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'The Turks Are Coming,' Cry Russians in Their Ex-Empire

THE evidence is all over the former Soviet Union, but especially along the ancient Silk Road to China.

Luxury hotels, a new airport, universities, and restaurants: from Kazakstan to Azerbaijan, development projects are often the work of Turks.

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And the same Turkish company that rebuilt the Russian parliament building after tanks shelled it in 1993 has just won a $284 million contract to reconstruct 10 of the most important civic buildings in the demolished Chechen capital of Grozny.

The return of the Ottoman Empire to Central Asia, where Russian czars and Turks once clashed, isn't imminent, however. Close observers of Turkey generally say the country's financial problems prevent it from becoming a major economic or political force on formerly Soviet territory.

But the Soviet Union's breakup offered Turkey - an imperial power in Europe and Asia Minor for 600 years - its best chance in at least two centuries to expand its regional influence.

Turkey continues to exploit that opportunity, especially in Central Asia where it has cultural, linguistic, and religious ties that date from centuries before Russians ruled the region.

The expanding Turkish presence has made some Russians jittery, especially nationalists concerned about Muslims squeezing Russian interests out of Central Asia, which the czars conquered over the course of the 1800s.

Some Russians see echoes of ancient battles with the Turks in their recent war against rebellious Muslim Chechens, and also in the Balkan war between the Christian Orthodox Serbs and the Bosnians, who were once ruled by the Ottoman Turks.

This theme is frequently expounded by members of the Russian Duma, or lower house of parliament. But seeing Turkey as a threat to Russian interests ''requires a lot of imagination,'' as one close observer of Turkey puts it.

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Turkish expansion is occurring in two ways. One is through cultural ties. About 10,000 students from Central Asia now attend university in Turkey. Turks are also building a university and primary and secondary schools in each of the Turkic countries, where students will be taught the same dialect that Turks speak in Turkey. Turks promote using Latin lettering, instead of the Cyrillic alphabet of Russian. And Turkey broadcasts both radio and television programs in Turkish into Central Asia.

Turkey has also tried to expand economically, mostly through small business ventures and large construction contracts. One of the first things an American consultant notes in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, for example, is the growing presence of Turkish enterprises.

But Western companies are a growing presence as well, and usually on a larger scale. ''The real capability of Turkey economically doesn't match its ambitions,'' says Vladimir Danilov, a specialist in Turkey at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

His colleague, economist Elena Urazova, agrees. ''Turkey's ability, especially financial, is really quite limited,'' she says.

The expansion of political ties has been even more limited. On Aug. 28, the heads of state of the Turkic countries - Turkey, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan - met in Bishkek for their third summit in as many years. But no political alliances or associations have emerged.

Roads go to Russia

The main reason, according to Dr. Danilov, is Russia. Central Asia is economically dependent on Russia, and retains a sense of political familyhood with Russia.

Turkey was the first country to recognize the independence of the former Soviet Turkic republics, and Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, then prime minister, began talking of a common parliament of Turkic countries. But during his first visit to the new countries he quickly noticed a practical reality: All their roads lead to Russia.

Even Kazakstan, which has proven oil and gas resources on par with Russia's, watches Russian politics edgily, noting that everything they buy or sell must travel through Russia unless it flies.

The biggest challenge to Russia's economic choke-hold on the region will be decided next month by a private consortium meeting in London. It will determine how to pipe oil from a huge Azeri field on the Caspian Sea to the West - either through Russia to the Black Sea or through Georgia and Turkey. Both Russia and Turkey are campaigning hard to get the pipeline; the latest signals indicate that the consortium may want to invest in both.

Why the West likes Turkey

The United States is encouraging multiple pipelines, just as it has encouraged Turkish influence in the region.

''The Turks had hoped they would be an economic bridge between the West and the former Soviet Union,'' Danilov says. ''In the beginning, that looked possible.''

The West liked a strong Turkish role because Turkey, a Westward-looking NATO member, was a rare example of a secular government in a predominantly Muslim population, and the West was concerned about rising fundamentalism in the Islamic crescent.

But in most of Central Asia, Islam has never had the strong embrace it has in Afghanistan, Iran, or many other Arab countries. The sound of muezzins calling people to prayer does not interrupt the sound of morning traffic in the capitals of Kazakstan or Kyrgyzstan.

But fundamentalist Iran remains a potential competitor for influence in the region. Azerbaijan, like neighboring Iran, is predominately Shiite Muslim. And Iran shares language and ethnic Persian background with Tajikistan.

The Turks have succeeded in the former Soviet Union by working at higher standards of quality and much faster than local companies, but cheaper than Western companies.

Ties between Central Asians, who spent three generations in Russia's orbit, and Turks, who are focused on the West, may be exaggerated. But ''cultural bonds are the best way for Turkey to compete against much richer Asian and Western investors,'' Dr. Urazova says.

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