Since becoming foreign minister in 2009, Ahmet Davutoglu has used the annual gathering of his diplomatic corps as a way of pushing his new vision of Turkey's role in the world and for encouraging his ambassadors -- a notoriously stuffy bunch -- to think outside the box a bit.
A good example of that was the ambassadors' 2010 meeting, which Davutoglu held not in Ankara, but in Mardin, a historic hilltop city not far from the Syrian border in Turkey’s southeast region, which, along with Kurdish and Arabic speakers, is also home to an ancient though dwindling Christian community. Once there, the FM admonished his ambassadors to go out to the city’s teahouses and bazaars and mingle with the (mostly bemused) locals.
Davutoglu, at the time drawing early plaudits for his now failed "zero problems with neighbors" policy, drew on the town’s historical setting to deliver a philosophical – even mystical – look forward to his diplomatic corps. “By 2023, when the country will commemorate the 100th anniversary of its founding, I envision a Turkey that is a full member of the EU after having completed all the necessary accession requirements, living in full peace with its neighbors, integrated with neighboring regions in economic terms and with a common security vision, an effective player in regions where our national interests lie, and active in all global affairs and among the top 10 economies in the world,” he told them. In order for that new vision to happen, Davutoglu said, his ambassadors first "need to understand Mardin’s soul."
The Turkish diplomatic corps has been holding its annual meeting over the last few days, but they seem far removed from those heady days in Mardin. Rather than looking hopefully outward, this year's gathering seems to be gazing defensively (even paranoically) inward, offering a very good opportunity to understand the current state of Turkey's tortured political soul.
Unlike those go-and-meet-the-locals Mardin days, this year the ambassadors have been sequestered in Ankara, subjected to talk after talk by government officials warning them about the external plots facing Turkey. From Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the gathered diplomats heard that Germany, Iran and other powers were working to undermine the ongoing peace process with the Kurds. (When word of these comments made it to the press, Davutoglu admonished his diplomats to not speak to the press and a scheduled talk by Hakan Fidan, Turkey's intelligence chief, was abruptly cancelled.)
Meanwhile, rather than go out and understand Mardin's -- or even Ankara's -- soul, this year the ambassadors were tasked with an ever harder mission: tell the world the "truth" about the current domestic political turmoil in Turkey, the result of the corruption case that was launched on December 17 against several (now former) ministers, their relatives and businessmen close to Erdogan. "We expect you to exert more effort to defeat this treacherous operation targeting Turkey by telling our partners the truth," Erdogan told the conference. The next day, newly installed Interior Minister Efkan Ala told the gathering: “We cannot allow black propaganda to be spread at a time when things we do not deserve are taking place. One of the best ways to eliminate this is information, providing correct information to the international community.”
With his words, Erdogan drew Turkey's diplomatic corps into the spiraling battle between his government and what is assumed to be members of the police and judiciary who are followers of Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen. Considering how active the Gulen movement is internationally, offering everything from free Turkish lessons to running successful schools and bringing groups over to Turkey for feel good tours, the ambassadors might have a hard time selling their interlocutors on the idea that these folks putting on baklava- and Turkish tea-filled cultural events are in fact a "treacherous" force.
For Turkey's diplomats, those uncomfortable days four years ago mingling with the locals in Mardin's teahouses must suddenly look infinitely more appealing.