The Metamorphosis of Turkey

Published by Public Service, 29 March

My dictionary defines metamorphosis as "the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages." Clearly, the process spoken here is a biological one and using such a language to analyse a country is laden with problems. However, the word metamorphosis is the best metaphor I could find thus far to describe what Turkey is going through.

In some levels, it is clear that Turkey is still aspiring to be a EU member and most Turks see themselves as Europeans. Yet, at the same time Turkey has invited Sudan's notorious Omal al-Bashir to the country with red carpets, publicly backed Ahmedinejad's election 'victory' and engaged with all the shunned countries and groups like Hamas and Syria and alienated its traditional allies such as Israel with angry outbursts. Where is Turkey heading? To the East or the West? Is the traditional friend of the EU, NATO and US turning out to be a foe?

The domestic scene is equally confusing. Not a week passes before a new scandal breaks out. Top generals are being arrested and questioned for alleged attempts to take over the country. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Erdogan publicly ostracises critical media outlets and forces hefty tax punishments on unsupportive corporations. A brand new elite is ruling Turkey, but where is Turkey heading? Is it turning out to be an Islamist country on a fast-track course to instability and civil unrest?

All of these are genuine worries and questions, some more valid than others. It is true that Turkish foreign policy as well as domestic politics and structures are undergoing substantial changes, but a closer look reveals a more promising picture.
With the appointment of the foreign minister Davutoglu, the AKP government has faced the reality that the world has changed and if Turkey was to survive these turbulent days it had to adopt itself to a new era. Davutoglu has promoted a 'zero conflict' in all of Turkey's borders and a diversification and deepening of Turkish relations with other countries.

This was inevitable. Turkey has increasingly lost confidence in the EU project because different EU states and bodies continued to communicate mixed messages on the future of Turkey and EU talks. Meanwhile, Russian-Georgian conflict throughout 2008/2009 and Russian-EU tensions over energy convinced Turkey to leave aside its traditional foreign policy stagnation.

Thus, Turkey took unprecedented attempts to emerge as a negotiator in the Middle East, to solve never-ending problems with Armenia-Azerbaijan and Cyprus, and to become a neutral energy route for the lucrative petrol and gas resources in its neighbourhood. In other words, Turkey is becoming less 'ideological' in its relations but more 'rational' with a multi-faceted calculation of its own interests.

The pragmatic shift is also true for domestic political and social changes. The reason why AKP assumed a majority power in 2002 as a brand new party was that Turks were fed up with the traditional political elites of the country. AKP generated record-breaking votes ever since, even from non-Muslims and liberals, because it has been the most pro-EU, pro-reform, pro-human rights, pro-democracy and pro-foreign investment government Turkey has had in this generation. Yet, the results of the 2009 local elections and current estimates, which forecast AKP's votes to be around 33 per cent for the 2011 national elections, show that whenever AKP has stopped its democratic reforms and EU commitment and lapsed into autocratic attitudes, it has lost votes.

This reflects the reality of Turkey – a forward looking yet traditionally conservative society that wants to be in the EU, yet at the same time feels the need to diversify its relations and investments; a friendly ally who wants to be close to the West, yet at the same time wants to be an independent global actor on its own merits and terms and does not want to be bullied.

Such a Turkey is far from being a foe but of further value for the EU, US and NATO. In a chaotic region like the Middle East, a vibrant democracy with a liberal economy and pragmatic foreign policy is only good news. Turkish presence in Afghanistan and Iraq has played a quiet but significant stabilising role. In the years to come, a Turkey that speaks to all of her neighbours will be key for US and EU foreign policy, with Turkish support on actions towards Iran and co-operation on alternative energy routes with European countries sine qua non.

Although publicly Turkey was criticised for talking to Hamas, re-engaging with Syria and seeking to develop economic relations with Iran, it is now a common attitude that isolating Hamas does not work. The US is currently upgrading its diplomatic presence in Syria, and France is way more ahead than Turkey in having its slices of the Iranian market.

Yet, one must not be naïve. The maturation process of Turkish democracy is no guarantee that it will turn out to be constructive and that Turkish interests will align themselves with those of Europe and the US in each and every turn. Change is a precarious process. That is why Turkey needs close support from the EU more than ever, if the EU is still aspiring for stability in Europe and its neighbourhood and productive engagement with the rest of the world.