The global community has become more interested in stepping across the bridge between Europe and Asia; eager to traverse the divide between the Western community and reconstituted Arab world. Previously regarded as only a geographical bridge between continents, the nation of Turkey now serves as a political, strategic and economic bridge. Its location, Muslim identity, independent policies, and continued economic growth at a time when the United States and Europe Union nations continue in economic crisis, provoke the inquisitive. Turkey is being watched, examined and scrutinized for its actions and policies.
After Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Istanbul mayor from 1994 to 1998, established the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the year 2001 and subsequently won a victory in the 2002 election, a new Turkey successfully emerged from a severe economic crisis and its runaway inflation. Since becoming Prime Minister in 2003, Erdogan has diverged from the post-Ottoman laicism (secular), authoritative, and nationalist philosophy of the Turkish Republic’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, and steered Turkey in a direction more consistent with western democratic philosophy.
What enables this nation to operate independently and grow in a dependent and declining western world? Can it sustain its growth? Can it reject Kemalism without military interference? These are only three of many questions concerning Turkey’s foreign, economic and social policies, all of which contain contradictions, doubts, and problems. Problems? Turkey excels in problems. There is the Kurdish problem, Cyprus problem, Islamic influence problem, writing a new Constitution problem, relations with adjacent nations problem, entry to the European Union problem and of course, problems with Israel and the United States
A trip through Turkey, sponsored by the Washington based Rumi Forum, an interfaith and peace organization, featured meetings with parliamentarians, journalists, academics and businessmen, and provided insight into Turkey’s (1) ability to confront its problems, (2) strength to continue an independent path, and (3) role as a model for the Arab nations that are struggling from a revolutionary spring into a bright and peaceful future. Istanbul revealed the ‘think tanks that define the present.” Ankara provided the parliamentarians that shape the future. In Sanliurfa and Gaziantep, one learns of an ancient past and gains insight into Turkey’s nationwide progress and the role of its Kurdish community.
A discussion of Turkey starts with its youth.
A modern country
New airports, new super highways, massive construction of modern buildings in expanding cities that now contain 75% of the population with a median age of 28.5 years, highlight the growing Turkey.
A western oriented nation reflects a Mediterranean appearance. Buildings, offices, restaurants, hotels and institutions use warm colors; brown, beige, orange, together with neutral white, black and lilac; colors associated with steadfastness, simplicity, friendliness, and dependability. The warm colors made large rooms look cozier, while the orange proved mentally stimulating as well as sociable.
A subjective appraisal notes a nation of hard working purposeful and dedicated people, well organized and progressive. Turkey reflects vision and mission. Youthful representatives satisfied the vision.
Faik Tunay, at 30 years, is the youngest parliamentarian for the The Republican People’s Party (CHP). The CHP is the oldest political party of Turkey and is currently the main opposition in the Grand National Assembly. Best described as a modern social-democratic party, it is faithful to the principles of Kemal Ataturk, the Party’s founder.
The deputy for Istanbul, member of the Foreign Affairs committee, speaks five languages, and has been invited by the Eisenhower Institute to visit America, In addition to being an elected member of the Grand National Assembly, he is involved in several family businesses and some of his own – construction, agriculture, advertising. His ambition – although born as a White Turk, a member of a privileged class, he wants to leave as a Black Turk, as a member of the masses.
The youngest member of the Turkish Grand National Assembly is only 27 years old, one of three members under 32 years of age. Bilal Macit represents an Istanbul district for the AKP, but insists he represents the state and not the civil authority, does not represent youth nor will limit his activities to youth policies. He has traveled widely, matured in a global world and learned to think independently. Cognizant that his Party’s leader changed politics, Parliamentarian Macit won’t allow his independent attitude to harm the Party. Surprisingly, he offered the opinion that youth does not represent the Arab revolutionary movements, suggesting the movements are more complex and widely distributed. The youthful parliamentarian attributes some of his success to his previous association with the Young Civilians, a movement he helped to found.
Fatih Demirci, who graduated with a manufacturing system engineering degree and is now an Istanbul entrepreneur, is another 27 year-old founder of the Young Civilians and still an active member. At a dinner meeting, he explained the operations of the organization whose name indicates its thrust – contrasts to Kemal Ataturk’s Young Turks who led the 1908 revolution and the Young Officers who won Turkey’s independence.
Organization? The Young Civilians have no formal organization. Corresponding by Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, they gather compatriots at demonstrations. Their symbol is the sneaker, a sharp difference from the military boot that shaped the nation. Similar to America’s flower children of the 1960’s with a dash of France’s 1968 rebel Cohen-Bendit’s “Ask for the impossible,” the Young Civilians “demand the possible but perfect.”
They grimace at any military or nationalist demonstrations, such as the May 19 Youth and Sports Day national holiday. On that day, in 2003, the group organized its first gathering at Parliament to protest the style of the festivities and become known. They became well known, even internationally, with coverage by the New York Times. Reducing military appearance in social and political life, gaining equal rights for all forty-two ethnicities, and no-holds barred allowance for religious and national expressions dominate their thinking. Removing visa requirements and opening the border between Armenia and Turkey would please them.
Will the Young Civilians (who are growing older) be only a humorous irritant to Turkey’s elite or will it become a serious movement that contributes to all Turks embracing one another with equal expression, regardless of religion or ethnicity? Does the answer lie with the flowering of the flower children of the American 60’s, who became more conservative as they moved on in years?
The Young Civilians might already be superfluous. The Kemalism they want defeated and the military coup they fear are quickly being subdued with no appearance of immediate revival.
After Kemal Ataturk died in 1938, almost any government that threatened the principal tenets, the six arrows of Kemalism, triggered a military coup.
- Republicanism–a broadly based republican system.
- Nationalism–a distinctly Turkish identity
- Populism–a more classless society
- Revolutionism–wholesale, rather than gradual, change
- Laicism-cancellation of the power of religion in the state, and
- Statism–state-led development of the economy and society
were inviolate until the AKP gained power.
Prime Minister Erdogan’s instant and bold challenge in 2003 to the tenets of Kemalism did not provoke a military coup. Nevertheless, the military and allied Kemalists have been accused of preparing a conspiratorial response in 2007 that was uncovered in 2009.
Why did Erdogan proceed so boldly and why was it difficult for the military to instantly respond to the AKP’s removal of several of the six arrows of Kemalism from its quiver? AKP parliamentarian Bilal Macit explained; “Before 2002, the military exercised control of most facets of society except for the economic system. Their political and social control promoted economic stagnation and decline.” Erdogan’s deft handling of the economy apparently impressed much of the military to favor his administration.
Markar Esayan, editor of the independent Taraf newspaper, suggested that the Prime Minister correctly gauged a change in society and recognized he had wide support. The year 2002 is now a milestone in Turkish history – the year the military was no longer the principal authority.
Mesut Ulker, a former army colonel, presently a strategist for a think tank and a well-known television personality, added a simple comment: ‘The army has rapidly changed.”
Professor Dr. Yasin Aktay, Director of the Institute of Strategic Thinking, summarized the situation in a strategic context: “The shift of the population to urban areas created an expanding middle class with new social demands. The population requested an allocation of resources, a new identity and a new constitution. The ideological state (Kemalism) with its stress on Turkic identity and secularism created problems.”
Yusuf Acar, Zaman newspaper journalist and world news editor for magazine Aksiyon, echoed the decline of Kemalism and military domination. “Power has shifted to president office #1, Parliament as #2, and then the military. Nevertheless, the state still comes before the citizen.”
A journalist for Zaman, which has become one of Turkey’s principal newspapers, with a circulation of about one million, might be prejudiced in its observations. Yusuf Acar admits Zaman is often accused of being a government supporter and receiving assistance. However, except for sharing a state run television station and agency with the government, he denies the state has any involvement with the newspaper.
Ozcan Yeniceri, previously a university professor, and presently a parliamentarian for MHP (The Nationalist Movement Party) speaks passionately and in great length on all topics. By gaining 53 seats in the 2011 general elections, his Party remained the third largest parliamentary group. Previously characterized as an ultra-nationalist party, which has recommended martial law in Kurdish territory, the MHP has tempered its extremist views.
In Ozcan Yeniceri’s opinion, nationalism has ontological meaning, a striving for security, and struggle for independence. It unites the country against invading forces. He considers his Party is less nationalistic than that of President Obama and would not resort to the killing of leaders that Obama has done. (Evidently referring to the assassination of Osama bin Laden and NATO attempts on Moammar Ghadaffi’s life.) “Liberal criticisms about the establishment of the Republic are wrong in the claim that Ataturk did not introduce democracy. Ataturk was a pragmatic and not actually a Kemalist. He understood the times and adapted. Turkey’s divisions have been between left and right with left defined as communist and right defined as capitalist. Now there is a rapid change in democracy in all areas with an increase in human rights.”
Kemal Ataturk’s framed portraits still adorn the walls of public sector rooms and halls. Gigantic banners and posters of his image are noticeable. Prime Minister Erdogan has wisely retained the reverence to Turkey’s George Washington but abruptly replaced Ataturk’s nationalist and statist policies with an agenda more compatible with the global system and more in harmony with democratic dictates.
Nevertheless, the AKP, despite its widespread support, still has severe antagonists. The charge of an ongoing coup against the government has resulted in mass arrests of well known public figures, has divided the National Assembly and disturbed leaders from several sectors of society. In mid-November 2011, after several judicial reviews and hearings, a 264-page indictment accuses 143 suspects, 66 of them in pre-trial detention, with an attempt to overthrow the government.
The indictments have provoked a question: Is Erdogan using tactics similar to those of the military forces, exaggerating threats to squash opposition? Will the trial of civilians and officers associated with Operation Sledgehammer destabilize the stable nation?
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that nobody has been jailed in Turkey because of their profession as a journalist; only due to their membership in an illegal organization. Others are skeptical.
Markar Esayan and his independent Taraf newspaper received credit and fame for exposing the proposed 2007 coup, which had as objectives – undermine the stability of the AKP and create chaos. Esayan would not expose those who presented his newspaper with the documents, but insisted they were authentic and with signatures of known generals. He said plans had been made to bomb two major mosques in Istanbul, assault a military museum by people disguised as fundamentalists, and increase tension with Greece by instigating dogfights between the fighter planes of the two countries over the Aegean Sea. The allegations included shooting down a Turkish plane and blaming it on Greece. Subsequently, he said, prosecutors found supporting documents at military headquarters.
Faik Tunay senses that the revelations spurred citizens to support Erdogan and harmed opposition Parties. Although he believes the alleged coup plotters should be punished, he senses some plotters, especially journalists, have been accused only because of personal association with alleged plotters – guilt by association.
Zaman’s Yusuf Acar said that the “society did not accept reports of military intervention,” but after “armaments in a military home were found to match some terrorist activities, belief became widespread. Changes became apparent when the Prime Minister chaired the Military Council and the General Chief of Staff no longer stood at his side.”
Professor Dr. Yasin Altai claimed that the military often created problems to justify its existence. He has been spied upon and a file prepared on him. Now the civil can try the military.
All top generals, one of whom died, resigned. Some interpreted the resignations as an attempt to create anarchy, others as a protest to the arrests.
What seems to many as an obvious and serious plot against the government, which must be dealt with in a legal manner, is viewed by others as a bumbling proposal by a few who drew others in with arguments and not with definite alliances. All words and no action. So where is the plot?
The decline of Kemal Ataturk’s political course and weakening of the military dictates a new direction. Can that direction continue without a new constitution? What constitution? The subject is being vigorously debated.
A commission, composed of representatives from the three major Parties and a pro-Kurdish group, has been appointed to prepare a Draft Constitution. One limiting factor – each article must be approved unanimously, an impossible task. Without a new constitution, Kemalism cannot be entirely decomposed. Without a new Constitution, it is doubtful Turkey can gain admittance to the European Union.
The Young Civilians want a total change and absolutely new constitution. Bilal Macit noted that it is difficult to change the first three articles of the constitution; secular, socialist, modern. Article 4 of the present Constitution declares the immovability of the founding principles of the Republic defined in the first three Articles and bans any proposals for their modification. Regardless, Macit claims that no division exists between secularists and Islamists. Both want a pluralist society.
If the Constitution is modified, will it contain some references to Sharia Law? The Kemalists and western world have one question in common: To what extent is the AKP an Islamic Party?
The Islamic Party
A consensus rejects the AKP as an Islamist party. Nothing in its agendas, in its cabinet, and in its operations suggests a relation with an Islamic movement.
Nasuhi Güngör, columnist for the Star newspaper, said that the AKP “no longer represents Islamic identity,” and he should know. He admits that the Star, which has a moderate circulation of 130K daily, is owned by businessmen aligned with the government and, although critical at times, still close to the AKP. “Many AKP members practice Islam and believe that forward movement requires affiliation with Islam. However, they don’t go beyond believing that the Islamic religion can play a satisfactory role in society and wanting its adherents to be able to practice the religion in accord with their own rules.” One clue, Güngör noted, is that the AKP has not brought the wearing of the scarf issue to the table, perceiving it as human rights rather than religious issue. If the AKP raised the issue then it would be marked as an Islamic Party.
Although Turkey might not be considered an Islamic run nation, will its identification with the Islamic religion serve as a model for the newly liberated Arab nations?
Turkey as role model
The world expects the Turks to guide the Arab revolutions in the same direction as Erdagon’s movement. Consensus does not adhere to that theme and has Turkey envisioning itself only as another European a nation. Rather than being a role model, Turkey wants absolute friendship with Arab neighbors, a lack of which distracted the Ottoman Empire and impeded progress of the Kemalist programs.
Star Daily journalist Güngör, who is the newspaper’s expert on the Middle East, believes the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has close similarities to the incipient AKP, but has never governed and is 30 years behind the AKP operations. He declared that if any of the Islamic parties gain control in the Arab nations, and they have already in Tunisia and Morocco (whose Islamic Party is also named Justice and Development), that country will make a big mistake.
His views on Hamas and Hezbollah are sanguine. Both, he claims, are maneuvered by Iran and are too militaristic. Nevertheless, he recommends that Turkey continue its relationship with Hamas.
Zero problems with neighbors
As others have said: “Turkey’s pursuit of zero problems with neighbors has morphed into zero neighbors without problems.”
All commentators agreed that Turkey has failed in this pursuit. Turkey has problems with neighbors and this is partly due to its own initiatives and independent policies. PM Erdogan’s commendable moral imperative, which identifies friendship with moral agendas rather than with what one nation can do for the other, creates misperceptions and misconceptions.
Misperception of the moral imperative solicits charges of arbitrary judgment of others and intention to establish a neo-Ottoman agenda. Erdogan has a misconception that these policies can succeed in a world of mistrust and self-interest.
Trespassing on Iraq sovereignty by engaging in military attacks on Kurds in Northern Iraq, requesting the resignation of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, demanding Israel apologize for the killing of Turkish citizens during an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, installing NATO missile radar detection equipment to deter Iran, and refusing to pay compensation to Bulgaria for Ottoman eviction of Bulgarians in eastern Thrace, are only a few examples of Turkey’s conflicts with neighbors.
MHP Parliamentarian Özcan Yeniceri described the policy. “Turkey previously consulted the Pentagon for regulating its relations with Iran, Russia and others. After the fall of the Soviet Union, everything changed, and this allowed Turkey to reach potential. Still, its relations with the U.S. hindered relations with neighboring nations.”
And a host of other problems – resolution of the Kurdish question, entry into the European Union, and engagement with Israel and its principal supporter.
The Kurdish problem
Strategists outside of Turkey consider the Kurdish insurgency as Turkey’s number one problem. Despite continuous attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), punishing government counterattacks, and arrests of suspected PKK associates, correspondents considered the Kurdish question to be a declining problem. They noted that the Kurdish population is no longer demanding separation, feel more Turkic and sense the government is addressing their grievances. Turkey’s minority of 20 million does not maintain a unique Kurdish language and many dialects are prevalent. (Note: Only about 11 percent of the Turkish Kurds speak a variety of Kurdi, and no single Kurdish language exists. Kurdi refers to a group of speech varieties which are not mutually intelligible unless there has been considerable contact between speakers.) As for the Kurds being an organized ethnicity with direct relations in several nations, the Turkish Kurds don’t directly relate to the Kurdish populations in the other nations of Syria, Iraq and Iran. Kurdish irredentism is irrelevant to Turkey’s Kurds.
No longer considered to be a military problem, the Kurdish situation is defined as a civil and human rights problem. Former army colonel Mesut Ulker expressed the opinion succinctly: “It is a civic problem that will be resolved in 2-3 years.”
MHP Parliamentarian Ozcan Yeniceri presented a more rigorous analysis: “One third of the population has Kurdish relatives, intermarriage between ethnicities is high, and Kurds are well integrated. The Kurdish independence problem appeared after the fall of the Soviet Union, when new states formed. Nationalist Kurds asked: ‘Why not a Kurd state?’
“The PKK thought that after reforms, the government would become weak, eventually collapse and the country would divide into several divisions. Demands for democracy and freedom are not essential for the Kurds. They are only a Trojan horse. Nevertheless, the government should acknowledge rightful claims, and the conditions of the Kurds are showing improvement. Demand for a separate Kurdish language to be used in all facets of everyday public life comes from the PKK movement. In response the government has granted a Kurdish language television station, which broadcasts cultural programs.” Dunya TV has a satellite channel, and a footprint that reaches to Kurdish speaking peoples in all adjacent countries.
Ozcan Yemceri believes in equal rights for all ethnicities and private courses for Kurds, in their own language, which the government now allows. He closed with a wry remark: “America might face similar problems with its own minorities,” evidently referring to the multicultural and multilingual aspirations of Hispanic groups.
Apparently, the Turks believe that as their democracy develops it will encompass all minorities and diminish ethnic demands for separation. Developments in the Balkans, Iraq and Spain have not substantiated that belief.
As a member of the European Customs Union, Turkey has common tariffs in trade with EU nations. Petitioning the European Union for complete admission has faltered. Now, observers note that due to the contrast between Turkey’s growth and strength and a weakening Europe, it might no longer be favorable to Turkey to become a EU member.
Parliamentarian Bilal Macit agreed: “It is not important.”
Dr. Burak Erdenir, Deputy Undersecretary at Ministry for EU affairs, disagreed.
Three reasons for his intransigence:
(1) As a member of the Customs Union, Turkey is part of the decision taking but not part of the decision making.
(2) The European Union has been incorrect in its behavior towards Turkey and that behavior must be corrected.
(3) The EU process is supported by all political Parties
Dr. Erdenir spoke frankly. “EU refusal to grant admission to Turkey is entirely due to prejudice. To achieve candidate status, 35 articles must be approved. Seventeen are constantly blocked. Although Bulgaria and Romania have been given admission, Turkey is refused. The EU believes Turkey is too big, too poor, and too Muslim. The Austrians in particular have a mindset that that equates today’s Turkey with that of the Ottoman Empire 18th century attack on Vienna.
“However, things have changed. Turkey has the sixth largest economy in Europe, 159 universities, and the most stable economy. The EU has lost credibility and behaves dishonestly.”
Israel and America
Commentators condemned Israel for its policies towards the Palestinians and criticized the United States for its support of Israel and for its other Middle East policies. From observations, Israel has little support in Turkey, regardless of Party affiliation.
CHP Parliamentarian Faik Tunay included discussions of U.S. foreign policy as one factor in his Party’s quarrelsome manner. Despite Erdogan’s angry attitude towards Israel, which he supports, he claims the U.S. supports the AKP. His validation – Due to the AKP government, demonstrations against U.S. involvement in Iraq were limited.
MHP Parliamentarian Özcan Yeniceri established Israel and its support by the United States as the prime foreign policy issues. “The American image is deteriorating internationally and includes instability within NATO, in which the US has played a key role. The direction of its fight with Radical Islam and Al Qaeda will soon include all Islam. The U.S. shouldn’t be a military empire, but should base policies on values. U.S. mentors have become the Evangelists and Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations.
The U.S. interfered in Iraq and now tries to restrict Iran in its developments. Unlike Iran, the U.S. has the nuclear weapon and has used it, signs of hypocrisy and loss of credibility. The same can apply to Israel. If the U.S. changed its policy in regard to Israel, the region will change drastically. The effort would be a game changer.”
Two industrialists, who manufacture food containers for export to European nations, posed a simple question: ‘Why can’t Israel be satisfied with its nation to the Green Line? Why is it constantly expanding?”
Officials from TUSKON, the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists Worldwide, which has offices in major cities worldwide, highlighted Turkey’s economic progress. Since the AKP achieved governance, GDP and exports have tripled, while the inflation rate has fallen from 30 percent to 7.5 percent. Unemployment, which had been 14 percent in 2010, has dropped to 9.5 percent. A GDP of 735 billion dollars places Turkey 17th in the world and 7th in Europe, excluding the Russian federation. An export driven economy has increased exports to 135 billion dollars.
All the statistics are moving in proper directions, and although the inflation rate, interest rate (6%) and unemployment are high by western standards, they are acceptable by Turkish standards. Actually, the real interest rate (interest rate minus inflation) is negative, a deflationary anomaly that was not explained, and could hinder investment. Another major concern is the monotonically increasing negative trade balance, which was 42 billion dollars (2010).
If a fall in the European economy intensifies the negative trade balance, negative real interest rate, and relatively high unemployment rate, Turkey’s growth could come to a screeching halt. The vigorous economy has fragile elements.
Few, if any world leaders, have received as much admiration from the domestic and international public as has Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His open manner, sincerity and moral challenges contrast with the covert, duplicitous and self subscribing attitudes of most world leaders. If his policies are out of step with most nations, they might prove that in the present global environment an independent course is a route to success.
- Europe’s and America’s economies falter. Turkey continues with rapid growth.
- Nations split apart from nationalism. Turkey enhances national identities.
- Western nations sanction Iran. Turkey increases trade with the Islamic state.
- Military control increases in most nations. Military control is constrained in Turkey.
- China and other fast growing nations pursue statist polices. Turkey eschews statism.
As in most nations, continued governing by the AKP depends upon the continued success of its economic policies. With Europe being the primary source for Turkey’s exports, a forecasted faltering of the European Market could drastically affect Turkey. Or will it? Is it possible that Erdogan’s pragmatism will lead Turkey to realign allegiances and markets and shift them to Iran and Russia, trading finished products for energy supplies? Turkey seems to be in the driver’s seat.
But not entirely. The AKP needs prosperity to advance democracy, which will enhance civil and human rights and prevent the electorate from considering Kemalism as an antidote for Turkey’s problems.
Kemalism will soon be proved as either past history or a spoke in the cycles of history. As the wheel turns, will Kemal Ataturk’s visions and policies return and challenge another Turkish Republic? The verdict is still not rendered.