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Understanding Post-Referendum Turkey

Middle East Progress Interviews Senior Fellow Michael Werz

Middle East Progress interviews CAP Senior Fellow Michael Werz about his recent trip to Turkey and the state of the country.

SOURCE: Center for American Progress

Michael Werz

Middle East Progress: You recently returned from a trip to Turkey where you held meetings with senior government officials and opposition leaders, what were some of the main themes discussed during these meetings?

Michael Werz: The meetings with President Gül, Prime Minister Erdoğan, and Deputy Prime Minister Babacan dealt with issues that are currently at the core of Turkish-American relations: the Iran nuclear discussion and the deteriorating relationship between Turkey and Israel; but also Turkey’s great interest in enhancing the economic exchange between the United States and Turkey. I thought it was very interesting that President Gül mentioned at one point that Russian-Turkish economic development was on a path to reach $100 billion within the next five years. He indicated concern that the United States is not keeping pace with the developments in the region, and there seems to be keen interest not only for economic but also for political reasons to have closer business ties with the United States.

MEP: Do you see economics as a strong component of Turkey’s foreign policy or are there other factors that are driving it towards other countries in the region?

M: The broader foreign policy conceptions in Turkey indeed follow an economic dynamic, and one can assume that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s notion of Neo-Ottoman outreach—his vision of strategic depth that he has developed in the book he wrote while still an academic—is sometimes overinterpreted. Turkey’s domestic economic growth, especially in central and eastern Anatolia, is an astounding success story. There are now 16 cities in Turkey that generate over $1 billion of trade. This is an entirely new development, and these small- and medium-sized businesses in the center and in the east of the country are looking for new markets. Their products, many of which are in construction and semi-advanced industries, such as textiles, are not that attractive for West-European markets, so the outreach toward the greater Middle East—the fact that Turkey has quadrupled trade with Africa in the last three years and that Turkish countries are doing most of the reconstruction work in northern Iraq and other parts of the region—is a clear indicator that this has a lot less to do with neo-Ottoman fantasies than with the very practical economic ties to the region.. The fact that Turkey has quadrupled trade with Africa in the last three years, and that Turkish countries are doing most of the reconstruction work in northern Iraq, is a clear indicator that this has a lot less to do with neo-Ottoman fantasies than with the very practical economic ties to the region. To put it differently: internal shifts within Turkey have contributed to a middle class emerging in parts of the country where we have not seen them before, and this has direct consequences for the way the country positions itself on the new Levant.

MEP: The United States and Turkey recently launched a joint business council. There has also been ongoing debate on the question of Turkish accession into the European Union. Do you believe that Turkey sees it in its interest to expand economic ties with the United States and European countries, or do you think that Turkey sees its markets more in Middle East, Africa, and other developing areas?

M: The European Union is still the largest export market for Turkey. Having said that, other markets are growing in importance, especially Africa and Turkey’s immediate neighbors to the east. For Turkey, it is important to develop its economic ties with the United States, not only to make money but also to stabilize the Turkish-American partnership. That clearly seems to be on the mind of the Turkish leadership. Deputy Prime Minister Babacan is deeply involved in conversations with the U.S. administration about Turkish-U.S. business frameworks that are being developed. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Obama unveiled a new policy structure, the “Framework for Strategic Economic and Commercial Cooperation.” Its intention is to strengthen economic ties and supplement existing exchanges. An important element of the framework is that it ensures regular coordination and review at a senior political level. My impression is that there is great hope that concrete results will be achieved fairly soon, and this will stabilize, enhance, and develop the Turkish-American relationship.

It is also important to see that the debate about EU membership is not primarily an economic question anymore, because Turkey has been a part of a customs union with Europe since 1995. Even though it does not cover agricultural products, this still means that Turkey already has a stable and solid economic relationship with the European Union. The EU membership dispute is more about the political issues that are being debated and the long-standing question within Turkey as to whether they will be accepted as a full member. That internal discussion, however, is shifting a little bit, because Turkey has seen tremendous economic growth: This year the economy will expand by more than 7 percent. In the first and second quarter Turkey’s growth was as rapid as China’s, and everybody knows that in the European Union, especially in Greece and the southern European countries, the picture is very different. Therefore, I think Turkey’s incentives to become a EU member are actually decreasing. Turkish foreign policy is self-confident, reaching out to the region, and re-establishing itself as a medium-sized power in the eastern Mediterranean, initiatives that would be limited through an increasingly unified and centralized foreign policy within the European Union. Currently, many people in Turkey seem to ask themselves, “What do we have to win by becoming a member of the European Union, and what may we have to lose?” Nobody would have asked this 10 years ago.

MEP: In terms of U.S.-Turkish relations, President Obama’s nomination of Ambassador Francis Ricciardone as ambassador to Turkey remains stalled in Congress. What role do you think this plays in the U.S.-Turkish relationship?

M: I think it is politically damaging. It is absolutely clear that President Obama has made a considerable investment in Turkish-American relations. By coming to Turkey during his first overseas trip and speaking in front of the parliament in Ankara last April, this was seen and greeted in Turkey with tremendous respect and delight. The president signaled that Turkey is becoming a player, and his visit was an acknowledgment by the United States that Turkey will continue to be a vital partner with whom we want to have an honest and open-minded conversation, and not just seeing it as a launching pad for the Iraq war, as did the previous administration.

The fact that an accomplished Foreign Service official with over 30 years of experience is being blocked by Congress for political reasons is damaging for long-term U.S. national security interests, and is leaving an extremely bad aftertaste in Turkey. Ricciardone is a man who is extremely versatile and experienced in the region, having been posted as an ambassador in Egypt, and speaks all the languages that one requires in that part of the world. This reflects poorly on the United States, because people in Turkey ask, “If the United States values the partnership and the strategic relationship with Turkey, and President Obama even spoke of a model partnership, why can’t the United States send an ambassador to our country and have itself represented on the highest diplomatic level?” So yes, this is politically damaging. It is hard to understand why people who think about long-term national interests would play political games with such an important diplomatic post.

MEP: There is a sentiment in some U.S. circles that the United States has reached out to Turkey, but Turkey has not returned the favor in terms of its foreign policy in the Middle East. Can you talk more broadly about how the United States and Turkey can work together on issues where it can satisfy both countries’ goals, both in the Middle East and in the wider international arena.

M: The fact that Turkey plays such an important role for U.S. foreign policy should not overshadow the other reality that there are stumbling blocks in our relationship. It is obvious that the “No” vote on Iran sanctions in the U.N., and the attempt to cut a nuclear deal with Iran with Brazil’s President Lula outside the P5+1, have caused considerable concern. This is true not only in Washington but in many other parts of the world as well. Brazil and Turkey have isolated themselves from the rest of the international community by voting the way they did at the U.N.

However, it also seems that there was a fair amount of miscommunication between the United States, Turkey, Europe, and Brazil, so one should not see the vote as a sign that the United States and Turkey disagree about the ultimate goal of preventing Iran becoming a nuclear state—they do not. It is my impression that it is entirely clear to the Turkish leadership, as well as the Turkish opposition, that it is in their national interest not to have a nuclear Iran. Their strategic goal, which they share with the United States, Europe, and many other countries, is to ensure that Iran will not acquire weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. and Turkey may have different red lines in regards to Iran, but these are more questions of how to set up the process, they are not major differences in strategic goals.

With regard to Israel, the environment is more complicated. It seems that the Turkish leadership is dead set in not giving in and not reversing its two main requirements. First, for Israel to publicly acknowledge that the flotilla incident that left nine Turkish citizens dead was unacceptable, and that Israel regrets what happened, and second, to pay restitution to the families of the victims. This seems to be a position that will be hard, if not impossible, to change. The Turkish leadership is able to make a compelling argument that the flotilla conflict was a very unfortunate incident, and it seems that the Turkish government believes the ball is squarely in Israel’s court. It is also not difficult to imagine that these hardened positions have the potential to cause longer-term problems for Turkish-American relations. One can expect that the pushback already happening in Congress will increase during the next year if the Turkish-Israeli relationship continues to deteriorate.

MEP: The Turkish military has traditionally had strong ties with Israel. While the political relationship has recently deteriorated, do you think the military relationship has changed? And from your trip how would you assess relations between the Turkish military and political actors regarding state actions toward Israel?

M: It seems that the Israeli military and the leadership of the Turkish military have undertaken sustained efforts to stabilize the situation, because the military tends to be pragmatic and issue oriented in its approach. It’s clear that Turkish and Israeli security interests converge to a great degree, not only because of the proximity of the two countries, but also because they are both democracies that share certain interests that are not shared by other countries in the immediate neighborhood.

The internal debate between the military and political and civil sector within Turkey is an interesting one. For the first time in recent Turkish history, the military’s influence on public affairs, politics, and the judiciary, has been seriously curbed, which is a very positive and necessary development. The recent referendum that was passed—with some provisions being vigorously criticized by the opposition—established the authority of the civil courts to try military personnel, which is an important achievement. I think in the long-run Turkey will develop into a direction, which every democratic country develops, with political actors making the decisions not only about foreign policy, but also about military-to-military relationships. This is one more reason to be concerned about the political relationships between Israel and Turkey, and argues for mobilizing as much influence as Western allies can muster to get that relationship back on track.

MEP: During your trip, what was your impression of the relationship between the Turkish military and the ruling AKP?

M: The relationship is, by and large, not good because the military traditionally has played a questionable role in Turkish society. There were several military coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and a military memorandum in 1997, which forced the resignation of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan of the Welfare party. The governing AKP is an indirect successor to the Welfare party and some if its activists come from the older, more religiously oriented organization that has been exposed to the wrath of the military. So it is easy to understand why the relationship is not an easy one. However, it is important to recognize that the Turkish military is changing as well. It has a new generation of Turkish junior officers, and is not only a NATO member but also currently involved in 10 international missions. These missions tend to have a certain effect on military personnel, because if you are part of an international mission you don’t want to be seen as someone who comes from a military that is not apt for the task, has archaic command structures, and is ruled by authoritarian structures. I think that with time the Turkish military has the chance to develop into a modern force, but the era in which one had to be concerned about military coups or a massive military influence on the political scene is definitely over. Whatever else one may think of the conservative AKP, this is one of the party’s great achievements.

MEP: What is AKP’s relative governing power and how have internal dynamics within society evolved following the referendum?

M: The political debate in Turkey is extremely vigorous. It is a society which is polarized politically—and we certainly can relate to that from a U.S. perspective. The recent referendum was a watershed event, especially for the opposition social democratic party CHP. The September constitutional referendum was converted into a political vote for or against the government, and not a conversation about the legal changes that were proposed. The fact that the AK party won an overwhelming victory, getting 58 percent of the votes, means that Prime Minister Erdoğan is now in a very strong position. It also means that that the opposition, which had put all its chips into the “No” vote against the referendum that lost, has been weakened. The Kurdish party, BDP, boycotted the referendum for a number of reasons, which was ultimately an unsuccessful strategy. Now we see a strengthened prime minister, a strengthened president, a strengthened AKP.

Erdoğan has said that he will stand for office in July 2011 for the last time, and in all likelihood will easily win. The opposition CHP is undergoing a transformation under its new leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who is not a lifelong politician, but has a background in the Finance Ministry and the social security administration, and has worked as an official for a long time. My impression is that he seems to be trying to undertake small steps to consolidate his own power within the party, and open up the party for new discussions. He has signaled recently that he would be prepared to accept pragmatic solutions regarding young women that want to wear their headscarves in the universities, which has been a no-go area for the CHP for a long time. When we had a chance to speak with him and ask him about his vision of the military, he said it should be absolutely clear that members of the military, if they are accused of criminal acts, have to be tried and that justice has to be exercised by civilian courts. He even went one step further and said that if there was danger of a military coup he would be the first person to stop the tanks. So it seems that discussions are developing into an interesting direction, and it is clear that 2011 will be an exciting year for everybody that observes Turkey.

Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow at American Progress where his work as member of the National Security Team focuses on climate migration and security as well as transatlantic foreign policy including Turkey.

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Michael Werz

Senior Fellow