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Is Turkey on course of foreign policy shift with pan-Turkist flavor?

Ankara appears to be mulling a US-friendly foreign policy revision to counter Iran and Russia in the Caucasus and Black Sea regions, but such a shift will not be without geopolitical risks elsewhere.

In a rather unusual post on its website last week, Turkey’s Defense Ministry published footage and pictures from a meeting the country’s defense and foreign ministers had with representatives of two Turkic minorities — the Ahiska Turks and the Gagauzes — during their visit to Ukraine. Holding meetings with Turkic minorities abroad and publicizing them is hardly commonplace for Turkish defense ministers, as long-time Ankara watchers would know. Such contacts have been the duty primarily of the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities, a branch of the Culture and Tourism Ministry, within the scope of soft power projection rather than defense and security.

Ankara’s interest in its ethnic kin abroad has markedly perked since the flare-up of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in late September. Turkey’s military assistance to Azerbaijan, with which it has close political and ethnic bonds, helped the Azeri army reclaim some of the territories that Armenian forces had occupied since the early 1990s. In Turkey, the six-week war shifted public attention to the South Caucasus from the Middle East, where Turkish military operations in Syria and Libya had dominated the country’s foreign agenda in the past several years. 

The state-owned and pro-government media, in particular, have hailed the Russian-brokered cease-fire deal as a victory for both Azerbaijan and Turkey. A joint Turkish-Russian center to monitor the truce has been portrayed as “the return of Turkish soldiers to Azerbaijan after 102 years” and the planned reopening of transport routes in the region as Turkey’s gain of a strategic gateway to the Turkic republics of Central Asia. 

On Dec. 10, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended a celebratory military parade in Baku, where his speech included verses by a nationalist Azeri poet that sparked a diplomatic row with Iran. For some Turkish observers, Erdogan’s speech resonated as the signal of a shift in Ankara’s foreign policy

Though the controversial verses belonged to anonymous folklore, they had inspired a 1960 poem lamenting Azerbaijan’s 19th-century partition between Iran and Russia by Azeri poet Bahtiyar Vahapzade, an ardent supporter of the pan-Turkism movement, which advocates the cultural and political unification of all Turkic peoples in the world. Vahapzade was stigmatized as a “nationalist” over the poem and expelled from his post as a university professor in what was then the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

The row with Tehran abated, as Ankara seemed to have misunderstood the poem as a reference to the Armenian occupation of Azeri lands. Still, Erdogan’s emphasis on stronger bonds with Azerbaijan reinforced anticipation that the focus of his foreign policy will increasingly shift from the Arab world to the Caucasus, the Black Sea and Caspian basins, and Central Asia. Efforts to invigorate ties including military and security cooperation with the Central Asian Turkic republics — which Ankara has neglected for some time — should not come as a surprise.

Dictating the shift is the realpolitik of both foreign and domestic politics. In the regional context, Erdogan’s government has ended up with no real allies in the Middle East and North Africa except Qatar, despite its claim at leadership in the Muslim world. At home, the declining political fortunes of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) have made it a hostage of its ally, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which promotes Turkish nationalism and stronger ties with Azerbaijan and the rest of the Turkic world. To preserve his strong grip on power, Erdogan needs to sustain the alliance, so he is unlikely to object to his voter base becoming more nationalist amid a pan-Turkist orientation in foreign policy and growing populist, far-right and nationalist sentiments in domestic politics. The AKP and the MHP have sought to woo the Good Party, another nationalist outfit, to their alliance, which is another dynamic nourishing the pan-Turkist twist in foreign policy.

Whether this new inclination is a transient or lasting one is hard to gauge, given the fast U-turns in Erdogan’s foreign policy record. Still, judging by the writings of scholars close to the government, Ankara appears on course to enter the new year with a pan-Turkist perspective at the expense of angering Moscow and Tehran. 

According to Burhanettin Duran, the head of a pro-government think tank, Tehran is “deeply unhappy” with Ankara’s growing regional influence and worried about the prospect of shifting allegiances in the region after the change of guard in Washington. “In this new chapter, the great game between regional powers will involve Turkey, Iran and Israel — with the former having the upper hand. The Iranian elite must now put aside their nationalistic pride and exaggerated hopes, and focus on the region's new geopolitics,” Duran wrote in a Dec. 17 article in the Daily Sabah. 

Seemingly, Ankara’s preparations for a Joe Biden White House involve plans for a foreign policy readjustment with a pan-Turkist flavor that would aim to isolate Iran and contain Russia in the Black Sea and Caucasus regions with Israel’s support. Such objectives, Ankara seems to believe, will strike a chord with the Biden administration, which assumes office Jan. 20.

Yet such a shift would come with the increased risk of a geopolitical disconnect between Turkey’s postures to the north and the south. To counterbalance Russia and isolate Iran to the north, that is the Black Sea and the Caucasus, Turkey would need to lean on the Western security bloc, get NATO involved, improve ties with Ukraine and Israel and, most importantly, reset ties with Washington under the Biden administration.

To the south, however, Turkey needs continued Russian and Iranian cooperation to counterbalance the United States and Europe in the Syrian conflict and the energy rivalry in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Such a geopolitical disconnect poses a tough dilemma that will inevitably strain and test Ankara’s capabilities next year.

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