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Old Clash of Empires Still Echoes

Russia and Turkey, rivals for centuries, try to ease ancient tensions with new cooperation

THE cannons still jut out of the battlements of Bastion Four, overlooking the deep ravine below and the glittering waters of Sevastopol's southern bay beyond. The nearby monument bears testament to the Russian defenders in one of the bloodiest battles of the Crimean War in 1855. It is inscribed with a famous saying of the Russian warrior-hero Alexander Nevsky: ``He who comes to this land with the sword will die by the sword.''

For the thousands of Russians who visit these monuments annually, the Crimean War - fought against the combined armies of Turkey, Britain, France, and Sardinia - is a painful memory of defeat: of Russian retreat and Turkish advance in the battle for sway over the Black Sea.

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But this fierce struggle was only one moment in a centuries-long series of wars fought between two great empires - the Ottoman Turk and the Russian - for control of a swath of land and peoples stretching from the Balkans in the west to the deserts and mountains of Central Asia in the east (see the time line below and on Pages 10 and 11). Along this geopolitical fault line, the Muslim world and Eastern Christendom met and clashed.

The Ottoman Empire is long gone. And the Russian Empire has collapsed under the weight of the decayed Soviet Communist state. Now modern Turkey and post-imperial Russia must grapple with the consequences of the end of the old order. They must find new forms of cooperation to avoid a renewed clash of civilizations. But to do so, both Russians and Turks must overcome a historical legacy of mistrust and competing messianic myths.

``Historical memory is one of the most decisive things in modern history, particularly in this part of the world,'' says Vitaly Naumkin, deputy director of Moscow's Institute of Oriental Studies. ``Most of the wars Russia fought were with Turkey,'' he says. ``Turkey was a permanent enemy of Russian domination in the Caucasus, the Black Sea basin, and in the steppes.''

The collapse of the Soviet Union has stripped away much of the empire Russia won in those wars. Crimea is now part of independent Ukraine. The Caucasus is divided among the Christian nations of Georgia and Armenia, and Muslim Azerbaijan. Across the Caspian Sea are the new independent nations of Central Asia - Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Many Russians have watched with concern as Turkey and neighboring Iran have rushed to embrace the new Muslim states, reopening borders and reestablishing links broken for decades or even centuries. They fear a march of Islam to the north, penetrating even into Russia itself, where Turkic minorities in areas such as the North Caucasus and the Volga Basin embrace separatist ideas.

Russian border guards still patrol much of the old Soviet frontier. In Tajikistan, they battle Islamic guerrillas, who are aided by Afghan brethren. Russian Defense Minister Gen. Pavel Grachev, in a July meeting with the visiting Spanish defense minister, said the troops are there ``to block the spread of militant Islamism from Tajikistan to other Central Asian republics and toward Russian borders.''

President Boris Yeltsin used familiar imperial rhetoric in explaining why Russian soldiers are dying on what is now supposedly foreign soil. In a rare burst of candor after 25 border guards were killed in a July attack by Afghan troops, Mr. Yeltsin referred to the Afghan-Tajik frontier as ``effectively Russia's, not Tajikistan's, border.''

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Russian feelings were perhaps even more revealed in the warning that Vice Premier Alexander Shokhin delivered July 13 to the former Central Asian republics that are still loosely tied to Russia in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) but are exploring regional cooperation with Turkey, Iran, and other Islamic countries.

``Our friends from the CIS who, looking for better fortunes, are turning to the south, should choose between closer economic integration with Russia and with their southern neighbors,'' Mr. Shokhin said. He claimed that the decision July 10 by the three Slavic former Soviet republics - Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian Federation - to form a close economic union had been prompted in part by a gathering a few days earlier in Istanbul. That meeting was the second summit meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), which expanded a semi-moribund regional association of Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan to include Afghanistan and the six Muslim former Soviet republics.

ECO's goals are somewhat modest, looking to ease trade barriers and promote cooperation in areas such as agriculture, communications, banking, culture, and transportation. At the meeting held in Istanbul July 6 and 7, the ECO members agreed to form a joint investment bank, insurance company, and transport companies.

To the dismay of some ECO participants, Shokhin characterized this as an attempt to organize a ``common market,'' with a customs union, visa-free travel, and the beginning of a ``different political alignment.'' The Central Asian states cannot be members of two such unions, he said.

Shokhin singled out for particular pressure Kazakhstan, whose vast territory is rich in raw materials, including oil. Kazakhstan is particularly vulnerable to Russian pressure because of an ethnic mix in which Russians make up 40 percent of the population. Most of them are concentrated in the northern half of the country, whose mining and heavy industries are tightly integrated with the Russian industrial centers across the border.

``Kazakhstan must, if not accede, then at least take part in economic cooperation with Russia,'' Shokhin said. ``One has to bear in mind that the northern parts of Kazakhstan are mostly Russian-speaking.... Naturally we are concerned about the Russian-speaking population outside Russia.''

Such crude hints remind Kazakh officials of Russian nationalist demands that these lands be separated from Kazakhstan and attached to Russia. This idea was present in a controversial 1990 tract on ``Rebuilding Russia'' issued by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author and Russian nationalist. ``As for Kazakhstan, its present huge territory was stitched together by the Communists in a completely haphazard fashion,'' Mr. Solzhenitsyn wrote.

Solzhenitsyn says the three Slavic republics should be unified in one nation, while it is in Russia's interest to rid itself of the imperial burden of the other 12 republics. This idea is popular among those who seek to assert Russia's own identity as a Slavic and Orthodox Christian state.

Volkan Voral was until last year Turkey's ambassador to Moscow, where he was an advocate of friendly Turkish-Russian ties. Sitting in Ankara in his new post as senior adviser to newly elected Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, Mr. Voral found the remarks of Shokhin particularly surprising.

``In Russia, there is debate and there is some suspicion as to the intentions of the former Soviet republics,'' Voral began.

``First, they have to accept the fact that these republics are becoming independent. Independence does not necessarily mean hostility to Russia. We do not want to see a confrontation between Russia and the Central Asian republics. We also do not want that Russia or any other country should dictate terms to them and give them stark choices,'' he says.

Recent conversations with a wide range of Turkish government officials, experts on the former Soviet Union, and politicians reveal that the dominant view of Russia is clouded with worries about a revival of Russian imperialism. Voral is perhaps a lone voice, at senior levels, in not sharing this view.

``Personally I don't see a big threat there,'' he told the Monitor. ``Because Russia today still has a lot of things on its agenda. Russia suffered from expansionism. It exhausted itself from expansion. I believe they will be intelligent enough not to travel the same path.''

But most Turks share the views expressed by Alparslan Turkes, the leader of the Nationalist Action Party, a small but influential voice of Turkish nationalism.

``When I look at events in Russia and the other republics which were under Soviet imperialism, I find the Russians trying to establish their old czarist imperialism in these countries again,'' Mr. Turkes told the Monitor. ``I told many Russians that you have to change your attitude and your relations with those nations which were under your dominance.... You have to accept equality and respect toward other nations and people.''

Turkes, his silver hair swept back from his high forehead, is the grand old man of Pan-Turkism, the dream of uniting all the Turkic peoples of Asia. Many Russians would find grounds for their mistrust of Turkish ambitions in a map displayed on his party's official calender. Complete with flags, it shows a continuous band of Turkic-populated territories from Istanbul to Yakutia in Russian Siberia, many of them still parts of the Russian Federation.

THE map reflects many Turks' excitement in rediscovering a common linguistic and cultural heritage that links the Turks of Anatolia to their distant Turkic cousins. Aydin Yalchin, a historian at Ankara University, notes that the Seljuk Turks built a great empire in Central Asia, providing models for much of later Ottoman rule.

``For a long time, until Shiite [Muslim] fanaticism disrupted this connection between Central Asia and Western Asia, it was very strong,'' Professor Yalchin says. ``But the Western shift of our life after the late 18th century and the decline of Central Asia in economic and intellectual fields, and our decline also, broke this linkage. These memories, which were covered for a long time, are coming up again.''

Such feelings fueled a boom in Turkish interest and involvement in the Muslim states of the former Soviet Union. Turkey proudly offered itself as model of a secular, democratic society, an alternative to the Islamic theocrats of Iran with whom they compete for influence in the region. ``This area is looking to us for a certain amount of guidance and for their existence,'' says Seyfi Tashan, director of the Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara.

The Turkish government is the largest aid donor to Central Asia and Azerbaijan, providing $1.2 billion in grants over the past three years. Some 8,400 Central Asian students are now studying at Turkish universities, and hundreds of diplomats and others are receiving more specialized training.

From the first days after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Turkish businessmen have been piling onto planes to Central Asia. ``For most of them, Central Asia looks like Central Anatolia 30 to 40 years ago,'' historian Yalchin says. They have garnered $5.5 billion in contracts in Central Asia and Azerbaijan since early 1992, Turkish officials say.

Beyond economics and culture lie Turkish security interests, experts there say. The disintegration of the Soviet Empire creates for Turkey a welcome ``buffer zone'' with Russia, Mr. Tashan says. And Yalchin puts it in broader strategic terms, speaking of the importance of the link between Central and Western Asia.

``I'm sure Iran would feel much better [and] Pakistan will feel much better if Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan feel stronger,'' he says.

But the appeal of Pan-Turkism hit limits. ``There was euphoria about Central Asia, about what the brother Turks could do, how many millions of them there are,'' a Western diplomat in Ankara says. ``That euphoria has worn out.''

Some associate that change with the passing this spring of visionary Turkish President Turgut Ozal and his replacement by the pragmatic Suleyman Demirel. But even without that loss, Turkey has had to confront the reality that the transition to market economies and democratization in the Muslim states has been slow; and that Ankara lacks the economic and military resources to take on the burden of these new states.

``We cannot supply all their demands and they know it,'' Tashan says of the Central Asian republics. ``We are not that strong and that rich. We are not going to enter into war with Russia for their sake.''

Nowhere has this reality been clearer than in the Caucasus, where Turkish ally Azerbaijan has suffered major defeats in a bitter war with neighboring Armenia. Azerbaijan's setbacks triggered the recent downfall of the pro-Turkish government of Abulfaz Elchibey in favor of former Communist leader Haydar Aliyev, who journeyed to Moscow last week to seek Russia's aid in ending the war.

Despite gestures such as the mobilization of troops on Armenia's border, Turkey's policy remains fundamentally cautious. On a visit to Moscow last week, Turkish Prime Minister Ciller, praising Russia's role in trying to halt Armenian ``aggression,'' vowed that ``the basis for relations between Russia and Turkey will be cooperation, not competition.'' Even Pan-Turkist leader Turkes shares that careful approach toward Russia.

``Turkish governments are very sensitive to Russia,'' Turkes says. ``We have suffered 14 great wars with the Russians. Turkey is trying to complete its economic development and to raise the living standards.... We don't want to have any military confrontation with them. For this reason our government is acting very cool-headed.''

PERHAPS the greatest limit on Turkish involvement with the former Soviet republics is the turn to the West that began in the 19th century under the Ottomans and was consolidated by the Turkish republic founded by Kemal Ataturk in 1923. Turkey's post-World War II alliance with the West, its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and its desire to join the European Community (in which it has associate membership) are keystones of Turkish foreign policy.

For Turkish officials, their Western alliances provide a model for a different mode of dealing with the former Soviet Union - that of regional cooperation. The most promising example of this approach is the 11-nation Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) organization founded in Istanbul in June 1992. It holds aims similar to those of the ECO, but comprises nations around the Black Sea. Beside Turkey, the BSEC includes Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine.

Foreign-policy expert Tashan explains the motivation for the Black Sea organization as an attempt to reshape the interaction of the two main powers in the region - Turkey and Russia.

``If the international system disintegrates or becomes ineffective, we would hate to fall into conflict with Russia. Therefore we need to draw the Russians into areas of peaceful cooperation.''

Ambassador Voral foresees a partnership between a democratic Russia and a democratic Turkey:

``Being neighbors is always difficult. But the world is changing. Both Turkey and Russia must come to terms with this changing world. I believe we can do a lot of things together. I believe we both can contribute to the stability and to the wealth of this area.''

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