By Seyfi Taşhan
Seyfi Taşhan is President of Turkey’s Foreign Policy Institute. He is currently a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (London), Euro-Mesco (Brussels), Instituto Affari Internazionali (Rome), CSIS Middle East International Advisory Group (Washington). Mr. Taşhan has also been serving as the Press Correspondent of the Council of Europe since 1977.
Until the end of the Cold War Turkey was, in practice, a marginal country, though it was also considered a defence bulwark of the West against Soviet expansionism. It was obviously marginal to Soviet geography which included the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It was also marginal to most of the Arab world which followed pro-Soviet policies and did not regard Turkey in a positive light being perceived a client of the West. Turkey was allowed to join European institutions but was kept at arms length in European economic integration endeavours. In other words, these arrangements and the concomitant multiple marginality made Turkey a militarily secure, but otherwise lonely country.
The process of détente that began in the 1970s introduced gradual changes to the foreign policy structures of Turkey; rapidly changing governments moved between right and left and tried to open dialogue with the Soviet Union, but continued to cherish the idea of joining the European Union. In the 1980s Turkey’s economic structure moved away from socialism (etatism) and embraced liberalism and globalisation; the autarchic economic model was discarded and a market economy developed in its place. The result was tremendous acceleration in economic growth, which led Turkish businessmen to begin searching for new markets. This positive development led Turkey to apply for full EU membership in 1987.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of this decade opened a new vista for Turks. Ankara recognised all former Soviet states and established diplomatic and economic relations with most of them. The Soviet influence in the Middle East had receded. Some Middle East countries had turned to the West while Islam had become a rising social and political force in the face of the eternal conflict in Palestine and the inability of the Arab states to do anything about it. In the 1990s Ankara hosted scores of heads of states from new republics and the Middle East. Although Turkey established a Customs Union with the EU in 1995, it also had begun to enlarge its trade and investments in former Soviet republics and in the Middle East. Furthermore, Turkey increased its social and cultural contact with these countries. Beginning in the 1990s, within a period of 15 years, it had become in all respects a central country in its region. By then Turkey had begun membership negotiations in 2005. Unfortunately, the attitudes of the conservative governments that came to power in Germany and France; the Cyprus issue; an exaggerated fear of Islam; and imaginary apprehension of occupation by Turkish workers created a negative public prejudice against Turkey in several European countries. The fact that Western Europe had always considered Turkey as a far away country and Turkish culture and society non-European, still impedes Turkey’s membership prospects.
In the face of this adverse attitude, membership negotiations could at best be seen as developing at snail speed. For its part, the present conservative government in Turkey chose to put the Europeanisation of Turkey on the back-burner and adopted a new foreign policy approach for Turkey, promising to carry out social and political reforms as an issue unrelated to European attitudes to Turkey’s membership bid.
The new policy, as expounded by Turkey’s current foreign minister, Professor Ahmet Davutoğlu, attempts to combine Turkey’s geopolitically central location with progressive economic expansion, and the assumption of political roles in a large hinterland expanding from the Balkans to Central and South Asia, and the entire Middle East, which transcend Turkey’s immediate neighbourhood. As much of these areas were once Ottoman territories, some writers have attempted to describe the new Turkish policies as ‘Neo-Ottomanism’. This would be incorrect as this role is in reality a supplement and not a substitute for Turkey’s eventual membership in the European Union. We could safely assume that the present state of regional centrality seems to have already achieved a status for Turkey that is already the seventeenth largest economy in the world as of 2009.1
The Turkish economy may hope to become one of the top twelve largest economies in the world by 2020 if it can continue to develop at a rate of approximately 5-6 per cent per year. Figures from the Brookings Institute show that the Turkish economy grew by an average of 6.8 per cent per year between 2002 and 2007.2 A 5 per cent average growth rate is to be expected under normal circumstances, one can also use a 6 per cent figure to calculate an “optimum scenario” in which the Turkish economy will not be encumbered by economic crises; and a “worst-case scenario” in which the Turkish economy encounters problems and grows no more than 4 per cent on average. Assuming that population growth rate maintains a steady 1.3 per cent3 in all of these scenarios, Turkish GDP Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) is set to grow from approximately $950 billion to somewhere between $1.7 – $2.1 trillion in 2020. This also means that if the EU27 economy grows by an average of 1-2 per cent over the next decade, Turkish GDP PPP per capita will reach and, in the optimum scenario, may even surpass the EU27 average GDP PPP per capita by 2020.
These economic projections assume that we will not have another severe global economic crisis that would change all such calculations. It also assumes that there will not be major economic, political or social upheavals inside Turkey. Nevertheless, the impact of the 2001 banking crisis in Turkey and the 2009 global recession have been taken into account.
As stated above, it has been assumed that Turkey’s population will grow by about 1.3 per cent. However, this assumption may prove to be incorrect because the downward trend in Turkey’s population growth will continue during the coming decade as well.
Turkey, with its increasing population of working-age citizens, will enjoy a low population dependency ratio in the years to come – unlike the aging populations of Western Europe. The number of institutions of higher education and, therefore, number of Turks with university degrees is also on the rise. It can be inferred that Turkey will become a major source of skilled labour for the EU by 2020.
The main factor for this downward trend in population growth is due to a massive exodus from villages to the cities in Turkey for the past several decades, as well as many other factors such as an increase in education levels, the formation of smaller family units, media influence and the rapid adoption of urban lifestyles.
While only in the 1980s about 60 per cent of Turkey’s population lived in rural areas, today this figure has fallen to about 25-30 per cent.4 The role of Turkish agriculture has lost ground in favour of growing manufacturing and service sectors.
The role of Turkish women in social and economic life is also expanding. For example, in about 140 universities throughout the country, women constitute more than 40 per cent of the faculties.5 Furthermore, women constitute about 28 per cent of the engineers currently employed in Turkey, a figure higher than in many developed countries.6 In spite of this, the nation still faces very serious problems concerning gender equality, violence against women and so forth, although all legal instruments for these purposes are in place.
Turkey’s Role in its Neighbourhood
There are two mutually supporting maxims that guide Turkish foreign policy. One of them has been laid down by the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, and calls for “Peace at home, peace in the world.” The second one has been articulated by the current Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, as “zero-problems with neighbours.”7 Unfortunately, because of the historical problems that have emanated from Turkey’s transformation into a modern republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, it has not been possible for Turkey to pacify some of its neighbours who were not pleased with the arrangements that created Turkey’s current borders. These neighbours are also disturbed by people of Turkish origin who stayed within their own borders.
Typical of these problems are problems with Greece concerning the determination of territorial waters in the Aegean Sea, airspace and continental shelf boundaries. If the Greek community cannot be persuaded by international actors to share the island with the Turkish community, then Turkey’s relations with the EU will remain hindered. The Greek Cypriots play the role of opposition to the development of relations between Turkey and the European Union. As far as the Aegean questions are concerned, it seems that both sides have behaved as if these issues do not hinder their relations and continue to develop their economic and social relations. It is difficult to predict if these problems will, at all, be addressed within the next decade.
Turkey’s borders with Armenia have remained closed ever since Armenia invaded and occupied substantial territories of Azerbaijan. The occupation was not only limited to the Karabakh region which has an Armenian majority, but the Russian backed Armenian troops also occupied several important Azeri cities and drew approximately 200,000 Azeris into refugee status in their own country8 (350,000 Armenians fled from Azerbaijan9). While it could not help the Azeris, the Turks are a linguistic kin of the Azeris and therefore cannot agree to open their borders with Armenia until there is progress towards a solution in the current dispute. Negotiations are still ongoing between Turkey and Armenia to find an agreement on how to reconcile their differing views on the events of the First World War. Another factor that contributes adversely to the problem is the continued presence of Russian troops inside the borders of Armenia. Otherwise, with excellent relations with Azerbaijan and Georgia, the Southern Caucuses region is a ‘no-problem zone’ for Turkey. However, it is very difficult to predict the impact of the 2008 Russian invasion of Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Ever since the withdrawal of Turks from the Arab countries that revolted in 1916, most of the Arabs in the region have looked at modern Turkey and Turks with some suspicion as Turkey strove to become a modern, secular, republic. However, with the economic development of Turkey and its liberation from the constraints imposed by the Cold War, there seems to have been a change from apathy to respect for Turkey’s growing power.
Turkey was the first secular Muslim country to recognise the State of Israel when it was founded. This was an easy move on the part of Turkey as there has been empathy among its people towards the plight of Jews in Europe, and because of friendly relations with the Jewish community in Turkey. In addition to that, both countries were allies of the United States. Yet during the entire period of relations with Israel there have been black periods when Turkey perceived some Israeli actions and expansions as unwarranted and unjustified aggressions. Nevertheless, Turkey has firm trade, military and other relations with Israel, even though the current reciprocal rhetoric and actions have led us to a grey period in relations between the two countries.
There is a consensus among Turks that Turkey will continue to remain a member of the European community of nations and will eventually join the European Union. Some polls indicate there is a downward trend in Turks’ support for EU membership; this is due more to a reaction against current policies of some European leaders. This trend will certainly change as Turkey’s economic, social and political integration with EU countries and norms develop, and eliminate the obstacles created by a number of EU members in order to obtain political concessions from Turkey. Nevertheless, the political scenery is a changing one in Europe and Turkey’s economic and social integration is continuing irrespective of attitudes of the current leadership in several European Union countries. Within the next decade it would not be out of place to assume that Europe, already impressed by Turkey’s current active role in the Middle East and growing economic power (if it were a member it would be the seventh economic power in EU9), may wish to benefit from Turkey’s regional position and accept it as a member within the next decade.
Regarding Turkey’s relations with the United States; it must be said that ever since the end of the Second World War, these relations have had their ups and downs, resulting from differing political priorities of the two countries. Nevertheless, there has always been a dependable strategic relationship between Turkey and the United States, based on the commonality of their security interests. Even though Turkey was reluctant to have American forces base themselves in Turkey during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and were against the imposition of embargoes on Iran, the two countries have deeper interests that transcend the impact of their differences.
A few words are necessary regarding the strength of Turkey’s domestic fabric. Turkey is a medley of more than a score of different ethnic groups who, under the Constitution, are considered as Turks and as members of the Turkish nation even though they enjoy the use of their mother tongues and their specific cultures. The people of Kurdish origin constitute the largest ethnic group. Even though they are mainly concentrated in south east Turkey, a significant number of them are spread out in other parts of Turkey and have fully integrated in their societies. However, a nationalist group in south east Turkey is striving for more rights for their regional administrations, surpassing what are normally granted in unitary states. On the other hand, the Kurdish administration in Northern Iraq provides tacit logistic support11 and several European countries lend financial support to a Kurdish terror group, the PKK,12 which has its headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan and carries out hit and run attacks in Turkey, with the goal of creating a Kurdish state. Several political parties believe that this situation may be alleviated with greater economic investments in the poor districts of south east Turkey and with tough measures to destroy PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan.
From marginality to centrality
There is a question that is often asked, “Is Turkish foreign policy changing its orientation?” It is easier in the changing international environment for great powers and small states to shift their foreign policies depending on their shifting interests. However, for middle-sized countries like Turkey,13 policy shifts are not so easily carried out. Throughout the Cold War, Turkey had to be content with being a marginal country in international affairs and follow a single line of politics; an ally of the United States and Western Europe and reticent in its relations with the wider world. The end of the Cold War made Turkey more independent and more active in pursuit of its interests in its neighbourhood.14 Moreover, the countries that occupy a central position, surrounded by other nations with which there is a whole host of historical and present disputes, have to be strong in terms of economy, social cohesion and military power. Only in such a posture can such a country radiate influence to its surroundings. On the contrary, if the country in the centre is weak and does not have powerful allies it may become harder for it to defend itself against the aggressive intentions or other types of influences of its hostile neighbours. Therefore, a central country like Turkey has to be strong in all respects in order to be able to defend itself and to be able to advance its economic interests and play an active role in the affairs of its neighbourhood. Already, Turkey has become a significant actor as a facilitator for the resolution of disputes, taking part in international peace-keeping activities and providing assistance to countries in the region.
It would not be foolhardy to speculate that Turkey by 2020 would increase its benevolent activities as a major economic power, and if it can become a member of the European Union by then would certainly be one of the leading young global actors with its dynamic foreign policy.
1. World Development Indicators Database “Gross Domestic Product 2009,” World Bank, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/DATASTATISTICS/Resources/GDP.pdf.
2. Abdullah Akyuz, “Political economy of Turkey: In search of stability amid domestic and global crises,” Center of the United States and Europe at Brookings, March 16, 2009, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/rc/papers/2009/03_turkey_akyuz/03_turkey_akyuz.pdf.
3. “Turkey population growth rate,” Index Mundi, http://www.indexmundi.com/turkey/population_growth_rate.html.
4. Mehet Gür, Volkan Çağdaş and Hülya Demir, “Urban-Rural Interrelationship and Issues in Turkey,” Second FIG Regional Conference, Marrakech, Morocco, 2003.
5. Şelale Kadak, “Türkiye’nin Kadın Akademisyen Ve Mühendis Oranını Kıskandılar! [They Envy Turkey's Number of Female Academics and Engineers],” Sabah, July 7, 2010, http://www.sabah.com.tr/Yazarlar/kadak/2010/07/07/turkiyenin_kadin_akademisyen_ve_muhendis_oranini_kiskandilar.
7. “Davutoglu and the Policy of ‘Zero Problems with Neighbours,’” European Stability Initiative, http://www.esiweb.org/index.php?lang=en&id=281&story_ID=25&slide_ID=2.
8. Alexei Zverev, “Ethnic Conflicts in the Caucasus 1988-1994,” in Contested Borders in the Caucasus, Bruno Coppieters (ed.) (VUB University Press, 1996), http://poli.vub.ac.be/publi/ContBorders/eng/ch0102.htm.
9. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki Azerbaijan: Seven years of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1994), 9.
10. World Development Indicators Database “Gross Domestic Product 2009,” World Bank, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/DATASTATISTICS/Resources/GDP.pdf.
11. Kasim Cindemir, “Pkk’nın Silahları Barzani’den Gidiyor [PKK's Weapons Come from Barzani],” Hurriyet, July 19, 2006, http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/4776561.asp.
12. Ercan Yavuz, “European Countries Provide Most of PKK’s Weapons,” Today’s Zaman, June, 24 2010, http://www.todayszaman.com/tz-web/news-214068-102-european-countries-provide-most-of-pkks-weapons.html.
13. William Hale, Turkish Foreign Policy 1774-2002 (London: Frank Cass, 2004), p. 1-3.
14. Seyfi Taşhan, “From Marginality to Centrality,” (Paper presented at Chatham House), reprinted in Foreign Policy – Dış Politika Jurnal, Volume 35, 2010.