The Tengiz Riots: What is at the Heart of the Tension between Turks and Kazakhs?
Former Turkish President Turgut Ozal, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan
The riots between Kazakhs and Turks that took place in Tengiz a week ago last Friday have generated much discussion and interest around the world. Filipino authorities have expressed concern for their workers in Kazakhstan, and the Turkish embassy in Kazakhstan initially reacted to the event with a certain degree of outrage. Finally, Kazakh commentators have examined the event with an eye to what it says about their own country and its problems.
It is significant, however, that the event occurred between Kazakhs and Turks and that it is not the first such violence to erupt between the two groups in recent memory. The presence of such violence directed against Turks in Kazakhstan demonstrates the degree to which Turkey has fallen from grace in the region since the early 1990s.
In the early 1990s, under then president of Turkey Turgut Ozal, the Turkish presence in Kazakhstan was seen as a sign of friendship and common interest in a Turkic world that had suddenly expanded with the fall of the U.S.S.R. At that time, for example, the Turkish government sponsored a television station in Kazakhstan producing programs in Turkic languages after years of Russian linguistic dominance, and numerous other cultural exchange programs promoted the new found alliance between the two countries. While some people in Kazakhstan even in the early 1990s felt that Turks came to the region with too much arrogance, expecting to replace Russia as Central Asians’ “big brother,” Turkey was generally viewed positively and as a counterweight to dependence on Moscow. It was also at this time that the idea of the Baku-Tblisi-Cheyan pipeline first emerged.
With Ozal’s death, however, Turkey’s role in the region decreased. If Turkey began to show less political and cultural interest in Kazakhstan, it continued to be active economically. As a result, Kazakhs became increasingly cynical of their “Turkic brothers,” feeling as if they had only been interested in economic gains from the start. Furthermore, Turks in Kazakhstan (like many foreigner businessmen) generally behaved arrogantly towards local employees and local citizens throughout the 1990s.
Today, the situation is quickly changing as Kazakhstan’s economy continues to grow. Kazakhstanis now find it difficult to view the Turks as more advanced “big brothers” who deserve higher wages than local workers. Furthermore, many Kazakhs perceive of the Turks’ position in their country as facilitated by the United States. A recent article from a Kazakhstani website suggests, for example, that Turkey’s economic successes in Kazakhstan would not have been as significant “if not for the active lobbying and support of America.” While this may be an overstatement, the fact remains that many Kazakhs see the BTC pipeline, Turkey, and the United States as one united foreign interest that is in economic and political competition with Russia in their country. In this context, what could represent Kazakhs’ distrust of the BTC, Turkey, and the U.S. better than a riot against Turkish managers at a construction site in Tengiz?
Interestingly, this all comes at a time when Turkey is once again expressing increased political interest in Kazakhstan and Central Asia as a whole. It has been said that Turkey’s present prime minister Tayyip Erdogan is displaying an interest in Central Asia not seen since Ozal’s death. Furthermore, Erdogan’s interest in the region is viewed suspiciously by Moscow, especially given the threat that Russia sees in the establishment of the BTC pipeline. Such a trend also serves the interests of Kazakhstan in ensuring its independence from Russia and China, between which it is sandwiched. With Kazakhstan’s participation in the BTC pipeline and its recent announcement that it will adopt a Latin alphabet in favor of Cyrillic, it would seem that the leadership of Kazakhstan understands those advantages.
The question remains, however, if this most recent event could significantly detract from the trend of Turkey’s increased involvement in Kazakhstan. A “youtube” video of a Turkish television report (below) shows the drama with which the event is being portrayed to the Turkish public, while the comments by Turks and Kazakhs alike to the video show how much animosity has been built up on both sides.
In general, it would seem that the Tengiz riots should be seen as a warning sign to Turkey that it cannot take its relationship with Kazakhstan and the Kazakhs for granted. Interestingly, at least one recent editorial in the Turkish newspaper Zaman reflects an empathetic understanding of the animosity with which Kazakhs have begun to view the Turks. Turkey will need to reflect on this more if the country is to retain its favored economic status with Kazakhstan. More specifically, Turkey likely needs to reconsider its role as “big brother” in the Turkic world and engage countries like Kazakhstan as equals.