Winter 2011

Turkey’s Dance: On the Edge of the Cauldron

Hugh Pope

Things have rarely felt better for a Turkish government. After a decade of broad-based progress, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hearing little but praise for the democratic legitimacy of Turkey’s elections, its robust market economy and the way it seems to have tamed four of the region’s ideological demons: Islamism, ethnic nationalism, militarism and authoritarianism. In Tunisia and Morocco, the first democratic victors of the Arab revolts are pragmatic pro-Islamic parties that explicitly model themselves on Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Ten countries from Africa alone have newly applied to open embassies in the Turkish capital, Ankara

The feel-good factor goes well beyond politics. Turkey’s writers and films now win international prizes and its soap opera stars are the toast of television audiences from Tangiers to Almaty. Major international brand names are powered, owned or engineered by Turkish factories, from Grundig electronics to Renault cars to Beko refrigerators and Godiva chocolates. There has been an extraordinary and growing parade of visitors, conferences and summits crowding into Istanbul. The vibrant commercial and cultural city has become the undisputed hub of the region, a city that flattering magazine writers no longer hesitate to compare to metropolises like London or New York.

Prime Minister Erdogan, having won three straight parliamentary elections, most recently in June with 50 per cent of the vote, has been in a confident, brash and charismatic mood. Few can blame him or Turkey for enjoying a moment in the international limelight after an often grim journey through the 20th century. First the country was almost destroyed during a quarter century of external attacks around the First World War, with its social traumas, massacres and deportations, not just of Armenians and Greeks, but of Turks as well. Then it was isolated for four decades guarding a whole third of NATO’s south-eastern flank against the Warsaw Pact. Finally, it long had to live under a cloud of disapproval by polite Western opinion, both because of real human rights abuses and also because of prejudices stoked up by factual’ fictions like the Midnight Express film.

Yet around Turkish dinner tables – always the principal theatre for emotional debates about the state of the country’ – the doomsayers are beginning to feel that their turn must be coming again. Can the country really have so completely escaped the legacy of its recent history? Are the past decade’s phenomenal growth rates – and the ballooning current account deficit – not soon due for the sharp market correction that everyone knows always strikes every decade or so? Can the Turkish economy really escape the woes of its principal trading partner and investor, the European Union? Can Turkey be said to be winning its foreign policy battles when the great promises of the mid-2000s have yet to resolve long-running problems with Cyprus, Armenia and the Turkish Kurd insurgency? Has the prime minister, after a decade in undisputed control of the country, become inaccessible and intolerant of dissent? And is it wise for the government to luxuriate in the warm bath of love it has recently enjoyed from the Arab and Middle Eastern street, and to abandon the rigours of Turkey’s hard-won EU accession process?

Few doubt that whatever market or policy corrections may lie in store for Turkey, the country remains fundamentally solid and able to regroup to resume its long-standing momentum. But it is also clear that the cauldrons of the Middle East in particular are boiling again, and Turkey is beginning to feel the heat. All seemed more predictable in the 2000s when Turkey followed a policy of treating equally all parties from Israel to Iran, seeking to build security and prosperity through visa-free travel, open trade agreements, high-level political meetings and infrastructure integration. Known rather accidentally as the zero problems’ policy, this valuable doctrine has now been consigned to the idealistic longterm as Turkey is forced to grapple with suddenly much more difficult partners.

Turkey’s notable and unusual cooperation with Iran in 2010 has turned to rivalry, as both compete for influence across the Arab world, are increasingly seen as defenders of Sunni and Shia interests respectively, and take opposite sides on NATO’s anti-missile defence shield. Relations with Iraq, previously marked by a real effort to remain on equally good relations with all factions, have taken a hit over Turkey’s alignment with a faction that didn’t win the last Iraqi election and the Iraqi government’s lean towards Tehran and Damascus. Turkey was quick to side with Egyptian revolutionaries when an international leader was needed to call for the departure of Hosni Mubarak and Egyptians clearly feel warm towards Turkey and its prime minister . But Egyptians tell pollsters that they want an Egyptian model, not a Turkish one, and Egyptian officials and intellectuals make no secret of their rejection of a big brother to rob them of what they perceive as their leadership role in the Arab world.

Of all the dramas of the Arab Awakening, none challenge Turkey as directly as the unfolding situation in neighbouring Syria. From being best friends with Syria a year ago, Turkey is now engaged in a symbolic proxy war with Damascus, endorsing the Syrian opposition and a dissident army faction. Ankara finds itself caught in a web of pressures and temptations towards further intervention. Such pressures range from US hopes that Turkey can act as a reliable stabilizing force as it withdraws from the region, to European powers discussing a Turkish role in establishing safe havens, to Turkish opinion makers with neo-Ottoman ideas that the country can have a direct role as a regional guide and leader. However any further forward lean by Turkey into Syria carries significant risks: that its reputation as a neutral actor will be damaged in the Arab world, it will get dragged into a Syrian civil war and will provoke direct conflict with other interested powers, notably Iran.

The collapse in the Turkish relationship with Israel has been spectacular, if far from all Turkey’s fault. Military cooperation and intense interaction during the decade until early 2009 has given way to talk of confrontation over Gaza aid flotillas and even Israeli gas projects in the east Mediterranean. Some in Israel have chosen to blame what they see as Erdogan’s Islamist’ agenda. A more likely explanation is that the warmth of Turkey’s relationship with Israel has always been dependent on its public’s perception of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians – a Turkish ambassador was only appointed to Israel in 1992. And each step down in the relationship since 2009 has arguably been first the result of an Israeli, not a Turkish action, even if Erdogan has not spared his rhetorical rod. These include Israel’s killing of 1,400 Palestinians in its Cast Iron’ offensive, the Israeli deputy foreign minister’s televised insult to the Turkish ambassador, Israel’s killing of nine Turkish activists on a ship with aid for Gaza while it was still in international waters 70 miles from Israel, and Israel’s apparent rejection of a negotiated wording for an apology over the incident.

Nevertheless, it is unclear how much long term good Turkey will get out of its public hostility to Israel. There is not much likelihood of this inducing much change in Israel, and Arab public opinion, however thrilled it currently is to see a new champion of its cause, will tire of a Turkey that is seen to be adopting anti-Zionist bluster that has little impact. Also, Turkish officials claim that they can have a good relationship with the U.S. without one with Israel. Certainly, President Obama seems skilful in his handling of his relationship with Prime Minister Erdogan. But the current strong U.S. support for Ankara is mostly linked to its temporary need for support at a time that it is drawing down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, its wish for Turkey-based options in Syria, and a sense that there is enough trouble in the Middle East without picking a fight with its NATO ally. It is unlikely that in the long term supporters of Turkey’s strategic significance can match the unrivaled strength of Israel’s domestic supporters in the U.S. in the coming election year.

Another weak plank of Turkey’s platform is its relationship with the European Union. Only slow progress has been made on the 35 negotiating chapters since the official start of membership negotiations in 2005. Five of these chapters are blocked by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s bruising and treaty-breaking rebuffs to Turkey, and another dozen chapters are blocked by the Greek Cypriot-run Republic of Cyprus. Blame for this lies partly on the EU, which accepted Cyprus as a member in 2004 despite the Greek Cypriots’ own role in not voting for an EU-backed, United Nations Plan to reunite the island first. But Turkey also has its share of the blame, having rejected earlier versions of the plan, for three decades of hardline policies on the island, and, since 2005, for refusing to honour the agreement that made it possible for it to open negotiations in the first place – opening its ports and airport to Greek Cypriot traffic.

The Turkey-EU impasse is now moving from stalemate to regression. Turkey says it will not recognize or speak to Cyprus when it takes over the EU presidency in July 2012. In Britain in November, Turkish President Abdullah Gul said that this would be a half country” taking over a miserable union”. That same month, when two European commissioners visited Turkey together – an unprecedented outreach from the commission, an institution that is one of Turkey’s friends in Europe – they felt slighted by their Turkish counterparts, particularly a populist speech criticizing Europe at a grand dinner supposedly in their honour. Similarly, the visiting president of the European parliament, Poland’s Jerzy Bucek, was subjected to a long and highly critical commentary by his dinner host about Europeans’ perceived support for Turkish Kurd insurgents.

This negativity, while an understandable reaction to some European politicians’ wounding comments about Turkey, undermines the EU’s overall role in Turkey and its political and economic transformation. While the Middle East has recently accounted for just a quarter of Turkey’s exports – a proportion that is already shrinking due to the current turmoil – the EU consistently accounts for half of Turkish trade. European states are currently responsible for more than four-fifths of Turkey’s direct foreign investment, which had languished at around one billion dollars per year until it shot up to 20 times that figure after EU accession negotiations began in 2005. Turkey’s mostly strong economic growth in the past decade peaked at 9.4 per cent in 2004, the same year in which Turkey’s revolutionary adoption of EU laws also peaked. The International Monetary Fund now says Turkish growth will likely shrink to 2.2 per cent in 2012. Turkish businessmen don’t need telling that credit is already extraordinarily tight, that bills are not getting paid, that the current account deficit has hit 10 per cent of GDP, that much of Turkish borrowing is being financed by volatile short-term foreign credit, all sure signs of a crunch to come.

If the most intense years of Turkey-EU convergence helped the Turkish economy, the same cannot be said for the political situation. In April, the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe found that Turkey was a world leader with 57 journalists in jail. And the one major domestic reform initiative to start after the fading of the EU reform process, the Democratic Opening to enfranchise Turkey’s Kurdish community and to marginalize the longrunning insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has stalled. After the apparent collapse of peace talks in June, more than 260 people have been killed after the PKK escalated its attacks, including 117 members of the security forces and 38 civilians. Worse, nearly 600 Turkish Kurd activists have been officially jailed on terrorist charges – including several senior elected figures – with no sign of them having taken any part in the violence. Several thousands more have been detained for varying lengths of time since 2009.

To Turkey, pursuing closer ties with EU states may seem less attractive than in the past due to their euro-troubles and political divisions. But the problems Turkey faces with EU partners pale in comparison to the security threats that the Middle East can throw up at Turkey – especially at a time when so much damage is being done by the PKK insurgency, whose most hard-to-control roots are in Iraq, Syria and Iran.

If Turkey and EU could return to full cooperation, which means overcoming the major problem of Cyprus, they would likely find they have a lot more to offer the Middle East together than separately. Turkey brings its prestige and Muslim identity, its real energy and the dynamism of its economy, while Europe has great weight, huge depth, many tools for transition that Turkey doesn’t have. While they may differ on tactics, the EU and Turkey share the basic goals in the Middle East: trying to make the current network of nation states that have not worked very well in the past into a more functional, prosperous, stable and non-threatening system.

In short, Turkey should use its new credibility and leverage as a regional power to re-engage with the EU as a constructive partner in a way that Europeans will appreciate during their times of trouble, rather than constantly demanding rights that no EU state can give Turkey as long as it acts as an outsider and competitor. That way Turkey would renew its insurance policy as the going gets tougher in the Middle East, Ankara would get the respectful treatment from the EU that it wants and deserves, and the resulting partnership would benefit the region as a whole.

Hugh Pope is the Turkey/Cyprus Project Director for International Crisis Group. He is also the author of Dining with al-Qaeda: three decades exploring the many worlds of the Middle East (New York, 2010); Sons of the Conquerors; the rise of the Turkic world (New York, 2005); and of Turkey Unveiled: a Modern History of Turkey (3rd fully revised edition, New York, 2011).