General elections and Muslim upheavals

The recent general elections in Turkey, as well as the regional context marked by the 2011 upheavals in several Muslim countries in the Mediterranean basin have brought into the light the evolutions in Turkey, a country seen by most of the analysts as a future important geopolitical actor. Portrayed either as a “bridge” between West and East or as the power center of a Muslim political entity-to be, Turkey is equally interesting and disturbing.

For most analysts, the main factors that generate the interest – and worries – are Turkey’s ambitions as an Islamic leader in a future modern Caliphate (where it would, however, have to compete with Saudi Arabia and Iran), but also to develop its own sphere of influence within the neighboring Turk countries, thus achieving a new “Great Turan”. The other aspect of interest/worry is that Turkey has the political and economic strength to assert and even to achieve its goals, which make it a strong geopolitical actor.

The main political force that generated Turkey’s current position is the “Justice and Development” Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that came to power in 2002 and won the 2011 elections for a third mandate. If AKP followers applaud the various reforms which the party has enacted, ostensibly projecting it as a “bridge” between Western and Muslim civilizations, its detractors see AKP’s methodology as a stealth jihad that’s gradually eroding the country’s secularist bearings.

AKP consists of a number of groups, some of them remnants of previously banned or defunct Islamist parties, with the religious-Islamic factions being one of the larger components but not the predominant one. Hardcore former members of the old Islamist parties (for example, the Milli Nizam Partisi, its successors Milli Selamet Partisi and the Refah Party, as well as the Fazilet Party) did not and still do not constitute a majority within AKP. In some ways in fact, AKP was the product of a split within the old Islamic movement: after the Fazilet Party was declared illegal, the more ideologically-inclined members of the movement followed former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who was ousted in 1997, to form the Saadet Partisi, while the more moderate conservatives created AKP, which is in essence a center-right coalition. While ideological Islamists have found a home in AKP’s broad tent, they are, in fact, outnumbered by conservative, business-oriented groups and also outranked by party leaders like Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gűl, who might, based on their record so far, best be described as Islamists-turned-modern politicians or as ideologues-turned-pragmatists.

When AKP first appeared on the political scene, there were rumors the group harbored secretive Islamist sympathies, but few of Turkey’s elites saw the party as a threat to the Kemalist foundations of the Turkish republic. Instead, AKP was seen as a popular reformist party that promised to break the stranglehold of ageing Kemalist leaders over the country’s economic and political life, to clear out much of the corruption in state institutions, and to promote the nation-wide expansion of democracy by strengthening rights and freedoms of expression and limiting the military’s power over civil affairs.

AKP’s “secret for success” comes mainly from its economic performance: in the recent years, the population wasn’t afflicted by the global economic crisis. Compared to its Western counterparts, the Turkish economy had expanded by 8.9 percent in 2010, reflecting a near-decade of strong growth since the AKP assumed control in 2002. Among G-20 countries, only China has grown at a faster pace. Turkey has the largest economy of any Muslim country — including Saudi Arabia, and it has done this in spite of, or perhaps because of, not having been admitted to the European Union.

This sustained economic boom provides Turkish citizenry with a sense of confidence both at home and abroad towards their Muslim brethren. Additionally, considering that Turkey’s per capita income has almost tripled during Erdoğan’s tenure, it’s not hard to realize why AKP captured 50 percent of the vote and once again rules without having to form a coalition government.

In becoming the largest Muslim economy, as well as the largest economy in the eastern Mediterranean, Southeastern Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus and east to the Hindu Kush, Turkey is moving to regain its traditional position of primacy in the region. There is no question that it has become the leading regional economy, as well as one of the most dynamic. Additionally, Turkey’s geographic position greatly enables it to become Europe’s primary transit hub for energy supplies, especially at a time when Europe is trying to reduce its dependence on Russia.

This obviously has increased its regional influence. In the Balkans, for example, where Turkey historically has been a dominant power, the Turks have again emerged as a major influence over the region’s two Muslim states (Albania and Kosovo) — and have managed to carve out for themselves a prominent position as regards other countries in the region as well. The country’s economic dynamism has helped reorient some of the region toward Turkey. Similarly, Turkish economic influence can be felt elsewhere in the region.

As Turkey grows, an interesting imbalance begins to develop. The ability of Greece, Armenia, Syria, Iraq and Iran to remain hostile to Turkey decreases as the Turkish economy grows. Ideology and history are very real things, but so is the economic power of a dynamic economy. As important, Turkey’s willingness to accept its highly constrained role indefinitely, while its economic — and therefore political — influence grows, is limited. Turkey’s economic power, coupled with its substantial regional military power, will over time change the balance of power in each of the regions Turkey faces. Not only does Turkey interface with an extraordinary number of regions, but its economy also is the major one in each of those regions, while Turkish military power usually is pre-eminent as well. When Turkey develops economically, it develops militarily. It then becomes the leading power — in many regions, or, in geopolitical terms, a pivotal power.

As such, Turkey is seen by many analysts as a possible main beneficiary of the 2011 upheavals in several Arab countries that unleashed an intense rivalry for regional influence among three power vectors in the Middle East: the United States and its allies (Israel and Saudi Arabia); Turkey; and Iran. The most pressing geopolitical question facing each of these powers is whether it can effectively exploit the recent victories of the “Arab street” to further its own influence in the region.

If some authors proclaimed Saudi Arabia as possible winner in this battle for influence, or stressed the renewed importance of Iran, others pointed out that perhaps the most striking geopolitical consequence of a declining status quo in the Middle East is the rising influence of Turkey. Even if Turkey faces cultural disadvantages in pursuing soft power in the Arab world, (those who exhort the area’s new polities to adopt the Turkish Model conveniently forget that the model has considerable imperialist Ottoman trappings associated with it), Turkey has pursued a strategy of trade, investment and conventional diplomacy that is palatable to all. Moreover, Ankara promoted even better its position using the “anti-status-quo mantle” concerning the Middle East conflict with its public criticisms of Israel. Though Turkey’s closeness to the West raises questions as to whether it can credibly oppose the status quo in the long term, its brand of Islamic democracy and its “zero problems” foreign policy could represent an appealing model. And in a recent poll, the most popular world leader on the Arab street was not Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Kemalism – a challenged secular model

One of the main difficulties in analyzing Turkey’s ascension as a regional power comes from the necessity of assessing its political model of a “secular Islam”, especially since 2002, when AKP, the winning party, was seen as the most marginal group in Turkish politics. They had people with very limited experience in international affairs (Erdoğan being the “best” example) and very little understanding of or sympathy for the West, who displayed an alarming affinity for Islamist fundamentalism. This was translated in several worrying facts. Turkey did not support the Iraq war in 2003 and later, the American-French initiative to restore an independent Lebanon after 2004. Turkey’s relations with Israel also began to erode. Further on, in a reassessment of Turkey’s European ambitions, Prime Minister Erdoğan proceeded to warn the Europeans that Turkey would not forever make adjustments and concessions to EU demands. Some foreign-policy intellectuals began to float alternatives to EU membership, including an alignment with the oil-rich Arab states, or with Russia, China, India, South Africa, and Latin America, or with the “emerging Islamic Far East,” that is, Indonesia and Malaysia.

More worrying was the rise of the anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Christian mood within the Turkish society. The first sign of this was the official treatment of Eric Edelman, the U.S. ambassador to Ankara from 2003 to 2005, who was kept at bay throughout his tenure (although this was not the case with his successor). In the same period, several anti-US anti-Christian and anti-Semitic books and movies enjoyed a large success, including Kavgam, a Turkish translation of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

This was and is still seen as a comeback of Islamic fundamentalism that might challenge the model adopted and developed, after the First World War by the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal, who had been the most effective Ottoman general in the war. After transforming a hitherto multiethnic and multi-religious country into an almost mono-ethnic, Islamic one, Kemal embarked on a drastic exercise in social engineering, recasting the country he had salvaged into a Western nation-state, the Turkish republic. He abolished the sultanate in 1923 and the caliphate in 1924. Over the next five years, the new government was secularized; the Anatolian city of Ankara replaced Constantinople as the capital; traditional Arabic writing, clearly impractical for the Turkish tongue, was replaced by a Latin phonetic alphabet; European dress was made compulsory; women were emancipated; and “brotherhoods,” the backbone of Islam as a social force, were banned. In 1935, by a unanimous vote of parliament, he was anointed Atatürk, “father of the Turks.”

From the 14th to the early 20th century, Ottoman Turkey had been a polity with two separate centers of gravity. On the one hand, there was the Balkan Peninsula, known as European Turkey or Rumelia (“the Land of the Romans”). On the other hand, there was Anatolia, or Asiatic Turkey. Rumelia, the cradle of the imperial elite, was rich, sophisticated, ethnically half-European; two-thirds of its population was neither Turkish nor Muslim. Anatolia, which provided the bulk of the imperial armies, was poor, backward, and Eastern, with a largely Turkish and Islamic population.

In Atatürk’s new nation, the Kemalists (mainly coming from Rumelia) were represented by the Republican People’s party (CHP), the one and only legal political group in the country, whose members managed to get control over the economy, as well as over the population of Anatolia. While Kemal himself remained above explicit criticism, there was a lot of popular resentment, if not hatred, directed toward the CHP regime. Some Turks clearly regarded it as a kind of foreign occupation. Others saw it as an “oppressor regime” (zalim) that preyed on the oppressed and downtrodden.

In this context, the country’s leaders (Kemal passed away in Istanbul on November 10, 1938 and was posthumously given the title of “Eternal Leader”) allowed the steady rise of a very particular brand of Sunni Islam, where a religious comeback was allowed, or even encouraged. Religious instruction was made compulsory in school, and the “brotherhoods” were once again legalized, albeit as “cultural” or “educational” rather than as religious organizations.

Demographics played a key role in these developments. The rural areas of central and eastern Anatolia had enjoyed strong growth under Atatürk and his successor, Mehmet Inönü, and were primarily responsible for the rise in the Turkish population from 14 million in 1923 to 21 million by 1950. Since then, the overall population has more than tripled to 70 million, with most of the growth occurring in the rural areas or among first-generation rural migrants to the big cities.

Turkey’s big cities, once strongholds of Kemalism, have thoroughly gone Islamic. Istanbul, which once held a million inhabitants, is now a conurbation of some 15 to 17 million, stretching from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea area. Ankara has risen from fewer than 300,000 inhabitants in 1950 to 5 million today. Both cities have had Islamist mayors since the 1990’s, and their landscapes blossom with twin-minaret mosques. Even Ankara now has a huge Ottoman-style Great Mosque, just opposite Atatürk’s mausoleum.

The first groups to benefit from this were the traditionalist brotherhoods dating back to Ottoman times or rooted in other Islamic countries, especially the powerful Naksibendi order. Soon enough, though, new and fully Turkish brotherhoods emerged, among them Said Nursi’s “Enlightened,” or Nurcu, and the followers of Fetullah Haci Gülen, known as the Fetullahci. Using various loopholes, these new groups gradually set up an enormous private educational system, from preparatory schools to universities and business schools, which today parallels and at times overshadows the state system. They went on to found newspapers, television stations, and American-style foundations. Since the 1990’s, the new brotherhoods clearly have become Turkey’s leading cultural power, both at the academic and the popular level.

Hardline Kemalists see these new groups as the Trojan horse of a coming Islamic revolution — or regression — and have tried on various occasions to disband them or to close their facilities. But what strikes foreign observers is how different these brotherhoods are from standard revivalist groups in the rest of the Muslim world. They seem less interested in enforcing shari’a law in the public sphere than in fusing Islam and modern civilization. The foundations of the Fetullahci, for example, foster interfaith dialogue in earnest, and have sent scholars and students to the West and even to Israel. Their newspaper, Zaman, is considered to be the best and most balanced in the country.

From old to New Ottoman Empire and Caliphate

Until the fall of the Ottomans at the end of World War I, and for centuries before then, Turkey was both the dominant Muslim power and a major power in North Africa, Southeastern Europe and the Middle East. Turkey was the hub of a multinational empire that as far back as the 15th century dominated the Mediterranean and Black seas. It was the economic pivot of three continents, facilitating and controlling the trading system of much of the Eastern Hemisphere.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the “three pashas” (generals) who led Turkey[1] believed the Turkish race was essentially European—if not Aryan—and thus destined to effectuate a final synthesis between Islam and European civilization. They also believed that the Great War was a God-given opportunity to rebuild Turkey as a “Pan-turkic” empire: a homogeneous entity reuniting the western Turks of Anatolia with their more distant brethren of the Caucasus, the Volga, and Central Asia.

Turkey’s contraction over the past 90 years or so is not the normal pattern in the region, and had to do with the internal crisis in Turkey since the fall of the Ottomans, the emergence of French and British power in the Middle East, followed by American power and the Cold War, which locked Turkey into place. During the Cold War, Turkey was trapped between the Americans and Soviets, and expansion of its power was unthinkable. Since then, Turkey has been slowly emerging as a key power.

One of the most significant developments that had shaped Turkey’s evolution was its gradual involvement with the United States, an emerging united Europe, and even Israel. The thrust of Ankara’s foreign policy under Atatürk had been to keep Turkey away, as much as possible, from foreign alliances and even foreign trade. They wished to maintain strict neutrality and to turn Turkey into an economically self-supporting, if not autarkic, nation. However, his successors started the drive toward Western integration and finalized Turkey’s alliance with the United States in the 1950’s. That alliance produced in turn Turkish participation in the Korean war and a local economic boom that lifted the fortunes of private entrepreneurs and small businessmen. As a result, the conservative Anatolian parties have been strongly anti-statist and often more pro-American than the rest of the political class. By the same token, they developed a keen interest in joining the European Common Market, to which Ankara applied in 1963, and then the European Union, to which it applied even more insistently in 1999.

Equally interesting for that moment has been Turkey’s opening to Israel. In its relations with both the United States and Western Europe, Turkey was countered by the influential Greek and Armenian diasporas and had no diaspora of equal standing of its own to act on its behalf. On the other hand, Israel — whose independence was recognized by Turkey from the outset — was enormously interested in relations with a big Muslim neighbor like Turkey. An informal deal was reached. Many pro-Israel leaders and activists started to lobby for Turkey in the West. Turkey, in turn, quietly started cooperating with Israel. At a certain point, the relationship with Israel not only became one of the Kemalists’ dogmas but was also put forward as a priority by many Anatolian conservatives.

The AKP’s coming to power marked a significant shift of this evolution, towards what some analysts have already called the rise of a Neo-Ottoman Caliphate, supposedly the “secret dream” of the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who allegedly sees himself as the founder of the new caliphate, a world Islamic government with Turkey at its center.

The concept of the caliphate is not a generally accepted one in the Muslim political world. The main point is that the dream of reviving a caliphate is a wide-ranging vision and is certainly not restricted to the radicals. To the Muslim socialist, it is through the concept of the caliphate that a socialist utopia will become a reality. For the moderate Muslim, it is in the idea of the caliphate that a tolerant Muslim empire will arise.

For the radical Muslim, the caliphate is the means by which Islam will arise to supremacy in the earth. The caliphate was the leadership of Islam after the death of Muhammad the prophet of Islam. For radical Muslims, the major aim of the caliphate is to rule the world and this can be done under the leadership of one caliph and he himself only can declare a holy war, a jihad. Some believe a restored caliphate will precede the Islamic messiah. While they may disagree on tactics, many modern Islamic groups share the goal of restoring the caliphate. They include the Taliban, al Qaeda, Hamas, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the most of all, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was set up in 1928, four years after the disbanding of the Muslim caliphate by Atatűrk, and whose goal is still to set up one world Islamic government.

According to such analysts, Turkey’s ascension challenges the old order of the Middle East world that was, until recently, divided up primarily between the Arab block and the Iranian block. With AKP in full control of the country’s economic, political, judicial and military levels, there are already signs that it may be on the way to purge Turkey of its secular Kemalist system and ensconce the Islamists in power indefinitely.

As pointed previously, Turkey has a thriving economy as well as the largest army in the region. And of course, only Turkey has a proven track record of ruling the Middle East. For this reason, AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now the most popular leader in the region.

Equally attractive is Turkish Islamist methodology. Since 9/11, Turkey has been all too willing to portray itself as the most natural counterbalance and answer to al-Qaeda and radical Islamism globally. For the past decade, the Turks have pursued the methodology of the world’s most powerful Islamist group, the Fetullah Gülen Movement, of which Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül are both considered to be students. The goal of the Gülen movement is quite simple really. They want to be endorsed. Through the use of outreach, they have successfully branded themselves as paragons of religious tolerance. While radical groups such as al-Qaeda have utilized terror to achieve their goal of a caliphate, Turkish Islam has championed the approach of presenting itself in a form specifically custom-tailored to win the hearty approval of the West. But their ultimate goal is the same: the unification of the Islamic world, the revival of the caliphate.

Behind the scenes: the Fetullah Gülen Movement

The Gülenist Movement led by Fetullah Gülen, is a powerful force in Turkey since over four decades. Gülen began a grassroots movement in the 1970’s with the Islamist political party, Milli Gorus, a worldwide Islamist movement with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. AKP emerged from Milli Gorus[2] to restore Islamic religion and culture. The foundation of Gülen’s teachings is that state and religion should be reconnected and the country should re-emerge as part of a pan-Turkic regional power. Beginning in the 1970’s, Gülen began establishing a worldwide network to promote Islam and Turkish nationalism.

His followers have since established hundreds of schools in over 110 countries.  Gülenists operate an Islamic bank with over $5 billion in assets and own significant print and broadcast media properties, NGOs, think tanks and a publishing company. Gülen recruits Turkish youth by providing housing and education and grooms them for careers in the legal, political and academic professions.  In recent years, the AKP passed legislation allowing graduates of Islamic high schools entry into Turkey’s universities, guaranteeing Islamist leadership in the future. Gülen controls the majority of schools, universities and dormitories throughout Turkey. His followers remain loyal and donate up to one-third of their income to the movement.  In Turkey, Gülen and the AKP are said to control the police, the intelligence services and the media and actively recruit diplomats for their utility as foreign intelligence satellites. Overall, the Gülen holdings are valued at up to $50 billion.

Members of the Gülen movement extend Turkey’s influence across the globe and occupy important positions running several media outlets and controlling multiple organizations that facilitate the dissemination of their message worldwide. In 1998, Gülen was convicted (and acquitted in 2006 by Erdoğan’s AKP government) by the Turkish government for “trying to undermine the country’s secular institutions, concealing his methods behind a democratic and moderate image” and went into voluntary exile in the United States.  Outside of Turkey, Gülen’s goal has been to educate a foreign leadership sympathetic to an Islamist Turkey. But his schools are prohibited in Russia, and Uzbekistan banned his madrasas and arrested eight Gülenist journalists for involvement in extremist organizations. In the Netherlands, the movement is being investigated for suspicion of being an Islamist fundamentalist network.

In the United States, Gülen operates the largest charter school network in America and enjoys the cooperation and protection of the U.S. government. His schools stress intercultural dialogue and tolerance.  They include a curriculum that teaches the Golden Age of Turkey or the period of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish language, dance, culture, cooking and Islam. Meanwhile, his worldwide network reaches into U.S. politics through aggressive lobbying, political donations and paid trips to Turkey for members of Congress and their staffs.  The Gülen Movement in the United States represents itself as a multi-faith global organization designed to bring together businesses, educators, religious leaders, journalists and others. Gülen has placed many of his followers in large U.S. engineering firms, NASA, the White House, universities and Hollywood.

Through Gülen, Turkey is actively involved in lobbying Congress to promote its interests in Washington. Before the 2002 elections in Turkey, Gülen secured an invitation for Erdoğan to the White House, which was presented to the Turkish electorate as a U.S. endorsement. Erdoğan in partnership with Fetullah Gülen has made a concerted effort to target the military, take control of the media and stack the courts in order to realize the dream of Neo-Ottomanism – a return to Turkey’s Muslim imperialist past.

Internal policy: countering the “Deep State”

One of the possible obstacles to AKP is considered in Turkey the so-called “Deep State” (Derin Devlet), a sort of sub-state structure that includes senior officers of the army and security services, the top echelon of the state bureaucracy, and leading members of the judiciary (mainly those on the Constitutional Court). The “Deep State” operates under a code of absolute loyalty to Kemalist principles and the republic as enshrined in a “Secret Constitution” (Gizli Anayasa). This tightly-networked shadow government allegedly re-emerges at times when the Kemalist state is faced with a crisis, at which point the “Deep State” overturns popularly elected-state institutions and rolls-back political forces judged to have deviated from sacred Kemalist principles.

As AKP’s power has increased, some commentators have begun to speculate that it too would be overturned by the “Deep State”. Instead, with the military’s role in Turkish political life declining, the Erdoğan government has itself already assumed the Kemalist “Deep State” as grist for the popular conspiracy theory mill. Currently, many plainly assert that the AKP government controls the police (especially its surveillance units) and the MIT (Milli Istihbarat Teshkilati, the Turkish secret service). This narrative depicts a police force that’s been allegedly infiltrated by followers of Fetullah Gűlen, the venerated head of a popular Sufi order who resides in the U.S. and presides over a complex international network of institutions and supporters. Gulen’s disciples, known as “Fetullahcis,” are loyal to him, but they also serve some of AKP’s broader political and strategic goals. Prime Minister Erdoğan is widely rumored to be himself a devotee of Gűlen. Moreover, the current director of MIT, Hakan Fidan, is considered to be an Erdoğan lackey who fully shares the prime minister’s agenda and applies it with great zeal. This view is not entirely without reason: Fidan was promoted to the senior MIT job as an outsider, very much despite the protests of top MIT officers who considered him a purely political appointee rather than a professional one.

While popular fears concerning AKP’s hidden agenda do not yet match in scale and intensity those regarding the “Deep State”, many fear that AKP seeks to turn Turkey into an Islamic state and to sweep aside in the process the Kemalist legacy and its secular public sphere. These fears include the Islamization of the education system and the creeping imposition of a host of restrictions on public behavior, such as women’s dress, the mixing of men and women in entertainment areas, consumption of alcohol, and the loss of other freedoms associated with a modern, liberal, and Western way of life. Others worry about what appears to be the Erdoğan government’s increasing authoritarianism and an AKP “deep plan” to install an Islamic dictatorship.

It is rumored that hardliners in both the AKP and the “Deep State” are preparing for a dramatic confrontation. Such is the fear expressed by Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s leading writer and the 2006 Nobel Prize laureate. Indeed, in a scene foreshadowed in Pamuk’s novel Snow, a young Islamist entered a Turkish courtroom last May and shot a judge who had ruled against women who wished to wear Islamic veils in public places. Thousands of secularists took to the capital’s streets to protest the assassination, and the army, which had hitherto refrained from interfering with the Erdoğan government, also made known its unhappiness.

Erdoğan seems aware of such dangers and determined not to give in to provocations. His decisions, first to approve the appointment of General Yasar Büyükanit, a staunch secularist and also a pro-American and pro-Israeli officer, head or the armed forces and second, not to run for the presidency and concentrate on his job as prime minister, have both seen as having been calculated to defuse Kemalist anxieties over the prospect of a monolithic Islamist regime.

According to most analysts, the AKP’s key concern is to stay in power as long as possible, and to that end the party has shown a lot of pragmatism. Over the past years, Erdoğan and the AKP have managed the economy remarkably well, with the help, until the beginning of 2006, of a talented central-bank director. What is most significant about the Turkish boom is that it is not based on natural resources like oil or natural gas but rather on manufacturing and services.

What Erdoğan and the AKP stand for is not some passing phenomenon in Turkish politics. Whatever the achievements of Atatürk and the secular republic, they belong to a different period in the country’s development. Demographics and the inner workings of Turkish society have brought Islam back. What remains to be seen is the extent of this revival. In particular, the real fault line within Turkish politics may no longer lie between Kemalists and Islamic traditionalists but rather between contending varieties of an authentically Turkish conservatism, with the status or (as the Turks say) vision of Islam as the key point of division.

Turkey’s foreign policy: “neo-ottomanism” in a changing security environment

After being a most important US ally since the late 1940s, and having served, during the Cold War, as a critical bulwark against the expansion of Soviet military power into the Mediterranean and the Middle East, in the last decade, Turkish foreign policy has undergone an important transformation. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his energetic foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey has launched a number of new foreign-policy initiatives that have increased the country’s international stature and regional influence. Ankara’s new foreign-policy activism has been particularly visible in the Middle East, where Turkey has sought to strengthen ties with its Muslim neighbors, especially Iran and Syria. Relations with Russia have improved as well, especially in the economic field, and Ankara has recently sought to mend fences with Armenia, another long-time adversary.

According to some analysts, Turkey’s recent diplomatic activism does not represent an attempt by Ankara to turn its back on the West or an “Islamization” of Turkish foreign policy. Rather, it reflects an effort to overcome the anomalies of the Cold War and to adapt to the country’s changed strategic environment. At the same time, it reflects a recognition that Turkey’s domestic stability and prosperity depend heavily on regional stability, which requires reducing tensions with Turkey’s immediate neighbors.

The end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet threat reduced Ankara’s dependence on Washington for its security. At the same time, it opened up new opportunities in areas that had previously been neglected or were off limits to Turkish policy, particularly the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Turkey has sought to exploit this new diplomatic flexibility and room for maneuver by establishing new relationships in these areas.

In addition, with the end of the Cold War, the source points of threats and challenges to Turkish security shifted. During the Cold War, the main threat came from the Soviet Union to the north. Today, Turkey faces a much more diverse set of security threats and challenges: rising Kurdish nationalism and separatism; sectarian violence in Iraq, which could spill over and draw in outside powers; the possible emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran on Turkey’s doorstep; and a weak, fragmented Lebanon dominated by radical groups with close ties to Iran and Syria.

The main features of the new Turkish foreign policy are to be found in the works and actions of the current foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who is a strong partisan of a new strategic importance of Turkey, “that increases as the days pass”. Davutoğlu sees Turkey’s foreign policy developing especially in the Middle East and in the South Caucasus region and he launched the so-called “zero-problem policy” to characterize the country’s relations with the Muslim world and the West. Davutoğlu’s major academic work, “Strategic Depth”, advocates a foreign policy that would put Turkey’s Ottoman past in its rightful place and outlines his way of thinking about Turkey’s foreign policy issues. According to Davutoğlu, Turkey is now moving from a “zero-problem” policy with its neighbors to a new phase denoted by “maximum cooperation”. Turkey was long perceived, in his view, as having “strong muscles, a weak stomach, a troubled heart, and a mediocre brain”. In order to get away from this image, Turkey needs to create strong economic ties beyond its borders. With such policies, Davutoğlu aims at transforming Turkey into a key strategic actor within the region, and this lies at the heart of his political vision.

Along with most members of the AKP, Professor Davutoğlu is a representative of the new pious counter-elite that has gradually risen in the last thirty years to challenge the traditional pre-dominance of the old secular, state-centric circles of power in Turkey. Prior to his governmental appointments, his background was entirely academic and he taught at Marmara University in Istanbul as well as the International Islamic University of Malaysia. During this period, his writings on international relations gained him a strong following amongst Turkey’s conservative intelligentsia. He took a sharply critical view of the “end of history” post-cold war mindset in international relations, arguing for the right of other alternative global centers of historical and cultural significance to articulate their own destinies rather than being subjected to ‘uni-cultural monopolization’ under a universal US-centric model of capitalist liberal democracy.

According to most analysts, the appointment of Ahmet Davutoğlu to the post of foreign minister signals the confidence that the AKP government has acquired in engaging with regional and international issues of magnitude. It can be seen as Turkey’s coming of age as an independent multi-regional power that can comfortably and interchangeably interact with a variety of regional and international actors. Some have read Davutoğlu’s appointment as another disquieting sign of Turkey losing its Atlanticist moorings and drifting further eastwards. However, given the current stagnation in the accession process on both sides however, it is only too natural for an upwardly mobile regional power to seek to diversify its regional bases. Furthermore, the ability to be present in various regions without being fully integrated in either one has always defined Turkey’s geo-strategic role and should be seen as a potential asset for the EU as an international actor. It also accords to another comment by Davutoğlu in his work Strategic Depth when he states that “if Turkey does not have a solid stance in Asia, it would have very limited chances with the EU”.

a) New focus on the relationship with Russia

One of the most significant developments of the last decade is Turkey’s economic, but also political relationship with Russia, marked by the both Kremlin’s and Ankara’s position that, as the two major powers in the area, cooperation between Russia and Turkey was essential to regional peace and stability. That marked a dramatic change from the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Washington encouraged Ankara to move into historically Ottoman regions of the former Soviet Union to counter Russia’s influence.

In the 1990s, in sharp contrast to the tranquility of the Cold War era, talk of regional rivalries, revived “Great Games” in Eurasia, confrontations in the Caucasus and Central Asia were common. Turkey was becoming once more Russia’s natural geopolitical rival as in the 19th Century. Turkey’s quasi-alliance with Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Georgia led Moscow to view Turkey as a formidable rival. The regional military balance developed in favor of Turkey in Black Sea and the Southern Caucasus. After the disintegration of the USSR, the Black Sea became a de facto “NATO lake”. As Russia and Ukraine argued over the division of the Black Sea fleet and status of Sevastopol, the Black Sea became an area for NATO’S Partnership for Peace exercises.

By contrast, at the end of the decade, one could see a shifting trend, marked by diplomatic gestures, with Russia praising Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives in the region, commending Turkey’s actions during the Russian-Georgian war and its proposal for the establishment of a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform (CSCP), that was made by bypassing Washington and not seeking transatlantic consensus on Russia.

A significant gesture of the moment was the inclusion in the 2009 visit to Russia of Turkish president Abdullah Gűl of a stop in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan (also the “birthplace” of “Jadid” and the pan-Turkism), the largest autonomous republic in Russian Federation whose population mainly consists of Muslim Tatar Turks. This was considered a clear sign that Moscow was no longer convinced that Turkey was trying to establish pan-Turkism in the Caucasus and Central Asia and inside the Russian Federation.

In the same period, the Turkish press began to mention the Turkish-Russian relations as a “strategic partnership”’ a label traditionally used for Turkish-American relations. Many observers of the region concluded that the Turkish-Russian cooperation is a further indication of how the US influence in Eurasia has been eroded and pointed out that Washington might find itself confronted with Sir Halford Mackinder’s “worst nightmare”. Mackinder, the “father” of the 20th Century British geopolitics, stressed the importance of Britain (and after 1945 the USA) preventing strategic cooperation among the great powers of Eurasia.

Cooperation in energy is one of the major areas in this developing relationship. Turkey’s gas and oil imports from Russia account for most of the bilateral trade volume. Both sides are interested in improving cooperation in energy transportation lines carrying Russian gas to European markets through Turkey, the project known as Blue Stream-2. The completion of the Russian Blue Stream gas pipeline under Black Sea increased Turkey’s dependence on Russian natural gas from 66 percent up to 80 percent. Furthermore, Russia is beginning to see Turkey as a transit country for its energy resources rather than simply an export market, since the significance of Blue Stream-2.

Russia’s market also plays a major role for Turkish overseas investments and exports. Russia is one of the main customers for Turkish construction firms and a major destination for Turkish exports. Similarly, millions of Russian tourists bring significant revenues to Turkey every year.

b) Turkey-Europe: complex and changing

The assertiveness of Turkey as a new global power center is evident if one considers Ankara’s changing attitude towards Europe, in the context of the constant reluctance of the European Union to answer favorably Turkey’s bid to join the Union. Tayyp Regep Erdoğan recently made his country’s opinion of its own power unmistakably clear: “Our interests range from the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean”.

If during a recent visit in Germany, Erdoğan complained that Turkey feels let down by Germany as it pursues the slow-moving bid, several German economic analysts fear that, rather than accept a privileged partnership, there is a risk of Turkey turning away from Europe altogether. In fact, the economically-thriving country has lost interest in the crisis-stricken EU. With economic growth of around ten percent and a tripling of per capita income since 2002, Ankara is hardly dependent on securing closer economic relations.

This new “flexing of muscles” was evident in Erdoğan’s accusations that “German politicians do not give enough recognition to the integration of the three million Turks in Germany”, especially in the context of German law not granting the dual citizenship and the laws which oblige any Turks moving to Germany to speak good German before arrival. Also, he called for regulations to be eased for Turks coming to Germany and he criticized the German organizations that are funding the Kurdish PKK. Moreover, he addressed an audience of 10,000 Turkish Germans and asked them not to assimilate but to remain part of Turkey.

The European debate for or against Turkey joining the EU also takes into account the leverage that a EU-member Turkey might give to Europe to influence developments in the Islamic world but, on the other hand, the risk of the “Neo-Ottomanism”, the possibility of Turkey rebuilding  the empire that controlled the Middle East for 400 years.

On balance, the argument over whether Turkey should join the EU comes down slightly in favor of the eternal accession candidate, a reflection of the mixed feelings that Europeans have had toward their complicated neighbor for decades. Nevertheless, from a rational point of view, wouldn’t the pros outweigh the cons if Turkey were to join the European family? Hasn’t it made impressive progress in the 12 years since it formally became a candidate and began efforts to satisfy the EU’s criteria? And wouldn’t closer ties to Europe be the best way to prevent this progress from being reversed?

It’s more likely that the Europeans and the Turks will continue to spend years talking at cross-purposes, but without expressing the two truths that everyone knows by now: that Europe doesn’t want Turkey – and that soon Turkey will no longer need Europe.

c) Turkey –  US: the romance is over, but the relationship remains

In the same context of a changing security environment, analysts both in Turkey and in the US see the bilateral relationship as following an estrangement course, similar to what happened between America and France since Charles de Gaulle. All the same, Turkey remains a very important partner for the USA in a crucial region, and this was recently stressed during the December 2011 visit of US president Joe Biden in Turkey.

The main point of the visit was to secure Turkey’s help to keep pressure on Syria and Iran and boost economies and democratic institutions in governments emerging from the Arab Spring civil uprisings. In this context, analysts noted the tone of the US officials’ declarations that “Turkey has always looked to the east and the west, given its position in the world both geographically and geopolitically,” and has “a unique role to play as a bridge between these different worlds, an ability to talk to different countries in ways that are extremely helpful”. Other important issues were economic, since the US is supporting Turkish investments in Egypt and other Arab countries to help develop those economies and, consequently, the new, supposedly democratic regimes that came to power after the Arab spring. As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a visit to Istanbul, “People in the Middle East and North Africa are seeking to draw lessons from Turkey’s experience”.

Turkey as a water and energy regional hub

Most analysts agree that Turkey has an enormous geopolitical potential due to its central location, not only between East and West, but between producers and consumers of energy. Moreover, Turkey’s water resources can be utilized to reinforce Turkey’s strategic energy role in the region, by building a strategy of cooperation with water-poor countries from the Levant to the Arabian Peninsula. As both energy and water grow scarcer throughout the future, nations such as Turkey can gain considerable influence as a result of their geographic locations and natural endowments. Turkey can benefit from pipeline diplomacy, taking advantage of its geographical location to make it a crossroads of multiple commodity pipeline projects. Through a series of water and energy pipelines, Turkey can gain significant political, economic, and social influence, while contributing to regional integration and stability.

In the field of the water supply, Iraq and Syria are already totally dependent on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and Turkey as their source, for most of their water resources. In recent years, partially as a result of poor planning during Saddam Hussein’s rule, the Iraqi government faces devastating water shortages. Turkish water outreach projects will permit it to expand its sphere of influence in the region. Turkey also has the potential to send water to parched areas of Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon. Water shortages have long ravaged the region and created conflict between nations. The lack of water also nourishes the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1987, Turkey explored the idea of utilizing its water resources to create a “Peace Pipeline”, healing the region’s conflicts through shared water in return for a back-flow of Qatari gas. Although the project was ultimately abandoned, it demonstrates the potential value of engagement in water diplomacy. All of these water-parched destinations would offer significant economic benefits to Turkey, through the sale of surplus water. Furthermore, as the supplier of such a valuable resource, Turkey would gain significant strategic stature in the region.

Equally important as water is Turkey’s central location in the transport of energy resources. To the West, Turkey has deep water ports on the Mediterranean and common borders with Greece and Bulgaria, and through them, the European Union, that is the world’s second largest and most integrated consumer of energy resources, behind only the United States. Since the EU has become sensitive to its dependence on Russian resources and attempts to diversify its energy supply, the only gas pipeline alternatives are from Central Asia and the Middle East, routes that both must ultimately pass through Turkey. Just like Russia, Turkey’s neighbors: Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq, and Syria also have significant energy resources. Currently, many of these countries have been unable to effectively penetrate the European market, due to the lack of convenient pipeline routes. Turkey has a significant role to play in the transport of these resources to European consumers.

So far, in both areas (energy and water), Turkey’s chances to use its advantages are undermined by political factors, which the Ankara government needs to take into account if it wants to conduct pipeline diplomacy.

One example of this is the Kirkuk-Ceyhan crude oil pipeline, the world’s second largest, which was created in the 1980s as a source for Iraqi oil export. Turkey has planned several ambitious ventures to use the pipeline, but these projects have been frustrated by terrorist activity in the region, related to Turkish political conflicts with the Kurds. Another of Turkey’s disputes arose in 2002, when it launched construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, to bring Azerbaijani oil to Turkish ports for sale across the globe. While the fastest, cheapest, and most effective route for the pipeline would have been through Armenian territory, the pipeline was ultimately constructed through Georgia instead. The South Caucasus Gas Pipeline has faced the same problems and was also routed through Georgia, instead of the more direct route through Armenia. While political tensions with Armenia did not prevent these projects from taking place, they made them much more difficult, significantly increasing expenses as a consequence.

The most significant example of the impact that conflicting political agendas can play in Turkish geopolitics is the Nabucco Pipeline, that represents a significant opportunity for Turkey to leverage its geopolitical location. While this project has been pursued with considerable excitement by European nations, there have been many Turkish objections and conditions, including linking the project to Turkish membership in the European Union. While the Nabucco pipeline can have a substantial impact in allowing Turkey to achieve its geopolitical potential, the project is being held back due to competing political objectives.

In the area of water, the projects have been just as acutely affected by conflicting political agendas. With regards to Iraq and Syria, that are dependent on Turkey for water resources, Turkey has completely failed to leverage its potential. Since the 1970s, Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia project has created several large dams on both rivers, invariably reducing water flow. As a result, water has greatly strained Turkey’s relations with Syria and Iraq.

Most analysts agree that in the future, if Ankara manages in its own interest the current international disputes and difficulties, Turkey can do more than ever before to leverage its location into geopolitical success with pipelines. By transporting its own water resources and bringing oil producing countries together with consumers, Turkey can gain considerable political leverage throughout the region, and ultimately across the globe. In the future, the increasing scarcity of water and energy, as well as their interdependence, has the potential to offer Turkey unparalleled geopolitical opportunity.

Future challenges: great Turan or leader of an Islamic Union

Most of the analysts agree about several disturbing possible ways of evolution of a new geopolitically important Turkey, pointing, among other issues, to the revival of the “pan-Turkic” doctrine, but also to the possibility of Turkey becoming the leader of an Islamic Union.

(1) Pan-Turkism is and has always been a movement viewed with suspicion by many, often perceived as nothing else but a new form of Turkish imperial ambition. Some view the movement as racist and chauvinistic, particularly when considering the associated teachings.

The idea of a Turkic unity was first included in the works of Tatar theologian Kursavi, who wrote in 1804 a treatise calling for Islam’s modernization. Kursavi was a founder of the religious thought of Jadidism (from Arabic “jadid”, which means “new”). The idea of Jadidism was encouragement of critical thinking, as opposed to insistence on unquestioning loyalty. It supported education for Muslims and promoted equality among the sexes; advocated tolerance for other faiths, Turkic cultural unity, and openness to Europe’s cultural legacy. In 1843 in Kazan, the Jadid movement was created, and within Jadid, for the first time sprout the idea of a national, and not religious identity of the Turks. At the beginning of the 20th century, the leaders espousing pan-Turkism fled to Istanbul, where a powerful pan-Turkic movement rose. From that time, the Turkish pan-Turkism grew into a nationalistic, ethnically oriented replacement of the Caliphate by a worldwide state. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the regime of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) penalized pan-Turkist groups and closed all publications of Pan-Turkic orientation. Another episode in the history of pan-Turkism played out during World War II, when the Nazis attempted, without success, to use pan-Turkism in their fight with the USSR.

In the declining days of the Ottoman Empire, the word Turanian was adopted by some Turkish nationalists to express a pan-Turkic ideology, also called Turanism. Presently, Turanism forms an important aspect of the ideology of the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), whose members are also known as Grey Wolves. The word Turanian is also sometimes used to express a pan-Altaic nationalism.

Turkey’s opportunities came with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence of several Turkic states that brought a revival of the pan-Turkic movements and organizations, concentrating on economic integration of the sovereign Turkic states (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and hoping to achieve an economic-political union very similar to the EU. The general popularity of these movements has risen over the years in the Turkic world. Turkey has become a major business partner to many Central Asian Turkic states, helping with the reform of higher education, the introduction of the Latin alphabet, economic development and commerce. However, so far, these efforts have not met the expectations of either the Turkic states or the pan-Turkist sentiment in Turkey.

(2) Another disturbing trend is promoted by the increasingly popular Islamic writer Adnan Oktar who, under the pen-name of Harun Yahya, sees Turkey as a leader of a future Islamic super-power.

In his view, a Turkish-Islamic Union will emerge that stretches as far as the coast and interior of Africa. Turkey has “prior experience from the Ottoman Empire” to lead such a Union, which would mean “salvation (Sharia) for America and China and Russia and the whole world. He points out that all the oil and minerals are in Turkish-Islamic countries; we have all the underground resources. We will sell them all those riches, and we will use them and build facilities, and we will construct civilizations”.

Although better known for his conspirationist and creationist (anti-Darwinist) theories, Adnan Oktar is leader of an organization called Milli Değerleri Koruma Vakfı (“Foundation to Protect National Values”, established 1995), that promote Turkish nationalism.


The possible outcomes illustrated above are only two examples of the difficulty to assess Turkey’s future evolution in regional and international terms.

In power since 2002, the AKP government has pursued sweeping domestic reforms, but outsiders have paid most attention to AKP’s new and assertive foreign agenda, which has led to an unprecedented warming of relations between Ankara and its majority-Muslim neighbors, especially Syria and the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as to a chilling of modern Turkey’s traditional alliances with Europe, Israel, and the United States. Many analysts in the West worry that Turkey’s new policies are ideologically motivated by political Islam or by a so-called “Neo-Ottoman” revival of once dormant imperial ambitions. By contrast, to some observers in the Middle East – including many Islamists in the region – AKP’s New Turkey represents a rising Islamic power and a model to all Muslim societies who strive for political and economic success.

Is the AKP regime a danger to the West? Certainly there are disturbing elements to be found within it, as in every contemporary Islamist party. But there is also the possibility, if no more than the possibility, that Erdoğan, the AKP, and their allies in Turkish civil society represent a check on radical Islamism. Nor, in considering the balance of internal forces, should one underestimate the contrary danger of Turkish fascism. If Turkey should indeed leave the Western fold, it might well be the work not of Islamists but of a hypernationalist, secular-minded military determined to align the country with the post-Communist regime of Russia or China.

For Turkey itself and for Turkey’s Western friends, the best outcome is evident: a fusing of the most dynamic elements in Turkey’s modern heritage—Rumelian openness with Anatolian traditionalism, cosmopolitan modernism with the mores of Turkey’s indigenous brand of Islam. The question to be decided is whether the country’s current leadership is equipped for this difficult but essential task. Whatever the answer, Turkey is a raising power that is bound to play a significant geopolitical role in the future.

[1] Ismail Enver Pasha, who as minister of defense in the Ottoman empire had helped turn Turkey into a Germanic protectorate on the eve of World War I; Mehmet Talat Pasha, minister of the interior from 1913 to 1917 and then grand vizier; Ahmet Cemal Pasha, a ruthless and quite effective warrior.

[2] The movement was named after a 1969 manifesto launched by Nekmettin Erbakan,  that warned against further rapprochement towards Europe and called closer economic co-operation with Muslim countries. The name of Millι Görüş would remain associated with a religio-political movement and a series of Islamist groups that were banned for violating Turkey’s secularist legislation. The last of these movements, the Virtue Party (FP), broke into two factions, one of which being the AKP. Milli Görüş became one of the major religious movements in the European Turkish diaspora, with approx. 300000 European members. In Germany, it has been under observation by German authorities for its links with a charity NGO outlawed in 2010 for its ties with Hamas.

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