June 29, 2011 Leave a comment
As a result of everything that is happening in the Middle East, it must be very confusing to be Turkish looking at your country’s role and considering its future.
Every Turkish student learns about Turkey’s glorious history as part of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of the world and left its mark on history. Also they learn about World War 1 and Kamel Ataturk who fought cleverly and relentlessly on behalf of the Turks, which resulted in establishing Turkey as it is today with a well thought constitution full of ‘checks and balances’ to ensure that Turkey remains a modern country with the state separated from religion.
Since the Ottoman era, Turkey’s economy evolved greatly as it moved from a conquering power to a soveirgn country. These changes resulted in some peaks and troughs of economic performance, but throughout the years, even with the different economic reforms attempting to increase export, Turkey’s economy never managed to rid itself of chronic problems such as high unemployment and inflation.
In 1993, when the European Nations agreement rebranded itself as the EU, Turkey was not considered as a member. It didn’t help Turkey being in a key position such as Europe’s gateway to Asia as well as the fact that its close neighbour, Greece, was part of the EU. In 2004 Turkey once again did not make the cut in the EU expanson to Eastern Europe adding another 10 countries including yet another close neighbour, Cyprus. Not being accepted into the EU had a big impact on Turkey, as EU countries shared economic ties and opened the borders for workforce migration Turkey was left behind.
Some of the reasons for Turkey’s failure to join the EU are the allegations of human rights violations of its Kurdish population as well as its continuing part in a conflict in Cyprus. In the latter conflict, Turkey is still occupying North Cyprus and amongst other things is accused of ethnic cleansing of the Greek population, while settling Turks from the mainland.
The Kurdish “problem” in Turkey does not often feature in the global mainstream media, nor is it an exclusive Turkish issue. It is an issue shared between the several countries where the Kurds are settled such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Armenia. Turkey, who has about 8.5 million Kurds (out of about a total of 61 million people) has had to resort to violent measures, in order to restore stability, especially opposing the PKK, who are considered a terrorist organisation by most of the Western countries. The treatment of the Kurds by the other countries is not necessarily any better than Turkey, however unlike Turkey, those countries are not part of the EU and so these policies rarely catch the West’s attention.
While being a Muslim country, the values that Ataturk had instilled in Turkey were intended to prevent it from ever adopting a religious rule. Therefore it was natural for Turkey to limit its relations with Iran following the Muslim revolution 1979 and tighten its trade links with the likes of Israel. This has manifested itself very clearly in the economic and army cooperation between Israel and Turkey over many years. Turkey has also benefited from becoming a tourist attraction for many Israelis spending their hard earned cash in the country. The closeness of the relationship was highlighted in 1999 following Turkey’s devastating earth quake, in which over 17,000 people died. In order to help, Israel made a significant investment sending its rescue units to help reach and treat survives from under the rabble.
However, the 1999 earthquake was one of the last friendly public gestures between the two, which were to be replaced with hostility following Erdogan rise to power in 2003. The attitude towards Israel was gradually worsening, as Erdogan’s government, the AKP, worked slowly to change key secular pro-Israel personalities in power put by the old regime.
While there were already telltale signs of the attitude change, Turkey was still an ally to Israel sharing military technologies and taking part also as a mediator in the peace talks between Israel and the PA. The biggest change in attitude was noticed in Turkey’s reaction to the operation Cast Lead in 2009, when Israel went on the offensive in Gaza prompting international criticism. Just to ensure that this was not merely a one off display, rather a change in policy, Erdogan stormed off the stage in a public debate with Israel’s president Shimon Peres as well as cancelled a military drill with the IDF, instead running one with Syria. However the worst change in attitude is the support Erdogan gave the Gaza Flotilla, which involved violent resistance to the Israeli navy and resulted in 7 dead Turkish citizens. To this day Erdogan demands an apology and compensation from the Israeli government for these actions.
During Erdogan’s government not only did the country start changing its secular regime, but it is also turning away from the West towards the East. Whereas Turkey supported American policy and allowed some military movement in the war on Iraq, Erdogan has been establishing closer ties with Syria and Iran. Moreover, Erdogan’s criticism of Israel has gained much popularity, as many Arabs see him as a true leader not bowing to US pressure. However, as the recent developments in the Middle East unfold, like so many other governments, Erdogan is finding himself aligned with the wrong side such as Asad, whose ligitmacy is questioned as a result of violence used to suppress protests in his country. It is likely that Erdogan might find himself in a similar position with Iran, however for now Turkey is still supporting Iran’s claim of no wrongdoing in regards to their nuclear program and is not taking part in sanctions imposed by US and the EU by purchasing oil to feed its growing economy.
The paradox perhaps is that while Turkey is turning its back to the West politically, economically, Turkey has never done better. Erdogan has introduced some measures such as reforms to the banking system and allowing Europeans to purchase property as well as continue Turkey’s trend of export. As a result of all those measures and policies the economy has seen a boost relative to the rest of the world. Presiding over Turkey in such good economic times has increased Erdogan’s popularity and saw him elected for the third time with even more support than the last two elections.
However the Muslim nature of the AKP is slowly seeping in and Erdogan has already expressed his will to make some changes to the constitution, which would undo some of the regulation that exist to ensure that Turkey remains a secular West facing country. One might speculate that Turkey is going through the same process of the Iranian revolution in 1979, just in an much slower pace.
In my opinion, every Turkish person should ask themselves, whether this economic boost would continue if the country allows the religious institution to be introduced again and considering the turbulence in the Middle East, whether the AKP is gambling on the right regimes in the region.