Although Turkey was the first country to recognize Uzbekistan’s independence on December 16, 1991, both countries have gone through hot and cold times since then. Relations reached their lowest point in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Tashkent canceled its visa-free regime with Turkey, reminded Uzbeks who study in Nursi schools there, and firm Gulen-affiliated Turkish schools across Uzbekistan.
Reconciliation and reconciliation between Uzbekistan and Turkey took off with the change of government in Uzbekistan in 2016. Currently, Turkey is the fourth largest economic and trade partner of Uzbekistan after Russia, China and Kazakhstan – the volume of bilateral trade between the two countries went from $1.2 billion in 2016 at $3.6 billion in 2021. Uzbekistan finally joined the Organization of Turkish States in 2019. In 2021, the days of Uzbek culture were tenuous in Ankara and Istanbul, and soon after, Turkish Culture Days were famous in Uzbekistan. Amid this rapidly developing ties, Ankara is trying to exert its soft power through the promotion of Turkish language and education among Uzbeks.
Turkey’s foreign policy towards the Central Asian region is based on cultural commonalities such as language, religion, common history and traditions. Both Uzbek and Turkish are part of the Turkic language family. The Turkish language is thus very popular in Uzbekistan, and its popularity has only grown with the broadcast of Turkish television series on local television channels.
Tashkent State University of Oriental Studies was one of the first Uzbek universities to teach Turkish language to Uzbeks. Since 1990, the university open the Department of Altai Studies and renamed it the Department of Turkish Languages a year later. The University of Oriental Studies became the first higher education establishment in Central Asia who taught Turkish language studies. In 2020, the department was again renamed to Turkish Philology Department and would have remains the only faculty that focuses on Turkish language studies –Turkshunoslik – not only in Uzbekistan, but also in Central Asia. The department currently has nearly 500 students.
Another public university, the State University of World Languages of Uzbekistan, has established a Turkish language center in 2014.
Alisher Navo’i Tashkent State University of Uzbek Language and Literature cooperates with many Turkish educational institutions, including the Yunus Emre Institute – a public foundation established by the Turkish government to promote “Turkey, the Turkish language, its history, culture and art”. With the support of the Yunus Emre Institute, the Turkish language is taught free of charge at Alisher Navo’i University where, in addition to students and language enthusiasts, Uzbek military officers who wish to train in the Turkish Armed Forces also study. In 2022 alone, almost 200 people passed the Turkish language exam at the university (instead of 115 in 2021).
The Yunus Emre Institute has done more to promote Turkey’s image in Uzbekistan than just offering free Turkish lessons. In 2021, for example, the publishing house Navoi sign a TEDA agreement with the Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Turkey. The Turkey Translation and Publication Fellowship Program (TEDA), established in 2005 and managed by the Turkish Ministry of Tourism, promotes the “publication of Turkish literature as well as works on Turkish art and culture”. One of the first publications in Uzbekistan under TEDA was the Uzbek translation of the book titled “Yunus Emre Divani” (Divan of Yunus Emre).
Cooperation between Turkish and Uzbek educational institutions is clearly supported by Ankara and Tashkent.
Interest in Turkish education is slowly growing among Uzbeks, especially in the field of medicine, economics, and tourism studies. Based on a bilateral agreement signed on November 21, 2019, a joint agreement Turkish medical faculty was established at the Bukhara State Medical Institute in collaboration with the Turkish University of Medical Sciences. The program currently has nearly 500 medical students. A year later, the Uzbek government adopted a resolution to launch a branch of the Turkish University of Economics and Technology (TOBB ETU) in Tashkent. Although studies are conducted in English and study materials are provided by Ankara, TOBB ETU itself is established under the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Uzbekistan. Reportedly, students have the option of traveling to Turkey and undergoing a internship program with leading Turkish companies. Young Uzbeks are particularly interested in discovering and interacting with Turkish businesses in Turkey and Uzbekistan. In 2022, 1,882 companies with Turkish capital function in Uzbekistan – more than 80% of them were created between 2018 and 2021.
Turkish higher education institutions also host a relatively large number of Uzbek students. At the start of the 2020-2021 school year, 2,421 Uzbek citizens studied at Turkish universities – some benefit from Turkiye Burslari or other scholarships. Although this is a large increase in 840 Uzbek students in 2018 is still a small number compared to Russia, which hosts more than 48,000 Uzbek students. At the same time, Turkey has more students from other Central Asian countries. For example, there were more 12,000 Turkmen students in 2018 in Turkey.
Despite all these efforts, Turkey cannot soon surpass the influence of Russia or China in Uzbekistan, even in terms of promoting language and education. There are already 750,000 ethnic Russians living in Uzbekistan, and up to a third of the population can communicate in Russian due to seven decades of Soviet colonization of the region, when only 130,000 Turkish speakers reside in the country. Russian is taught in local state schools as part of the compulsory curriculum, and more than eight dozen schools teach exclusively in Russian. Fourteen Russian universities or branches of Russian universities are operating in Uzbekistan and nine more are to be launched soon. Similarly, two Confucius Institutes in Uzbekistan are actively teaching the Chinese language to locals, and 6,500 young Uzbeks are studying in China.
Turkish TV shows play a bigger role in promoting Turkey’s image to local Uzbeks than Ankara’s language and education promotion efforts. However, Turkish TV series are also criticized because the lifestyle featured in some shows is seen by some as contrary to Uzbek family values. In 2018, for example, a local Uzbek television channel had to stop streaming the Turkish series »Kara Sevda” (Blind Love) due to strong criticism from locals, including Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov himself.
While the political and economic cooperation between Ankara and Tashkent is developing rapidly, cultural development programs are mostly limited to a small number of token publications, a few study programs and a promised collaboration in cinematography in the years to come. If Turkey wants to become a bigger player in Uzbekistan, bigger efforts are needed. The shared commonalities turned out to be insufficient.