Will the real Turkey please rise?

The Turkish government of Prime Minister Erdoğan keeps saying it still wants to be an EU member. But in the meantime, they become friends with Iran and Syria and agitate in strong emotional words against Israel. What does the country really want?

The story goes that at the Turkish ministry of Foreign Affairs people start tearing their hair out when Prime Minister Erdoğan lets his Islamic heart speak again. When he for example calls the Iranian President Ahmadinejad ‘my good friend’, or when he uses undiplomatic language towards Israel. Then it’s time for Foreign Affairs to take action and politicians and diplomats work overtime to control the damage, so that Turkey’s goal in international politics won’t be endangered. And that goal is: to take a self confident place in world politics, and especially in their own region.

Emotion, that’s the Achilles heel of governing party AKP in Turkey’s foreign policy. Says Joost Lagendijk, former chairperson of the interparliamentary delegation with Turkey in the European Parliament, and now a teacher at the Istanbul Sabanci University and senior advisor of the Istanbul Policy Centre. And that emotion regularly takes control of Tayyip Erdoğan, the religious Prime Minister of Turkey. ‘But it is not true’, says Lagendijk, ‘that the foreign policy of Turkey is based on that emotion. On the contrary: Turkey’s policy is based on common sense.’

Some say that the AKP government, in power since 2002, shows its real face in its foreign policy. The AKP (Justice and Development Party) is lead by devout Muslims. They have their roots in the political-Islamic movement and (some of them) were active for parties that were forbidden because they were considered anti-secular. The AKP narrowly escaped the same fate, but the party is not in the least trusted by the secular establishment. That establishment – the army, the judiciary, a large number of academics – fears the AKP has a secret agenda and wants to transform Turkey into an Islamic state. Getting closer to neighbouring countries is seen as an expression of that agenda.

‘You could say that before Turkey didn’t even have a foreign policy of its own.’

The fact is, however, that the new foreign policy doesn’t originate from Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Affairs Minister Davutoglu, but was already started by the previous government of the social-democrat Bülent Ecevit. That government saw it was time for a foreign policy that was no longer defined by NATO (of which Turkey has been a member since 1952) and the United States, as it was during the Cold War. Says Can Paker, chair of the liberal Istanbul think tank TESEV: ‘The changed relations on the world scene demanded a new approach by the Turks. You could even say that before Turkey didn’t even have a foreign policy of its own.’

This is exactly how Cengiz Çandar, journalist and political commentator, sees the recent performance of Turkey on the world stage. ‘It’s rather sick of the west’, he says, ‘to even ask the question whether Turkey is drifting away from the west or not. Europe doesn’t own Turkey, does it? Turkey is an upcoming power, like for example China, India and Brazil. Is such a country supposed to have its course set by whether it is in line with what Europe wants? Those days are really over. Turkey is more self-confident now and can’t be lectured to any more by other countries.’

This self confidence has everything to do with Turkey’s economic growth, on average about 7% per year since the economic crisis that hit Turkey in 2001. The country has the 16th biggest economy in the world, the 6th in Europe. The Turkish population is huge (72 million) and young: it’s a great market for European products and Turkey can help rejuvenate the rapidly aging population of the EU. The Turkish writer Ugur Ziya Simsek described it like this when he visited Amsterdam earlier this year: ‘Istanbul is a racing and snorting horse, Amsterdam an angora cat sleeping in front of the heater’. You could easily replace Amsterdam with Europe in the simile, and Istanbul with the whole of Turkey.

‘Turkey wants to be a fully-fledged member of the EU, and that means they want to make a concrete contribution.’

The AKP is  generally described as a party ‘with roots in political Islam’, but you could also define it as the party of the rising middle class in the Anatolian cities. Istanbul, with its population of 16 million, is still the economic heart of the country, but cities like Kayseri, Gaziantep, Konya and Denizli have made remarkable progress in the last ten years. The entrepreneurs there are in general devout Muslims, who don’t feel at home with the traditional Turkish parties and feel represented by the AKP: the party represents their religious feelings, but also their trade spirit. They expect a lot from the EU: more religious freedom than strictly secular Turkey offers them now, and a market for their products.

The end of the Cold War gave Turkey a chance to use its potential to the fullest. Economically, but also politically. The countries of the Middle East are a market for Turkish entrepreneurs, but the market can’t be exploited when conflicts or even wars are simmering, like about ten years ago with Syria. For example, years ago Turkey considered the government in the Kurdish region in Northern-Iraq as PKK protectors, this summer the Minister of Foreign Trade travelled to the region with a big group of Anatolian businessmen in his entourage. And last spring Turkey opened a consulate in Erbil, capital of the region.

As well, politically Turkey doesn’t have to consider Cold War sentiments anymore and can openly connect with countries of the former Soviet Union and with countries in the immediate region. But not because it is fed up with the European Union and the opponents of Turkish membership – most notably French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel. Can Paker: ‘Turkey wants to be a fully-fledged member of the EU, and that means they want to make a concrete contribution. They can do that with their growing influence in the region.’

By the way, Paker doesn’t believe that Turks are tired of the EU. ‘At one stage support for EU membership was almost eighty percent, and now it’s only fifty percent, but that percentage is stable, and pretty high when you consider how Turkey is treated by the Union at the moment.’ It is expected that next year support for the EU might grow again (see boxed text).

‘Turkey doesn’t embrace the Middle East out of love, but out of calculation.’

Joost Lagendijk adds: ‘That Turkey is now starts building ties with the Middle East is an important part of the Turkish strategy to become essential for Europe.’ Lagendijk remembers a talk he had on this topic with Foreign Affairs Minister Davutoglu: ‘The AKP government sees of course that some EU countries are not waiting with their arms wide open to receive Turkey. So, said Davutoglu, Turkey has to ensure that it brings the EU good relations with the Middle East as a present when they let Turkey join the pact. Turkey doesn’t embrace the Middle East out of love, but out of calculation.’

And that calculation works the other way around as well: if Turkey wants to strengthen its influence and trade interests in the region, then it’s important to offer those countries more than certain others which want to expand their influence in the region, like Iran. And Turkey has what no other (Muslim) country in the Middle East has: strong ties with the EU. If those ties are cut, Turkey would reduce itself to being ‘just another country’. Political commentator Cengiz Çandar doesn’t want to completely exclude the role of religion though: ‘The AKP especially, with its pious Islamic leaders, is able to make quick and easy progress in the Middle East.’

While Erdogan’s emotions are the Achilles heel of Turkey’s foreign politicy, domestically they are the strength of the AKP. The party is under great pressure and is losing ground in the opinion polls. In the 2007 elections they won 47% of the votes, now it would only be 35%. Opposition party CHP, which now has a new and popular leader after eighteen years, has seen its support grow from 21% in 2007 to more than 30% now.

The next elections are scheduled for the summer of 2011, but already in September there is a big test for the AKP: the party proposed a referendum about a package of constitutional changes that strongly divides Turkish opinion. Among other things, the changes are meant to bring the power of the judiciary more into line with European standards – a sign that the AKP is indeed working towards joining the EU. In parliament, the package of changes didn’t get the necessary two-thirds majority, so now a referendum is needed. ‘Europe’ supports the changes, but the Turkish opposition sees them as a way for the AKP to bring the judiciary under its control. It seems the approval of the population will be given, but the big question is how faithful the AKP electorate will show itself to be.

‘The AKP makes feints, they go in the right direction, but forget to score.’

The popularity of the AKP is diminishing because of economical problems – the economy is growing but at the same time the unemployment rate rose to above 10% – but also because of a failed effort to solve the Kurdish question by giving Kurds more rights. The ‘Kurdish opening’ was announced with a lot of fanfare in the summer of 2009, but in the end achieved little. PKK violence increased, Turkish soldiers are dieing again in big numbers and the AKP gets the blame.

Joost Lagendijk: ‘It would have advanced the relationship with Europe if the AKP had managed to give more direction to the Kurdish opening. Nothing concrete came of it really, such a pity. Just like the talks with Armenia; they started well, but then Turkey decided to set new conditions for further talks, and now the approaches have stopped. The AKP makes feints, they go in the right direction, but forget to score.’

By agitating sharply against Israel after the attack on the aid convoy to Gaza, Erdoğan increases his popularity. He has something to fear from the small and more religious Saadet Partij, which could take some voters away from the AKP if the AKP doesn’t show its Islamic-emotional side now and then. Internationally, things will settle down again. Israel and Turkey are already again on speaking terms.

Pressured by the United States, Turkey still has an interest to keep them as a friend as well. She depends on American intelligence in the fight against the PKK in Northern Iraq, and can’t do much in the region without the support of the USA. Joost Lagendijk: ‘The AKP is actually playing it quite smart: they are still moving towards the EU, but that doesn’t win them votes. Their self-confident and sometimes emotional politics in the region does.’

In June one new negotiating chapter was opened between Turkey and the EU: about food safety. Eighteen chapters are blocked by the EU, mainly because Turkey refuses to open its ports for trade with Greek Cyprus.
Turkey refuses that because the EU doesn’t live up to its promise to allow direct trade between Turkish North Cyprus and the EU. That promise was made when the Turkish Cypriots in 2004 voted in favour of a UN plan to reunite the island (the Greek Cypriots rejected the plan). After that (Greek) Cyprus became an EU member, and the country blocked honouring the promise. That was easy, since the EU has to be unanimous in its support to end the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots. But that will change: thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, now only a simple majority of votes is needed. So if at the end of this year or the beginning of next year the topic is put to the vote again, there will probably enough support for lifting the isolation. Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoglu promised that Turkey will open its ports then, and after that suddenly eight new negotiating chapters could be opened.

Visa obligations
Very likely next year there will also be progress in the ‘visa question’. Turkey criticizes the refusal of the EU to liberalize the visa obligations for Turks. The EU argues that liberalization is impossible because Turkey’s passports are not fraud-proof enough, because Turkey’s borders are porous and because Turkey doesn’t take back refugees who enter the EU via Turkey, as they promised to do. But recently Turkey introduced biometric passports, and a new treaty about taking back refugees is almost fully negotiated. At the same time Turkey works hard to better secure its external borders, with European help. When all that is settled, the EU can probably no longer deny Turks the right to enter the EU with less restrictions, starting with Turkish businessmen, artists and students.

4 replies
  1. hkubra
    hkubra says:

    While I generally liked and agreed with your coverage of Turkish Foreign Policy, I have to specially congratulate the following comment: “The AKP is generally described as a party ‘with roots in political Islam’, but you could also define it as the party of the rising middle class in the Anatolian cities.”

    As a person who grew up with first hand experience in the political Islam scene in Turkey, I am often repelled when AKP is called “Islamist” or with roots in “political Islam”; while roots of Milli Görüş (the movement behind current Saadet Party) were both Islamic and had political agenda by the time figures like Erdogan had a real say in that movement the movement itself had pretty much turned into a conservative-Muslim party with rather secular achievements and wishes (even though they generally used religion for votes). As a result of this, and as well because of their “nationalist” attitude and “capitalist” point of view, the core of Islamists and political Islam supporters in Turkey have always boycotted the movement… the truth is they were anyway a very small group.

    What had made AKP what it is today has been the Anatolian entrepreneurship. It resonated well with people not because of its previous Islamic attitude but because it was a party of commoners: neither Erdogan nor many leading figures in the party are originally from middle or higher classes, these were Anatolian people with modest origins, allowing them to connect better with the bulk of the population. This characteristic of them – “pious yet capitalist entrepreneurs with a wish for an American-style secularism than French ultra-laïcité” – is evident in their foreign policy too. They use Turkey’s characteristics as a Muslim country and its past as Ottoman Empire to connect with countries, with whom Turkey has abandoned any relations for a long time, however rationale behind this connection isn’t Islamic (or imperialistic for that matter) but a very secular one: be a regional power rather than the good old side-kick of the US. As you pointed out and others you mentioned pointed out, relations with Iran or Syria isn’t about religion, they are about a stable region that would allow greater socio-economic development for Turkey. I would go on to say that its main clashes with Israel over the years isn’t “only” about its love for Palestine/emotions: true, emotions run high when it’s Palestine for Muslims and that PM is generally an emotional person, and that party benefits in terms of internal politics from Palestinian cause, but there is also the factor that while Turkey tries to stabilise the region Israel de-stabilises it with the ongoing occupation. If Palestine was a real cause they would go for it all year long, not only when Israel makes a move that incites emotions and also increase animosity & decrease stability within the region.

    At the end, you can’t believe how lovely it is to see somebody who can see through the Turkish foreign policy, when even educated Turks claim that Turkish foreign policy is heading Turkey towards being a “second Iran”…


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