OSW Commentary

On the trail of the grey wolf: pan-Turkism in Turkey’s foreign policy

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan i Devlet Bahçeli podczas obchodów rocznicy bitwy pod Manzikertem, 26.08.2019

Ankara’s active policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia is linked among other things with pan-Turkism, an idea which advocates the integration of the Turkic nations. It is continuously present in the political culture of the Turkish state, which sees itself as the leader of the Turkic community as a whole. Establishing social contacts and building a positive image for Turkey are important elements of its approach. The power of the concept of pan-Turkism nationwide results from its links with Turkish nationalism, which has a state-building effect, and from a cross-party consensus regarding the region’s importance to Turkey’s foreign policy.

However, Ankara’s approach to the Turkic states is mainly pragmatic. Depending on the specific situation, the pan-Turkic idea serves to enhance cooperation, but does not form the main cause for this cooperation. Domestically, this idea is one of several complementary identity-related and political projects present in Turkey, alongside pan-Islamism or neo-Ottomanism, to give two examples. Although the Turkic states remain interested in developing this cooperation, Ankara is not their sole and most important partner. For Azerbaijan, Turkey does remain a strategic partner, whereas for the Central Asian states it is an element balancing their relations with Moscow and Beijing. Turkey’s relations with the Turkic states are well-established at both the bilateral and the institutional levels. However, the future of these relations largely depends on how the domestic situation develops, and on the priorities the Turkish leadership sets for the country, as well as on the situation in the post-Soviet area.

Pan-Turkism: an eternal idea?

Pan-Turkism occupies a permanent place in Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy. In its basic assumptions, it emphasises the need for the integration of Turkic peoples, that is, those who share their ethnic and linguistic background with the Turks.[1] This group includes various ethnic groups, related to each other to lesser or greater degrees, who inhabit the territory of Eurasia reaching from the Balkans all the way to Siberia. According to this idea, the Turkic peoples form a community whose unity over the centuries has gradually waned. Thus the goal of pan-Turkism is to rebuild this community, at least to some degree and in line with various concepts. It encompasses peoples hailing from a common background rather than the Turkish diaspora in the Western European countries (such as Germany) or the Turks living outside Turkey as a result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (for example in Bulgaria).

As a line of thinking, pan-Turkism emerged at the end of the nineteenth century among the Crimean Tatar intelligentsia living in Russia. From there it was transplanted to the Ottoman Empire, where it significantly influenced the emerging Turkish national consciousness and Turkish nationalism. Back then the majority of Turkic peoples lived within the borders of the Russian Empire, which is why pan-Turkism transformed into an irredentist movement. At that time, it proposed the liberation of the Turkic peoples and promoted their far-reaching political integration. In its maximal variant, it even endorsed the creation of a shared state under the name of Turan. This name is a reference to the mythical land from which all Turkic peoples are believed to hail.

Although at present pan-Turkism may seem anachronistic, it continues to be a living trend in Turkish society. This is because the arrival of Turks from Central Asia to what is the modern-day Republic of Turkey is one of the elements shaping Turkish national identity. This sense of forming a community with other Turkic peoples is boosted by culture and education. The timeliness of the pan-Turkic idea is evidenced, for example, by the massive support for Azerbaijan that Turks have shown in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, and by the presence of pan-Turkic themes in the presidential and parliamentary election campaign in 2023.[2] Ankara’s turn to the Turkic states in its foreign policy is supported by Turkish society as a whole, and is not generally challenged by any actor on the Turkish political scene. Most frequently, open references to pan-Turkism are present in the platforms of the nationalist parties such as the coalition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the opposition Good Party (İYİ). In its radical and xenophobic guise, pan-Turkism formed an ideological basis for the ultra-nationalist terrorist organisation called the Grey Wolves, which was formed in 1969 as the militant arm of the MHP. According to Turkic mythology, all Turks are believed to descend from the Grey Wolf, which is one of the most important symbols of the pan-Turkic movement.

The Turkish variant of pan-Turkism is related to Hungarian Turanism. Both concepts draw from a similar myth and the same legendary land, one difference being that Turanism encompasses a bigger group of peoples hailing from the Great Steppe, one which also includes the Mongols and the Finno-Ugric peoples. This difference has not discouraged Hungary from pursuing an active policy towards the Turkic states and from acting as an observer in the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS).

The boundaries of the Turkic world

In Turkish, the word Türk means both ‘a Turk, Turkish’ and ‘a Turkic person, Turkic’. Turks view themselves as the leaders of the so-called Turkic world (Turkish: Türk dünyası) which according to a slogan coined in the 1990s spreads ‘from the Adriatic Sea to the Great Wall of China’. This concept highlights the unity of the Turkic ethnic community which includes all Turkic nations inhabiting independent states (such as Kazakhs or Uzbeks), titular administrative units of other states (such as Bashkirs or Yakuts), as well as other small ethnic groups scattered across Eurasia (such as The Meskhetian Turks or the Qashqai people).[3]

Turkey’s narrative emphasising a ‘Turkic world’ does not mean that Ankara is interested in political domination over the area as a whole. Over the years, pan-Turkism has lost its irredentist nature. At present, Turkey has no ambition to use the pan-Turkic movement to fuel separatist sentiment among Turkic minorities. Concerns about such a scenario, for example, were present in Russia in the initial period following the collapse of the USSR. The Turkic subjects of the Russian Federation are effectively non-existent in Turkey’s foreign policy, and cooperation with them is limited to spheres such as culture[4] and trade.[5] Although Ankara sometimes speaks in support of the rights of Turkic minorities, for example the Uyghurs[6] and the Crimean Tatars,[7] this has not affected Turkish-Chinese or Turkish-Russian relations and has not translated into any specific actions in the international arena. It seems that the purpose of such activity is to achieve a certain effect in domestic politics.

It seems that Turkey has reconciled to the fact that, in the present situation, it can only pursue an active policy towards the five independent ‘Turkic republics’ (Turkish: Türk cumhuriyetleri), that is the five Turkic states which gained independence following the collapse of the USSR: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Azerbaijan occupies a particularly important place among these states. Both Turkey and Azerbaijan frequently use the slogan ‘two states, one nation’ (Turkish: İki devlet, bir millet).[8] As regards Armenia, pan-Turkism has raised concerns there due to the suspicion of expansionist intentions on the part of both Turkey and Azerbaijan, Turkey’s historical responsibility for the Armenian genocide,[9] and the present situation of the Turkish-Azerbaijani military alliance.

The pan-Turkic idea influenced Turkey’s approach to the Turkic republics in the first years following the collapse of the USSR. The 1990s saw a rapid development of Turkish involvement and a series of ambitious political plans from Ankara, which were strongly motivated by the ideological factor.[10] Back then, Turkey overestimated its potential vis-à-vis the five newly created states, which remained highly dependent on Moscow. The clash with political reality and the lack of the potential partners’ interest in its integration projects convinced Turkey to focus on bilateral relations and economic cooperation, although without abandoning its ‘brotherly’ rhetoric.

Brothers in interests

Despite these important ideological factors, Turkey’s relations with the other Turkic states (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) are dominated by mutual pragmatism. Military affairs, energy, transport corridors and trade have become important areas of cooperation.

Azerbaijan occupies a special place in Turkey’s foreign policy. The two countries are strategic partners to each other, which was confirmed in the Shusha Declaration signed in 2021 to set out a framework for close bilateral cooperation. Ankara’s long-term support for Baku in the Nagorno-Karabakh war and the related military cooperation formed the foundations of the alliance between the two states. Turkey’s far-reaching support for Baku included the sale of armaments, offering training to the Azerbaijani army and the presence of Turkish instructors. Moreover it has been revealed that since at least 2022 Turkish Armed Forces General Bahtiyar Ersay has been serving as an advisor to the Azerbaijani defence minister.[11] Azerbaijan’s elites and society have a friendly attitude towards Turkey. In addition, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has a good personal relationship with President Ilham Aliyev. Energy projects are another important element of the Turkish-Azerbaijani partnership. These mainly include the construction of the Southern Gas Corridor, the gas transmission infrastructure which enables Azerbaijan to export gas to the West via Turkish territory (this in turn helps Turkey to act as a gas hub). This involves the Baku–Tbilisi–Erzurum (BTE) gas pipeline launched in 2005, as well as its extension, the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), which has been in operation since 2018. In 2022, Azerbaijani gas accounted for 15.9% of Turkey’s gas imports. Meanwhile oil is shipped via the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which was inaugurated in 2006.

Turkey has the friendliest relations with Azerbaijan, more so than with any of the Turkic Central Asian states. However, Ankara has shown a strong interest in the other countries of the region, and has been engaged in ongoing political dialogues with them. Despite their greater geographical remoteness, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are involved in joint ventures with Turkey, some of which are being carried out at the bilateral level and some within the OTS. In recent years, Turkish-made drones have been popular with Central Asian states interested in reducing their dependence on Russian armaments. All four Turkic states in the region have purchased them for their armed forces. Kazakhstan plans to manufacture Anka-S drones on the basis of a joint venture with the Turkish TAI company (the agreement envisages technology transfer)[12]. Under the Kazakh-Turkish strategic agreement signed in 2022, Ankara and Astana also decided to launch intelligence cooperation.[13] Quite unexpectedly, in recent months Turkey has also shown interest in becoming involved in the regulation of the border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.[14]

Over the past several years Ankara has succeeded in creating a formal framework for multilateral cooperation among the Turkic states. The breakthrough came in 2009, when the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States was established to replace the irregular summits of Turkic heads of state held since 1992. In 2021, the organisation was renamed the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS). Its current members are Azerbaijan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan, Hungary and the internationally unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) have an observer status.

The Organisation of Turkic States has been a convenient platform for Ankara’s cooperation with the remaining member states. In its current incarnation, the OTS does not envisage any deeper political integration, although its members consult each other on political and security issues. The organisation holds regular meetings at various levels and consultations with external actors. The OTS is mainly involved in economic cooperation; the Union of Turkic Chamber of Commerce and Industry (TCCI), the $500 million Turkish Investment Fund (TIF) and other initiatives operate under its aegis.[15] The OTS member states are seeking to facilitate customs procedures, and the issue of transport links has also gained importance in recent years. The OTS is involved in work on the development of the Middle Corridor, a route connecting Europe with China, which runs through the South Caucasus, the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. In this sphere, it cooperates with the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route initiative (TITR).[16] It should be noted that the OTS summits are also an opportunity to hold regular bilateral meetings between the heads of the Turkic states.

The OTS member states sometimes use the organisation to pursue their own political interests. It is in this light that we should interpret the granting of observer status to the internationally unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 2022, which was most likely forced through by Turkey. Other OTS members have so far not declared their willingness to recognise the self-proclaimed republic, however, and the separatist authorities in Lefkoşa (the Turkish-occupied part of Nicosia) were not invited to the recent OTS summit in Astana.[17] Declaring Shusha, which was recaptured by the Azerbaijani military in 2020, the ‘cultural capital of the Turkic world’ is another example of this practice.

Turkish soft power

Ankara’s soft power activities are an important supplement to its pragmatic policy towards the Turkic states. Turkey consistently uses numerous institutions to build up its positive image and influence in the region. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) is the oldest such institution continuously operating in the Turkic states; it was established in 1992 to provide development assistance. Initially, it was intended to offer support to the former USSR countries, but subsequently gradually expanded to other regions. In 2022, the total value of development assistance provided to Turkic states amounted to $55 million. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were its biggest beneficiaries.

Turkish education is also highly appreciated. Through several state-sponsored foundations, Ankara offers financial support to schools and universities in the Turkic states (such as the Akhmet Yassawi International University in Turkestan and the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University in Bishkek). What these ventures have in common is their emphasis on teaching the Turkish language. Foreign students can study in Turkey under the state-run Türkiye Bursları programme. In 2022, more than 4000 individuals used this opportunity, most of them hailing from the Caucasus and Central Asia.[18] A portion of Turkey’s present involvement is likely due to the intention to push the institutions linked to the Gülen movement out of the region. The government in Ankara has accused this movement of having orchestrated a failed coup d’état back in 2016. Prior to the crisis between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gülen movement, these institutions had enjoyed almost official status, and served as an informal extension of Turkey’s soft power.

Religion is another sphere of Turkey’s activity. Sunni Islam of the Hanafi school is the dominant religion in both the Central Asian states and Turkey. Azerbaijan is susceptible to Turkish religious influence, although according to estimates it is mostly inhabited by Shia Muslims (65%), while Sunni Muslims form a minority group (35%).[19] The Directorate of Religious Affairs, the Diyanet, is the main tool by which Turkey pursues its ‘religious diplomacy’. This institution gained major importance following the AKP’s rise to power, and since then has been an important tool in Ankara’s foreign policy. The Diyanet funds the construction of mosques (thus far two in Kyrgyzstan and one in Kazakhstan)[20] and Quranic education, awards grants to students of theology faculties in Turkey and distributes religious publications. The attractiveness of the Turkish variant of Islam also results from the conviction that it allows religion to be combined with modern life and effectively curbs fundamentalist influence.

Generally, the Turkish presence is assessed positively by the citizens of other Turkic states, who are aware of the ethnic background they share with the Turks. According to polls, as many as 84% of the citizens of Kyrgyzstan have a positive or moderately positive attitude towards Turkey, and the corresponding proportions is 76% for Kazakhstan and 53% for Uzbekistan.[21] A poll conducted in Kazakhstan in 2023 showed that President Erdoğan was the most popular foreign leader, surpassing Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden.[22] Turkish popular culture is also highly popular, in particular TV series. Turkey can also serve as a development model and an attractive destination for labour migration. Citizens of Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan are among the top ten nationalities seeking job in Turkey. In addition, citizens of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan can travel to Turkey under a visa-free regime. The total number of foreigners hailing from Turkic states who hold residence permits in Turkey is more than 300,000.[23]

The power and limitations of pan-Turkism in Turkey

The recognition of the community of Turkic nations is an element of Turkey’s view of the world. In this model, Turkey as a state with the biggest potential (in terms of population, the economy) is its obvious leader. Pan-Turkism is instilled in the political imagination of Turkey’s society and political leaders. Thus, Turkey is naturally interested in the so-called Turkic world, although at present this mainly boils down to developing its relations with the five Turkic states. Ideology provides a certain framework to this cooperation and is important in symbolic terms. Effectively, however, Ankara’s decision to become involved in these countries is inspired by pragmatic factors such as transport links, energy and economic cooperation. In addition, Turkey and Azerbaijan are linked by a strategic alliance, which Ankara also views as important due to its immediate neighbourhood with the South Caucasus and to its complex relations with Russia and Iran.

However, pan-Turkism is not an idea which has dominated Turkey’s foreign policy. Ankara has managed to maintain a major degree of flexibility and ability to adjust to the reality of any given moment. Over more than two decades of its rule, the AKP party has proved that it is able to successfully combine various identity-related initiatives. Pan-Islamic and neo-Ottoman ideas have also left their marks on Turkish foreign policy. The political class is as much interested in pan-Turkism for building Turkey’s position as one of the leaders of Muslim states and reinforcing its influence in the Balkans. It is worth noting that Ankara is using similar soft power tools to those it applies to the Turkic states to achieve these goals.

In the past Turkey repeatedly overestimated its potential, and this led it to ignore the complexity of the region of the Caucasus and Central Asia, which is grappling with its own identity dilemmas and a strong need to establish its unique identity, as well as with domestic tensions. Despite the declarations of partnership and the abandonment of its previous paternalistic position in its relations with the Turkic states, Ankara sometimes still does assume a patronising approach. For example, Turkey’s much-publicised calls to close the schools linked with the Gülen movement have met with strong reluctance on the part of the government of Kyrgyzstan and other countries.[24] It was only following the change of government in Bishkek (as a result of the ‘revolution’ which occurred in 2020) that Ankara managed to force the new leadership to transfer the Gülen-linked schools to a special Turkish government-funded Turkish Maarif Foundation.[25] Turkey also (most likely with approval from the Kyrgyz government) managed to abduct an individual holding dual Turkish and Kyrgyz citizenship who had managed the Gülen movement’s schools and had been charged in Turkey with leading a terrorist organisation.[26]

While the pan-Turkic policy is one of the vectors of Ankara’s diplomatic activity, Turkey is not the only state which is working to build its influence in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. In this region, Turkey’s activity is confronted with the well-established influence and interests of Russia, China and the West (albeit to a lesser degree). So far, Ankara has managed to avoid major conflicts with Moscow and Beijing because it has focused its involvement on selected issues such as education and the sale of UAVs.


Pan-Turkism will continue to be present in Turkish foreign policy because the concept of the unity of Turkic nations is deeply rooted in Turkey’s political culture. However, the influence of pan-Turkism will remain limited to the realm of symbols and identity-related issues, which is of particular importance to domestic politics; it will be of secondary importance in the context of Turkey’s genuine interests.

In truth, for Ankara its pragmatic relations with the other Turkic states are more important than the concept of pan-Turkism. Due to the two states’ strategic bilateral alliance and geographical proximity, the relationship with Azerbaijan will continue to be the most important and indispensable area of cooperation. Moreover, Turkey supports the further development of the OTS. This organisation will likely serve as an economic cooperation forum, and will be involved in consultation and development initiatives regarding the Middle Corridor, trade facilitations and investment. It should also be expected that Ankara will use the OTS to legitimise the internationally unrecognised TRNC.

At present, the region of the South Caucasus and Central Asia is affected by tensions triggered by the destabilisation of the post-Soviet area following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Russian attack has provided a new dynamic to the identity-related process of political transition in this region, something which could work in Ankara’s favour in the longer term. This is because Turkey is still able to skilfully employ the narrative highlighting the unity of Turkic nations. On the other hand, open rivalry with Russia and China is unfavourable to Turkey, which is a much weaker actor in the region. Other factors which may curb Turkey’s active policy include the conflicts in its near neighbourhood (especially in the Middle East) and domestic factors such as the economic crisis.



Map 1. Pan-Turkism’s coverage

Map 1. Pan-Turkism’s coverage

Source: the author’s own analysis based on a map Devlet Bahçeli presented to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.


Map 2. Member states and observers of the TÜRKSOY International Organisation of Turkic Culture

Map 2. Member states and observers of the TÜRKSOY International Organisation of Turkic Culture

Source: the author’s own analysis, the TÜRKSOY International Organisation of Turkic Culture.


Map 3. Member states and observers of the Organisation of Turkic States

Map 3. Member states and observers of the Organisation of Turkic States

Source: the author’s own analysis, the Organisation of Turkic States.


[1] The text makes a distinction between notions such as ‘a Turk, Turkish’ and ‘a Turkic person, Turkic’. The first term refers to the ethnic group inhabiting Anatolia and making up the majority of the inhabitants of modern-day Republic of Turkey. A ‘Turkic person’ and Turkic’ comprise all related Turkic ethnic groups. A similar distinction can be made between ‘a Pole, a Ukrainian, a Serb’ and ‘a Slavic person’ or ‘Slav’.

[2] During his pre-election campaign, opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu promised to build a new network of transport links to connect Turkey with Central Asia. The proposal sparked major controversy because this project omitted Azerbaijan. R. Rahimov, ‘The Turkish opposition’s Azerbaijan policy: is a bipartisan consensus possible?’, New Eastern Europe, 4 January 2024, neweasterneurope.eu.

[3] The total number of Turkic persons is usually estimated at 150–200 mn globally. It is difficult to make a more precise estimate of the Turkic population because it is significantly scattered and characterised by a fast birth rate. Moreover, population censuses either collect insufficient information on the citizens’ ethnic backgrounds, or the information they do collect is not very reliable. Other reasons include identity-related issues (such as the practice of dual identification).

[4] Turkic subjects of the Russian Federation, such as the Altai Republic, the Republic of Bashkortostan, the Republic of Khakassia, the Republic of Sakha, the Republic of Tatarstan and the Republic of Tuva, are observers of the TÜRKSOY International Organisation of Turkic Culture.

[5] Turkey has the most developed economic relations with the Republic of Tatarstan and the Republic of Bashkortostan; both Turkish-Tatar and Turkish-Bashkir chambers of commerce have been established.

[6] F. Tastekin, Turkey spars with China over Uyghurs, but is it real?’, Al Monitor, 5 January 2023, al-monitor.com.

[7] See the statement from the Turkish MFA: ‘Regarding the Tenth Anniversary of the Illegal Annexation of Crimea. Ankara does not recognise the annexation of Crimea. Turkey has a well-assimilated Crimean Tatar diaspora which settled there in the Ottoman era. Numerous associations of Crimean Tatars in exile operate in Turkey, and this group’s informal leader Mustafa Dzhemilev resides there.

[8] For more in Turkish-Azerbaijani relations see M. Chudziak, W. Górecki, ‘The (pan)-Turkic Caucasus. The Baku-Ankara alliance and its regional importance’, OSW Commentary, no. 374, 1 February 2021, osw.waw.pl.

[9] Pan-Turkism is viewed as one of ideologies which inspired the Armenian genocide. See D. Bloxham, The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2005, p. 59.

[10] In 1992, during a meeting of heads of Turkic states held in Ankara, Turkey’s president Turgut Özal proposed the launch of comprehensive cooperation, including lifting tariffs; creating a common market; establishing an investment bank; and building a network of energy, telecommunication and transport links. The remaining leaders were strongly opposed to these proposals.

[11] A.K. Erdem, ‘Tunceli Çemişgezekli korgeneral Ersay, Azerbaycan Savunma Bakanı'na danışman oldu’, Independent Türkçe, 15 December 2022, indyturk.com.

[13] A. Musaev, ‘Kazakhstan Approves Military Intelligence Protocol with Türkiye’, Caspian News, 11 August 2022, caspiannews.com.

[14] M.E. Calli, ‘Türkiye voices hope for Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border dispute resolution in March’, Anadolu Ajansı, 10 January 2024, aa.com.tr.

[16] For more on the so-called Middle Corridor see K. Popławski et al, The Middle Corridor. A Eurasian alternative to Russia, OSW, Warsaw 2024, osw.waw.pl.

[17] T. Cleaver, ‘North not invited to Organisation of Turkic States summit’, Cyprus Mail, 4 November 2023, cyprus-mail.com.

[18] 2022 Annual Report, Türkiye Bursları, p. 38, turkiyeburslari.gov.tr. No statistics for individual states have been provided.

[19] 2023 Annual Report, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, p. 51, uscirf.gov.

[20]Mosques, Türkiye Diyanet Foundation, 2024, tdv.org.

[21] Public Perception of Turkey in Central Asia, Central Asia Barometer, June 2023, ca-barometer.org.

[23]International Migration Statistics 2022’, Turkstat, 24 July 2023, data.tuik.gov.tr.

[24]Kyrgyzstan: Antagonism Grows with Turkey Over Gülen Links’, Eurasianet, 26 July 2016, eurasianet.org.

[25]Turkey to open first Maarif school in Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan’, Daily Sabah, 10 March 2021, dailysabah.com.