Samarkand: Turkey on Friday will lead a summit of Central Asian countries, aiming to strengthen economic ties with the region’s resource-rich ex-Soviet states while Moscow is distracted by war in Ukraine. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will preside over the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) summit in Uzbekistan’s historic city of Samarkand. Erdogan has for several years been pushing for closer cultural, linguistic and religious ties with several ex-Soviet countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February spooked Moscow’s neighbours in Central Asia and spurred Kazakhstan — geographically the region’s largest country — and Uzbekistan, the most populous, to look for alliances elsewhere: both with China and also Europe. In a sign of Ankara’s determination to gain a foothold here while Moscow focuses on Ukraine, this is Erdogan’s third trip to the region in less than two months. The OTS group includes Azerbaijan — a former Soviet republic with a Turkic language located in the Caucasus region bordering Turkey — as well as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Turkmenistan, also in Central Asia, and EU member state Hungary are observer members of the group. The group last year dropped its former name, the Turkic Council, in favour of the Organization of Turkic States. The group could expand further if isolated Turkmenistan becomes a fully-fledged member — an expansion announced by Turkey’s foreign ministry but not confirmed by Ashgabat. If Turkmenistan does join, the union set up in 2009 will incorporate all the Central Asian countries that speak languages in the Turkic group. “This community of Turkic states is beginning to take shape,” Bayram Balci, who teaches political science at France’s Sciences Po, told AFP. In Samarkand, locals said they viewed the Turkish-led summit positively. “The people of Turkey are considered to be our brother nation. We have a lot in common… and we like this event,” said 18-year-old student Sevinch Zhurakulova. Khadicha Murodova, a 22-year-old Samarkand resident, said she thought it was “very pleasant that these countries are coming and communicating with each other”. Turkey’s efforts to build political alliances with Turkic ex-Soviet states after the 1991 breakup of the USSR were long hampered by the lingering influence of Russia. “Since the beginning of this dream of creating a Turkic community, the weight and influence of Russia have been obstacles,” Balci said, pointing to Moscow’s strong economic and military ties in the former Soviet states. But the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, followed by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia this year, have given new impetus to Turkey’s quest for influence in the region, aided by Moscow’s weakening position. “Turkey is indirectly reaping the fruits of Russia’s failures and mistakes, which are allowing other countries to gain a foothold,” Balci said. For Andrei Grozin, Central Asia analyst at Moscow’s Institute of CIS Countries, “any activity in Central Asia is perceived by Moscow, if not as a direct threat, at least as undesirable”. But Turkey and Russia, which cooperate closely despite disagreements in several geopolitical arenas, could find common ground to work together in Central Asia. “The interests of Turkey and Russia in Central Asia are not fundamentally incompatible,” Grozin said, noting that Ankara does not have “as many resources as Moscow” anyway. Balci said Central Asia countries would cherry-pick from alliances offered by Moscow and Ankara, “taking what interests them and rejecting what does not interest them”. Turkey is also deepening military ties with former Soviet states, in particular with the sale of drones. It has also been flexing its soft power by funding mosques in the region and allocating money for schools and scholarships. The International Trade Center (ITC), a Geneva-based agency attached to the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, says that the volume of Turkish-Central Asian trade in 2019 amounted to some $7.3 billion. That figure falls far behind Central Asia’s volume of trade with the European Union and Russia, which the ITC says amounted that year to around $29 billion, and China ($25 billion).