Kazakhstan crisis challenges Turkey’s leadership of Turkic union


By Cengiz Candar
Jan. 12, 2022

[The unrest rattling Kazakhstan has reflected the irrelevance of
Turkey and the Organization of Turkic States chaired by President
Recep Tayyip Erdogan.]

Turkey has faced a stark beginning to 2022. Its foreign policy, which
appeared to be triumphant and very effective in 2021, is suffering a
rough start to the new year amid a currency meltdown and skyrocketing
inflation at home.

The unprecedented and violent protests that erupted in Kazakhstan on
Jan. 2 betrayed Turkey’s assertive foreign policy flaws perhaps more
vividly than any other incident over the past three years. Oddly, the
protests have hardly received the attention it deserves in Turkey
because of the country’s highly consuming domestic political and
financial situation.

In 2020, Turkey’s military and political role in Libya changed the
course of the war in favor of the Tripoli-based forces in the
country’s civil war. Turkey challenged France, Greece and the European
Union during a standoff over conflicting territorial claims in the
Eastern Mediterranean. In the fall of 2020, Turkey’s military,
political and diplomatic support for Azerbaijan in the
Nagorno-Karabakh war changed the balance of power dramatically in
favor of Baku. Thus, with boosted Trans-Caspian ambitions extending to
Turkic Central Asia via Azerbaijan, Turkey entered 2021 as a new
revisionist power, albeit not on the same par with Russia and China.

Turkey has aimed to utilize the Cooperation Council of Turkic-speaking
states to realize its ambitions in Central Asia. The brainchild of
Kazakhstan’s former leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the council was
planned in 2006 and launched in 2009. In accordance with its new
political grandstanding, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan became
the new chairman of the body in 2021 during a summit held in Istanbul
on Nov. 12.

Erdogan’s staunch ally, the leader of Turkey’s arch-nationalist party,
Devlet Bahceli, presented him a giant map of the Turkic world as a
gift, encompassing big chunks of the Russian Federation, raising
eyebrows in Moscow and irritating neighboring Beijing, which is busy
with suppressing its Turkic minority, the Uyghurs.

Nevertheless, it took only two months for the Organization of Turkic
States (OTS) to prove its impotence, manifesting Turkey’s irrelevance.
On Jan. 2, Kazakhstan imploded. And Kazakhstan's security
establishment hasn’t knocked on the doors of the Turkic Council but
instead on the doors of the Collective Security Treaty Organization
(CSTO) to maintain its survival in the face of the rattling violence
in its commercial capital, Almaty. The CSTO, which was founded in 1992
and is led by Russia, includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,
Belarus and Armenia.

In a nutshell, the Kazakh leadership — at a time of urgent security
needs — preferred Russia over Turkey and Vladimir Putin over Erdogan.
Kazakhstan has special bonds with Turkey. The two countries as well as
Azerbaijan have been the main pillars of the OTS. Kazakhstan had
entered into a military cooperation agreement with Turkey that
encompasses cooperation in several fields including the defense
industry, intelligence-sharing, joint military exercises, information
systems and cyber defense. The growing military ties between Turkey
and Kazakhstan as well as Uzbekistan had given rise to a fanciful idea
in October 2020 to establish a Turkic NATO.

Against such a backdrop, Kazakhstan’s choice to invite the CSTO
instead of the OTS has a highly symbolic significance. The choice has
also indicated that — unlike Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev who did just
the opposite almost a year ago during the war with Armenia over
Nagorno-Karabakh — the Kazakh regime has been favoring Russia over
Turkey at the expense of any prestige the OTS may have.

More striking than anything else and perhaps adding further insult to
injury to Turkish nationalists was the deployment of Armenian soldiers
and Russian special forces units to Kazakhstan upon the request of the
Kazakh president. The announcement of the deployment came from
Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan — a striking irony displaying the
degradation of Turkey's foreign policy.

What’s more intriguing is the anti-US and anti-Western obsession of
certain secularist-nationalists and leftists in Turkey. For example,
reacting to the unfolding developments in Kazakhstan, prominent
retired Turkish Adm. Cem Gurdeniz blamed the unrest on “an imperialist
plot.” Gurdeniz, who is also an ideologue of the controversial Blue
Homeland doctrine that advocates more aggressive policy in the
Mediterranean, claimed that the unrest stemmed from a “Soros-type
provocation” that aimed to harbor “turmoil in Eurasia” and was
organized by “imperialists very irritated from the foundation of the
Organization of Turkic States.”

In social media, many Turkish leftists viewed similar opinions.
Pro-Erdogan circles, in turn, citing a former Russian parliamentarian,
claimed that followers of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based cleric who is
accused by Turkey of staging a coup attempt in 2016, might be those
fomenting trouble in Kazakhstan.

Erdogan was quick to support his Kazakh counterpart, Kassym Jomart
Tokayev — the hand-picked successor of Nazarbayev. He rapidly
expressed his support for Tokayev. However, Erdogan’s support of
Tokayev was noticeably low-key. He did not pick up the issue much.
Perhaps he was embarrassed by Tokayev’s choice of inviting CSTO
troops, thereby undermining his prestige. Erdogan’s low-key support
might be also linked to the uncertainty around Nazarbayev.

In an opinion piece in the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman wrote,
“Kazakhstan is a country in which the average income is around $570 a
month, but where the family of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the
country from 1991 until 2019, has acquired foreign properties worth at
least $785 million. The turmoil in Kazakhstan may be linked to
infighting within ruling circles. But these kinds of problems are
inherent to corrupt autocracies. If wealth is divided up as part of a
spoils system, any hint of a change in leadership creates

On Jan. 5, Tokayev sacked and arrested long-time Nazarbayev loyalist
Karim Massimov, head of Kazakhstan's intelligence. He also dismissed
Nazarbayev from his position as head of the National Security Council
and appointed himself as the new head.

Turkey seems to have lost track of the developments in Kazakhstan.
Almost two weeks after the unrest, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut
Cavusoglu gathered a conference of the foreign ministers of the OTS.
In a speech on Jan. 11, he expressed satisfaction that the situation
in Kazakhstan was brought under control, without mentioning that the
shaky control was maintained by a Russian-led military intervention.

"Kazakhstan has a state tradition, experience and ability to overcome
the current crisis," Cavusoglu said.

Putin, for his part, was opaque in praising the role the military
troops played in suppressing anti-government protests in Kazakhstan.
"We won't let anyone destabilize the situation in our home," the
Russian president said. His remarks were a reflection of the
irrelevance of Turkey and the OTS led by Erdogan at a critical
juncture of the Turkic world.

It also is a stark indicator of the changed fortunes of Turkey in its
assertive foreign policy. The Kazakhstan crisis represents a defeat of
Turkish nationalism on foreign policy.