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Turkey’s NATO, gas choices test loyalties 26 mars 2009

Posted by Acturca in Caucasus / Caucase, Energy / Energie, Turkey / Turquie, Turkey-EU / Turquie-UE.
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Reuters News, March 26th 2009

Paul Taylor, Newcastle (England)

Frustrated at being sidelined by the European Union, Turkey is toying with blocking the appointment of Denmark’s prime minister as the next head of NATO and holding up a key gas deal with Azerbaijan. It should resist the temptation to flex its muscles in ways that could harm its longer term political and economic interests, which lie in a strong anchoring to Europe.

Ankara has not yet announced whether it will veto the choice of Anders Fogh Rasmussen as successor to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of the Netherlands at the alliance’s 60th anniversary summit next week. It may be waiting until after local elections across Turkey on Sunday that are a key test for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted AK party.

Most NATO diplomats think Turkey is unlikely to stand alone against the preferred candidate of major European powers and the United States, although it has a case for arguing the Dane is a risky choice when NATO is bogged down in a war in Afghanistan, increasingly spilling over into Pakistan.

It is hard to imagine U.S. officials can have agreed to President Barack Obama travelling Turkey on April 6 on his first official visit to a Muslim country without prior assurances that Ankara would accept its nominee to head the defence alliance.

The Turks have a point when they contend that a leader who defended the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad by a Danish newspaper, which triggered riots in Muslim countries in 2006, is ill suited to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world.

EU talks hobbled

Turkey is also furious that Copenhagen continues to allow a Kurdish television station close to separatist PKK guerrillas to broadcast from its soil. And it was offended by a television documentary in which Rasmussen was shown telling his foreign minister in an aside during the 2002 Danish EU presidency that Turkey would never become a full member of the bloc.

The EU opened accession talks with Ankara in 2005, but they have crept forward at snail’s pace, hobbled by the unresolved Cyprus dispute, the slowness of Turkish reforms of freedom of speech and religion, and growing hostility from France, Austria and Germany’s governing Christian Democrats.

Anger over what they feel is discriminatory treatment by the Europeans explains why Turkey is dragging its feet on signing a gas agreement with Azerbaijan, which is crucial for EU efforts to build a southern supply corridor independent of Russia.

Turkey wants the EU to extend the accession talks to energy policy but Cyprus is blocking the opening of that chapter of negotiations to demand access to Turkish ports and airports. Ankara seeks a pivotal role as an energy middle-man, buying gas from central Asian and Middle Eastern states and reselling it at a profit to Europe, while the EU views Turkey as a transit country entitled to pipeline rent but not an energy broker.

While Ankara and Brussels wrestle over energy policy, Russia is seeking to lure Azerbaijan into a deal now to transport its gas to Europe across the Russian pipeline network — a move that would tighten Moscow’s grip on EU energy supplies and probably kill the Nabucco pipeline project from Turkey to central Europe.

Leverage

Understandably, the Turks want to leverage their strategic location and role as sole Muslim nation in the Western alliance, with open channels to Iran, Syria, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel, to maximise their power and advance their EU membership ambitions.

Erdogan’s government has chalked up diplomatic gains in isolating the PKK in Iraq, acting as a discreet messenger between the United States and Iran, mediating between Israel and Syria, and reaching out diplomatically to historic foe Armenia. Highlighting its added value, Turkey will stage talks next week among Afghan and Pakistani political, military and intelligence chiefs on improved cooperation against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

It’s no surprise that Obama has chosen Turkey as his first bridge to the Islamic world as he tries to overcome the damage to America’s image caused by his predecessor’s invasion of Iraq.

Turkey has also weathered the financial crisis relatively well so far, partly because of reforms to its banking system. Markets consider the EU accession process, even in slow motion, as an important policy anchor alongside its IMF programme.

But in the wrangles over the NATO leadership and Azerbaijani gas, Turkey would be well advised not to overplay its hand at a time when investors are fleeing emerging market risk. (editing by David Evans)

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