Commentory by Soli Ozel
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave the cue for Turkey's foreign policy priorities in this dual election year (first presidential then general elections) when he declared that Iraq had replaced the European Union as Turkey's top priority item. The statement certainly reflected the legitimate concerns of most observers who assess that this year could be the defining one for the future of Iraq.
Turkey has felt all the repercussions of developments in Iraq since even before the beginning of the war. Jealously status-quo-oriented, the Turkish elites and populace alike opposed the war from its inception, fearing the potentially revolutionary consequences. Although negotiations were held with the United States prior to the war and an understanding was reached on modalities for cooperation, ultimately Parliament denied the US permission to deploy troops in Turkey and open a northern front. Since then, US-Turkish relations, particularly military-to-military ties, have been rocky though never fatally damaged.
Today, having seen many of its most dire predictions come true, Ankara is deeply concerned that Iraq's descent into a brutal sectarian civil war with seemingly inexhaustible reserves of violence threatens the stability of the entire region. In addition, as with its neighbors Syria and Iran, the prospect of an independent Kurdistan deeply troubles the authorities and the non-Kurdish public alike.
At the same time, Ankara is concerned with other developments in the region such as the instability in Lebanon and the Iranian nuclear program. And it is equally worried about American policies on these questions. Hence it tries to maintain a balancing act by staying on good terms with Iran and Syria while improving relations with the US and looking for ways for the two allies to limit the damage in Iraq. It is therefore only natural that the government would divert its attention and energies toward the Middle East, and particularly Iraq, this year.
But there was another sense in which Erdogan's statement could be interpreted. Arguably the prime minister and his Cabinet lost much of their appetite for EU-induced reforms as early as the day after Turkey got a date to start accession negotiations in December 2004. Those negotiations did begin on time in October 2005, but only after acrimonious debates within the EU and between Turkey and the union over Turkey's obligation to open its ports to Greek Cypriot shipping. Some EU members tried their best to renege on their promise to treat Turkey the same way as other candidates. Politicians in member countries built electoral platforms on Turkey-bashing.
By the end of 2006, then, much if not all of the momentum was lost in Turkey's EU bid. The final blow came when EU suspended 8 out of 35 negotiating chapters and effectively put the process on hold, although technical work still continues and three minor chapters were opened. That some of the suspended chapters, such as foreign affairs, had no bearing on the controversial customs union issue with Cyprus suggest that the latter was at least partially an excuse to delay Turkey's accession process.
Such a drifting apart in the relationship was what the nay-sayers in the EU and the Euro-bashers in Turkey passionately wanted. Just as anti-Turkish sentiment in EU member countries was on the rise, so was a rampant, xenophobic, anti-Western nationalism in Turkey. Both Turkey's opposition parties and the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) decided to cater to nationalist sentiment. Evidently the AKP's higher echelons felt that to continue in an election year with their reformist and liberalizing agenda would be a losing proposition. They already had the example of Erdogan's opening to the Kurds in the summer of 2005, which fractured the party and cost it dearly in terms of electoral support. Therefore for all practical purposes, the reformist wave came to an end in 2006; it is unlikely to pick up until after the general elections.
As a result of this rising nationalism, Turkey was shaken by successive court cases brought against outspoken intellectuals. These cases were all related to Article 301 of the penal code that criminalizes offenses against “Turkishness.” Turkey's Nobel laureate in literature, Orhan Pamuk, was among those who were tried and assaulted in court by self-proclaimed guards of national pride. The AKP government did close to nothing to contain these movements, nor did it change or rescind 301. Arguably as an indirect result of such a climate – jointly created by political classes, old elites and a susceptible, offended and fearful population – a prominent Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, was murdered in January.
All these developments, alongside already existing anxiety about the AKP's so-called true intentions (read, seeking to advance Islamic law), raised concerns in the West. Almost no conference relating to Turkey in the West can be held lately without a panel entitled: “Are we losing Turkey?” or “Who lost Turkey?”
Yet nationalist outcries notwithstanding, so far there is no indication that Turkey's Western orientation has been replaced by an alternative one. Still, a number of problems present themselves. First and foremost is the closing of political space in the country because of the radicalization of nationalist discourse. Second is the lack of harmonious relations among Turkey's foreign policy-making actors, particularly on Iraq. And third, the prime minister's aspiration to be elected president has raised tensions in the country, corroding the government's relations with the military.
The combination of these three domestic problems fuels nationalist fever in Turkey. There are calls to attack the PKK inside Iraqi Kurdistan. There are also calls for militarily intervening to stop the Iraqi Kurds from taking over the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, whose demography has been drastically altered by the Kurdish authorities.
Just last week, Turkey's National Security Council put an end to an acrimonious debate conducted mainly in the media between the government and military. The council called for appropriate diplomatic and political moves to solve outstanding problems with the Iraqi Kurds. The fact that such a decision was reached in the wake of back-to-back visits by Turkey's defense and foreign ministers and chief of the general staff to Washington may also suggest that the Turkish-American dialogue on the sensitive issues of the PKK and Kirkuk is healthier than before.
Source: “The Daily Star”, Beirut, Lebanon, 5 March 2007