Turkey Revamps Its Image

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

Serving as a geopolitical bridge of NATO structure between Europe and the Middle East, Turkey improved its economy and international image to a point where Ottomanist ambitions were resurrected once more. The duo of Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu were credited with Turkey’s high-flying position.

As a scholar-diplomat, Foreign Minister Davutoglu had begun to nurture and nostalgically portray the Ottoman Empire, when subject nations lived “in harmony” and “brotherly love,” the Armenian Genocide and the bloodbaths from the Balkans to North Africa not withstanding.

Fueled by the dynamics of a booming economy and the hegemony forged with Israel in the Middle East, Ankara entertained visions of reshaping the region in a configuration matching its dreams.

Davutoglu proudly proclaimed Turkey’s new policy of zero problems with neighbors, which basically meant to force down Ankara’s policies on its neighbors, under the umbrella of NATO powers.

At this time, Mr. Erdogan’s “mildly” Islamist party, in power for the last decade, had to put the brakes on its domestic and foreign policy ambitions because it realized that it was biting more than it could chew.

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Despite the dramatic achievements in its economy, its domestic policies hit some snags as revealed by the Gezi Park demonstrations. Erdogan was smart enough to diffuse another potential problem — the Kurdish issue — which could bring down his rule, if it had combined with the social unrest sparked by an environmental issue and conflagrated throughout the country. Generally the Kurds abstained from any action, waiting for the outcome of the Erdogan administration’s negotiations with the jailed leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Oçalan.

Erdogan’s personal ambitions and the ambitions of his country are under a severe test at this moment; personally he is gearing up for the upcoming presidential elections, during which he would like to replace his erstwhile ally, President Abdullah Gul.

He has proclaimed his reform package with the visible intent of building domestic coalitions for a successful presidential bid.

His “zero problem” foreign policy is in complete tatters, because Ankara overextended itself to meddle in every neighbor’s internal problems, which backfired.

On September 30, Erdogan announced his package of reforms, which were met with general discontent. The package does not go enough to satisfy Kurdish aspiration. The Kurds began their 30-year struggle for complete independence, which meant the partition of Turkey. Oçalan realized that the great powers would not allow the territorial disintegration of an ally and to have down his rhetoric to settle for cultural self-determination, which meant in the first place, the use of the Kurdish language. Erdogan’s package give only lip service to that demand. It allows for the instruction of the Kurdish language only in private schools, which very few Kurds can afford. The terror laws, which cost the lives of 40,000 Kurds, are still in place and Erdogan’s promise to dismantle them as he plans to draft and adopt a new constitution. The new constitution will also lower the bar, allowing Kurdish representatives to be elected to the parliament.

The Kurds are dissatisfied and they have been grumbling about the withdrawal of armed guerillas from Turkish territory, the only guarantee to force the government to make concessions.

Turkey boasts a population of 75 million, of which 20 million are Kurds. Another 20 million are Alevis, whose religious rights have been completely trampled. Alevi ethnic pride has been mostly awakened by neighboring Syria, where the Alevi rulers are battling for their survival. Erdogan’s Sunni-dominated administration has ignored Alevi aspirations, planting a time bomb under his reform package. While the Syriac Church has been promised the return of some shrines, the Heybeli Island Greek seminary remains closed and it is contingent upon some reciprocity with Greece. Turkey insists on opening two mosques in Athens to consider the opening of the seminary.

The Ecumenical patriarch of the Greek Orthodox church is the spiritual head of 300 million adherents, yet Turkey refuses to recognize his title. If the seminary remains shut, no young seminarians will be educated to replace aging priests or the patriarch himself.

The same applies to the Armenian seminary as the Turks have set up a trap; no foreign-born clergy can be elected Greek or Armenian patriarch. And if their respective seminaries are closed, they are doomed to extinction.

Turkey’s foreign policy is under intense scrutiny as most of its promises and premises have failed; Turkey was in hegemonic alliance with Israel which afforded Ankara Western powers’ full support. In an effort to win over the Arab and Muslim sympathies, Ankara went too far with the Mavi Marmara incident which still keeps the Israel-Turkey axis under tension.

Erdogan’s gamble in Egypt backfired as he supported the Islamist Brotherhood in its overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates supported the military government, politically and through generous economic aid. Underneath that reaction, there was a rebuke by Arab countries towards Erdogan’s pretentions to lead the Sunni world.

Of course, there us no lack of solving the Cyprus crisis, where Turkish occupation forces are well entrenched and a demographic engineering is in progress with Anatolian peasants settling on the islands.

Turkey’ involvement in the Syrian War resulted in a flood of refugees into it territory and the rise of Kurdish autonomy movement in Turkey with the potential threat of a domino effect.

Erdogan’s administration has realized that alliance with Israel not only assures Western powers’ support, but also huge potential of natural gas reserves that Israel has discovered under its Mediterranean shores. Turkey is dependent on Azeri, Russian and Iranian energy (the latter under sanctions) and before Israel strikes a deal with Turkey’s arch-enemy, Cyprus, it has to restore relations with the Jewish state to get a piece of the pie and deny Cyprus a boost to its economy.

Ankara has also extended all the way to Beijing negotiations over air defense systems to the chagrin of NATO. Two years ago Erdogan had accused the Chinese government of Genocide in relation to an incident with the Uyghur minority. Now it is extending its hand for a military deal.

The ill-fated protocols with Armenia remain frozen and there is no hope of reviving them, although a former Turkish ambassador to the US has commented that Ankara needs to restore its relations with Armenia to enhance its international image.

Thus far, Erdogan’s magic has worked domestically and internationally. He has to prove his political mettle in the present challenges.