Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hassan Abu Taleb

Turkey's new face

On the back of comprehensive political, social and economic revival, Turkey -- unresolved issues notwithstanding -- is likely to cement its regional role, writes Hassan Abu Taleb *

Turkey is a country with many wishes, some of which are contradictory. It wants to become a full EU member but is keen on ties with the Middle East and Central Asia. It wants a stable home front as a means of gaining acceptance in Europe, but it is hesitant to resolve the Kurdish issue. It has opened up to Armenia, its historic nemesis, but is backtracking on Cyprus.

Some Turks want to rehabilitate the Ottoman legacy through active and peaceful participation in the Arabic and Islamic world. Others say that Ottoman heritage is neither good for democracy nor appealing to the EU.

It used to be that Turkish-Israeli relations were exemplary in terms of strategic cooperation. Now the Turks and the Israelis are having trouble getting along.

Turkey is not what it was a year or two ago. It is taking unprecedented interest in Arab and regional politics. It has become involved in Palestinian and Iranian politics. It has certain views about the Iranian nuclear programme and the way to transport gas from Central Asia to Europe.

There are many explanations of Turkey's often- schizophrenic policies. Some of the explanations are external, others internal. Since the Justice and Development Party (JDP) took power it has engineered a political, social and economic transformation in the country. More specifically, it has redirected the nation's attention to regions that used to come under the Ottoman sphere of influence.

The Turks, for long trying to be part of Europe, are reconsidering their ties with the Arab and Muslim worlds. They are rethinking their relations with regions to their east, regions that are now in a state of flux.

Until a decade ago, Turkish economic power was concentrated in Istanbul. Since the rise of JDP early this decade, small businessmen and farmers from Anatolia have risen to eminence, altering the economic landscape of the country. Should the Turkish economy continue to boom, Turkey -- a country with a unique geographical position -- is likely to become an international player. It may take the country a decade or two to get there, but judging by the far-reaching changes of the past decade, the prospects are better than good.

Is it a forgne conclusion that Turkey will have a prominent international role, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to think, or do obstacles lie ahead? The answer is not easy to discern, for some issues that have bedeviled Turkey for nearly five decades may persist.

The European dream that has been tantalising the Turks for decades is still powerful. Some say that the recent surge in Turkish interest in the Middle East is Ankara's way of calling Europe's attention to its regional clout. The Turks, it is being said, just want to soften European opposition to their application for EU membership. It is also possible that the Middle East is Ankara's second choice, in case its EU endeavour comes to nothing.

Whatever the case, the predominantly Christian Europe seems unsure about accepting Muslim Turkey as a member. It is not just a question of religion, but of differences in cultural outlook. Turkey's cultural values and its take on democracy, some say, are not exactly harmonious with European views.

Some Turks think that EU membership would help propel Turkey on the path to democracy and check the army's role as self-proclaimed guardian of Ataturk's secular principles.

Turkey, one has to say, would not be the only one to benefit from EU membership. Europe as a whole stands to benefit also. Europe's population growth is so weak that by 2050 its economy is likely to suffer as a result. With its young population, Turkey can turn the trend around, providing Europe with active human resources, as well as better access to Russian supplies of natural gas.

Such considerations, however rational, may not be decisive in determining the course of Turkish-EU talks. Turkey is perhaps willing to commit fully to the Copenhagen criteria, and yet Europe is likely to find an excuse to keep it out.

One such excuse is the Kurdish issue. So far, Turkish leaders don't seem capable of transcending their deep-rooted suspicions about the Kurds. The integration of the Kurds in the fabric of the Turkish state may take decades to accomplish. There is a dominant notion in Turkey that is holding back any progress on the Kurdish issue. This notion is that non-ethnic Turks need to blend in to the point of embracing Turkish identity. So long as the Kurds refuse to blend in, the Kurdish problem will remain unresolved. The fact that further commitment to human rights and to political and ethnic pluralism can be of help seems to escape the notice of the Turkish mainstream.

Turkey's dominant culture comes with a score of latent fears that may take years to banish. One should therefore expect the Kurdish issue to remain unresolved for the next decade or so. Peaceful initiatives by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) so far have been met with indifference on the part of the ruling party and the army.

The other main issue Ankara has to confront is the Cyprus issue. Since 2004, there has been no progress on that front. But there are signs that this issue will be revived soon via UN efforts or through Turkish-Greek talks. If a solution were found, Turkey would be able to pull back 30,000 troops from northern Cyprus and let the island be united once again. This would deprive the EU of an excuse to keep the Turks out. Still, this is unlikely for the moment.

Turkey should thank its stars for one thing. It has water, and plenty of it. Turkey is a likely supplier of water to Israel and Jordan, as well as Syria and Iraq. But agreements on water distribution may have to wait until a viable political solution is found for the Palestinian issue. Once Israel pulls out from occupied Syrian land and peace treaties are signed, a process of normalisation may change the future of the region. But even in the absence of such treaties, the need for Turkish water will remain urgent and vital. This fact imparts on the Turkish role in the Middle East definite urgency, whether the JDP remains in office or not.

Will the JDP remain in its place as a ruling party? It is likely that the JDP would stay at the forefront of Turkish politics. It has successfully changed the political scene in the country as well as its social and economic relations. It has brought new vitality to various political institutions, especially in view of the greater role it has assigned to parliament. All of this is likely to change in the Turkish political scene in an irreversible manner. There is even a chance that the Turks would amend the constitution to give the JDP and its backers a stronger role on the country's political scene.

Turkey has experienced an exclusive brand of secularism that banishes religion from public life. But this concept of secularism is undergoing revision. Supporters of exclusive secularism are losing ground to those who seek religious freedom as well as power to the people. Turkey has changed, and is likely to change more in the next decade.

* An expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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