The ideologies of neo-Ottomanism and neo-Pan Turkism, which are imported to Turkey, are undermining it. 

Ankara may no longer be the leader of the pan-Turkic space. The words of Kemal Ataturk, the ideologist of secular Turkey (a nation-state within the “Anatolian” borders), perhaps now sound true: “We must retreat now to save Turkey for future revival and attack”.

Turkey’s active participation in the Karabakh war victorious for Azerbaijan has dramatically increased the interest of experts and publicists in Ankara’s foreign policy doctrines, which they label with two terms: neo-Ottomanism and neopanturkism. They are often put in the same information row, separated by commas, for obvious reasons. 

Proponents of each of the two ideologies strive for the same thing – the creation of a “Great Turkey”, and some argue that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in practice implementing a policy of synthesis of these two directions. His wars in Iraq, Syria and Libya and attempts to start a military conflict with Greece are considered as a manifestation of neo-Ottomanism, restoring Ankara’s influence within the borders of the former Ottoman Empire.

The 1974 military action of Cyprus, like its involvement in the recent Karabakh war, are qualified as a result of the successful use of the doctrine of neo-Panturkism. Ankara is also looking at Iran, which is home to around 20 million ethnic Azeris.

At the same time, the term “one nation, two states”, introduced by Heydar Aliyev, is actively used in Azerbaijan as a potential geopolitical project to create a common Turkic state in the form of a federation or confederation. It has been supposed that Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and even Afghanistan could join such an alliance in the future. “Turkey is spreading its wings,” recently said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who, however does not believe in the possibility of so-called “Great Turan,” believing that Turkic countries in the post-Soviet space are now primarily concerned with strengthening their national statehood. Nevertheless, Turkey’s hybrid foreign policy needs to be analysed more thoroughly. We will not go into detail, but will simply outline the main trends that have emerged to date, including in the conceptual apparatus widely used by experts.

First about the term neo-Ottomanism. It appeared in 1974 in the Greek media after the Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus and was long forgotten. It was revived in the phenomenon of the so-called Arab Spring, when Ankara was persuaded that it had a historic chance to realise its neo-Ottoman ambitions and to shape a new order in the Middle East. The attempt was unsuccessful and Turkey was “suddenly stuck in the Syrian crisis”, causing much criticism from the Arab world. Moreover, Ankara failed, or rather, turned out to be not ready to create an ideological basis for the formation of a new Ottoman mentality and the development of a supra-Turkish identity, to make its imperial traditions and ambitions attractive to the peoples of the region. Erdoğan’s bias towards Islamism led him to sacrifice his relations with the West, to abandon the Kemalist model, combining elements of a democratic and secular state and moderate Islam, and failed to create a new one.

In this situation, Ankara was forced to promote its national interests in the Middle East and North Africa, relying mainly on the military factor. It is no coincidence that many Turkish and American experts now claim that the neo-Ottomanism doctrine was developed not in Turkey, but in US analytical centres and was introduced into Turkish foreign policy from there. Former Turkish Foreign Minister and ex-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu doesn’t hide the fact that the doctrinal basis and the term neo-Ottomanism in general originated in the United States, and his vision of Turkey’s future is partly based on some thesis of American geopolitician George Friedman.

Now about neo-Pan Turkism. Archival materials uncovered in recent years in many countries around the world, including Russia, but not in Turkey, have allowed researchers to argue that Pan-Turkism – as a concept – was not developed within the Ottoman Empire and was aimed at its collapse. This concept originated more than a century ago, one of the first proponents of the idea was the Hungarian orientalist Arminius Vamberi, who also adhered to the hypothesis of a Turkic origin of the Hungarian language. In the most general sense Pan-Turkism is an ideological, political and cultural movement aimed at achieving a greater degree of unity among all Turkic peoples, even to the extent of creating a confederation of Turkic states or even a Turkic federation based on the national, rather than religious identity of the Turks. The Russian Empire also had its role in this process. We can recall the Crimean Tatar Ismail Gasprinski, the activities of the Kazan Tatar Yusuf Akchuru, and the Azerbaijani Ali Hussein-zade. In the end, when the ideology of pan-Turkism was adopted by the Young Turk Party of Unity and Progress which came to power in Turkey in 1908, it became clear that the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Ottoman Empire was in for a huge upheaval, which happened when they adopted a policy of creating a unitary mono-ethnic Turkic state.

After Turkism became the ideological basis of the domestic policy of the first stage of the development of the Republic of Turkey, the process of assimilation of non-Turkic peoples was underway. To return to the present day, the renaissance of pan-Turkic ideas in Turkey brought the Kurdish issue forward and neo-Ottomanism gave it a new geopolitical sounding in the Middle East. Another battle for the Ottoman heritage had started, at a time when Turkey’s European ambitions had also failed. In such a complex geopolitical situation Ankara should have a well thought out foreign policy doctrine, which would help to preserve the territorial integrity of the country. The latter implies prudent decision making in both domestic and foreign policies. Turkey should by no means take an imperialist stance. The ideas of neo-Pan Turkism can be exploited by external players, for whom they have serious potential, and not only ideological. Pan-Turkism can be used as a convenient platform for implementing plans in the Middle East.

Hence the main conclusions. First, the theory of Ottoman revival is untenable, as it seriously affects the interests of neighbouring countries, on the one hand, and Turkey itself lacks the resources for wide expansion on the other hand. Second: the ideologies of neo-Ottomanism and neo-Pan Turkism, which are imported to Turkey, are undermining it. 

Ankara may no longer be the leader of the pan-Turkic space. The words of Kemal Ataturk, the ideologist of secular Turkey (a nation-state within the “Anatolian” borders), perhaps now sound true: “We must retreat now to save Turkey for future revival and attack”.

Iran, whose geopolitical interests overlap with those of Turkey, is about to emerge from international isolation, which will significantly complicate Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman and neo-Panturkist plans and weaken Turkey’s geopolitical importance in the Middle East. The new big game in the region is about to begin.

Stanislav Tarasov