Turkey's relations with Central Asian states are perhaps at the lowest point since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The diplomatic downturn has occurred during a domestic political transition, in which the charismatic Suleyman Demirel has been succeeded as president by the more reserved Ahmet Necdet Sezer. This has prompted some speculation within Turkey and abroad that the two developments are inter-connected.
Sezer is a relative political unknown, who prior to becoming Turkey's 10th president in May served as the chief judge of the country's Constitutional Court. Demirel, Turkey's longtime president, had close personal ties to many Central Asian leaders, and he used those connections effectively to promote Turkey's trade and political interests. Sezer, on the other hand, has a reputation as a reform-minded jurist with little foreign policy experience.
In recent months, Turkish diplomatic efforts in the region have lagged. In particular, negotiations with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan on the construction of oil and gas pipelines that would pump Caspian oil to facilities on the Turkish coast have stalled. The delays have stirred concern in Ankara that Turkey is being outmaneuvered by Russia in the great pipeline game.
Turkish diplomats downplay any connection between Demirel's departure from office and the country's diplomatic difficulties.
"We do not believe that Turkish foreign policy is dependent on individuals. Of course people give a certain color or tone to bilateral ties. But our basic policies regarding Central Asia have remained the same. We believe Central Asian states should be able to foster their independence, continue with economic and democratic reforms and take their rightful place in the international community," a senior Turkish diplomat said.
Nevertheless, it was Demirel who played a pivotal role in launching the Transcaspian pipeline venture. Last November in Istanbul, a major hurdle was cleared when U.S. President Bill Clinton and the leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkey celebrated the signing of an agreement for a 1,080-mile (1,740-kilometer) pipeline from Baku to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. But since then, disagreements among Caspian states and major oil companies as well as various financing problems have raised doubts about whether the project will ever be completed.
Of the eight republics that comprise Central Asia and the Caucasus, three are Turkey's immediate neighbors, and five have common ethnic origins with Turks These close geographic and cultural ties have so far provided an advantage to Turkey's economic and political initiatives in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
A reflection of the region's importance in Turkey's diplomatic and economic calculus was the fact that Sezer's first trip abroad as head of state was to Azerbaijan. Discussions with Azerbaijani leaders during the July visit focused on resolving obstacles to Baku-Ceyhan pipeline construction.
Sezer's trip to Azerbaijan coincided with a heated public debate in Turkey on the possibility of "losing Central Asia." Many diplomats and observers feel that Russia, since the election of President Vladimir Putin, has seized the diplomatic initiative.
The Russian leader made a high-profile trip to Central Asia in May, visiting Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Since then, relations between the Kremlin and Ashgabat and Tashkent have improved. Simultaneously, Ankara's relations with those Central Asian states have deteriorated.
Putin's visit appeared to confirm Turkish concerns about the future of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. When Putin was in Ashgabat, he signed a deal in which Turkmenistan pledged to ship a considerable amount of its gas via existing pipeline routes through Russia. Tensions in relations between Turkmenistan and the United States have injected an additional element of anxiety into pipeline construction aspirations.
The sudden turn of events in Central Asia, in addition to Moscow's brutal campaign against Chechen separatists, has prompted Turkish warnings about the Kremlin's intentions.
During a visit to Washington last October, Turkey's former deputy chief of staff General Cevik Bir accused Putin of "pursuing Soviet style near-abroad policy."
Meanwhile, Devlet Bahceli, Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) suggested that that Russia was destabilizing Central Asia and the Caucasus in order to gain geopolitical advantages.
"It is not possible to maintain peace and cooperation with the expansionist policies and intentions which can be viewed as an effort to revive the spirit of the Soviet Union," Bahceli said in a rare foreign policy speech in the parliament in May.
The best gauge of Turkey's standing in the region centers on the outcome of its negotiations for the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. The $2.4 billion pipeline aims to move 45 million tons of oil per year (approximately 1.1 million barrels a day) to the world markets starting in 2004. Some analysts believe that for the pipeline to become a reality, a financing plan should be in place before the end of the year.
Oil companies and governments are expected to start negotiating the financing plan in the coming weeks. But observers say there are significant differences that must be resolved before a finance framework can be finalized. The prospects seem bleak, but Turkish officials are trying to remain positive.
"Sure some people might think there have been setbacks. But we believe things are moving on time," noted a Turkish official.