Erdoğan’s visit has reminded all of us that Uzbekistan’s importance for Turkey goes beyond mere economic cooperation but is based on strong inner ties that date back to ancient history in the Central Asia region
Along with Samarkand, the Uzbek city of Bukhara is known globally as the Central Asian center of Islamic thought and scholarship, famous for its scholars, mathematicians and philosophers of the past and many architectural delights.
These two 2,500-year-old settlements have been commercial hubs since the time of the Silk Road. They remain economically active, historically attractive and spiritually enlightening for millions of visitors every year.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as a part of his five-day official tour to Uzbekistan and South Korea, undertook major cooperation agreements with both countries. Twenty-four agreements were signed with Uzbekistan, with a special focus on economic cooperation and development. Investment deals were negotiated among various officials in South Korea. Discussions centered on possible South Korean investments into major infrastructure projects in Turkey.
During this very intensive and important tour, Erdoğan took care to make a stopover at Bukhara, for both intellectual and spiritual nourishment.
Uzbekistan’s importance for Turkey, I believe, goes beyond economic and trade relations. These ties are strong because they date back to ancient history and weak at the same time because they are influenced by recent past. Emotions, politics and geopolitical fluctuations all influence the state of ties. They were also neglected, due to apathy, despite intense linguistic, cultural and religious interconnectedness. This was yesterday.
Today, things are very different. The shared societal DNA prevented the two nations from drifting too far apart. Wars, Iron Curtains, ideological chasms and even self-denials may attempt to create a gulf, but the force that pulls these two societies to each other is obviously too strong to overcome.
Erdoğan, speaking to us journalists before embarking on the South Korean leg of the tour, talked about his feeling of anticipation over visiting Bukhara again. He had once visited the famed city but now wanted to revisit it as the president of his country. He became the first Turkish president to do so since former President Turgut Özal’s trip in April 1993. He said that in his personal opinion, Bukhara should be seen by Turkish citizens as a “homeland” and should be visited regularly.
Özal’s visit was part of a grand tour of the former Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union. He prayed at the tomb of Sheikh Bahauddin Naqshband, the founder of one of the largest Sufi orders, the Naqshbandi, which is influential across Turkey and Central Asia. It is reported that Özal at the time donated some funds for the refurbishment of the tomb, which was in a very bad shape. Older journalists and some senior officials still recounted Özal’s 1993 visit while we were offered some mulberries in the courtyard.
Özal’s grand tour of the former Soviet republics was an early and visionary step for reacquainting both nations. However, it took awhile for economy officials and politicians to see and realize this vision. Turkish businessman continued to invest in energy-rich countries like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, but relations were mainly limited to the economic field and for most, Central Asia remained the forgotten homeland.
There is still a long way to be walked, but luckily this time, beyond the enthusiasm and the rhetoric of realizing a pan-Turanian ideal, all sides are well aware of their shortcomings and relations nowadays stand on a more realistic perspective.
Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s visit last October was the first visit to Turkey by an Uzbek president in 20 years. In a joint meeting, Erdoğan announced the inauguration of normal scheduled flights between Istanbul and Samarkand to begin only this March, which makes it clear that relations are not as good as they are being portrayed as.
Turkey’s foreign policy seems to work through temporary disruptions. The reunion or self-recognition is a recent phenomenon in Turkish foreign policy, which goes much deeper than the simplistic “our Turkish/Muslim brothers and sisters” rhetoric.
Turkish leaders like Özal or Erdoğan with visionary perspectives toward the world undertake historic initiatives, or at least try to think outside the box, only to be undermined by self-serving bureaucrats and narrow-minded politicians back home. Sometimes, these visions are embraced too enthusiastically, without any intellectual or spiritual basis, only feeding empty daily nationalistic rhetoric which helps widening the gap. Now, we are at least in between.