´Turkish Success — Caught Between Europe and the Middle East´, Hugh Pope

December 28, 2011  ▪  Viktor Kaspruk

Turkish Success — Caught Between Europe and the Middle East

The Turkey/Cyprus Project Director Hugh Pope shared with The Ukrainian Week his opinion on geopolitical ambitions of Turkey, Turkey-EU relations, Kurds issue and confrontation with Israel

U. W.: Mr. Pope, Turkish foreign policy has been essentially moderate, predictable, and multilateral. Why has it changed recently?

There have been three phases of Turkish policy in recent decades. During the Cold War it was predictable, stable, and ultimately defensive. Just 20 years ago Turkey’s eight neighbours were all basically hostile and Turkey guarded a whole third of NATO’s front line with the Warsaw Pact. Arguably the best relationship was with Bulgaria, and that country expelled 350,000 ethnic Turks in 1989!

A second phase came in the 1990s and 2000s, when Turkey warmed up several of these relationships, not just with former Warsaw Pact countries, but also with Greece and Syria, and improved relationships with Iran and Iraq and even came close, in 2004 and 2009, to sorting out the most problematic two relationships — Cyprus and Armenia. The key to all of this was a golden period of convergence with the European Union in 2000-2005. It was rounded out with an attempt to extend the lessons learned from Europe — agreements on freedom of movement (for people, trade and capital), infrastructure integration and high-level political meetings, not just with the Middle East, but with several other states in the region.

However this tendency has now gone into reverse. This has mainly been thanks to the tumultuous events in the Arab world, but it is also due to the failure to solve the problems in Cyprus, the reluctance in Europe to push ahead strongly with enlargement towards Turkey, and Turkey’s own new unwillingness to pursue the rigorous path towards convergence with EU standards. The result of this mix — threats from the Middle East, isolation from the EU and domestic over-confidence — has been a newly assertive attitude by the leaders of the ruling party, notably Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

U. W.: Is Turkey seeking a leadership role?

Turkeyis a medium-sized regional power; it is not a superpower. For example, it has less than one-fourth of the number of diplomats serving than serve a country like the UK, France or Germany. It has even more limited financial resources. It also lacks the tools for regional leadership that the EU has, after so many years in which Brussels has dealt with successive waves of enlargement. There is also no sign that anyone in the region is seeking a Turkey in a leadership role: the Balkan states are firmly in the EU, and the Arab world, while thrilled with Erdogan’s rhetorical challenges to Israel, is not looking for a new ‘big brother’. Turkey’s engagement with the Middle East is more emotional than real, and the sense of bonding over a sense of Muslim brotherhood not unlike the short-lived 1990-92 excitement about Turkey’s role as a leader of the Turkic world. While this will remain a feature of Turkey’s foreign policy landscape, I doubt that the Turkey-Middle East relationship can ever take the place of the importance of its relationship with the EU.

U. W.: Has the Turkish public become more interested in international questions affecting Muslim interests — most notably the Palestinian issue, but also in Chechnya and the Balkans?

Certainly, championing of the rights of Chechens, Palestinians, and Muslim minorities in the Balkans has a certain resonance with the Turkish public. Indeed, it is probable for instance that Turkey’s relationship with Israel will never be properly fixed until the Turkish public is satisfied that Israel is doing its best to reach a negotiated compromise with the Palestinians and that is reflected in public opinion. However, this interest in outside events is usually not very long term, and is easily manipulated by Turkish political leaders if they wish. On the whole, and with the exception of the special case of Cyprus, Turkey has usually taken care not to damage its national interest for the sake of public opinion.

U. W.: While officials in Washington and Europe have generally been keen to see Turkey play the role of an intermediary between civilizations, it is a role that makes many members of Turkey’s secular foreign policy establishment profoundly uncomfortable. For these traditional elites, can a new emphasis on relations to the south and east only come at the expense of Turkey’s western orientation?

The idea that Turkey’s old political establishment was ‘pro-Western’ is not the whole story – it was very pro-American, since Washington was ready to offer unquestioning support in return for a strategic alliance, but it was also always very skeptical of the EU. In fact, Erdogan’s AKP was in many ways more ‘European’ and open to change than the old establishment. However, this has changed in recent months, with the Turkish government preferring a close, unquestioning relationship with a Washington worried about the Middle East over the demands of a closer relationship with the EU.

U. W.: Observers now worry that rising nationalism and friction in relations between Ankara and Brussels could erode progress made in recent years...

 There is a definite trend away from the EU, and the negotiation process has stalled. This is not so much because of nationalism, but due to the confluence of the reasons listed above. And the result has been an erosion of the progress made in 2000-2005 – we see it in backsliding in Cyprus, a tendency to cede more centralization of economic decision-making to the Ankara government, a higher number of journalists in jail, pressure on newspapers, and the imprisonment of hundreds, if not thousands, of ethnic Kurdish dissidents, including elected officials who have had no apparent direct link to violence, on charges of terrorism.

U. W.: Is the Cyprus problem continuing to confound Turkey´s relations with Europe?

Relations between Turkey, the EU and Cyprus are welded together like an iron triangle, they cannot be separated from one another. The latest round of Cyprus reunification negotiations that has been ongoing since 2008 has not lived up to its original hopes; at the same time, the EU-Turkey relationship has sagged. One of the main reasons for failure to progress on Cyprus is that the two main parties – Turkey and the Greek Cypriots – do not understand that the other side truly wants a deal, and this is because they do not talk to each other. And on the EU-Turkey level, one of the main problems is both that major states of Europe sometimes hide behind the Cypriot problem because they are reluctant to pursue enlargement with Turkey at this time, and also that Turkey also hides behind Cyprus because it too seems reluctant to pursue the negotiations. Although it signed an agreement (the ‘Additional Protocol to the Customs Union with the EU’) to open airports and sea ports to Greek Cypriot shipping as a clear condition for opening negotiations, it has declined to do so. The reason given – Europe’s failure to live up to its own, internal promise to allow Turkish Cypriots tax-free access to EU import markets – is clearly disproportionate to the real damage being done to Turkey’s reform process by the blockage of half of Turkey’s EU negotiating chapters over the issue.

U. W.: What about other aspects of Turkish policy concerning relations with Armenia, Syria, and Iraq?

 Turkey has taken up new positions on all these very separate issues in recent years, but each one has its own independent dynamics. But it’s fair to say that in the current disturbed circumstances, Turkey faces new risks on all these fronts, which explains its more defensive rhetoric. Armenia could arguably have been solved by a braver Turkish stance on normalization in 2009, when the two sides came close to signing two protocols on normalizing relations and discussing Turkish-Armenian historical troubles; however, now it is Armenia that seems to be dragging its feet. Syria is swept up in an internal storm in which Turkey has become deeply entangled and which it is unlikely to be able to control on its own. The country has done well in Iraq since 2007, and still has relatively good relations with all parties, but as in Syria there are signs of increasing competition with its regional rival Iran.

U. W.: Until very recently, Turkey has tended to see the Middle East more as an area of risk than opportunity. Has the Kurdish issue remained the principal lens for Turkish perceptions of the region, particularly for policy toward Iraq, Syria, and, to an extent, Iran?

Absolutely, the ongoing PKK insurgency is Turkeys´ main domestic problem, and, with nearly 300 soldiers, PKK and civilians killed since June, it is a major preoccupation for the country. For instance, Turkey certainly feels that cooperation with Iran over the Kurdish question has a higher priority than worrying about possible military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, however much it might oppose Tehran acquiring a nuclear weapon. Turkey came close to settling the PKK insurgency in 2009-11, and is much less fearful than in the past about the likelihood of its 15 per cent Turkish Kurd minority seeking a separate state, but efforts to restart the talks are currently overshadowed by the domestic armed conflict and regional uncertainty.

U. W.: Looking ahead, is it hard to imagine that Turkey’s sensitivity to security risks emanating from northern Iraq will diminish?

Turkeywill always be closely involved in northern Iraq, as it has been since 1991. Turkish businesses are very prominent in the region, and the opening of a Turkish consulate in Arbil was a very important step towards normalization. And as long as the PKK’s main base is in northern Iraq, Turkey will put military and other pressure on the area; however, it seems unlikely that Turkish pressure there alone can solve the PKK problem, whose main dynamics are domestic.

U. W.: Is Turkey unlikely to respond to a nuclear Iran by pursuing a nuclear capability of its own - as long as the NATO guarantee remains credible - even though the country possesses the technical ability to pursue a weapons program?

Turkeyis indeed under the nuclear umbrella of its NATO allies, and, as an NPT signatory, has given little sign of wishing to enter into the dangerous and expensive area of developing its own nuclear weapons capacity. Even if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon, Turkey would be unlikely to choose a nuclear route outside the NATO alliance. It is very doubtful that Turkey today has the capacity to make its own nuclear bomb.

U. W.: Turkish small and medium businesses, and new NGOs, have all taken full advantage of globalization to help build Turkey’s soft-power. Is the country´s influence and standing growing throughout many parts of the world through economic and cultural links?

 Yes, Turkey has transformed itself remarkably in the past 20 years, from a country that principally exported hazlenuts, dried figs and pistachios into a major commercial power with more than $300 billion in exports, mostly sophisticated household white goods, cars and good-quality clothing, but also including TV soap operas that are watched from Morocco to Kazakhstan. Along with the opening of the borders around Turkey after the Cold War, this has helped transform Turkey into a regional hub. Nevertheless, the locomotive of much of this change was convergence with the EU, and amidst the reforms of the accession negotiations, two dynamics have fallen by the wayside. If Europe goes into a prolonged recession, and if turmoil in the Middle East continues, it is hard to see how Turkey’s growth success story can continue without some big corrections.


Hugh Pope is the Turkey/Cyprus Project Director for International Crisis Group, the independent conflict-prevention organization which opened its Istanbul office in 2007. His work focuses on writing reports and commentaries about EU-Turkey relations, the Cyprus problem, and Turkey and its neighbors in the Middle East. Prior to joining Crisis Group, Pope was a foreign correspondent for 25 years, most recently spending a decade as The Wall Street Journal’s Turkey, Central Asia & Middle East Correspondent.

A South Africa-born Briton with a degree in Oriental Studies from Oxford University, Hugh Pope is the co-author of Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey (a New York Times "notable book"), Sons of the Conquerors: the Rise of the Turkic World (an Economist "book of the year"), and, most recently, Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East (excerpted by the UK’s Prospect Magazine and Foreign Policy in the US). In 2009/10, he was a Bosch Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.’s Transatlantic Academy in Washington DC.

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