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Hoping to be a good neighbour to east and west 15 avril 2010

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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European Voice, 15.04.2010

By Toby Vogel

As its isolationist instincts decline, Turkey is trying to promote a policy of ‘zero problems’ with its neighbours, while pushing for EU membership. Western observers often describe Turkey as a bridge between east and west. But for much of recent history it has instead been an isolated promontory. 

During the Cold War, it was one of just two NATO members that had a land border with the Soviet Union. It was surrounded by Soviet satellites or allies, from Bulgaria to Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and its only neighbour that was a fellow NATO member, Greece, was also an arch-enemy. After the collapse of Soviet communism, the old instincts lived on for more than a decade as Turkey continued to view itself as cornered by foes.

That has now changed. Turkey seems to have settled comfortably into its neighbourhood and Ahmet Davutoglu, a foreign-policy intellectual who became foreign minister last year, has accentuated the process by turning his idea of ‘zero problems’ with its neighbours into the country’s foreign-policy doctrine. Davutoglu and others of a like mind now tend to see the country more as a pivot.

Facing east

At home and abroad, there are others who look at the mildly Islamist nature of the Justice and Development (AK) party government led since 2003 by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and conclude that Turkey’s foreign policy is primarily designed to embed the country more firmly in the Muslim Middle East.

Its staunch opposition to tougher sanctions against Iran, its tough criticism of Israel – an old ally – for its treatment of the Palestinians, and its rapprochement with Syria have led many observers to conclude that Turkey’s agenda is driven by ideology, identity or religion.

Officials in the diplomatic service, a bastion of modern-day Turkey’s secular Kemalist orthodoxy, have not always tried very hard to dispel that impression.

That is an analysis with many fallacies, as a recent report called “Turkey and the Middle East: Ambitions and Constraints” by the International Crisis Group (ICG) points out. Hugh Pope, an Istanbul-based analyst with the think-tank, believes that references to “Islam” are not useful in trying to understand Turkish policy, or indeed the Middle East. “Turkey is Sunni and Iran is Shia,” he said, referring to the main division within Islam. “The explanatory power of Islam breaks down right there.”

Pope said that Erdogan’s rejection of tougher sanctions against Iran includes an element of regional identification and is partly based on “solidarity with another country that is being pushed around by the great powers”. But he said that Erdogan’s overriding interest was maintaining cordial relations with Turkey’s neighbours and in keeping trade flowing, not backing Islamist regimes.

Indeed, among the most spectacular successes of Turkey’s neighbourhood policy have been the rapprochements with Christian Greece and secular Syria. Both are developments that predate the AK and Davutoglu’s ‘zero problem’ strategy, but the government has maintained relations.

Trade not religion

Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, agrees with the analysis that Turkey’s foreign policy is pragmatic rather than inspired by religion.

“Despite occasional remarks by Erdogan, Turkey’s interest in other regions is not driven by ideology but by commerce,” Turan said. “At a time when European markets are contracting, Turkey is looking elsewhere” to sell the goods its economy produces, he says.

Turkish exports overall declined by 23% last year, but exports to Syria – with which Turkey has traditionally had tense relations – rose by almost 30% in the same period. Exports to Iraq rose by 60%.

The Crisis Group report stressed that Turkey’s links with the EU and with the Middle East were not a zero-sum game. That is also the line taken by Turkish foreign-policy officials, from Davutoglu downwards. But there is little doubt that the slow and troubled membership talks with the EU, coupled with a feeling that certain EU member states will reject Turkey no matter how much it reforms, have amplified its desire to be a good neighbour to east and west.


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