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Turkey: Between east and west 10 mai 2014

Posted by Acturca in History / Histoire, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, Turkey-EU / Turquie-UE, USA / Etats-Unis.
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Kingston Whig-Standard (Canada) May 10, 2014, p. A6

Louis A. Delvoie *

Circus performers are often seen riding two horses simultaneously, with one foot on the back of each horse. This is a neat trick requiring considerable training. It is also a feat full of potential danger. If the trajectory of the horses should diverge, the rider would at the very least suffer severe groin pains. As in the circus, so too in geo-politics. No country better exemplifies these perils than Turkey, which straddles Europe and Asia. Should it be viewed primarily as a European country or a Middle Eastern country? This is not merely a question of identity politics, but goes to the very heart of Turkey’s economic interests and its foreign policy.

For many centuries Turkey, in the guise of the Ottoman Empire, was viewed as an eastern power. From its capital in Istanbul, its armies set out to conquer much of Southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. It was viewed as an enemy and a threat by Europeans and Arabs alike. In Europe the Turkish sultan was so feared that he took on semi-mythical proportions. Children were urged to obey their parents under threat that is they did not do so “the Grand Turk” would come and take them away.

As the power and reach of the Ottoman Empire began to dwindle in the late 18th Century, it came to be seen less as an existential threat and more as but another player in the game of international politics. By 1856 it was firmly allied with Britain and France in prosecuting the Crimean war against the Russian Empire. By 1914 it became an ally of Germany in the First World War. It was, of course, defeat in that war that led to the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire and to the birth of the modern Turkish republic.

The founder and leader of the new republic was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a military officer who had served with great distinction during the war. He was in many ways a truly revolutionary leader who set about changing Turkish society in fundamental ways. In the words of the distinguished historian Professor William Cleveland of Simon Fraser University: “A fervent admirer of European institutions and attitudes, he was determined to mold the new Turkey in the image of the West … Ataturk led Turkey through an intensive period of reform designed to root out the Ottoman past and replace it with a Western orientation in all areas of national life.” His reforms ran the gamut from decreeing European modes of dress to replacing religiously based codes of law with secular one modelled on those of Switzerland, Italy and Germany. He was above all set on creating a secular national state, devoid of religious identity in the political sphere.

Ataturk’s reforms were not universally welcomed in Turkey. His efforts to create a uniform national identity were strongly contested by the Kurdish minority which rebelled. The rebellion was quelled by force and its leaders executed. Disaffection was, however, more widespread. To quote Professor Cleveland again: “His sweeping secular measures, which attempted to cut the Turks off from their Islamic past and to sever their ties with the rest of the Islamic world, alienated segments of the population, especially in the rural areas.”

The process of Westernization made substantial progress under Ataturk and his immediate successors insofar as it affected the institutions and policies of the state. It also left its mark on the way of life of the citizens of major centres such as Istanbul and Ankara, where symphony orchestras and opera companies regularly played the works of European composers. Beyond the metropolitan areas, however, change was often resisted and came about far more slowly. The simple truth is that for many decades villages in rural Turkey far more closely resembled their counterparts in Syria and Iraq than their counterparts in France or Belgium.

Turkey’s process of Westernization took a giant leap forward in the years immediately following the Second World War. Although it had remained neutral in the war, Turkey came under pressure and threats from the Soviet Union in its immediate aftermath. The Turkish government turned for help to the United States and Turkey was eventually allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952. Membership in NATO brought Turkey not only a guarantee of security against the Soviet Union, but also vast quantities of military and economic aid from Western countries. At a more symbolic level, in the words of a Turkish scholar, it was “a sign that Turkey had finally been fully accepted by the western nations on equal terms.”

Turkey’s membership in NATO was not, however, without its problems. For an alliance which prided itself on being an association of democratic countries, the three military coups which Turkey experienced between 1960 and 1982 proved to be a source of profound embarrassment. To Turkey’s immense dismay, its invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus in 1974, was greeted with strong condemnations and military and economic sanctions by most of its NATO partners. And Turkey’s all important relationship with the United States has often been stretched to the limit over a variety of issues, most recently the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

For over thirty years Turkey has been seeking to further its integration with the West through its bid to become a member of the European Community/Union. For many years that bid was resisted and rejected on the grounds that Turkey did not meet the political, economic and social criteria for membership. At a deeper level, however, political elites in countries such as France, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria strongly opposed Turkey’s candidacy on essentially civilizational grounds. They pointed out that by virtue of history, culture and geography Turkey was not really a European country. They raised the spectre of the largest country in the European Union being a Muslim state with most of its territory in Asia. This would totally undermine the idea, the foundations and the cohesion of the European Union. The Turks for their part deemed the objections and rejection both racist and humiliating, but they did not abandon their quest.

Matters became somewhat more complicated in the 1990’s with the slow but progressive rise of Islamism or political Islam in Turkey. This was a tendency strongly resisted by the military, the judiciary and other elites which regarded themselves as the guardians of Ataturk’s secular legacy. They were successful in ousting a government led by an Islamist party in 1997, but met their Waterloo in 2002. In that year the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a resounding victory in parliamentary elections. Usually described as a “mildly Islamist party”, the AKP was to effect a mini-revolution in Turkish affairs.

The government of Prime Minister Erdogan embarked on a wide ranging programme of reform, and did so with great vigour. Through a series of legislative and constitutional measures it managed to significantly reduce the role and influence of the armed forces in politics. It directly tackled the problem of political corruption and was largely successful in its endeavours. It sought to bring an end to the longstanding political and military confrontation with Turkey’s Kurdish minority by, among other things, offering them linguistic and cultural rights which had long been denied them.

Most importantly, perhaps in the eyes of the outside world, the Erdogan government set about reforming the Turkish economy. From a position of economic weakness which had frequently left it dependent on bailouts from the International Monetary Fund, Turkey progressed to the point that it was viewed as one of the “newly emerging economies”. It not only registered remarkable rates of economic growth but managed to attract substantial flows of foreign direct investment. Not only did this mean new levels of prosperity for Turks, but it also achieved new international respect for Turkey as it was invited to become a member of the G-20 group of economically influential countries.

Many of the reforms undertaken by the AKP government were at least partially intended to improve Turkey’s prospects of becoming a member of the European Union. And they were at least partially successful in this regard. In late 2005 the European Union agreed to initiate formal membership negotiations with Turkey. Those negotiations have been going on for eight years with no end in sight, and some more recent developments in Turkey have tended to cast doubt on their eventual outcome.

Since 2011 Prime Minister Erdogan has displayed increasingly authoritarian tendencies. He has shown himself unwilling to brook any opposition to his policies and decisions. He has ordered peaceful demonstrators dispersed with violence by the security forces. He has sacked or transferred dozens of judges, prosecutors and senior police officers investigating charges of corruption involving members of his government and of his family. And Turkey now enjoys the dubious distinction of having more journalists in jail than virtually any other country in the world. Most recently Prime Minister Erdogan has launched a campaign to shut down social media such as Twitter, Facebook and You Tube. All of this has led his opponents and critics to accuse him of behaving like an Ottoman sultan rather than a democratically elected prime minister.

In the midst of this political turmoil, the country’s economic miracle has ground to a halt. Its rate of economic growth is now less than half of what it was only a few years ago. It current account deficit is now the largest among OECD countries. And the value of the Turkish lira against the dollar has tumbled by 24 per cent in the past year. Foreign investors are becoming increasingly wary of entering the Turkish markets, and confidence in Turkey’s economic future is at a low ebb.

These and other events give rise to serious questions about the future of Turkey’s foreign policy. On the one hand, the European direction would seem to be blocked not only by European reservations, but also by the fact that support for EU membership among Turks has fallen from 70 to 40 per cent in recent years. On the other hand, Turkey’s Middle Eastern policy is now in a shambles due to a deterioration in relations with its long time security partner Israel and due to the violence and instability now wracking its neighbours Syria and Iraq. In this sense at least, Turkey seems to be uncomfortably trapped between East and West.

* Louis A. Delvoie is a Fellow with the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University, and a former Canadian Ambassador to Algeria and High Commissioner to Pakistan.


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