It’s been called a model of a moderate Islamist government; it’s also been called neo-Ottoman.
Certainly, not since Ottoman days has Turkey’s government been so internationally oriented, have its diplomats, investments and businesses been so far flung.
Since coming to office in 2002, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has opened 25 new embassies in Africa and four new embassies in Latin America. The country’s exports have boomed and are no longer focused on Europe. Turkey is the largest investor in the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq and has just committed itself to contributing $2-billion to help newly democratic Egypt build up its infrastructure.
At the same time, Turkey’s armed forces have trained soldiers in Afghanistan and fortified rebels in Libya’s civil war.
It helped broker peace talks between Israel and Syria, and now sits in a four-nation group along with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran trying to end the civil war in Syria.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the architect of this new outreach policy, was in Canada this week to attempt to “re-energize” Turkish-Canadian relations. He said that the Erdogan government, which has seen its popular vote grow over the course of three elections, made a strategic decision to reach out to the world and increase Turkey’s role everywhere.
“We opted for soft power,” Mr. Davutoglu said, and with it came a number of basic principles – one was to have “zero problems with our neighbours.”
To that end, it dropped visa requirements with several neighbouring states, entered into partnerships with Iran and Syria and opened a consulate in northern Iraq (despite Turkey’s fears of Kurdish nationalism).
Of course, there have been reverses.
Its efforts to resolve the 35-year-old conflict between Israel and Syria collapsed when Israel unexpectedly launched a major assault on Hamas in Gaza in December, 2008.
“There were only one or two words missing” in the Israel-Syria agreement, Mr. Davutoglu said, when Israel launched that attack, killing hundreds. The next, and possibly final meeting, he said, had been scheduled for two days later.
“It was cancelled,” he said. “We could not give a green light to such behaviour.”
Since then, Mr. Davutoglu said, Turkey has thrown itself into helping the Palestinian cause, which he views as “the most important regional and global issue.”
“If there’s no peace in Jerusalem,” he said, “there will be no peace in Palestine. If there’s no peace in Palestine, there will be no peace in the Middle East. If there’s no peace in the Middle East, there will be no peace in the world.”
Unfortunately, he said, the current Israeli government is the biggest obstacle to that equation for peace.
Then, what had begun as friendly relations with Syria deteriorated when the country’s President, Bashar al-Assad, brutally crushed protest marches.
Concerning Syria and throughout the Arab world, Mr. Davutoglu said, “we took a strategic decision to help people, not regimes.”
Turkey tried for nine months, he said, “to get Assad to change,” to “get ahead of reforms.”
“But he didn’t listen.”
That was when Turkey became a supporter of the opposition. “We didn’t want future generations ever to see that we collaborated with a dictator,” he said.
One of the guiding principles of the Erdogan-Davutoglu program was to strike a balance between freedom and security.
For decades, he noted, governments in Turkey emphasized the security over freedoms. The current government has changed that, he said.
However, the Foreign Minister did not mention, nor would he entertain questions, concerning the trial of 44 journalists charged with terrorism and supporting the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Turkey currently has more than 100 journalists in prison, more than any recent government, more even than China or Iran.
Nor did Mr. Davutoglu refer to the trial of some 365 retired and current generals, charged with plotting a coup soon after Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party took office a decade ago. Judges in the case, that has seen several delays and contentious rulings, said Thursday they still had not agreed on a verdict and would need at least another day before they can rule.
Another of Turkey’s neighbours has been a bitter disappointment: the European Union, which, once again, rejected Turkey’s efforts to become a member.
Membership is “still desirable,” Mr. Davutoglu said. “We will wait another 50 years if necessary.”
But, in the meantime, he said, it is Europe that is the loser.
“The EU must take some strategic decisions for the future: Either it will be geopolitically relevant, economically competitive and culturally inclusive, or it will be geopolitically irrelevant, economically static and culturally exclusivist.
“For the EU to be in the first category, Turkey is the key,” he said.
“Turkey is not any more a burden to Europe as it was 10 years ago. … It is an asset.”
If Turkey had been in the EU, he insisted, unemployment would have dropped. In 2011, he noted, some two million Europeans lost jobs, while Turkey created two million new jobs.
It is prejudice or “cultural misperceptions” as Mr. Davutoglu politely called them, that stand in the way of Europe accepting Turkey, And it is cultural misperceptions that stands in the way of Turkey having good relations with Canada.
People in Canada should ask themselves why, he said. Why is he the first Turkish Foreign Minister to visit Canada in 14 years? Why are relations between the two countries not as good as those between Turkey and Brazil?
“For us, we are ready,” Mr. Davutoglu said. “But like all other nations of dignity, we will never, ever accept insult of our nation.”
When the Harper government, in 2006, officially recognized the deaths of Armenians in Turkey during the First World War as an act of “genocide” by the Turks, it set up a “psychological barrier” between us, he said.
“We will never accept these kinds of political pressures on Turkey.
“We do not talk about what happened to Red Indians in the North American continent or other things,” he said.
“It is not [the place] of a third country’s Parliament to determine what happened in other lands 100 years ago.”
Mr. Davutoglu said he was encouraged by the government of Canada allowing a Turkish monument to be built at the site where a Turkish diplomat was assassinated 30 years ago last month.
“By this monument, Canada is showing great maturity,” he said.
“At the same time,” he added, “we hope that Canada can contribute to reconciliation efforts between Armenians and Turks, rather than taking sides on this issue.”
For all its ambitions, Turkey still has enormous hurdles to overcome
1. Its domestic population is losing enthusiasm for supporting the opposition in Syria – it is proving to be costly and dangerous and the government’s advocacy of military action doesn’t help.
2. Despite its support for the Kurds of northern Iraq and its promises of greater tolerance for Kurdish identity inside Turkey, Kurdish rebels are waging the most violent campaign in years.
3. While Turkey may see itself as the answer to the European Union’s economic and security needs, the EU’s rule of unanimity means that as long as (Greek) Cyprus is a member, Turkey won’t be.
4. Though the Erdogan government eschews religiosity and stresses its secular nature, people inside and outside Turkey fear it plans to change the constitution and usher in Islamic rule.
5. Peace in Jerusalem may be the key to world peace, but the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu is not about to apologize to Turkey for the 2009 slaying of eight Turkish civilians in a convoy bound for Gaza, let alone take Turkish advice on divvying up historic Palestine.
– Patrick Martin