Eurasian Union and Turkey

Turkish perception of the Eurasian Union has two parts. One is pan-Turkism; the other is the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States. Since Kazakhstan is a member of both the EAEU and the Turkic Council, could Turkey also join the EAEU? The EAEU is a promising organization that is gaining credibility on Turkey’s doorstep. 

A productive exchange of views on the Eurasian Union took place on the sidelines of the Valdai Club meeting held in Sochi on October 24-27, 2016. It was agreed to continue this exchange of views by correspondence after the participants returned home. This article is an attempt to contribute the Turkish view of this debate.

The idea launched by President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan in 1994 was to establish a Eurasian Union. There were repeated proposals for advanced integration to cover monetary, political, cultural and even a military union. However, the idea of restricting the proposal to economic integration prevailed and the name of the initiative has now become the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The Treaty between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus establishing the EAEU entered into force on January 1, 2015. The first expansion took place with the accession of Armenia and Kyrgyzstan on January 2 and August 6, 2015, respectively. The EAEU is now complete with supranational and intergovernmental bodies, the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council, the Eurasian Economic Commission and the Court of the EAEU.

Russian President Vladimir Putin set the rules for expanding the EAEU by confining it to the post-Soviet States, with the exclusion of three Baltic States that became members of the European Union (EU).

Should Turkey be interested in the Eurasian Union or in the specific institution that is now in place, the EAEU?

Of course it should, because the EAEU is a promising organization that is gaining credibility on Turkey’s doorstep. The project will contribute to the productivity of its member countries. It will open new opportunities for Turkey to trade with these countries and draw the economic benefits of it. Furthermore, many of the present and potential members of the EAEU are countries with whom Turkey already has close relations in many fields.

Whether Turkey can join the EAEU is another question. Turkey does not fit in the equation for several reasons. One of them is the criterion laid down by President Putin. There are also other reasons from the Turkish point of view. One of them is Turkish perception of the Eurasian Union; another is Turkey’s relations with the European Union.

Turkish perception of the Eurasian Union has two parts. One is pan-Turkism; the other is the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States, an intergovernmental organization, which has been in place for several years.

Pan Turkism

Pan-Turkism emerged as a political ideology in the 1880s when the Ottoman State was hit by a series of difficulties. The intellectuals stepped in to propose remedies to overcome these difficulties. One of the approaches was to reach out to the Turkic peoples beyond the borders of the Ottoman Empire. Ismail Gaspıralı, Yusuf Akçura and Ziya Gökalp were the first.

İsmail Gaspıralı (Ismail Gasprinskiy) was a Crimean Tatar, born in Gaspra in 1851. He was the forerunner of pan-Turkic ideology. His main goal was the promotion of education among the Turkic peoples. His motto was: “Unity in language, unity in thought, unity in labour.” He thought linguistic affinity was the first step in achieving this goal. He wrote in 1881:

"Our ignorance is the main reason for our backward condition. We have no access to what has been discovered and to what is going on in Europe. We must be able to read in order to overcome our isolation; we must learn European ideas from European sources. We must introduce into our primary and secondary schools subjects that will allow our students to have such access."

As this statement shows, his emphasis was on the promotion and refinement of the Turkish language and on bringing the pan-Turkic community under one umbrella. He tried to purify the Turkish language by discarding words of Arabic and Persian origin. His proposal was not originally a political ideology. However his ideas laid the foundations for the pan-Turkic ideology that was developed by his successors in later decades.

Yusuf Akçura is of Volga Tatar origin and was born in Ulyanovsk in 1876. In 1904, in Kazan, he published a book that is considered to be the first attempt to write the manifesto of pan-Turkism. He believed that the supraethnic and supraconfessional model of governance of the Ottoman State was not sustainable. He thought the Christians living in the Balkan territories were going to reclaim their independence sooner or later. The Ottoman Sultan was at the same time the Caliph (the successor to the prophet Mohammed). His role in the Islamic ummah was, at least theoretically, comparable to the role of the Pope in the Catholic world.

However it was not realistic to expect the Muslim population living under the colonial rule of various countries to acquiesce to the Ottomans. Therefore, the Turks could rely neither on their Muslim brethren in the Middle East and North Africa nor on their Christian fellow-countrymen in the Balkans. He thought that the most trustworthy partners would be the Turkic peoples of Eurasia. Therefore he proposed cultivating the Turkic peoples and developing a common ethnic identity with them. The Ottoman Empire should not have insisted on holding the Balkans and Eastern Europe. It should have turned to Eurasia.

Ziya Gökalp was a Turkish intellectual of Zaza-Kurdish origin, born in 1876 in Diyarbakır, southeastern Turkey. He rejected Ottomanism and Islamism and favoured, instead, a supranational Turkish identity. Pan-Turkism and Turanism became more popular through his publications. He regarded these concepts as a culture of nationalism and modernization. He promoted the idea of de-identification with Ottoman Turkey’s Middle Eastern Arab neighbors. He proposed, instead, to turn to a supranational pan-Turkic identity. In terms of geography this meant a turn to Eurasia.

The controversy on whether the Republic of Turkey should own or reject its Ottoman legacy is still the subject of lively debate today in Turkey. The same debate continues as well on whether Turkey should turn to the Muslim world or to the Western countries.

Pan-Turkism is owned today more by the nationalist movement in Turkey. They are organized as youth associations, think tanks and non-governmental organizations. They can move masses with nationalistic slogans. They are probably the strongest supporters of the Eurasian Union.

The adherents of pan-Turkism see the Eurasian Union as a means to fulfil their dream of re-uniting the Turkic world “from the Adriatic to the East China Sea.”

Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States

Partly inspired by persistent pan-Turkic tendencies in Turkey, partly as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Turkish government took an initiative in 1992 to bring the Turkic speaking countries under an umbrella of linguistic affinity.

At the outset, the goals were more ambitious, but they subsided as Turkey interacted with the Turkic speaking former Soviet republics. Turkey became aware that the degree of eagerness for a union of Turkic speaking countries varied widely from one Turkic speaking country to the other.

Turkey invited the heads of states of the Turkic speaking countries to hold a summit in Ankara in 1992. This was followed by other summits in Istanbul in 1994, Bishkek 1995, Tashkent 1996, Astana 1998, Baku 2000, Istanbul 2001, Antalya 2006, Nakhichivan 2009, and Istanbul again in 2010.

The idea of institutionalizing the initiative came up in the summits as early as 1996, but an institutional framework could not be realized because of Uzbekistan’s attending the summits at a lower level and Turkmenistan’s reservations on certain issues. An agreement was signed ultimately in 2009 for the establishment of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Summit, in short), with a Secretariat in Istanbul. The founding members were Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are not members of the Cooperation Council despite the fact they are also Turkic speaking countries.

Each Turkic Summit is held with a different main theme. The First Turkic Summit in Almaty in 2011 had the theme ‘Economic and Commercial Cooperation’; the second in Bishkek in 2012, ‘Educational and Scientific Cooperation’; the third in Gabala, Azerbaijan, in 2013, ‘Transport’; the fourth in Bodrum, Turkey in 2014, ‘Tourism’; the fifth in Kazakhstan in 2015, ‘Media and Information.’ The sixth summit, which was scheduled to be hosted by Kyrgyzstan in the fourth quarter of 2016, was postponed.

Since Kazakhstan is a member of both the EAEU and the Turkic Council, could Turkey also join the EAEU?

In addition to Turkey’s ineligibility for EAEU membership according to its expansion criteria, Turkey has another reason that should be considered. It is the customs union agreement between Turkey and the EU.

The Customs Union between Turkey and the European Union

In 1996, Turkey signed a Customs Union Agreement with the EU. It provided that the circulation of goods between Turkey and the EU countries would be free of customs duties. Turkey is the only country that has a customs union with the EU without being a full member. If we take into consideration that certain member countries joined the customs union long after they became full member, Turkey was more integrated into the EU economy than some full members.

Turkey’s trade volume with the EU increased fourfold since the Customs Union Agreement in 1996 took effect, now hitting EUR 140 billion a year. This volume corresponds to 45 to 50 percent of Turkey’s entire foreign trade. The European Commission decided on December 21, 2016 to ask for the European Council’s consent for a mandate to start talks with Turkey for the updating of the agreement. This update is expected to incorporate services and public procurements into the scope of the agreement.

In the original version, the Customs Union contained clauses that worked to the detriment of Turkey’s economic interests: The EU was signing Free Trade Area Agreements with third countries and the industrial goods of these countries used to enter the Turkish market through EU countries without paying customs duties while Turkish industrial goods were subject to customs duties when they were exported to these third countries. If this anomaly is eliminated entirely during the update, Turkey’s trade volume with the EU is expected to double to 300 billion Euros per year.

Apart from trade, two thirds of foreign direct investments in Turkey come from the EU.

The Customs Union should not be confused with Turkey’s accession process to the EU. Even if the accession process gets stuck at some point, the customs union will remain in force, because EU membership is not a precondition for the customs union.

Turkey cannot easily turn away from this advanced level of economic integration with the EU even if the expansion criteria of the EAEU were to be amended to open the way for Turkey to apply for the membership. A country cannot be a member of two customs unions at the same time. This would be in contradiction to the logic of the customs union.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Another potential area of cooperation between Turkey and the Eurasian countries is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It covers most of the geographic area covered by the EAEU. Turkey expressed interest in cooperating with or becoming part of the SCO. It is not yet clear what type of affiliation might be established between Turkey and the SCO. From Turkey’s standpoint, the SCO is not a substitute for its EU accession process, but if the EU accession process stalls, Turkey would have to look for alternatives.


Under the present circumstances Turkey may not fit into the EAEU. However Turkey and Russia have every reason to continue to consolidate their present strong economic ties. Turkey imports almost 60 percent of its natural gas from Russia. This over-dependence will reach new highs when the first unit of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, to be built by Russia, is completed in 2022. This is a sign of mutual trust. Economic interdependence contributes to political stability. Turkey will be dependent on Russian gas, and Russia will be dependent on the revenue from the sale of this gas.

Furthermore, even if Turkey does not fit the current criteria for EAEU affiliation, the international arena is in a constant state of flux. There are dynamic changes in the region where both Turkey and Russia are located. It is not easy to forecast what the power balance will be in the future and the relative role of the present players in this balance. The paradigms that determine the present power balance could evolve in such a way that Turkey and Russia would need each other’s support more than today. The fluctuations that Turkish-Russian relations have gone through in the recent years are indicative of this.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.