Turkey has become a major regional and economic player in the Near East. As a leading vibrant Muslim society, the Turks offer a solid blueprint for Arab nations seeking to modernize, while still maintaining Islamic roots. However, Turks are not Arabs and their relationship with its Middle Eastern neighbors has been fraught with tensions, crises and conflicting objectives.
Moreover, Turkey has long been seeking entry into the European Union (EU), a process that has been painfully slow and also complicates its attitude towards other Muslim nations.
International Business Times spoke to Dilshod Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn., to discuss Turkey’s evolving role in the Middle East, how it is handling the revolutions in the Arab world and its chances for accession into the EU.
IBT: Turkey has been lukewarm in its support of the NATO military campaign in Libya, although the Turks have provided humanitarian support to Libyan rebels and refugees fleeing Libya. How do you think Ankara views the crisis in Libya?
ACHILOV: Turkey finds itself walking a tightrope with respect to the Libyan crisis. Ankara’s ambivalent position is linked to the “aftermath” of the Libyan political landscape after Gaddafi is gone.
Turkey fears that excessive Western influence (e.g., France, UK) will shape Libya’s future political landscape. At the end of the day, Libya is a strategically important, oil-rich country.
Ankara is pursuing a balanced diplomacy. It is pushing for a peaceful diplomatic solution to the current stalemate -- this is the ultimate Turkish foreign policy objective with regards to current Libyan crisis.
However, Ankara realizes that the situation may not be “ripe” yet for diplomatic negotiations between the Gaddafi loyalists and the rebel forces. Therefore, Ankara supports the interim NATO military assistance (air support only) in order to protect the rebels and civilians.
On the other hand, Turkey certainly cannot afford breaking off relations with the rebels. Ankara knows that Gaddafi will eventually be removed. When the dust settles, Turkey will need to emerge on the side of the victors.
IBT: What about Turkey’s political leverage in the region?
ACHILOV: Ankara is very concerned about that.
By minimizing Western interference, Ankara wants to maximize its own regional security (and protect its economic) interests. Gaddafi and Ankara have long had warm relations.
Moreover, Turkey has a big economic investment in Libya – mainly in construction. Today, Turkey one of only a few countries with an active embassy in Tripoli and a consulate in Benghazi through which Ankara could (and can) interact with both the Gaddafi regime and the rebel forces. This unique opportunity puts Turkey in a spotlight for further diplomatic negotiations as a mediator.
IBT: Does Turkey want to take a leading role in Middle Eastern affairs (as a mediator, etc.). Or are they reluctant to get involved too deeply with Arab countries?
ACHILOV: Undoubtedly, Turkey is committed to playing a leading role in Middle East affairs.
The days of reluctant involvement in the Arab politics are long gone from Turkish foreign policy objectives. In fact, Ankara views itself as a leading model for the Muslim Arab world. Turkey has already become a chief mediator in the region.
Just to cite a few examples: Iran seeks Turkish mediation in its nuclear stand-off with the West; Israel needs Turkey as a regional ally; Syria seeks Turkish mediation to enter into talks with Israel; the Palestinian leadership often calls on Ankara to intervene; and Gaddafi himself sent his envoy to Turkey in his effort to broker a deal in the Libyan civil war.
In short, Turkey has become a hub for diplomatic mediation in the region.
IBT: Turkey has long had friendly relations with Israel. Does this make the Turks somewhat a “pariah” among the Arab states?
ACHILOV: Turkey was one the first Muslim countries to formally recognize the state of Israel in 1949. Ever since, Turkey has remained a key regional strategic ally of Israel.
Historically, the military cooperation (arms deals, joint military exercises, etc.) between the two countries was viewed very negatively by the Arab world. From 1949 through 2000, the Arabs viewed Turkey as an outsider or a “pariah” Muslim-majority state. This perception substantially shifted when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly and harshly criticized Israel’s policies in Palestine.
Moreover, Turkish-Israeli diplomatic relations significantly deteriorated in the wake of Israel's Gaza flotilla raid in May 2010.
Today, the average Arab has high regard for Turkey. More specifically, the Erdogan enjoys wide popularity among Arabs – more so than any Arab leader.
On the other hand, Israel became very concerned about Turkey’s developing close ties with Iran and Syria (two sworn enemies of Israel).
While Erdogan’s strong rhetoric against Israel may win popular support in the Arab world, it will not help solve any real, substantively pressing issues (the Arab-Palestinian conflict, Iranian nuclear stand-off, etc) in the long run.
It is fair to say that Turkish-Israeli relations are going through a serious test. For greater security and harmony in the region, it is important for both Israel and Turkey to rejuvenate bilateral cooperation and dialogue.
IBT: Will joining the NATO campaign in Libya help Turkey gain more support in joining the EU?
ACHILOV: Not necessarily. The stimulant for Turkey’s participation in NATO’s Libya campaign is driven more by Turkey’s strategic interests in Libya (and the Arab world in general) as opposed to its immediate interests in joining the EU.
Turkey’s NATO decisions arose from its security doctrine. Thus, NATO and the EU should be evaluated in a unique context. In present terms, because the ultimate accession into the EU appears to be quite distant, NATO remains more institutionally important for Turkey.
IBT: France and Germany seem to be the most opposed to Turkey joining the EU. What are their principal objections?
ACHILOV: There are many factors that explain France’s and Germany’s opposition to Turkey’s EU bid.
First, the issues of immigration and integration continue to dominate the European political agenda. Differences in ideological and religious identities are often used as a pretext, implicitly or explicitly, by the French and German elites when justifying their opposition to Turkey’s EU bid. There is popular support for German and French policies domestically. Germany takes a more lukewarm approach (less outspoken) compared with France which vehemently opposes Turkey’s bid.
France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy has made it clear that “Turkey is not European.”
In the case of Germany, the Turks are the largest ethnic minority (over 3.5 million). At least 40 percent of the Turkish minority is under the age of 25, compared to only 20 percent for ethnic Germans.
In the case of France, it is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe. In this light, immigration and integration continue to be a hot issue.
The second reason is probably more important and more illuminating: the power structure within the EU. Turkey’s admission to the EU will cause a significant change in the political power leverage within the European Parliament (EP). The structure of the Parliament is related to each member state’s population. For instance, Germany has the most seats (12 percent) followed by France (10 percent) in the EP.
If Turkey is admitted into the EU, then France will slip to third place after Turkey. Moreover, considering the current birth rates, we can easily predict that (in the near future) Turkey will be the most populous country in Europe and (if admitted) will have the most members represented in the EP. With this in mind, Germany and France are finding this reality quite uneasy, and to a great extent, unacceptable.
IBT: But, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has said he supports Turkish membership in the EU? And like Germany and France, the UK also has problems with immigration and national identity.
ACHILOV: Both the U.S and the UK have long supported Turkey joining the EU.
The UK realizes that there are more benefits to having Turkey “inside” working with the West, instead of being “outside” as a potential challenger.
Put differently, there are more benefits in having a powerful Muslim-majority nation (Turkey has the second largest army force in NATO) within the EU alliance, rather than leaving it to potentially aligning with Russia, China or even building its own future Middle Eastern security alliance in the region.
Both the US and UK appear to share this vision. If Turkey stays “outside,” it is more likely that it could develop into a more powerful regional power within the Middle East. To this end, the UK believes that Turkey should be a “gateway,” not a “gatekeeper,” to the Middle East and North Africa in the context of being a “bridge” between the West and the Islamic world.
One way to secure Turkey’s long-term strategic alliance with the UK (and the Western world) is to see it join the EU.
Also, the UK objectively assesses the economic advantages of having Turkey in the EU: dynamic economic performance, big market, and young population, industrial base and high economic growth. When comparing the UK with France and Germany, one can see the clash of two ideological frameworks: inclusionist versus isolationist policies.
IBT: Turkey’s economy appears to be doing very well even without EU membership. What benefits would accrue to Turkey if it became part of the EU?
ACHILOV: Turkey’s future economic well-being is not contingent upon EU membership. Nonetheless, joining the EU would bring new venues for economic growth, trade and full access to European markets.
EU membership would also allow Turkish citizens to travel freely and take jobs anywhere within EU member states. The accession would also help mature the Turkish democracy and strengthen the state of civil society. In any case, Turkey has undertaken important social and political reforms by trying to align itself with EU standards. Whether or not Turkey could have done these reforms had it not planned to join the EU is a good question, Regardless, the EU bid process gave a birth to numerous positive policy outcomes.
IBT: Are Europeans reluctant to view Turks as “European” since the country is overwhelmingly Muslim? After all, the Balkan nations are heavily Muslim, especially Albania.
ACHILOV: In popular discourse, the majority of Europeans are still reluctant to accept Turks as truly “European.”
IBT: Has Turkey made significant strides in improving its human rights record? (Ankara recently banned 12 Kurdish politicians from running in the next general election).
ACHILOV: While Turkey has taken some important measures in improving civil liberties and human rights, some concerns and deficiencies still remain. A recent publication by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) lauded Turkey’s reforms.
The report found that Turkey has made substantial progress since 2005 (that is, since the ECRI’s last report on Turkey). However, the ECRI expressed certain concerns that still need to be addressed by Ankara.
Turkey still lacks a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation with a clear definition of what constitutes to “racial discrimination” in Turkish law. The current law on discrimination remains to be vaguely defined. Turkey is still yet to ratify Protocol 12 (an anti-discrimination treaty of the Council of Europe) on Human Rights. Moreover, recent arrests of some journalists (part of the ongoing Ergenekon trial) raises concerns regarding human rights issues in Turkey.
One comprehensive answer to these issues is a new civil constitution. All Turkish political parties, in principle, agree that a new constitution is a must. The current Turkish constitution was adopted in the wake of the military coup in 1980. Even though some major constitutional changes and reforms have been made, inconsistent and vague language still prevails.
IBT: How does Turkey now get along with neighbors Greece, Russia, Iran and Iraq?
ACHILOV: Historically, Turkey did not get along with either Greece (Turkey annexed northern Cyprus), Russia (Turkey was a buffer zone during the Cold War era), Iran (Khomeini and the secular Turkish Republic were at odds) or Iraq (Saddam Hussein viewed Turkey as a pro-Western, pro-Israeli state).
The reality today is very different than what it was ten years ago. The AKP government’s pragmatic policies and a “zero-problems with neighbors” diplomatic policy have been largely a success -- the current foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has even earned a nickname of “Mr. Zero Problems” in the process.
Turkey has lifted visa requirements for many of its neighbors (including Russia, Iran, Syria). Just within the past three months, the visa regime was lifted (mutually) for Yemen and Malaysia. Today, Turkey enjoys a non-visa regime with over 55 countries around the world.
Although Turkey's zero-problems policy has started to yield positive outcomes in normalizing diplomatic relations, tensions with some of its neighbors still exist.