarding his Muslim brothers in China. And from an Islamic point of view, anything that advances Islam is part of the jihad, and therefore Islamically acceptable. Erdoğan is copying his prophet’s behavior regarding what the Chinese are doing to his fellow Turkic Muslims.
The Chinese – along with the Russians, Americans, and other non-Muslim powers – should be clear about Erdoğan’s goal.
Russia and Turkey have never been allies. Over the past three hundred years, Turkey has lost 13 wars with Russia. At times they have worked together when it was in their mutual interest, but they have an uneasy relationship, vying for influence in Central Asia. As described above, Turkey has focused more on a common Islamic linguistic and reglious heritage. But Central Asian leaders saw Turkey’s extremist Islam as dangerous and consequently did their best to distance themselves from Turkey.
Language and script are central to identity, and the Central Asian leaders are moving toward the Latin script as part of the process of decoupling from Russia.
When the Soviets took over Central Asia, they created Latin scripts for their newly minted local languages because Turkey still used Arabic script. When Turkey then moved to Latin script, the Russians changed the Turkic language scripts to Cyrillic, again to separate them from Turkey but also to tie the area more closely to Russia. But since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Turkic Republics have gradually moved from Cyrillic back to Latin, intentionally – though slowly – to move from the Russian stranglehold on their countries and to open themselves to the outside world.
Russia might see itself as the natural hegemon in that area, but many locals feel otherwise. Although the elites prefer Russian to their local languages, younger people are much more English-language oriented, moving the Russian connection slowly into the past.
At the same time, Russia does not have the economic wherewithal to compete with China in Central Asia. So, Russia seems to be biding its time, often bullying the Central Asians but not having much incentive for them to remain close to Russia. Even Kazakstan, the country geographically closest to Russia and having a large Russian population, is slowly decoupling. Russians and other Slavs see the handwriting on the wall and are leaving Kazakstan, mostly for Russia. And the Kazaks have begun a transition from the Cyrillic script to Latin. By 2025, Kazak will no longer be written in Cyrillic.
Even the name of the country – Kazakhstan vs. Kazakstan – is a bone of contention between Russians and Kazaks. Shortly after Kazakstan declared independence from the USSR, for example, that country sent a delegation to Washington to meet with American leaders. The delegation was made up of about 50% ethnic Kazaks and about the same number of ethnic Slavs – mostly Russians. At a meeting at the Pentagon, an American asked how to pronounce the name of their country – Kazakhstan (the Russian variant) or Kazakstan (the Kazak variant.) Instantly, the ethnic Kazaks smiled and clearly felt a bond with the questioner. The ethnic Slavs sat stone-faced and reacted angrily.
So, there is no love lost between the Turkic-Muslim peoples of Central Asia and Russia, which is why the Central Asians are slowly but surely looking for other options. These leaders, however, are trying to hold Turkey at arm’s length because they fear Turkey’s radical Islam even more than they do Moscow.
A Word about Afghanistan
Erdoğan also has close ties with the Taliban, which in many ways has the same mission as he does. Both want radical Islam to be the major force throughout the Muslim world.
The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan will likely make the more secular-oriented Central Asian leaders even more suspicious about Turkey because they see the new “American-enabled” Taliban radical/fanatical Islamic regime in Afghanistan, possibly allied with Turkey, as a threat to their regimes as well.
Whether Russia’s organization of military drills in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to reassure those countries of the security of their Afghan border will increase Russia’s influence in Central Asia remains to be seen.
Iran might be the key to true Central Asian independence. Culturally, Iran is very similar to Uzbekistan, the Central Asian country with the longest sense of civilization. Tashkent, a Soviet/Russian-cultural creation, is the capital of that country, but the true cultural capitals are the ancient cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, both of which are culturally Iranian. It was, for example, in these two cities – and not in Iran – where the Persian language was revived in the 10th century after 300 years of Arab-Islamic domination. If Iran is free, will that ancient bond be recreated? Would that liberate these countries from both Russian and Chinese domination?
We await the effects of a free Iran with great anticipation.
Harold Rhode, Ph.D., is Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.