By Dénes Jäger
In Turkish media the result of the Mongolian presidential elections didn’t really attract much attention. Most outlets only published a footnote, while some, interestingly, depicted Battulga as being a candidate close to Vladimir Putin. Naturally, Turkey currently has other problems in front of its doorstep than reviewing its foreign relations with Mongolia. However, with a President and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs alienating their Western allies with thriving conspiracy theories and open hostility, the importance of peripheral friends might increase. Just a week ago President Erdoğan targeted Germany and the US at a rally commemorating last year’s attempted coup, underlining that he couldn’t care less what “Hans and George” want, but would listen to what Mehmet, Hasan and Ayşe had to say. Yet again the name Battulga was missing on this list – enough reason to review Turkey’s relations with Mongolia.
Soft-Power in Turkey’s foreign policy
The 2004 establishment of an office of Turkey’s Cooperation and Coordination Agency – TIKA in Ulaanbaatar was a milestone of the Turkish-Mongolian relations. Since then, projects in the fields of education, health, culture and technology with total volume of more than $20mio have been promoted. In 2015 about 1000 Mongolian students received scholarships for studying in Turkey. Likewise, TIKA encouraged the introduction of Turkish language courses to Mongolian universities. With the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) coming into power in 2002, development aid has been a substantial part of Turkey’s foreign policy. Now Turkey is counted as one of the main donor-countries worldwide, underlining its new-found confidence to be a leading actor on the global stage. This soft-power approach is most visible in states of the MENA-countries and Sub-Saharan Africa, where Turkey aims to establish an embassy in every capital.
From Neo-Ottomanism to Pan-Turkism
Turkey’s ambitions are reflected in the rhetoric toward its foreign partners. Especially in the last years, Neo-Ottoman motives have come up in speeches, as the muslim-majority countries in the former Ottoman-Empire are Turkey’s main target group. To please the ultra-nationalist electorate in Turkey, which the President needed to adopt the new constitution, elements of Pan-Turkism are also being hinted at when dealing with Caucasian and Central-Asian countries. (A quite vivid example was a ceremony held in 2015, were Erdoğan welcomed his guest with guards dressed in armors of the 16 Turkic states). Recent examples are the Turkmens in its neighboring countries or the Uyghurs in China, where the government is depicting itself as protecting power for all Turkic people. Somehow in this diffuse Turanist or Pan-Turkic ideology Mongols are often counted in that enumeration. Despite being neither a country with a Muslim majority, nor with a Turkic language, Mongolia’s steppe is considered to be the mythic homeland of all Turkic tribes. In a publication about TIKA’s work in Mongolia its director Dr. Serdar Çam refers to the Old-Turkic Orkhon inscriptions found in Mongolia and calls the relationship between the two countries almost brotherly.
Mongolia as new market
From an economic point of view Turkey is looking east, too. Especially since the economic boom following the financial crisis of 2008, Turkish companies want to expand to new emerging markets. In 2015 the trade volume between the two countries surpassed the $40mio threshold and Turkish officials have repeatedly underlined their ambitions to boost this number through an advanced partnership in the next years. In particular, Turkey’s expanding construction and energy firms seek new opportunities for investment in the area. Comparing the trade volume to Turkey’s total exports, however, economic relations are not a main factor in the two countries’ ties.
Not a model neighbor
Let’s come back to the opportunity of having a fresh start with newly elected president Battulga.
Right now the idea of Turkey becoming a desired Third Neighbour seems a bit far-stretched. Even though the two countries maintain good relations, Turkey’s lost too much credit in the international community in the last years. Ever since the attempted coup last year it is more and more difficult to distinguish Turkey from autocracies in the region. In its foreign policy Ankara even surpassed some contenders with erratic decision-making and the alienation of many former friends. Being already geographically stuck between Russia and China, Mongolia has nothing to gain from a Turkey leering at Moscow and Beijing. For Turkey, however, keeping up the prevailing level of relations might be desirable. Firstly, Mongolia fits the propaganda of the ruling party AKP and secondly, right now Turkey might be happy with any ally it has not alienated yet.
About the Author
Dénes Jäger (firstname.lastname@example.org) is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at the Central Asia Seminar at Humboldt University in Berlin. Having studied and worked in Turkey and Kyrgyzstan, he focuses on Turkish-Central Asian relations in his research and journalistic work.