Turkey’s Imbalances and Identity Crisis

By Zenonas Tziarras

It was June, 2013. I arrived in Ankara, Turkey, right on time to witness the development of the protests that began at Istanbul’s Gezi Park and spread throughout the country’s urban centers, as well as to experience and participate in the social and political discussion that was taking place at that time. The purpose of my visit included the participation in a conference on Turkish foreign policy and some field research. That gave me the opportunity to speak and exchange views with students of International Relations, academics, experts, and diplomats.

A widespread understanding was that Turkish society had been left without a political alternative. In other words, the political opposition – most notably the Republican People’s Party, CHP – was not an adequate opponent to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). And there was no other option. Most of the people I discussed with were open in expressing their discomfort with the AKP’s policies. Others, mostly people affiliated in one way or another to the government, appeared more reluctant to directly criticize the AKP. Yet the consensus was clear: The AKP has made significant improvements with regard to the country’s democratization, economy, and foreign policy. But this did not change the fact that it became gradually authoritarian by having a majoritarian approach to democracy. As often argued, this was also reflected in foreign policy.

The massive demonstrations came to be added to the increasing number of challenges Turkey has been facing, both domestically and externally. The period of problems for Turkey has arguably started with the break out of the Arab Uprisings. The overthrow of the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and the ongoing Syrian civil war, have posed major challenges to Ankara’s foreign policy planning. At the same time, the – transnational and domestic – threat of the Kurdish insurgency was exacerbated by regional developments, specifically the Syrian crisis, and failures of Turkish governments to resolve the issue. Moreover, the recent discussion regarding a new constitution has also been an issue of contention in Turkey’s political and social scene.

One of the most important outcomes of this regional instability was Turkey’s Western foreign policy re-orientation. That is, whereas Turkey under the AKP has tried to build an image of a country increasingly autonomous and less dependent on the West, it once again relied on the support of the US and NATO for its security. That was mainly because of Ankara’s realization that its capabilities were very limited and not adequate to deal with the new geopolitics of the Middle East. Another tactic that was employed for the adaptation of Turkish foreign policy to the new realities was Ankara’s effort to capitalize on the positive perceptions the Arabs had of Turkey in order to promote its own model of democracy (the so called “Turkish Model”) and develop good relations with the new regimes.

There are two main problems with these developments that occurred in Turkish foreign policy since 2011. First, despite Turkey’s rapprochement with the West, Turkey still seems to be playing a double game, trying to strike a balance between its need for Western support and its own regional and “eastward” aspirations. Second, the “Turkish Model” has been facing many challenges and, especially since the Gezi Park protests, it has lost much of its legitimacy.

Beginning from the latter, it is not news that Turkey is faced with a democratic deficit, human rights violations, problems with freedom of expression, and so on. The Gezi protests, which have not yet faded out completely, were the cherry on Turkey’s pie of domestic challenges. Indeed, as I witnessed in Ankara, reports on the massiveness of the protests may have been a little exaggerated, although in Istanbul the crowds were much bigger, but not the reports on the harsh crackdown of the police. The hard – and often unprovoked – response of the government to the demonstrations was clearly disproportionate to their intensity. At a time when the Middle East was going through a major democratic transition, after historic uprisings took place against decades-old authoritarian regimes, the AKP’s management of that situation did not have the best effect on the country’s image. Turkey’s recent democratization success and synthesis of Islamic with liberal values was debunked, and a more authoritarian image of social and political intolerance manifested.

In foreign policy the situation is not much different. The AKP’s harsh rhetoric against the European Union (EU), the threats about entering the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an alternative to the EU, and its slamming of the United Nations and Obama, as well as the downgrade of its relations with Israel, due to the Gaza flotilla incident and the related UN report, are some of its confusing – as one could argue – policies. The most recent such incident was Turkey’s acceptance of a Chinese missile defense offer. Not surprisingly, both the US and NATO expressed their concern over the deal.

Within this environment, Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, felt compelled to restore Turkey’s image regarding both of the above issues. In his latest article for FP he said that he disagrees “with the perception that United States and its Middle Eastern allies [including Turkey] are growing apart.” He then added that,

“The partnership between the United States and Turkey is value-based, founded upon universal principles of fundamental rights and democratic norms. Turkey promotes these values in its neighborhood and encourages its Western partners to uphold them as well.”

There is an obvious inconsistency in what Turkey wants others to think, or how it wants them to see it, and what Turkey actually does. This is related to other contradictions of AKP’s Turkey as well. Take for example the gap between political rhetoric and practice, or the gap between its projected aspirations and actual capabilities. Similarly then, while it is obvious that Turkey faces major obstacles in its democratization progress as well as that it openly challenges the West, it still wants to be seen as the regional advocate of democracy and a close US partner.

The bottom line is that Turkey, just like in the past, is going through an identity crisis. Yet this is not the same identity crisis of the Cold War or post-Cold War period. It is a crisis that reflects the country’s entering into the new millennium, its adjustment to the new world order, and its transition to its new self. But the outcome is not predetermined. Only too much depends on domestic, regional and international developments, as well as on the AKP’s management. It may take a while, but Turkey might probably end up having to settle into one of its two conflicting identities: A Western(ized) country that goes along with the processes of Capitalism and globalization or a Middle Eastern country that embraces its past and geography as an alternative path. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but history showed that their reconciliation could be very difficult. In any case, the West must be aware of these possibilities as the stakes are too high.

You can follow Zenonas on twitter @ZenonasTziarras

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