Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turkey Holds out Olive Branch

Turkish-Uzbek relations have been frosty ever since Tashkent accused Ankara of sheltering suspected terrorists
By IWPR Central Asia

Turkey is making concerted efforts to smooth relations with Uzbekistan which were strained to breaking point in the aftermath of the 1999 Tashkent bombings.

This spring will see a series of top-level meetings between the two countries in a bid to re-establish trade links and rebuild mutual trust.

But some analysts suspect that Turkey's change of heart has been prompted by shrewd economic calculations and "imperialistic ambitions" rather than a spontaneous outburst of good will.

Turkey was the first state to recognise Uzbekistan's independence in 1991 and was the first port of call for Islam Karimov after his presidential election victory.

During his official visit to Ankara, Karimov announced that he would be basing forthcoming reforms in Uzbekistan on the Turkish economic model.

However, in this endeavour, the Uzbek president encountered severe opposition from nationalist groups who were concerned that Turkey would simply replace Russia as Uzbekistan's "big brother".

But nevertheless economic relations flourished between the two countries and, during the ambitious development programme of the early 1990s, all the most lucrative construction contracts were given to Turkish companies. Education also became an area of close collaboration. Between 1992 and 1993, six state-run Turkish lycees were opened in Uzbekistan, followed by 22 private schools. At the same time, more than 2,000 Uzbek students went to study in Turkey.

All this changed in February 1999 when five explosions rocked the Uzbek capital, claiming 16 lives. Police investigators claimed that the terrorists had planned the bombings from a secret base in Turkey where they had subsequently taken refuge.

Turkish police later arrested two men, Zainutdin Askarov and Rustam Mamatkulov, who were both on the Uzbek government's wanted list. But the authorities in Ankara dragged their feet over extraditing the suspects, claiming their hands were tied by international agreements.

The men were not handed over to the Uzbeks until May that year when they became the first of 22 suspects to stand trial in Tashkent in connection with the attacks.

Uzbekistan was swift to retaliate. A number of Turkish businesses were shut down and subjected to rigorous tax inspections. A Turkish supermarket in Tashkent's Mir shopping centre remained closed for two months.

Then the authorities turned their attention to the Turkish lycees. All six state institutions were closed by the education ministry in June 1999 and, by 2000, there were no Turkish schools left in Uzbekistan.

Officially, the Uzbek government said the lycees failed to meet national education standards but privately ministers suspected the schools of spreading extremist religious teachings.

Meanwhile, there was a sharp fall in trade between Turkey and Uzbekistan. According to the Turkish embassy in Tashkent, the overall volume of trade plummeted from $300 million in 1997 to $100 million in 2000.

At the end of last year, however, Turkey began to make conciliatory gestures. The government in Ankara announced plans to support Tashkent's ongoing struggle against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan by donating military and technical supplies. The first consignment - consisting mainly of uniforms and flak jackets - was delivered last autumn.

Furthermore, the Turkish authorities have pledged that anyone who poses a threat to the security of the Uzbek state will be refused entry into the country. And they have emphatically denied claims that Muhammad Salikh, leader of the Erk party and an opposition figurehead, is currently residing in Turkey.

The Turks seem confident that relations are on the mend. Their ambassador to Tashkent, Resit Uman, commented, "There are currently no political problems between Uzbekistan and Turkey."

He went on to say that trade was showing signs of picking up and, in the first two months of this year, Turkish companies had invested $120 million in the Uzbek economy.

In addition, plans were afoot to build a $30-million electronics factory in Angren, 100km from Tashkent, as well as a chain of hotels in Samarkand and Bukhara.

In April, Uzbek and Turkish government commissions will attend a landmark congress to examine ways of boosting trade between the two countries.

And later in the month, President Karimov will take part in a summit bringing together leaders from across the Turkic-speaking world.

However, some Uzbek analysts view the thaw in Uzbek-Turkish relations with caution. They say that, as the most developed of the Turkic-speaking countries, Turkey still harbours "imperialistic ambitions" and is eager to increase its influence over Central Asian politics.

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR's project editor in Tashkent