Turkey's moment?

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Turkey's moment?

While most of the world was closely following the unravelling of long-standing Middle Eastern regimes during 2011, only limited attention was given to Turkey and its role in the region. Or at least, that was the case in mainstream media. For Turkey analysts, however, the Arab Spring brought with it excitement and a mood of anticipation long awaited: was this finally Turkey’s moment to assert itself as the key regional player it yearns to be? Certainly, some crucial factors appeared to be in place: the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt created a leadership vacuum in the Muslim Middle East without an obvious Arab successor; political fragmentation drained the power out of Arab nationalism in favour of Islamic-orientated parties and groupings, thereby providing a ‘platform of understanding’ aligned with that of the Turkish ruling AK Party (AKP); and Turkish prime minister Erdogan’s dogged engagement with rebel leaders and opposition parties earned him credibility across Arab countries rarely seen before. And yet, as the region remains in flux, so does the West’s understanding of Turkey’s role in it. What we do know is, in fact, that we do not know what Turkey’s exact intentions are and, consequently, what its actions will be. The reasons for this are twofold. First, Turkey has long been viewed through a western looking-glass, and second, Turkey itself is not necessarily pursuing as coherent a strategy as it would like others to think. The West’s historical attitude towards Turkey has been one of relative complacency, conveniently matching a mainly US-led foreign policy agenda. The country was seen as a reliable NATO ally and a fiercely secular state guarded by a military apparatus that had modernisation of the state and EU membership high on its list of priorities. But with the AKP’s ascendance to, and consolidation of, power over the last decade, this traditional characterisation, and any interpretation of Turkey’s actions based on it, has lost its value. Turkish academics a few years ago offered a more useful description of the country’s political landscape when characterising the ruling party’s policy as ‘conservative globalist’. (Turkish scholar Ziya Onis defines conservative globalism as a favourable attitude to engagement with external markets, some degree of democratisation, while defending traditional values, including those of religion.) In foreign relations, this policy saw the AKP shift away from key bilateral relationships, the EU among them, to a more multi-dimensional approach. Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu had already developed the so-called ‘strategic depth’ perspective (taking advantage of the country’s geo-strategic position and reaching out to both the East and the West) when he was an advisor to the then foreign minister Gul (now president), between 2003 and 2007. ‘Strategic depth’ and ‘zero problems with the neighbours’ became the two foreign policy principles most quoted over recent years when analysts have tried to make sense of Turkey’s actions on the international stage. Whether Turkey’s foreign policies have been successfully executed is a matter of debate. With the upheaval in the MENA region it has become difficult for Turkey to stick to the policies’ main premises as exemplified by several of its actions. First, Turkey took some time to decide what position it would take on Libya. However, once it threw in its support for the National Transitional Council (NTC) it did so whole-heartedly. Hundreds of millions of US dollars were delivered in cash to help fund the NTC.  The success of Turkey’s support is evidenced by the rushed visit of Nicholas Sarkozy and David Cameron to Libya in September 2011 so as to avoid the comparison with a likely jubilant reception of Erdogan by the Tripoli crowds (ultimately he arrived the next day). Second, in August 2011, foreign minister Davutoglu issued Syria with its strongest ultimatum of the year, stating that these were Turkey’s “final words to the Syrian authorities” and that there was nothing left to say about the steps that would be taken if the Syrian regime did not halt its crackdown against protesters. And yet, notwithstanding Turkey’s support and assistance in consolidating the Arab League’s stance on Syria, and its discussions with Syrian opposition figures, contact with the regime remains ongoing and its ultimatum appears somewhat hollow. Third, while Turkey regards problematic relations with its Kurdish population as a domestic issue, the ever-increasing land and air incursions by the Turkish military into the Kurdish region of northern Iraq puts a strain on neighbourly relations. Finally, the popularity boost among Palestinians in Gaza and Jordan following Turkey’s increasingly bellicose stance towards Israel proved to be short-lived, and perhaps even counter-effective, as action to back up Turkey’s stated support for the Palestinians did not materialise. So, while Turkey may like to think that it is following a coherent foreign policy approach, others beg to differ. Where Turkey goes next is open for debate and not entirely in the country’s control. First of all, as pointed out by a former head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Service , Sonmez Koksal, in early January, Turkey is facing a regional situation whose current events makes the country’s future increasingly uncertain. To an extent, the region’s future is unfolding in the Syria-Iraq-Iran triangle, and beyond Turkey’s influence. Second, any aspiration for a regional leadership role cannot be pursued in isolation from domestic politics. While Turkey stands on relatively firm ground economically – it has showed considerable resilience during the 2008-2009 economic crisis and has significantly strengthened its macroeconomic policy framework during the 2000s – its democratic credentials have come under increasing criticism during the AKP reign. Treatment of ethnic minorities (primarily, but not exclusively, the Kurds), transparency and press freedom all lag behind western standards. Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 138th out of 178 countries in its 2010 World Press Freedom Index, a drop of 39 spots since the AKP came to power. Political corruption remains a significant issue spurred on by a culture of clientelism, a strong force underlying the structure of the AKP, while the ongoing Ergenekon (1) investigation and trial appears to be mired in increasingly politicised charges and arrests. The country has some domestic housekeeping to do before it can pose as a viable model for Islamic democracy. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Turkey’s aspirations for a significant leadership role are very much embodied in the AKP’s leader, Prime Minister Erdogan. Erdogan has very much made the AKP, and by extension the government of Turkey, what it is. He is the father figure and strong leader who has come full circle on the legacy of the revered founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in a way that no previous prime minister has even attempted. It is Erdogan who is an inspiration to the Arab masses, according to his own foreign policy adviser, because he “takes them seriously, speaks their language and stands up for justice”. It was Erdogan who, when attending Friday prayers with newly liberated Libyans, was cheered as a hero in a way that Sarkozy and Cameron could only wish for. It is Erdogan who firmly believes, and makes the country believe with him, that by 2023, the centennial of the Turkish Republic, the country can be among the top 10 economies in the world. And it is Erdogan who firmly believes that Turkey not only can, but is worthy of leading the region. But Erdogan has been unwell. In December 2011 the Turkish media announced that Erdogan had had stomach surgery the month before. It was confirmed that tissue had been removed but little has been made of the episode in the media since then. Speculation is, however, mounting that Erdogan does indeed have cancer and may be undergoing chemotherapy. While the field of possible successors is strong (Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, Foreign Minister Davutoglu, Economy Minister Ali Babacan and President Gul) none matches Erdogan’s popular appeal. Whether the country will carry the same weight in its neighbouring region without Erdogan as its leader is highly questionable. While it is by no means perfect, Turkey has much to be proud of. That it has an important role to play in the MENA region is unquestionable, whether with or without the leadership of Erdogan. The nature of its role, however, is more uncertain. As so often in the history of the Turkish Republic, its future will be shaped by reactions to events necessitated by its geographic location rather than its own desires, some of which it cannot foresee nor fully plan for. Whether we will be witnessing Turkey’s moment any time soon is thus yet to be determined. _____ (1) Ergenekon is an alleged clandestine, ultranationalist organisation including among its members powerful military and security officials suspected of planning an overthrow of the government through assassinations of members of the country’s political and cultural elite intended to lead to a military coup. Rachel Samren Head of Business Intelligence
Published: 20th January 2012