Turkish politics have entered a surreal vortex where every day produces evermore shocking developments in such a dizzying rate that yesterday's mind-blowing news is quickly forgotten.
Today is a perfect example: it started with with the unsettling sounds of a Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking at an election rally with a voice so strained that he sounded like he had just inhaled a balloonful of helium, moved on to the truly shocking news of the posting online of a recording of a high-level national security meeting where a possible false flag operation to allow Turkey to invade Syria was discussed, and then ended with the announcement that access to YouTube (where the recording was posted) had just been blocked by the government. In other words, just another day in today's Turkey.
As the images distributed the other day by the Turkish press of Russian naval vessels steaming through the Bosphorus made clear, Ankara has little choice about being involved in the ongoing crisis surrounding Crimea.
Beyond its geographic proximity to the peninsula in the Black Sea, Turkey also has deep historical ties to Crimea, once an Ottoman province, and strong interests there, especially with regards to the fate of Muslim Crimean Tatars, who make up an estimated 15 percent of the population.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently expressed his concern about how developments in Crimea might impact the Tatars and today his ministry issued a statement calling the upcoming referendum there on whether the region should become part of Russia as a "wrong" move.
But just how much can Ankara do in the face of Moscow's moves in Crimea? The truth is very little. Write the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Soner Cagaptay and James Jeffrey in a brief released this week:
These days, the words related to Middle East diplomacy that probably inspire the least amount of confidence are "Israel and Turkey near repairing alliance" (as the Wall Street Journal suggested the other day).
Since a Washington-brokered breakthrough last March, which led to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling his Turkish counterpart to apologize for the deaths caused during the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, there has been little movement in terms of actual reconciliation. Although there have been various reports over the last year that the two sides are close to patching things up, with only the matter of how much Israel will pay in compensation to the Mavi Marmara victims' families left to be resolved, these have all proven to be erroneous.
But the latest suggestion that the former allies may indeed be close to restoring ties was different, considering that it came from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu himself. “There has recently been a momentum and new approach in compensation talks. We could say that most of the differences have been removed recently in these discussions,” Davutoglu said in a Feb. 9 television interview.
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.
Well-meaning and with lofty goals, Turkey's "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy came crashing down once the advent of the Arab uprisings exposed some of the policy's internal contradictions and shortcomings.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with striving to have no problems with neighboring countries, but Ankara's overly optimistic approach -- which, among other things, failed to see how its own ambitions for regional leadership would set off alarm bells in the capitals of other countries with similar aspirations -- was not able to withstand the tensions and dynamics unleashed by the new crises in the Middle East, especially in Syria.
But it's fairly clear now that Ankara is working on rebooting its regional foreign policy, with its strained relations with Iraq being used as a test case of what a new version of the "zero problems" policy might look like.
Ties between the two countries hit rock bottom in April of last year, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, upset about Ankara's support for his political rivals, labeled Turkey an “enemy state” bent on interfering in his country's internal affairs. In response, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his Iraqi counterpart – leader of a Shiite party – was fanning the flames of sectarianism in Iraq. The exchange of words led to ambassadors being summoned in both capitals.
In recent weeks, though, Turkey and Iraq have had reciprocal visits by their foreign ministers, and visits by their prime ministers are in the works. Writing in Today's Zaman, analyst Yavuz Baydar provides the background to all the action taking place on the Turkey-Iraq front:
While Turkey's foreign policy in the Middle East has faltered over the last two years in the wake of the Arab uprisings, a region where Turkish diplomacy has racked up some important successes has been the Balkans, where Ankara has been behind a number of significant diplomatic and economic initiatives. But a comment made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a recent visit to Kosov is threatening to derail Ankara's Balkan express -- and again raises the question of what kind of impact does the mercurial leader's rhetoric have on his country's diplomacy.
During an address made last week while visiting the Balkan mini-state, which declared independence in 2008 after breaking away from Serbia, Erdogan told an audience in the city of Prizren: “Do not forget that Kosovo is Turkey and Turkey is Kosovo."
The comment drew an immediate rebuke from Serbian leaders, who not only called for Erdogan to apologize for his comments, but who also announced that they would freeze their participation in an upcoming trilateral meeting between Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey, part of successful mechanism put in place by Ankara in 2009. From a report on the Serbian B92 website:
[President Tomislav Nikolić] underscored that the scandal triggered by the Turkish prime minister in Prizren constitutes brutal and reckless breach of good neighbourly relations and disrespect and violation of Serbia's sovereignty by a revision of history.
Nikolić said that when he took on the position of the president, he also took on the good relations with Turkey set up by his predecessor, former president Boris Tadić.
When they were signed in Switzerland in October of 2009, the normalization accords between Turkey and Armenia promised to be perhaps the fullest expression of Ankara's then new (and now failed) "zero problems with neighbors" policy, restoring diplomatic ties with a country that had strong historical grievances against Turkey.
Sadly, the accords never went much further, languishing to this day in the Turkish and Armenian parliaments, where they have yet to be ratified. Although both sides blame the other for the failure of the process, the general consensus among experts is that what mostly doomed the process was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's insistence after the protocols were signed that their ratification be linked to the successful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, a precondition that was not part of the original negotiations between Ankara and Yerevan. (For a thorough history of the rise and fall of the protocols, take a look at this report by David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights Institute for the Study of Human Rights.)
Is there any prospect for the Turkey-Armenia normalization process to be revived? Yesterday, on the signing's fourth anniversary, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu suggested Turkey is still trying to find ways to move forward. From Today's Zaman:
As discussed in a previous post, Turkey's vocal criticism of the recent military takeover in Egypt -- much of it a reflection of the Turkish leadership's fear of they themselves being the target of a coup -- managed to create severe strains between Ankara and Cairo.
Although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has toned down his criticism since the early weeks of the Egyptian coup, the new leadership in Cairo doesn't seem quite ready to give Ankara a pass. For evidence of that, look to Egypt's state-run media, which appears to be delighting in running items designed to needle Turkey. On Monday, for example, the website of Al-Ahram ran a juicy item reporting that Egyptian writers and actors, angered by Ankara's policies, are calling for a boycott of the crown jewel in Turkey's regional soft power arsenal: its exceedingly popular soap operas. From the article:
Considering the support the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government has shown for Morsi, calls for a boycott have been raised by a number of production companies and the Egyptian Cinema Syndicate.
According to television director and the head of the Egyptian Cinema Syndicate Mossad Fouda "Such an initiative was important. It received mass attention from different production companies; both private and governmental. Also, many satellite channels prevented the broadcasting of Turkish series as a protest to the Turkish intervention in Egyptian affairs and because of its negative stance towards the 30 June Revolution."
In the early days of the 2011 Tahrir revolution in Egypt, a then status quo-oriented Turkey was criticized by some for at first having little to say about the unfolding events in Cairo (it was only once it became fairly clear that Mubarak would fall that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan started vocally calling on the Egyptian leader to step down). Following the recent ouster by the Egyptian military of democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi, Turkey’s problem seems to be reversed: keeping Erdogan from saying too much about what’s happening in Egypt.
In the wake of the coup in Egypt, Erdogan was without a doubt the most outspoken international critic of the military’s action, issuing a steady stream of denunciations – not just of the Egyptian generals but also of the western countries that refrained from calling Morsi’s ouster a coup – and, at one point, referring to the deposed Egyptian leader as “my president in Egypt” and boasting of having refused to take a call from Mohammed ElBaradei, the liberal former diplomat appointed interim Vice President. Erdogan’s lambasting of the new regime in Egypt reached such a level that Cairo pointedly warned Ankara not to “interfere” in its internal affairs, while the Turkish PM felt obliged to publicly state that he is not “obsessed” with Morsi.
Today marks the third anniversary of the Mavi Marmara incident, an Israeli military raid on a Turkish-led aid flotilla to Gaza that resulted in the death of nine Turks and in the shattering of the once-close ties between Ankara and Jerusalem.
In March, Turkey and Israel -- with American help -- started what looks like will be a drawn-out reconciliation process. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and apologized for "operational mistakes" made during the incident that resulted in the loss of life, meeting one of the three conditions set forth by Ankara for diplomatic relations to be restored. The two countries are now working on the second condition, compensation for the victims, which is where they seem to be getting stuck. As Ha'aretz recently reported, Israel is offering to pay $100,000 to each victim's family, while Turkey is demanding $1 million (Turkish officials have denied the Israeli report).
Things will likely get more complicated in terms of the third condition, which, as set forth by Erdogan, is Israel's lifting of its blockade on Gaza. During his recent visit to Washington, the Turkish leader again stated that relations with Israel could only be restarted once this condition has been met. So far, there has no been any indication from either side about how they plan to deal with this complicating issue beyond some vague statements made by Turkish officials about Israel taking "positive" steps to improve conditions in Gaza.