North Africa, West Asia

Politics and diplomacy in Turkey: time to talk

Beset by domestic and regional crises, Turkey has adopted a defensive posture where dialogue would be preferable.

William Gourlay
26 August 2015
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Women protest in Istanbul against attacks on Kurds. Avni Kantan/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The news coming out of Turkey at present is hardly cause for optimism. The political arena is paralysed with the failure of coalition talks in the wake of the inconclusive election of 7 June. Society is increasingly polarised and incidents of vigilante violence appear to be escalating. The military conflict against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in abeyance for several years, has reignited, and there is confusion over Turkey’s role in the international fight against ISIS. This spiral of unfortunate circumstances has prompted some to query whether Turkey is heading towards civil war.

In times of trouble, Turkey has a tendency to circle the wagons. An old adage runs that a Turk has no friends other than his fellow Turks: Türk’ün Türk’ten başka dostu yoktur. Prominent columnist Mustafa Akyol recalls the education system in earlier decades teaching students that Turkey is surrounded by seas on three sides and by enemies on four.

Such attitudes were prevalent during the 1990s, when nationalist rhetoric peaked. The 1990s were marked by the intensity of the conflict between Turkish security agencies and the PKK and by episodes of sectarian violence. In recent years, however, a “resolution process”, shepherded by the AKP government and involving painstaking negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, had seen a ceasefire put in place and had made fitful progress towards addressing Kurdish grievances. The government’s abandonment of a military approach and encouragement of dialogue between opposing parties had resulted in a degree of normality returning to the Kurdish-majority regions of southeastern Turkey.

The resolution process and any progress towards normality appear all but lost now. Hostilities between the Turkish military and the PKK have resumed, with a vengeance. Debate rages about who cast the first stone. What is clear is that Turkey began a massive air campaign against PKK positions in northern Iraq in the last week of July just as it was set to begin military operations against ISIS. In the weeks since, clashes between security forces, the PKK and other militants (and sometimes Kurdish civilians) have flared in Istanbul and across the southeast and, in a throwback to the 1990s, the military has imposed curfews and “security zones” in several Kurdish-majority provinces. In this fraught atmosphere, Abdullah Öcalan, who might act as an intermediary between the PKK and the government, has been sidelined.

Thus Turkey has fallen back into old, inward-looking habits, reverting to a military posture rather than seeking dialogue with all parties in a troubled strategic environment. Illustrative of Turkey’s unilateral approach was the fact that, after lengthy negotiations with the US about Ankara’s participation in airstrikes against ISIS targets, Turkey gave Washington only ten minutes notice that they would also be hitting the PKK. US officials were said to have been “outraged”. America, like Turkey, the EU and Australia, classify the PKK as a terrorist organisation, but the hugely important role the PKK has played in pushing back ISIS in both Syria and Iraq has prompted a reappraisal of this classification. Some now even argue that in courting Turkey, rather than the PKK, the US has chosen the wrong ally in the fight against ISIS.

The collapse of coalition talks in Ankara and Turkey’s lack of consultation with the US about attacking the PKK are in many ways a reflection of the Turkish political arena, a realm where there is a great deal of talk, but precious little dialogue. Anyone who follows Turkish politics in situ would be familiar with TV broadcasts of politicians talking at great length. TV coverage for politicians generally equates to opportunities for soliloquys, expounding in detail without ever being challenged or held to account.

This was particularly the case during the run up to the general elections on 7 June, when the norm was lengthy broadcasts of senior political figures making uninterrupted addresses (with state-run media notably skewing coverage to favour the government). The country also rang with the babble of pre-election rallies. All of the four major parties held rallies in major cities and provincial capitals, featuring all manner of campaign razzamatazz from singing and dancing to balloons and banners and in some instances air force flyovers. But at no point were there any debates between candidates or parties, thus campaign promises—and accusations—went untested. Selahattin Demirtaş, leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), in fact challenged the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to a live debate as he had in the presidential campaign of 2014. In both instances Erdoğan demurred.

That politicians and their utterances largely go unchallenged is an element of what anthropologist Jenny White terms the “big man” syndrome in the Turkish political arena. Said “big men” are deferred to and held aloft. This in turn leads to polarisation in the electorate as politicians create patronage networks as a means to retain power; they shut down debate, labelling any dissenting views or criticism as “treachery”. This is as much a feature of the “new Turkey” that Erdoğan has been hailing since being elected president last year as it was in the pre-AKP era.

It wasn’t always this way. In the early years of its incumbency the AKP challenged rigidly observed norms such as the role of Islam in the public sphere and narrow Kemalist definitions of national identity. The impacts of these changes in society were entirely positive. In the diplomatic arena, too, the AKP recalibrated Turkey’s diplomatic posture, engaging fruitfully with neighbouring states such as Syria and Iran as well as the Balkan states, from which it had previously turned away. This approach, labelled “zero problems with neighbours”, attracted applause and ridicule in equal measure and was spectacularly derailed by the fall out of the Arab Spring, but there is no denying that it re-established Turkey as an integral regional player and facilitator.

The AKP government also reached out to the Kurdish regime in northern Iraq, winning a new ally. Ankara had previously viewed the emergence of a Kurdish entity within Iraq as being against Turkey’s interests, reasoning that a freestanding Kurdish regime would incite Kurds living within Turkey. But, interacting proactively with the Kurdish regime, the government created a mutually beneficial relationship and put paid to a commonly held misperception that Turkish and Kurdish interests are incompatible. Thus Turkey’s stocks were raised considerably in the early years of AKP rule precisely because of its positive diplomatic outreach and the government’s adoption of conciliatory positions on important domestic issues, among them the Kurdish question. In short, the AKP encouraged debate, discussion and engagement that had been overlooked or discouraged under the old order. Turkey was the better for these dialectical initiatives.

In the current milieu, however, Turkey has abandoned the open and engaging approach of the AKP’s early years. It is assuming an insular, defensive posture. Pro-government pundits have fallen back on tired conspiracy theories, claiming that those who fear the new, stronger Turkey have sown the seeds of treachery to bring it down and claiming that Turkey must act unilaterally to protect its own interests.

The very fact that the US has worked so hard to get Turkey to join the battle against ISIS brings the lie to such theories and indicates that Washington recognises Turkey’s strategic value. But more importantly, in such a fraught domestic and diplomatic environment, Ankara needs to engage its constituents—whether they be Turkish, Kurdish or otherwise—and its neighbours. Turkey can only negotiate its way out of the crises that beset it, because time has consistently proven that the alternative—adopting a military approach—bears no fruit.

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