Revitalized Turkey drifts away from Europe and towards Eurasia
In Turkey, I found a nation of deep contrasts, but a country incredibly sure of its statehood and fastened together by a strong overriding identity. Unlike its Black Sea neighbors, most of whom are searching for a stable course, Turkey is assured and united.
A country without the deep-seated corruption of nearby ‘European’ states and the religious radicalism of its Middle Eastern neighbors, Turkey is back in business. It also has the potential to become the dominant power in its hinterland, if it isn’t already.
Relations between Moscow and Ankara have been making headlines due to a new gas deal which will replace the ill-fated South Stream project. Nevertheless, from a Turkish perspective, warmer relations with Russia are part of a greater pivot to Eurasia. After flirting with Europe for decades and being constantly spurned, Turkey no longer seeks to be an attachment to a failing EU. Indeed, many Turks expressed the view that being rejected by Brussels has turned out to be a lucky escape.
“Imagine being tied to that now? Paying for Greece and all the other bankrupt places? We were blessed. They wouldn’t accept us because we were too big and too Muslim. Now we don’t feel like supporting their stagnant economies,” as one Black Sea coast politician put it.
While Europe has spent six years flailing around for solutions to its economic malaise and lurching from one crisis to another, it’s been another story entirely in Turkey. Its economy grew by 9.2 percent in 2010, with a projected four percent increase this year. By contrast, the EU managed a meagre two percent in 2010, and an astonishingly paltry 0.1 percent is predicted for 2014. Thus, it’s fairly clear that Turkey benefits from keeping the Brussels behemoth at arm’s length.
Now, thanks to the collapse of Russia-EU relations, Ankara has very cleverly positioned itself as a major energy conduit to Europe, dramatically adding to its collection of bargaining chips. Once upon a time, Turkey would have probably used this advantage to increase its hopes of joining the EU – but now it will be used as leverage in other areas.
Turkey may also be a potential member of an expanded BRICS alliance, as it continues to slide away from its Cold War position in the pro-American camp. The nation is transitioning from being a relatively poor, 20th century backwater to a revanchist major power in the 21st.
An enthusiastic NATO member during the Soviet period, Turkey housed US missiles and played a central role in the tense Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Western governments provided Turkey with mountains of aid during the Cold War and turned a blind eye to its succession of dictatorships, mostly formed by coups. They also ignored the continuous persecution of minorities, most notably the Kurds. Kurds make up around 20 percent of the country’s population.
In 2002, modern Turkey reached a fork in the road after AKP formed the first single party government of the democratic era. The moderate Islamist party reduced military spending, and soon education had a bigger budget than defense. In a country once effectively ruled by generals, it was a bold move. Secular policies, a legacy of Kemal Ataturk’s blueprint for modern Turkey, were rolled back and Islam began to reassert itself nationwide.
In foreign policy, much has changed. AKP’s leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, takes a firm pro-Palestinian line in the Middle East, which has diluted Turkey’s traditionally close relations with Washington and Tel Aviv.
Fed up with the perceived anti-Turk positions in Brussels, Turkey seems further away from EU membership than ever, although Erdogan’s government opened formal negotiations in 2005. With France and Germany both opposed to accession, it’s clear that the process is mere political posturing. There are important domestic reasons why Ankara maintains the pretense of actively seeking to join the EU. The notion plays to secularists and their supporters in the military.
Germany’s views on Turkey are quite bizarre at times. After mass immigration from Turkey in previous decades, Germans see the nation through the same prism as the ‘Gastarbeiters.’
What Germans fail to grasp is that Turkey’s European-leaning elite didn’t migrate as guest workers. They stayed at home. There is no comparison between the cosmopolitan denizens of western Edirne and the stoically religious residents of eastern Rize.
The newcomers to Germany were rural Turks, who adhered far more strongly to Islamic custom than the power brokers inside Turkey. In the old capital, Istanbul, and among the influential military officers, a Eurocentric world view has prevailed.
However, Europe has failed to realize this. While Ankara continuously applied to Brussels for membership, ‘core Europe’ balked at the notion of millions of Turkish Muslims inside the EU and ignored their application. In 2005, as Brussels finally opened accession talks, the EU media were warning against the "Islamization of Europe."
Around the same time, support for pro-Islamic politicians was hardening in Turkey, and pro-religious feeling was expanding. Brussels had skirted the Turkish issue for too long, and now the fleeting moment had passed. Ankara was headed in another direction.
The present internal dialogue, in all corners of the country, concerns how far Turkey has drifted away from its traditional allies – the USA, Israel, and the EU – and which relationships it must develop instead. While no consensus exists, the concept currently winning out is the notion of becoming a Eurasian power. Ankara is now looking more to Moscow or Beijing than Washington or Berlin.
The European-leaning Turkish system, bequeathed by Ataturk, has been struggling under the pressure of influences from Islamist regimes around the region, most notably neighboring Iran.
In eastern Turkey, even in large cities like Samsun and Trabzon, considerably more women now wear Islamic dress than secular costume. Under Ataturk and the governments that followed, it was prohibited to dress in a pious Islamic way in public. Turkey has changed and is no longer the nation that once cozied up to Israel and the US.
President Erdogan’s ruling AKP party publicly clings to a desire to join the EU. However, the government is fully aware that Brussels will never admit them. Hence, the EU path is used as a signal to Islamists that the AKP won’t countenance deviation from the European path plotted by Ataturk.
Erdogan walks a fine line between secularists – who have the support of Turkey’s extremely powerful military – and the religious, who demand something approaching Sharia law. The truth is that neither the EU nor the Sharia options are legitimate possibilities in Turkey. Instead, governments will continue to balance both ideologies and remain as close to Ataturk’s philosophy as possible.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.