Coca-Cola comes to land of mare's milk

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The Independent Online
We stopped counting at $10bn (pounds 6.6bn). That, by the reckoning of the eminent former governor of the Turkish Central Bank sitting beside me, was the combined annual turnover of heads of Turkish companies in just the front half of our aircraft winging over the Caspian Sea.

Across the aisle was a grand marble quarrier from Afyon. A white-haired textile magnate from Denizli was with us for the ride. And by the window, one of more than 100 executives was brushing up on a book about the power of the Turkish mafia.

And, of course, there were our hosts from the Anadolu Group, who were betting $80m on their future growth as brewers and bottlers of soft drinks in a swathe of formerly Soviet-dominated territory from the Balkans to the border of China.

Times have certainly changed since I first travelled with Turkish businessmen to their ancestral homelands in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Back then, in 1990, I sat next to a shifty-looking jeweller from the grand bazaar. My main contact had been a "Grey Wolf" nationalist militant out to stir up a pro-Turkish revolution.

The Turkish nationalist revolution lasted a year in one country, Azerbaijan, and was crushed in the bud elsewhere. But, disproving premature reports of victory by rivals from Iran and elsewhere, private Turkish businessmen have stayed the course. They are now older and wiser, leaving to Russia what is Russia's and sticking to business.

"We are not trying to replace anybody. We are not in politics. In fact, my main difficulty has been persuading people that not all Turks were crooks," said the chief executive of Anadolu Group's beverage division.

At Almaty airport, as the industrialists were whisked away a smiling official disappeared with the $70 a Briton must pay. I started to wait, kicking my heels with a Japanese executive from Honda motorbikes scouting the Turkish route to Central Asia.

Then, preceded by a rank odour, perhaps not unlike that of a yak after a long winter tied up inside a tent, came the passengers off the next flight, looking for all the world like camp followers of Genghis Khan.

I greeted one of them, a friendly old crone with a deep brown face, leathery skin and the high cheekbones of the steppe. To our mutual astonishment, primitive Turkish proved a joint language, enough to discover that she was an ethnic Kazakh from Mongolia migrating to the new Kazakh state.

The lady was making a wise decision, if the the bankers I later met in the pleasantly green, ordered city of Almaty are to be believed. According to them, Central Asia has made its peace with its powerful neighbours Russia, China and Iran, and is now turning an important economic corner.

In Kazakhstan and its close neighbour, the Kyrgyz Republic, currencies have been stable for a year and inflation is heading below an annual 30 per cent. State businesses have been privatised fast, even if management is still in the hands of former bosses. People seem to have a spring in their step.

Businessmen like the way the mostly Communist-era leaders have concentrated wealth and decision-making power into their own hands, even though parliaments have been sidelined.

These leaders will decide the fate of Central Asia's dominant oil and mining business, which involves multinational giants, huge amounts of money and long lead times. But at the bottom end of the market, the Turks are highly active even as bakers, kebab-shop owners or fancy restaurateurs, and their total investment may be $1bn.

Much of the new hotel and construction work is being done by Turkish companies. Truck, bus and textile factories are on the way, often in association with Western partners. Banking and air links are often best through Istanbul, and Turkish subsidiaries of American banks have played key roles in big loan syndications and privatisations.

About 100 Turkish schools have opened up for business in the region, most of them privately owned, and often financed by people with moderate- to-strong Islamic views.

A Kyrgyz student from one of the few Turkish state-aided schools led our tour bus in Bishkek, capital of the Kyrgyz Republic. She must have been puzzled by questions from the textile magnate as to whether the Kyrgyz were Muslims, whether they had built their mosques, and whether they still drank "kimiz", the fermented mare's milk that is an ancient Turkic drink of the steppes.

She knew we were there to celebrate bringing locally bottled Coca-Cola to the Kyrgyz people. It was being drunk like wine, and at a similar price, in the cafes of Bishkek. Only in the parks could I find traditional drinks of fermented wheat and barley. But the old-timers still had their revenge. It was served in plastic cups stamped "Pepsi".