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Turkey key to Western energy, security 29 août 2006

Posted by Acturca in Energy / Energie, EU / UE, Turkey / Turquie, Turkey-EU / Turquie-UE.
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ISN Security Watch (Switzerland), 28/08/06

By Federico Bordonaro * for ISN Security Watch

Political developments in Turkey have the West concerned about the country’s possible actions in northern Iraq and its role as an oil and gas facilitator.

European observers and decision-makers are closely watching ongoing political developments in Turkey and their implications for Ankara’s foreign policy. Foremost among these concerns is the appointment in late July of General Yasar Buyukanit as the new military chief of staff, not to mention upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.

General Buyukanit will take over as the new military chief of staff on 30 August, replacing General Hilmi Ozkok. In a country where the relationship between the civilian administration and the army is key to the preservation of democracy and national unity, a change of leadership on the military side of the equation is considered a delicate moment – even more so as the country prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections.

These domestic events come at a time when Ankara is experiencing difficulties in finding a political and diplomatic convergence with the US on how to deal with Kurdish rebel activities in northern Iraq, and with the EU on the still complex Cyprus question.

Moreover, Turkey’s decision to take part in an enhanced United Nations mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL), as decided by UN Security Council Resolution 1701, will bring Turkish military personnel into a former Ottoman province for the first time since World War I, and the issue already is causing heated debate at home. While Ankara’s latest declarations signal Turkey’s willingness to play a role in the humanitarian and reconstruction fields, they also show its refusal of any task involving the disarmament of non-state actor Hizbollah in Lebanon.

Furthermore, since both Washington and the EU increasingly view Turkey as a strategic partner for European and Mediterranean energy security, Ankara’s democratic stability and foreign policy orientation are of crucial importance for Western interests.

Buyukanit’s appointment: the heart of the matter

Turkish and international analysts alike point out that Buyukanit’s political and cultural orientation is not exactly as pro-European and pro-Western as that of his predecessor. More importantly, some fear that the new chief of staff will promote a tougher policy towards Kurdish activists and will be less likely to make concessions to the EU on the Cyprus issue.

Should Ankara’s position on these two issues become more rigid, a deterioration in European-Turkish relations may occur, further complicating the already intricate matter of Turkey’s integration into the EU.

An even more worrisome possibility would be a stronger anti-Western turn that could signal the beginning of Turkish rapprochement with Iran and a strengthening of Russo-Turkish relations at the expense of Ankara’s traditional pro-US and pro-EU orientation.

However, this eventuality is a worst-case scenario only. Turkey’s constitution, although it allows the military a key political role, is nonetheless well-balanced and not wholly dependent on army decision-making. In addition, the current administration leans towards a cautious policy aimed at harmonizing Turkey’s more explicitly Islamic cultural identity with a classical pro-European stance – though parliamentary elections could change that.

In fact, although the Pan-Turkic nationalist movement Ulusalci recently expressed its hopes that Buyukanit’s appointment would coincide with a less pro-Western foreign policy, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) does not seem to share such expectations.

According to Onder Aytac and Emre Uslu writing in the August issue of Ankara’s English language daily The New Anatolian, Buyukanit’s inaugural speech will tell volumes about his foreign policy orientations. The two specialists maintained that “if he chooses not to use the word ‘democracy’; not to emphasize Turkey’s EU perspective; and not to mention a democratic and broad solution to Turkey’s terrorism question, it will be a signal that Turkey will move closer to the East, Russia and Iran, and that Turkish democracy will face turbulence for a while.”

Some recent developments in northern Iraq also have fuelled the anxiety of those in the West who hold a pessimistic view of Buyukanit’s appointment. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) – labeled a “terrorist organization” by the US, Britain and the EU – has raised the tempo of its armed operations, according to Turkish officials. As a result, last May, both Ankara and Teheran launched military operations on the border to counter the PKK’s activities.

This event has caused some significant concern in Washington. Turkish military intervention in northern Iraq would disrupt the delicate regional balance and plunge the area into chaos, complicating Washington’s already difficult position in Iraq. Moreover, it could further embolden Iran, the US’ main rival in the Middle East, in the event of anti-Kurdish strategic cooperation developing between Ankara and Teheran.

When Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan threatened to invade northern Iraq on 17 July, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top officials immediately called their Turkish counterparts to reassure them of Washington’s willingness to repress hostile PKK activity. However, as Turkish media reported, Ankara’s officials cast doubts on Washington’s real will to engage the PKK militarily.

The big question now is whether Buyukanit will accept Western calls for restraint or will push for autonomous military action against the PKK.

Dr Seyfi Tashan, president of the Ankara-based Foreign Policy Institute, holds a more optimistic view of the evolution of Turkey’s relations with the West, and interprets Erdogan’s actions and declarations on the Kurdish question in a different way.

He told ISN Security Watch last week that “Erdogan’s July statements must be understood as a warning of last resort from Turkey, intended to encourage the US to effectively intervene. He says Washington was actually receptive of the encouragement.

However, « both the US and the EU have to understand that it is Turkey’s right to defend itself, under UN Article 52, and that being sympathetic to the West, just like entering the EU, cannot mean renouncing the right to self-defense.”

With regards to Buyukanit’s appointment, he said “the general may have a different style than Ozkok, but he won’t reverse the pro-Western orientation of secular Turkey, nor he will be less committed to democracy. »

« Turkey is a solid secular republic and a free country with different influential opinions. Some think the military shouldn’t have such an important role, but in the end, the constitution has allowed for democracy to flourish.”

Similarly, Dr Tashan maintained that “European media often misunderstand Turkey’s intentions on Cyprus.”

Many indeed view Ankara’s stance on the presence of Turkish troops on the Mediterranean island as far too rigid in relation to Greek Cypriot expectations and EU reconciliation efforts.

“Turkey indeed wants a settlement, and it perfectly understands that no EU membership will be possible without it, but at the same time, it considers its duty to protect the safety of Turkish Cypriots,” Tashan said.

“General Buyukanit’s appointment won’t prejudice the long but steady process of settlement, and continuity will prevail.”

Energy security

While Turkey’s importance for the trans-Atlantic security structure in the Cold War era was linked to its geostrategic role for NATO, the US and the EU now see Ankara as a key ally in energy policy.

Turkey occupies an ideal geographic location for energy supplies, as a gateway between the oil- and gas-rich former Soviet countries and Southeastern Europe, and between the Black Sea region and the Middle East.

However, Turkey’s strategic significance in energy security has risen in recent years also because of Russia’s assertive energy policy in the context of US-Russian competition in Eastern Europe, the Caspian region and Central Asia. This has become even more evident since the 15-17 August Eurasian Economic Community summit held in Sochi, on the Black Sea, which gathered together Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Moscow agreed with Minsk and Astana to create a customs union, while another project involves a common market.

As a result, Russia seems to have gained the upper hand in Central Asia, and at the same time, Moscow’s recent gas deal with Algeria likely will increase Europe’s dependence upon Russian gas.

Turkey’s independence from Russian-dominated energy markets is consequently an important asset for Europe. London, together with Washington, actively promoted the construction and commercial launch of the recently inaugurated Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, whose geopolitical significance has been often interpreted as basically anti-Russian.

However, in recent years, Russia’s relationship with Turkey has featured a complex combination of political competition (mainly in Central Asia) and economic cooperation. Generally speaking, Moscow’s relations with Ankara have become friendlier, and Russia has even been courting Turkey to engage in more extensive collaboration in the energy field.

Hence, Condoleezza Rice recently warned Ankara to work with the US-EU combine so as not to allow Russia to play a monopolist role in Europe’s energy supplies. Moscow, however, maintains that energy cooperation with Turkey is “inevitable,” and that nobody can prevent the two players from effectively coordinating their energy strategies.

Tashan told ISN Security Watch that “the US and EU should not think that there will be an absolute alternative between Russia or Turkey: at a time of globalization and economic interdependence, the answer to Western energy needs is rather ‘Russia and Turkey’.”

According to Tashan, Ankara “favorably sees itself as a major energy hub to Southern Europe.”

Turkey’s energy cooperation will not be limited to Russia. Azerbaijan and Iran will also play a major role. British Petroleum (BP) will soon complete the South Caucasus pipeline linking the Azeri offshore field of Shah Deniz to Erzurum in Turkey; the Nabucco project, a planned pipeline linking northern Iran to Europe through the Caspian and Turkey, also has a good chance of being approved. Hence, Turkey will not only guarantee its own energy security, but also will be able to redistribute gas to Italy and even to Israel in the future.

As Tashan reminded: “Turkey and Greece are already building a 300-kilometer connector that will be finished by the end of the year and will make it possible to deliver gas to Italy.”

Being well aware of its strategic role in energy security, Turkey seems eager to take full advantage of it and does not appear overly concerned by US and EU anxieties over Russia. Rather than a context marked by rigid alternatives and fierce Turkish-Russian competition, the future is most likely to bring a more complex game in which cooperation and competition will coexist, with regional players opting for flexible strategies to suit their political and economic needs.

* Federico Bordonaro, based in Italy, is an analyst of international relations and geopolitics with the Power and Interest News Report (PINR) and Strategic-Road.com. He is an expert on the new structure of the international system after the Cold War, the European integration process, security and defense issues and political realism.

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