Arab revolutions, Turkey’s dilemmas: zero chance for "zero problems"

Turkey’s ambition of becoming a regional power with global relevance is reflected in the domestic and foreign policy of its confident political elite. But changing realities at home and abroad present new problems, says Ivan Krastev. In particular, the Arab democracy wave exposes the limits of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” approach.
Ivan Krastev
24 March 2011

The Arab revolutions are not European revolutions: neither a repeat of 1989 by Arabs born in 1989, nor a re-enactment of 1848 in the age of social media. There were no European flags - being waved or burned - on the streets of Tunis and Cairo. Arab protesters do not regard European societies as a model to be imitated, nor membership of the European Union as the final destination of their efforts.

But these non-European revolutions (or uprisings, insurrections, unrest, upsurges, spring, awakening - the choice of terms reflects the variousness of the events) can still affect Europe as profoundly as did the continent’s own revolutions of 1989 or 1848. They will test the attractiveness and the transformative power of the post-enlargement EU, and alter the dynamics of Turkey’s relationship with the union.

The Arab upheavals will also press in unexpected ways on the new role Turkey has sought for itself in the middle east. In fact, where political commentators tend to see the emergence of new regional order there as Turkey's "window of opportunity”, they tend to miss the fact that it is also "window of vulnerability".

These two relationships are the theme of this article, which follows a week-long study tour of Turkey undertaken in early March 2011, co-organised by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM, Istanbul), the Centre for Liberal Strategies (CLS, Sofia), and the Stiftung Mercator (Essen) with the purpose of exploring the question: “what does Turkey think?”

The following reflections draw on this visit and the chance it provided to discuss Turkey’s domestic situation and international role with some of the country’s key policy-makers and analysts, as well as to gather (as a non-expert in Turkish affairs) many impressions and observations.

It’s not me, it’s you

Until yesterday, the common-sense judgment of the EU-Turkey relationship could be summarised as “unpromising but stable”. The process of never-ending negotiations has seemed more closely to fit Germany’s dream endgame of “privileged partnership” than any other on offer, persuading Europeans that they had trapped Turks in something that resembles an unhappy Catholic marriage - no fun, no sex, but also no exit. It turned out that the AKP government in Ankara, being of a less Catholic background, prefers to look on the relationship as one version of an Islamic marriage - when you cannot get from your wife what you expected, you don’t divorce but simply get a second or even a third wife. 

The shift of Ankara’s foreign policy away from Europe and towards Turkey’s non-European neighbours is the demonstration in practice of Turkey’s polygamy. But nothing is forever, often especially marital choice. A moment when history and geography tempt Turkey to upgrade its already active involvement in the middle east, and the EU is constrained by its euro crisis and demographic fears, is an appropriate one to look at the prospects for Turkey’s old and new liaisons.  

Many political observers see the fall of the Arab wall - that is, the one separating the Arab world from democracy and modernity - as a chance for Turkey to achieve its ambition of becoming a regional power with global relevance. This, however, is far from the only course possible.

The Arab revolutions of 2011 thus bring into immediate focus questions that have previously been of mainly theoretical interest. Can Turkey’s economic and political model become a reference-point for the region’s post-autocratic societies, similar to the EU for east-central Europe after 1989; how will attempts to move in this direction affect Turkey’s relations with Europe; and can Ankara’s “zero problems with the neighbours” policy survive a changed regional order?

Oh, superman

In considering these questions, a vital aspect of the political explosion in the middle east is that it has come at a particular point in Turkey’s evolving reorientation. Turkey is on the rise - in an optimistic and self-confident mood. But it is also vulnerable - and unaware of its vulnerability.  

There is lots of good news. Turkey’s economy is expanding fast (it is now the seventeenth largest economy in the world, and Ankara’s government’s grand ambition is to achieve tenth position by the centenary of the republic in 2023). Its political model is constantly discussed as a source of inspiration and imitation for its non-European neighbours. Its popular culture too has momentum - Turkish soap-operas are the new hit on TV markets as different as Syria and Bulgaria.  

Turkey’s urban life is fascinating. The traffic on the streets of Istanbul is awful but you end up more impressed than annoyed with it. The energy and the ambition of the Turkish business community are breathtaking. But what is really important is that Turkey is poor enough, young enough and messy enough for Egyptians and Tunisians to identify with it - yet successful enough and dynamic enough for Egyptians and Tunisians to dream about it.  

These economic and political achievements are real and impressive. They are also shadowed by other realities that should give Turkish policy-makers sleepless nights.

In particular, Turkey’s economic model is less stable and its political model is less democratic than many outside Turkey have become used to thinking; and its “zero problems” foreign policy is exposed to substantial risk by the evolution of the Arab spring.  

Turkey’s economy is in the dangerous zone between Asia’s low-labour-cost economies and the EU’s hi-tech ones. Turkey cannot survive long here, and needs to speed up its modernisation. Yet since 2007 some of the most important economic reforms have stalled. A choice by Turkey to use the political opening of the middle east as a spur to focus on foreign policy would create a real danger that its economy becomes victim rather than beneficiary of the changes. Even more so if tumult in the Arab world (such as the conflict in Libya) leads to prolonged regional instability and higher oil prices, for in that case Russia can benefit - but Turkey would suffer a lot.

The contrast with Russia goes a little further: for whereas the global economic crisis acted on Russia as a delusions-killer, Turkey came out of the crisis excessively self-confident. Turkey’s political elite tends to agree that the key to the country’s success has been its shift away from Europe, symbolised by its booming trade in recent years with the middle east and its African neighbours across the Mediterranean.

Many leading Turkish economists would dispute this interpretation of the dynamic of Turkey’s economic development. But politicians across the world are often mesmerised by trends rather than volumes - and those in Ankara underestimate their dependence on the performance of the EU economies.

The good times are over

There are questions too about Turkey’s model of Islamic democracy. The constitutional referendum of September 2010, taking place after almost eight years of continuous government by the AKP of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, marked the effective death of the army-sanctioned and generals-guided second republic (established by a new constitution soon after the military coup of 1960).  

The AKP - or in its full title the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party) - is the favourite to win outright a third parliamentary election in a row, in June 2011. If so, it is likely to adopt another new constitution that would - after many political and constitutional reforms that have already tilted the balance of power in its favour - lay the foundations of Turkey’s third republic.

But this is an end as well as a beginning. No one can deny that the AKP has, since it came to power in November 2002, been the main agent of the democratisation of Turkey’s second republic. The party’s continued hegemony, however, has raised acute worries that - in the absence of social, political and institutional constraints - the AKP “regime” could easily mutate into an illiberal, majoritarian democracy. Moreover, there are troubling signs that the shift towards a more authoritarian style of governing is already underway.

Turkey’s democratisation, after all, was also made possible by a broad social-political coalition composed of democracy-supporting Islamists, secular liberals and ethnic minorities. Their combined electoral strength created the momentum to dismantle the generals’ republic, overturn Turkey’s derin devlet (“deep state”), and in major ways transform both Turkish society and the Turkish elite. This coalition has now dissolved - to the extent that what the political commentator Soli Özel has called Turkey’s “slow-motion revolution” has come to an end.  

A majority of Turkey’s secular liberals are now among the government’s fiercest critics. The country’s Kurdish leaders - though still allying their hopes with Erdogan - are increasingly frustrated that the much-advertised “Kurdish opening” has failed to produce results. The Islamists were brave in allowing social and political demands to be articulated but have become slow and ineffective in responding to them.  
Turkey’s old regime may be dead, thanks in great part to the combined efforts of these groups - but there are legitimate fears about how democratic and liberal the new one, the third republic, will be.

You don’t need me anymore
Turkey still has a stable government, but its country’s politics are increasingly unstable. Its deep internal polarisations reflect enduring cultural and political fissures, the differential impacts from the great social changes of recent years, and realignments amongst both those supporting and opposing the AKP government.

A key divide pits Erdogan’s majority (which includes Turkey’s social conservatives, the new business class that has remade the country, and many who have gained or see political opportunities from its long period of rule) against what some Turkish political commentators call “concerned moderns” (an admittedly vague term that connotes secular liberals now fearful of the government’s Islamising tendencies, wine-drinking bohemians, diehard Kemalists and old-regime leftovers).

Whether and how any strategic compromise can be reached between these two camps is unclear. In any event, the real political risk for Turkey’s democracy today is not “Islamisation” but “Putinisation”- a process whereby one political group captures democratic institutions and makes systematic efforts to marginalise opposition and extinguish its power resources.

The argument has often been made that Turkey’s accession talks with the European Union, with the prospect of eventual membership, are a solid guarantee against any authoritarian turn in the domestic arena. This reflects more wishful thinking than a close reading of the situation on the ground.  

The EU is scarcely well positioned to influence Turkey’s political processes. The sad outcome of the EU’s unprincipled policy towards Turkey is that a majority of Turks view Brussels as hypocritical and self-interested. True, opinion-polls still register considerable support for Turkey’s membership of the union, but if the AKP switched overnight to an anti-EU position this support would sharply decline.

There is a political rationale for such a move: for in contrast to the previous electoral cycle when the AKP’s pro-EU orientation was critical to sustaining the broad pro-democracy coalition that dismantled the old regime, now Erdogan needs to attract some nationalist and anti-EU voters to retain his absolute majority in parliament.  

So the EU is no longer the government's major strategic objective but instead the title of the latter’s insurance policy. Since the army was castrated, and in the process lost its appetite as well as its capacity to regulate the political process by overturning elected governments, the EU’s political importance for the AKP has also withered. For its part, the secularist opposition still does not know how to use EU in its attempts to prevent AKP from gaining total control over Turkey’s political institutions.

The end of two-timing
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s strategically minded and intellectually ambitious foreign minister, has defined its confident foreign-policy strategy via the pithy phrase “zero problems with the neighbours”. But many observers of Turkey’s regional and global ambitions have missed the severe challenge that the middle-east upheavals present to Ankara. In turn this reflects a curious evasion of the key fact that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Turkey has been a major beneficiary of the region’s longstanding status quo.  

In recent years Turkey has succeeded in performing an impressive high-wire trapeze act in the middle east: wise preacher and mercantilist power, the region’s only Muslim democracy and its best exemplar of Realpolitik, the would-be interlocutor of (and mediator between) armies and Islamists, the friendly commercial partner of autocrats in Syria or Libya and the recipient of admiring sympathy from everyday Arabs.  

The contradictions have been concealed by Turkey’s own pyrotechnics, the region’s immobile political power-relations - and the inattention of observers dazzled by the bravado of it all. The democratic explosion in the middle east reveals how far the success of “zero problems” has depended on a safety-net that is now vanishing.   

Turkey has long gained legitimacy and resources from being a member of Nato and a candidate for the European Union. From the time of its opposition to the war in Iraq (which was launched four months after the AKP came to power) and increasingly as the “zero problems” policy has developed, Ankara has got much of its popular appeal from confronting the west, and in particular Israel and the United States. The secret formula of Turkey’s foreign policy lies here: creating friends and partners abroad while inspiring voters at home, and in both cases securing the support of political groups with opposite agendas.

A post-revolutionary middle east will considerably narrow Turkey’s room for manoeuvre in this respect. Ankara’s stance over the crisis in Libya demonstrates the difficulty of its position when forced to make choices it would prefer not to make. Turkey’s huge investments in Libya make it reluctant to embrace any anti-Gaddafi actions or forces; siding with Gaddafi would hurt Turkey’s claim to speak for the aspirations of democratic publics in the region; yet for Turkey’s ambitious and self-confident leaders to remain on the sidelines would be to accept their country’s marginalisation in the very area they have so assiduously cultivated.

In short, Turkey these days is pursuing a policy of constructive ambiguity that can easily turn into one of “destructive ambiguity”. Ankara risks being seen as a “hectic and unprincipled power”.

Turkey still has many resources to deploy in the emerging post-autocratic middle east - among them local knowledge, an amazingly resourceful business community, and an intellectually open and ambitious political leadership. But the Arab revolutions (which admittedly have a long way to go to be successful and entrench themselves in new institutions) also present Turkey with a fresh and largely unrecognised foreign-policy challenge; and, since engagement with a middle east in ferment will reinforce Turkish political divides, a major domestic test too.  

If and when the Arab revolutions succeed in creating significant change across the region, Turkey will have to seek yet another new role in the new middle east. The first item on the agenda should be to bury its successful foreign policy. The days of “zero problems”, abroad as at home, are over.

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