Turkey does its own thing

Type ‘Who lost Turkey?’ into a search engine and you will find that many pundits are searching for a culprit.

Versions of this question show up in a myriad newspaper headlines, mostly from American publications but not solely: Qui a perdu la Turquie?, Le Monde, 2020; Europa hat die Türkei verloren, Der Spiegel, 2017; ¿Quién ‘perdió’ a Turquía?, El Pais, 2010.

Yet the question tells us more about those asking it than it does about today’s Turkey. Those posing it count on Ankara to follow the lead of Washington or Europe’s capitals, something a quick glance at the history books shows is improbable. It is time to reset expectations.

Turkey has always done things its own way: building bridges one moment, bridgeheads the next.

These days it is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is seizing any chance to increase his power and expand his country’s role on the global stage: he spars with the Kremlin over Syria or Libya, then buys Russia’s advanced ground-to-air S-400 missiles; he challenges the United States, then cosies up to its president; he insults European leaders, but never quite blows up his country’s European Union membership negotiations; he goads Greece and Cyprus over Eastern Mediterranean maritime boundaries or calls into question the status of the long-sealed off, Turkish-occupied beach resort of Famagusta on the front line in Cyprus, then calls for dialogue; he supports Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, then seeks a place at the peace talks; he feuds bitterly with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Muslim states, yet claims to speak for Muslim Brotherhood-style government and the downtrodden everywhere.

o some in the United States and Europe, Erdogan, prime minister after 2003 and president since 2014, is the reason this country of 83 million people was ‘lost’. But the idea precedes him. When Necmettin Erbakan, a religious conservative, became prime minister in 1996 and reached out to Iran, The New York Times also asked: ‘Who Lost Turkey?’ While it is true that Erdogan’s approach to the world around him has hardened over the past two decades, rejection of subjugation to the West has long been the bedrock of Turkish politics, whether its leadership was religious or secular, leftist or rightwing.

‘Lost Turkey’ stories identify what makes western powers unhappy when Ankara fails to meet their expectations. This usually amounts to Ankara working at cross purposes to its western allies, or implementing domestic policies that run counter to western preferences. What the West often fails to grasp is the ‘why’.

In simple terms the western version of Turkey’s rise is as follows: the decrepit yet brutal Ottoman Empire gave way to republican founder Kemal Ataturk, a reformer who led a drive to create a modern Turkey that banished the Islamic caliphate, granted rights to women and set up European-style laws and institutions. The Kemalist republic he created went on to become a Turkey that allied itself to Nato and stood up to the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Turkey’s economic and democratic leap forward in the late 1980s made it a real candidate for membership of the European Union a decade later.

Then comes the ‘But’. Turkey failed to overcome the contrarian pull of Islamist and authoritarian currents, symbolized by Erdogan, who was either naive for foreseeing ‘zero problems’ with his Muslim and other neighbours, or a knave for plotting regional domination all along.

Duelling narratives

Either way, he is often presented as part of an outcast circle of strongman leaders, alongside Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Ali Khamenei. Erdogan’s authoritarianism, according to this narrative, is what explains Turkey’s more recent foreign policy choices and their divergence from US and European preferences.

This history leaves much out. The Ottoman Empire may have been worn out in the First World War, but it was still an ally of Germany, held Britain and its allies at bay on two of the three main warfronts and was never completely defeated.

Ataturk did preside over extraordinary reforms, but until his death in 1938 he was an authoritarian leader who persecuted those who wanted a return to laws based on Islam, crushed Kurdish secessionist movements and initially allied himself with the Soviet Union.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the West’s alliance with Turkey had its heyday. The Turks were grateful for US support against a threatened takeover of the Turkish straits by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1946, and in return fought hard for Nato in the Korean War. But it was also a time of corrupt politicians, stifling bureaucracy and top-down government.

Turkish distrust of the West revived in the 1960s and 1970s with disputes over newly independent Cyprus. Most of the world sided with the Greek Cypriot majority rather than the 20 per cent Turkish Cypriot minority. Few outside the Eastern Mediterranean remember the Greek Cypriot internal takeover in 1963, followed by a Greece-backed coup in 1974 to unite the island with Greece. But Turkey still pays a price in EU accession talks for its invasion in 1974 in which it captured a third of the island and prevented Greek annexation. Even back in 1964, Turkey was defiant, with Ismet Inonu, the prime minister and war of independence hero, warning the US that if it was rearranging its alliances, Turkey would do so too.

Europe never saw the accession of Turkey to the EU as a way of helping it to move away from authoritarian rule as it had with post-Franco Spain, Greece after the colonels or post-Soviet eastern Europe. Ironically, Greece has the Turkish invasion of Cyprus to thank for ending the colonels’ regime.

The Turks’ perception of western duplicity grew when a 1980 Turkish military coup presided over mass dismissals of civil servants and teachers, show trials and routine torture. While some in the West worried about the blow to democracy, western front pages mostly gave the intervention a warm welcome in the name of stability.

So Turkey’s reticence to follow the West’s lead is not just because mid-ranking global powers like Turkey are pushing forward as the US retrenches and EU member states stumble over internal and foreign policy divisions. Turkey has historical reasons to distrust the West and be sceptical that western approaches will serve it well, assuming they will even be implemented.

While the US and other western nations question Turkish commitment in fighting jihadist groups, Turkey sees America as empowering its own insurgent Kurds. With some reason, Erdogan also blames an attempted coup in 2016 on an Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who now has safe haven in the US.

While Europe sees Turkey as pushing refugees over its borders with the EU as a form of blackmail, Ankara sees Europe as hypocritical, setting aside international conventions to keep refugees out. Turkey in fact is host to more than three times the number of Syrian refugees in the rest of Europe.

Erdogan now explicitly equates the European narrative with an attack on Turkish sovereignty. He has turned to increasingly autocratic tools at home and believes that deploying hard power is winning Turkey more in the region than alignment with the dwindling influence of European powers. With characteristic rhetoric – aimed as much at his popular base as anyone listening abroad – Erdogan declaims that outside powers ‘will understand that Turkey has the political, economic and military power to tear up and throw away the immoral maps and documents imposed on it [in the past]. They will either understand this by the language of politics and diplomacy or by the bitter experiences they will experience on the ground.’

Turkey’s European moment

The fiery rhetoric makes Turkey’s and Erdogan’s early work on accession to the EU seem a distant dream. But the fate of that process is another illustration of the misunderstanding between the two sides.

The European Economic Community that invited Turkey to start aligning itself for membership in 1963 had changed out of all recognition 30 years later. For the post-1993 European Union, Turkey was unquestionably too big, too poor and too Muslim to fit in easily.

Turkey – itself transformed by the coming down of the Cold War’s Iron Curtain all round it, giving it access to a hinterland of opportunity – also saw a threat to its sovereignty in the EU’s development towards something between conglomerate and superstate.

Nonetheless, Ankara won full EU candidate status in December 1999, an extraordinary development brought about by European leaders seeking to consolidate a new post-Cold War order, cajoled and supported by Washington. Turkey, itself desperate to make a new start after its economic meltdown earlier in the 1990s, embarked on a full accession process.

In many ways, EU convergence served Ankara well, providing cover for reforms and changes that would have otherwise been difficult to undertake. Turkey improved relations with its neighbours, offered its Kurdish population some rights where there were none before, and between 2009-2015 undertook on-off negotiations with the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which had fought an insurgency since 1984. It also visibly transformed the penal and civil codes and gave a spruced-up feel to Turkish government ministries. Turkey even tried to normalize relations with Armenia in 2009.

Most of these changes happened early in Erdogan’s tenure. He knew that a strong majority of his people wanted to live by western norms, including many who voted for him.

If Europe is looking for a moment when it ‘lost’ Turkey, a little-recognized turning point was the EU’s acceptance of the Republic of Cyprus as a member in 2004. This happened despite Turkey’s real support for the United Nations reunification plan of that year, and the fact that it was the Greek Cypriot citizens and leaders of the Republic of Cyprus who overwhelmingly rejected it.

The EU action violated its own rules in accepting a new member with an unresolved border dispute. This was partly because Greece threatened to veto the EU’s whole eastward enlargement that year. After Cyprus joined Greece in the Union, Cypriot vetoes on opening many chapters of Turkey’s accession negotiations crippled the process.

Overlapping goals

A decade later, accession remains formally on the table, but its prospects are dim as the EU and Turkey are ‘moving further away’ from each other, according to the EU’s 2020 progress report.

Turks can read polls saying that an overwhelming majority of Europeans in some countries would vote to reject their membership. In Turkey, domestic reforms have gone into reverse: civil society leaders such as Osman Kavala and many others are arbitrarily locked in jail and the Turkish inter-ministerial group charged with EU reforms has not met since May 2019. ‘The EU’s serious concerns on continued deterioration of democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary have not been addressed,’ the bloc said, noting that there had been ‘backsliding in many areas’.

Criticism of Turkey is mounting. Marc Pierini, the former EU ambassador to Turkey, argues that: ‘Turning a blind eye or playing down what Turkey’s leadership is doing to its country and to its policies towards the EU and Nato creates a strategic risk for European governments. Leniency is not an option any more.’

President-elect Biden has already warned Erdogan that he must ‘refrain from provocative actions’, by which he probably means more moves away from Nato towards Russia, seismic work in disputed Mediterranean waters or the crackdown on domestic dissent.

Nevertheless, Turkey and the West still share many overlapping goals. Neither the US nor Turkey, for instance, wants a wrecked Nato alliance, an unbridled Iranian nuclear programme or for Russia to have free rein in the Middle East and Black Sea regions.

In the case of Europe and Turkey, both want access to each other’s markets – 60 per cent of Turkey’s trade and investment is with EU states – and cooperation and support on refugee flows.

Those in Europe who would throw away Turkey’s accession process should think about what they would replace it with. Nobody has ever put a viable alternative on the table. The two sides would need to build up a great deal more trust and common understanding if they wish – rather like Britain and the EU after Brexit – to negotiate a new arrangement to regulate an EU-wide framework for trade and cooperation built up over decades.

Sanctions, by contrast, would barely dent Erdogan’s power, but rather strengthen hardliners, feed his populist rhetoric and reduce Turkey’s room for any pivot towards the West.

A better idea could be to do more deal-making that treats each issue separately, even if the EU will never be able to be as transactional as Erdogan and Putin, who can cooperate on arms sales even while taking different sides in both Syria and Libya. Dialogue between Ankara and the West could aim to distinguish between Turkey’s confrontational behaviour on the one hand, and its legitimate concerns and interests on the other.

For instance, Syrian refugees should continue to be supported in Turkey. Negotiation between Athens and Ankara about their specific maritime disagreements in the Aegean Sea should go ahead whatever else is happening. Nato should strengthen a deconfliction channel between Turkey and Greece to avoid the chance of confrontation in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

While Erdogan will not be there forever, the substance of his ‘stronger Turkey’ foreign policy is popular at home. Certainly, Turkey should stop attacking the West with claims to represent a universal, victimized Islam. And it should stop using refugees as diplomatic leverage with the EU or tampering with the long-stable front line in Cyprus. In short, it should seek to de-escalate tensions rather than fuel them.

Nobody should assume that Turkey will be ‘found’ as the biddable junior partner some in Europe and the US fondly but mistakenly imagine. ‘What the US foreign policy establishment failed to grasp sufficiently was that the United States cannot persuade Turkey whenever it wishes,’ writes Lisel Hintz, the US academic, in her article No One Lost Turkey. ‘This denial of Turkey’s agency is pure hubris.’

Hugh Pope, Director of Communications & Outreach, International Crisis Group and Nigar Göksel, Senior Analyst, Turkey, International Crisis Group.

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