One wholly unexpected consequence of the shake-up in the Communist states is the ferment among the many Turks living in Communist countries. Though the challenge they present may appear small compared to other ones, it could well be one of the most acute facing the Soviet Empire.
Consider these major developments of the past two years:
- In a reprise of last year's German drama, Turks in Azerbaijan destroyed the "Azerbaijan Wall," their name for border installations along the 500-mile Soviet border with Iran. Then they called for unification with Iranian Azerbaijan and for the formation of an independent Azeri state.
- Since early 1988, fighting over the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh has increased to the point that Armenians and Azeri Turks are nearly at war with each other. The situation has become so anarchic, Moscow imposed a state of emergency last week.
- Crimean Turks, brutally expelled in 1944 by Stalin from their homeland at the northern edge of the Black Sea, have defied the authorities and are returning to the Crimea, where they are building squatter houses.
- Further to the east, in Central Asia, a new nationalist organization of Uzbek Turks, called Unity, is thought to have over half a million members.
- Also in Central Asia, over a hundred Meskhetian Turks died at the hands of Uzbeks during ten days of riots in June 1989.
- Three hundred thousand Turks fled persecution in Bulgaria during 1989, in one of the most massive emigrations of recent years. Then, after a reform government took over and ended the harassment of Turks, the majority Christian population in Bulgaria took to the streets in anti-Turkish protests.
- Pontic Greeks, long resident in the Soviet Union, won permission to emigrate and were promptly settled in Western Thrace, where Turks form the majority. Not without reason, Turks see this choice of locales as a way to dilute their numbers and reduce their political clout.
The largest number, 42 million, live in the U.S.S.R., followed by 11 million in Iran, 7 million in China, 2 million in Afghanistan, and 1 million in Bulgaria. Smaller but still significant numbers live in many other countries, including 400,000 in Iraq and 200,000 in each of Greece, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Mongolia. Cyprus and Syria each host 100,000 Turks. Turks are almost exclusively Muslim; with a total population of some 108 million, they constitute the second largest ethnic group in Islam, following only the Arabs.
The extraordinarily wide dispersal of Turks results from two facts, both pertinent to the current unrest. First, Turks were for many centuries superior soldiers, and their strength enabled them to rule in a great many countries. At the height of their power in the sixteenth century, dynasties of Turkish rulers held sway in an area extending from Algeria to India, from the Balkans to southern Arabia. This tradition of power translates today into resentment against Turks. Inherited hostilities go far to explain the current troubles in Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Second, Turks historically were a nomadic people who regularly traveled vast distances in search of pasturage and plunder. They tended not to live in cities; in modern times, this meant they remained at some remove from the processes of modernization. Accordingly, in contrast to their earlier power, Turks more recently were unable to mobilize politically and so rarely succeeded in establishing their own states. As a result, with the single exception of Turkey, Turks everywhere constitute a minority population in their countries. In political terms, a great many Turks are frustrated nationalists - especially in Cyprus, Azerbaijan, and Central Asia.
These patterns have taken on new importance in the past two years, as Soviet imperial hegemony has declined. By a quirk of fate, half of all Turks live under Communist regimes. Of the thirteen countries in which substantial numbers of them reside, seven have Communist governments. As Moscow lifts the dead hand of Communist rule, Turkish nationalism and age-old ethnic animosities are once again being heard. In some cases, as in Nagorno-Karabach, Turks are exploiting the new freedom to wreak revenge on traditional foes; elsewhere, as in Bulgaria, they are the victims.
The Kremlin's troubles are only beginning, for the repoliticization of Turks outside Turkey has many ramifications. In the face of a burgeoning Turkish population and weakened control from Moscow, Soviet Turks are unlikely to accept rule by Russians indefinitely.
Ercüment Konukman, a Turkish government minister, recently predicted that, in coming years, Soviet Turks "will rise up, attain their independence" and establish states under the Turkish flag. He might just be right.