Real estate market for holiday homes very much alive

ISTANBUL – The real estate market for holiday homes is still very much alive in Turkey, as opposed to those in other Mediterranean countries, like Spain. The favourable exchange rate of the Turkish lira and the fast-growing Turkish economy are the most important reasons.

Turkeycame under the spotlight in the eighties as a country where Europeans could buy real estate for good prices. There have been some serious dips related to political instability and economic downturns: a bit more then ten years ago the country was hit by a deep economic crisis. Drastic reforms, for example in the banking sector, helped the country recover. Besides which, since 2002 Turkey has no longer been governed by weak coalition governments but by a still popular party, the AKP, which brings relative stability.

More careful

‘A few years ago we were affected by the emerging economic crisis in Europe’, says Monika Kramer, who works for TIA Group real estate in the Southern Turkish city of  Antalya, and who also sells houses to Dutch people, being a German woman speaking fluent Dutch. ‘Especially the older and lower quality houses went down in price, causing an overall levelling in market valuations.’

The exchange rate of the Turkish currency, the lira, helped the real estate market to recover from the dip: the lira was much stronger five years ago than it is now. That not only reduces the cost of buying a house, but also the cost of daily living inTurkey. ‘Still, I do notice people have become a bit more careful’, says Kramer. ‘Before, people would buy straight away. Now people rent a house for some time first, so they can get a feel for the market and decide in which village or in which neighbourhood they would like to buy their own place.’

Retired people

TheAntalyaregion is one of the most popular among foreign buyers on the Turkish coast, and the region where the largest numbers of Dutch people settle, mostly retirees. The smaller town ofAlanyaand the villages around it in particular are locations in demand. Already 44,000 foreigners live there, among them some 3,800 Dutch nationals – by comparison, in 2005 that number was only 1,900.

Ümit Rehir of the local paper Antalya Ekspres confirms the real estate market is doing well: ‘The foreigners who buy here are mostly elderly people and the economic crisis inEuropeis hurting them less than young people.’ It’s hard to generalise about prices, he says: ”You can buy an expensive villa here but also a very affordable apartment”.


According to Monika Kramer of the TIA Group, the relatively expensive houses especially have gone down in price:”The houses that were over-priced for their quality and location. During the dip of a few years ago the prices of those units have become more realistic.“

For Turks too, buying a house has become more achievable over the last few years. Because of the spectacular decrease in inflation, (which could reach 80% ten to fifteen years ago, but is at most 10% now,) and the ever-expanding economy, a mortgage system was launched and buying a house became a possibility for a much larger number of Turks.


Visa requirements for Turks illegal

Is the famous Turkish musician Arif Sag just a hot headed Turk who just can’t deal with the fact that he needs to follow certain rules to enter the Netherlands? Or is his frustration about the treatment he got from the border control at Amsterdam Schiphol airport justified, and part of a bigger problem, namely the illegal way Turks are hindered from travelling to the EU? The latter.
Arif Sag, who had all his paperwork in order and entered the Netherlands a few days earlier without any problem, had an invitation to come to the Netherlands: he was going to give a concert as part of the celebrations of 400 years diplomatic ties between Turkey and the Netherlands. Officially we are supposed to find that worth a party, but in practice it doesn’t look like we take our friendship with the Turks very seriously. In this case that lead to personal frustration, but in general it has been angering the Turks for years already – and with good reason.

Against the treaty
With good reason? It’s just European rules that require Turks to have a visa to travel to Europe, isn’t it? Well, no, it isn’t, and that’s the big misunderstanding here: a 1963 treaty between the then EEC and Turkey requires both sides to refrain from introducing any restrictions on freedom to receive and provide services. That includes trade, but also for example study, tourism, and cultural exchanges. At the time the Netherlands was one of the eleven European countries that had no visa requirements for Turks who wanted to come to the Netherlands. All restrictions that form the current policy were introduced after the treaty. So they are against the treaty, and thus illegal.
In the last couple of years, several European judges have confirmed with their rulings that the visa restrictions for Turks are not legal. Dutch judges too. But no European country has since had the decency to turn those judicial rulings into legally binding policies. Meanwhile, Europe in general and the Netherlands especially do not pass up any opportunity to lecture the rest of the world, including Turkey, about the importance of the rule of law.
Something else contributes to the frustration of the Turks. Civilians of five Balkan states are permitted to travel to the EU without visa, and none of these countries is negotiating on EU membership. For Moldavia and Ukraine the so called ‘visa liberalization process’ has started: both countries having no chance for EU membership in the near (or distant) future. For Turkey, not even the liberalization process has started yet, even though Turkey has been negotiating for EU membership since 2005. Europe didn’t dare to go further than a ‘dialogue about visa, mobilisation and migration’, which in fact means nothing. In the meantime, the Turks have taken significant steps to meet European standards, like introducing biometric passports.

Utterly arrogant
And this all out of fear. Fear to displease the voting masses. Fear that large numbers of Turks will flood the Netherlands. That fear is unfounded. Yes, many illegal immigrants cross the Turkish-Greek border, but those are not Turks but mainly Afghans, Ethiopians and Pakistanis. Besides, Turkey is doing well economically, and it’s utterly arrogant to assume that  thousands and thousands of Turks would want to change their own country for the increasingly xenophobic Europe. Research also shows that this flood will not come (apart from on the tourist level, which will help the European economy!) and statistics show that, on the contrary, more Europeans nowadays seek their economic fortune in Turkey.
If the Netherlands really wants to reaffirm the friendship with Turkey after 400 years of diplomatic ties, than it should get rid of the illegal visa restrictions as soon as possible.

‘Dutch airport treats Turkish singer scandalously’

ISTANBUL – A concert of the Turkish singer Arif Sag was cancelled last weekend because of the strict visa restrictions on nonEU citizens arriving in the Netherlands. Sag was questioned at length at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport and was made to wait so long that he no longer wanted to enter the country and took the first plane back to Istanbul. Turkish papers, among others Radikal, write about a ‘scandulous treatment’ by the Netherlands. 

Spicy detail is that the concert, organized by Kulsan cultural foundation, was to take place as part of the celebrations of 400 years of diplomatic ties between Turkey and the Netherlands. A few days earlier Sag passed through Schiphol for a rehearsal without any problems.
The strict procedures for visiting Europe have been angering Turks for years now.

Turkey: from one dictatorship to the other

The AKP government of Prime Minister Erdoğan has effectively decreased the once unlimited power of the army. The power of the judiciary was strengthened. But now that power has too strong a grip on society.

Why did you visit wounded demonstrators in hospital? Why did you give interviews to so many TV and radio stations? Why did you attend that press conference? Why did you help get bodies of PKK members back to their families? ‘All legal activities’, says human rights lawyer Reyhan Yalcindag, based in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, ‘but Kurdish politicians and activists are being questioned and jailed for it.’

And not just a few Kurdish politicians and activists were arrested and jailed, but a total of about 4,000 since April 2009. And that number is still rising, because all over Turkey new suspects are still being arrested in what has become known as the ‘KCK trials’. The KCK is an umbrella organisation of Kurdish groups,  including the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU and the United States. By arresting peaceful, democratically elected politicians and activists under the KCK flag, practicing democratic rights suddenly becomes a crime. Lawyer Yalcindag: ‘And so you can end up in a cell for giving out a press release, for participating in a demonstration or for shouting a slogan.’

Anti-democratic network

Criticism of the firm grip of the judicial power over several opposition groups in Turkey is increasing. It happened gradually. At first, it seemed the increasing influence of judges and prosecutors initiated by the AKP government of PM Erdoğan, which came to office in 2002, would be beneficial to democracy. The judicial power for example started to deal with the ‘deep state’, an anti-democratic network of prominent figures in for example the bureaucracy, army, secret service and the mafia. The unlimited authority and privileges of the army were curtailed, military courts for civilians were abolished and for certain crimes army personnel now have to appear before a civilian judge.

Maya Arakon, sociologist and political scientist and until recently an assistant professor at Yeditepe University in Istanbul, used to have faith in the way the army was dealt with by the AKP: ‘The army has always controlled the country since the foundation of the republic in 1923’, she says. ‘So when the trials against the ‘deep state’ started, I and many others were happy with that. It is not wrong for the government to have more power than the army. But then that power has to be used in the right way for the right goal. It should benefit the people, who should get more rights and freedoms. That is not happening now, even though the government insists democratisation is the goal of their policies.

The power of judges and prosecutors is turning itself against democracy now, claims Arakon: ‘The AKP uses judges and prosecutors to silence opponents. The KCK trials are an example of that. The Kurdish party BDP is the biggest rival of the AKP in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey.’ Conspiracy thinking? The first arrests in the KCK case were at the beginning of April 2009. The local elections, which the Kurdish party won convincingly, were held at the end of March 2009.

An odd alliance

But not only Kurdish politicians and activists are victims of the ever tighter grip that the judiciary has on society. Even the once so powerful army doesn’t escape. An odd alliance: in the nineties the army was so powerful that they could ruthlessly and without fear of punishment get rid of the PKK or anybody they even suspected of having sympathy for the separatist movement, but now they are in a way in the same boat as the Kurdish activists. They are no longer hand and glove with the government, like before, but have become opponents. And they taste defeat.

Part of the trials against those involved in the ‘deep state’ is the so called Balyoz case. That case is about a group of high-ranking, partly retired army men who have allegedly conspired against the AKP government. They had spectacular plans: they would first cause great unrest in society, for example by bombing a huge mosque in Istanbul during Friday prayer and provoke a military confrontation with Greece, and then topple the government.

Lawyer Celal Ülgen, who represents main suspect Cetin Dogan and the other ‘big fish’ Dursun Cicek (once head of the military units who decapitated Kurds in the nineties), doesn’t believe any of it. He opens his Apple computer and says: ‘Now I’m going to convince you in half an hour that the whole case is fake.’

Copied signatures, lost CD’s

He starts a presentation and shows how evidence has been doctored. It’s about copied signatures, about lost CD’s, about dates that don’t make sense. It’s too complicated to explain it all here, but even some people who are not automatically on the army’s side are becoming convinced that the evidence in the Balyoz case isn’t clean.

The problem for both the KCK and Balyoz suspects is that they are actors in a pretty polarized society and they don’t have many allies outside their own circles. Balyozlawyer Celal Ülgen often hears it said that it wouldn’t be the first time that an elected government in Turkey was toppled by the army, and that it is for that reason not unthinkable that the army, which has a deep hatred and suspicion of the AKP, could have such plans again. Ülgen: ‘Many people think like that, and it makes it more difficult to convince people the Balyoz case is based on doctored evidence.’

And every activist Kurd automatically has, according to many Turks, a PKK odour, whether he or she takes up arms or supports the Kurdish struggle as a member of Parliament or mayor. There is sympathy among human rights activists and liberal intellectuals, but in Turkey that’s only a very small group.

Secret material

Doctored evidence, unlawful evidence, indictments for practising democratic rights, it would be less bad if at least the suspects could rely on the independence of the judges in their cases. But they don’t rely on that. They have little reason to. Already during the trials it turns out that (internationally) respected legal norms are not being followed and that judges don’t seem to care. Norms such as the access of lawyers to evidence. Both Celal Ülgen and Reyhan Yalcindag don’t get access to evidence, exactly the evidence that they think has been fabricated or consider unlawful.

KCK-lawyer Reyhan Yalcindag: ‘Private phone calls have been tapped, against all international legal regulations. These taps are being used as evidence, but the lawyers don’t have access to them because it’s considered ‘secret material.’ Balyozlawyer Celal Ülgen: ‘I want to inspect documents about a certain CD, but I’m not allowed to. Consequently I can’t defend my clients properly.’

Another example: the very long pre-trial detentions. Some of the suspects had been in remand for years, sometimes without indictment or without having any information on when the trial would start, continue or finish. That’s not the case for suspects in other high profile trials in which the suspects are close to the government, as became painfully clear in October. In a huge fraud case against board members of Deniz Feneri Dernegi, a charity organisation close to the government, the judges decided to release all suspects from remand.

Destruction of Kurdish political life

‘Because of these sorts of cases, the public’s faith in the judiciary decreases’, says sociologist and political scientist Maya Arakon. ‘People don’t believe anymore that there is justice, and that is very dangerous, because they will take justice into their own hands. Of course you can wonder if things were better before. No, they were not, but that doesn’t justify what is happening now. The judicial power protects the interests of the state, and nowadays of the government, instead of working for civil rights and fundamental freedoms that should protect civilians against the state and the government.’

For Kurdish politicians, she says, it goes even further than that: ‘In their view, these developments are part of the destruction of Kurdish political life in Turkey, and I can understand that very well. They can hardly do anything else these days than defend themselves against all these arrests.’

‘You can’t solve problems with legislation only’

The European Union looks at it with concern, as becomes clear in the progress report published in mid-October. The judicial shortcomings in both the Balyoz case and the KCK trials are mentioned explicitly. It’s all rather sour: the changes that were pushed through under pressure from the EU, and that were meant to serve democracy, look good on paper but, as happens more often in Turkey, something goes seriously wrong in their implementation. EU MP and Turkey rapporteur Ria Oomen-Ruijten: ‘Indeed, you can’t solve problems with legislation only. That’s why the EU invests in the training of judges and prosecutors.’

But what if they are pressured to start the ‘right’ prosecutions and give the ‘right’ verdicts? And what if judges and prosecutors of important cases are being replaced at strategic moments, with an outcome pleasing the government? Oomen-Ruijten: ‘It’s true, sometimes strange things happen. But that’s of course also why we monitor it all. There is no proof that the government directly interferes. Our starting point still is that Turkey is a civilized nation.’

But sociologist and political scientist Maya Arakon doesn’t expect much from the EU:  ‘Europe has its own problems. They now and then send a delegate this way, but their interest in Turkey isn’t sincere.’ Oomen-Ruijten, one of those delegates, strongly disagrees: ‘My report on Turkey and the EU, which will be published halfway mid-November, will be about interdependence in several areas, from economy to the fight against terrorism. But human rights, that’s another subject, more important than anything else. Human rights, the rule of law, those are strict Copenhagen criteria and Turkey has to comply with them.’

A huge paradox

Does Maya Arakon think the tide will turn within a reasonable time? ‘This is Turkey, she sighs. ‘Everything can change in a day and nothing can change in years. I don’t know, but I don’t have much hope.’ The AKP is firmly in charge: the party won the elections last June with a bigger majority than ever before. Most Turks are not directly harmed by the developments in the judiciary and don’t feel very involved in huge, elusive court cases against Kurds and military personnel. They vote based on changes in their own lives, or, in other words, based on a growing wealth and a growing economy.

Balyozlawyer Celal Ülgen clings to Europe. That’s also why he talks to the European press. ‘The consciousness about this matter has to grow in Europe’, he says. ‘Then maybe Europe can pressure Turkey more.’ A huge paradox, because it’s exactly EU pressure that helped erode the power of the army in the last couple of years. An even bigger paradox is that the hope of the Balyoz suspects, military men who still fight bitterly against the PKK, is focused on the solution of the Kurdish question. Ülgen: ‘They are terrorists, and my clients are also jailed based on terrorism laws. If there is ever to be an amnesty law for PKK members, there is a good chance that same law will free my clients too.’ He considers that chance bigger than the chance a judge will judge fair.

‘It’s hard in Europe, but even harder in Afghanistan’

More and more illegal  regufeesare trying to reach the European Union via Turkey. They secretly cross the border with Greece. Europe is doing its very best to stop the immigrants.

All of a sudden it gets noisy on the inside square of the ‘detention centre’ for immigrants in Greece. About fifty young men are allowed to leave the centre today and they crowd around the fence that can open at any moment. Muhammad Gul, a 16 year old boy, is in the crowd too. To the question of where his family is, he answers: ‘In Afghanistan. I am here alone.’

The detention centre is located near the small town of Fylakia, close to the Turkish border. Many immigrants from, for example, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia first go to Turkey and then cross the border with Greece. Then they are in the European Union, the final destination of their trip. If they are caught crossing the border, the police take them to the detention centre, where they are registered.

Caught four nights ago

Up until October about three hundred immigrants per night crossed the border here. Turkey is increasingly popular as the last stop before entering the EU. The country borders countries where many refugees originate (Iran, Iraq), and Iran itself borders Afghanistan and Pakistan. Also from Africa you can get to Turkey via a few other countries. Turkey doesn’t guard its borders very well. It’s not so difficult to get in, or to slip over the European border. But Europe has had enough of it: almost two hundred border guards from different European countries are now helping the Greek police to prevent the immigrants from getting in.

Since the European border guards have been helping the Greeks, only about eighty illegal immigrants per night have been crossing the border. Muhammad Gul, the 16 year old Afghani, was caught four nights ago. ‘I first travelled to Iran, then to Turkey, and now I’m in the European Union.’ The travellers have to pay human traffickers, who know the best routes. Muhammad: ‘My parents paid about 6,000 dollars.’ That’s 4,400 euros.

Muhammad is the oldest of six children, and has two sisters and three brothers. By sending their oldest son to Europe, his parents hope for a better life for him and for their other children. ‘The first five years in Europe are the hardest, I heard’, says Muhammad. But he doesn’t really know why that is, or how it will get easier in time. Like everybody else here he first heads for the Greek capital, Athens. There he wants to earn money and then travel to another European country. ‘In Turkey and Iran I worked in a hotel. I want to look for such a job in Athens too.’

Used to a hard life

He is not daunted by the fact that there are already thousands of immigrants in Athens and that even the Greeks can hardly find a job because the economy isn’t doing so well. ‘It’s difficult in Europe, but in my country it’s even harder There is no work and it’s dangerous. I am used to a hard life.’

In the group is also a very young boy. The men shout he is eighteen, but he is obviously much younger. He joins the conversation. His name is Ashraf Mohammad and he says he is twelve. He left Afghanistan without his family.

Ashraf speaks softly: ‘It was a difficult trip, it took two months. But I didn’t need to work on the way because my parents gave me enough money.’ Ashraf’s parents borrowed money to let their son leave. ‘I have an uncle in London’, he says. ‘My parents told me to go there. With him I have a better future than in Afghanistan.’ The boys around him are all older, between about 16 and 27. They are a bit jealous of Ashraf because he is still so young. One of them says: ‘He might be able to go to school in London and get a good education. We are too old for that, we can only work.’

Ashraf has only 20 dollars left: too little for the bus to Athens. He wants to go by train, that’s cheaper. How to get from Athens to London, he doesn’t know yet. First he needs to earn money.

When did he last talk to his parents? ‘Twenty days ago’, he says. ‘In Turkey I tried but I couldn’t get a connection and here in the centre there is no phone.’ It’s the first thing he will do when he sees a phone booth in Greece: call home. And then: on the way to London. Does he think things will work out well? He shrugs his shoulders, smiles shyly and walks away.

In legal limbo

Are the immigrants allowed to stay in Europe? No, they are not. When they leave the detention centre, they are given a letter that states that they have to leave the EU within thirty days. But of course nobody does that. For Europe it’s too complicated and expensive to send everybody back to his own country. So these boys will have a life in legal limbo. But Muhammad hopes things will turn out well for him. ‘I want to work, earn money, that’s all. Nothing wrong with that, right?’

It’s ten o’clock in the morning. Muhammad gets on a bus going to Athens. That costs 60 euros, and then his money is about finished. His bed in the detention centre is taken over by another immigrant: about an hour ago a new group of young men (and one young woman) was delivered to the centre.

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.