A lot has changed for Turkey’s role in international relations during the past decade. Turkey has developed its relations with its neighbours under the concept of “zero problems”, it has became the 16th largest economy in the world, mediated in various conflicts between, for example, Afghanistan-Pakistan, Syria-Israel and Serbia-Bosnia Herzegovina, launched together with Finland the “Mediation for Peace” initiative, and, according to some, eventually emerged as a model for its Arab neighbours going through regime change.
The remarkable diplomatic activism has been accompanied by domestic reforms addressing the democratic shortcomings in the political regime. However, the backdrop for this positive image hides several tensions. The positive Turkish image in the region and on the world stage is put to test due to a number of challenges: deteriorating relations with Israel, increasing global tensions on Iran, the uprisings in Syria, approaching EU presidency of Cyprus. On the domestic front, the future of democracy and freedom of expression has become a concern.
Our event will give the chance to ponder on the interplay between Turkey’s domestic development and its international role. The speakers will highlight what can be seen as the new resources Turkey has been able to mobilize for its foreign policy and international outreach: growing trade and economy, increasing stress on soft power, new emerging political and economic classes, and changes in the role of the military and in that of religion.
Program of the seminar:
14:30 – 14:35
Opening and Chair:
Hanna Ojanen, Researcher – The European Union research programme
14:35 – 16:00
”Turkey in the New Middle East: a model?”
“The Prospects and Paradoxes of Turkey’s Reform Politics under the AKP”
“Turkey’s Invisible Civil War: The Headscarf Issue”
16:15 – 17:00
Panel debate on Turkey’s relations with the EU, the UN and NATO, and on long-term projections on its future.
With participation of Juha Jokela, Programme Director, The European Union research programme
Sinan Ülgen is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels with background in Turkish Foreign Service, specialising in the implications of Turkish foreign policy for Europe and the United States.
Ümit Cizre is a political scientist at the Istanbul Şehir University covering Turkey’s democracy problems in general and militarism and civil-military relations in specific.
Richard Peres is an Istanbul-based analyst of Turkish politics that has followed in particular the headscarf issue and the position of women and youth in the society.
Summary of the Seminar
The seminar discussed changes in Turkish foreign policy as well as internal reform politics under the AKP government. Turkey’s “invisible civil war”, the headscarf issue, was dealt with as an example of the tensions involved.
The first speaker, Mr Sinan Ülgen stated that the Turkish foreign policy has experienced a change during the past decade from the traditional policy (from 1923 until about 2000), “before the AKP party”. The earlier policy was clearly based on the fact that the country is strongly Western. It belongs to many European and Transatlantic institutions as member and it has had an association agreement with the EC since 1963.
Now Turkey wants to be a regional actor, it wants strategic autonomy in issues dealing with the region. This was seen e.g. in the nuclear dispute with Iran, when Turkey together with Brazil negotiated with Iran an agreement that was rejected by the international community.
This vision of a stronger regional role is not much different from the vision of Turkey in the 1990’s, but the difference is that now the country has the resources to implement the vision. The past ten years has meant steady economic growth for Turkey. As a sign of the expansion of its foreign policy, Turkey opened more than 20 new embassies in 2011.
Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East before the Arab Spring could be characterized as “zero problems with neighbours” and it served Turkey quite well. The relations were with regimes in “top down economies” and this policy helped in investments and to increase confidence. Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon even made plans for wider regional economic cooperation. But the Arab Spring changed this. Until the events in Libya, Turkey had tried to keep its channels of communication open to all parties. Turkey was the last to shift allegiance away from regimes, but when it happened, it was serious. Turkey wanted to be on the right side of history, on the side of the oppressed peoples against the dictators. There was a radical change in Turkish foreign policy regarding Syria. Turkey supports the Annan plan, but sees no solution in the situation until President Assad is gone. Relations with Syria, Iran and Iraq are worsening, but according to the speaker these are short term difficulties.
The Arab Spring has meant an immense change, a possibility for Turkey to increase its influence. The new Arab leaders represent political Islam openly. The Turkish government has sent advisors to the Muslim Brotherhood and others. The AKP party openly sees itself as a role model for many emerging parties. Links are being created to different actors in the region. Turkey is gearing up to be much more visible. It has not traditionally been promoting democracy, because that would have been risky for the relations with the elites, because Turkey had little credibility in democracy and because many western institutions had an important role in the promotion of democracy. Now Turkey should institutionalize its engagement in democratization, political party foundation and capacity building. Turkish Foreign Minister had said recently that his country will be responsible for the future of the Middle East. It will do this either unilaterally or in a multilateral setting, particularly with the EU.
Ümit Cizre analysed the prospect for democratic change in Turkey. The Arab Spring has made Turkey refocus on and be more aware of its own democracy in order to ensure its new role in the region. The Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) gave recommendations about a new constitution in March 2011. According to TESEV Turkey should have no official ideology, no ethnic or cultural identity. It should be impartial towards religion. Secularism should be redefined focusing on freedom and pluralism. The military should be completely under civilian control and the state should be decentralized to strengthen democratic pluralism and legitimacy.
The three problematic key issues in Turkey are 1) freedom of expression and press, 2) ambivalence on the Kurdish issue and 3) the reality of military interventions. The present AKP-led government has passed EU harmonization legislation, but it is still using the undemocratic constitution and laws against its opponents. The governing party’s vision of democracy is questionable. The Turkish government has been inconsistent with its policy towards Kurds. It has denied and then admitted Kurdish identity, it has initiated an opening and later opted for a military solution, accepted the BDP party and later condemned it. The Kurdish language education has been allowed, but its use forbidden. The anti-terror law has been used as an instrument of detention and arresting. Prosecutions, arrests, investigations and court cases have been made against some of those involved in past military coups. However, the military still has a wide autonomy. Military affairs and decisions are not executed by the government, defence policy documents are secret and not presented to the parliament. Civilian capacity to manage the military democratically is weak. The military institution is not confronted on political and societal levels.
Richard Peres talked about the “invisible civil war” regarding the headscarf (hijab) issue. According to him the main reason for women to wear the hijab is religious. To some (in Turkey) it is a political symbol. Western visitors don’t see the conflict between Turkey’s aggressive form of secularism and Islamic women’s aspirations. The case of Merve Kavakci was taken up. She, a woman wearing a headscarf, was elected to Parliament in 1999, but was prevented from taking oath, was selectively prosecuted and lost her citizenship. She lost her seat unlawfully and was attacked by the mainstream press. She won her case in European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) and the European Parliamentary Union (EPU) and she is seeking redress today. Mr Peres argued that nothing has changed since those events according to the main political parties, the military, or the Constitutional Court that almost shut down AKP in 2008. Headscarfed women face widespread discrimination in employment. They are prevented from state jobs, offices, teaching positions. There are no headscarfed women as deputies, governors or ministers.
The conflict originates from Atatürk’s secular revolution at the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Dress was seen as symbolic of modernity. According to the World Economic Forum Turkey rated 122nd among 135 countries in gender gap (Finland 3rd, USA 17th).
The AK party has taken some steps to solve the conflict. Universities have been opened to scarfed women, coup leaders have been arrested, generals imprisoned. Support has been given for religious schools and laws supporting women against violence. However, discrimination still exists and the society is still a very patriarchal one, where a woman’s role is seen as a mother. The issue also competes for the attention of the government with others like the Kurdish issue and democratization.
The speakers answered questions from the audience. Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952 and participates in the Isaf operation in Afghanistan since the beginning. The situation of the freedom of the press is very dark. Over 120 journalists are in prisons. There is no democratic system of checks and balances since the military regime in the 1980’s. There is a lot of abuse of power. Trust in the judiciary is low. According to the constitution judges and prosecutors are responsible to the Minister of Justice instead of being independent. Judicial reform is now on the table, but a lot of debate is needed about the future judicial system. The AKP wanted to change the partiality of the judiciary in favour of a different ideology; independence has not been in their interest.
According to the speaker the West is too soft towards Turkey. The EU has lost its leverage in Turkey and the US wants Turkey on its side on Iran, Iraq and Syria – and that’s all that matters.
For the time being Turkey can manage the situation with 24 000 Syrian refugees. The country learned how to prepare for such eventualities in 1991 with the 500 000 Kurdish refugee crisis. However, a Syrian civil war can change the situation.
Turkey’s relations with Iran are long. Their border agreement dates from the 17th century. There is rivalry among the two: Turkey is mostly Sunni and secular. Iran is Shia and a religious state, but they also have cooperation in energy and trade. Turkey wants to have a say in all regional disputes and that is the reason for its involvement in the nuclear dispute between Iran and the international community. Turkey’s mediation efforts in 2011 failed, but it has since learned its lesson and now acts as a facilitator.
The panel discussed Turkey’s relations with the EU, the UN and NATO.
Juha Jokela commented Turkey’s role in global governance. The country has an important role in the G-20. The world has turned more multipolar and the nation states are more in the play. Turkey’s importance has grown and the EU’s has decreased because of the crises. Globalization continues, interdependencies grow and multilateral consensus seeking comes back.
Richard Peres stated that women’s position in Turkey looks bad seen from the West, but excellent from the Middle Eastern perspective. It is difficult for women to organize in Turkey. That’s why the women’s movement is split between the secular and the religious. There is a lot of patriarchy both in the secular and the Islamic sectors.
Ümit Cizre commented the military’s role. The present government has been content with the military not getting involved in politics. However, there is very little transparency, not enough to prevent military coups in the future. The government should be determined to draft a new constitution. Military privileges must be taken back; the military budget must become transparent, the civil government must decide and political will and institutionalization are needed.
Sinan Ülgen discussed models for Turkey. Europe was the model for Turkey for a long time, but not any longer. The European model was lost mostly because of the EU and its clear uncertainty about Turkey’s accession prospects. The future of Turkey seems uncertain in both foreign and interior policy. European leaders should bring back the confidence in the relationship.