Turkey's Reforms and Foreign Policy Choices: The Impact on U.S. and Euro-Atlantic Relations
Dr. Aybet concentrated her presentation on recent political reforms in Turkey, within the context of the two terms under the Justice and Development Party (AKP). She began by addressing the impact on new directions in Turkish foreign policy and what this means for Turkey's transatlantic relations. The past eight years of AKP rule, according to Aybet, will probably be remembered as the great transition from old checks and balances in Turkish politics to new ones. The old consisted of a secularist elite and a politically powerful military as guarantors of stability. The watershed challenge to this tradition came with the 2007 elections where AKP won a second term in a landslide victory. The emerging checks and balances consist of a new Islamist centre right elite, committed to liberal economic policies and support for Turkey's accession to the EU, and the gradual eradication of the so-called 'deep state' which acted as an unorthodox support act to old policies. It also heralded in a new political and economic reform process induced by conditions laid out by EU accession.
Turkey stands in the middle of this transformation now and it is by no means over. However, two general observations emerge from this process. First, there is no going back from this transformation and second, that Turkey is a much more open society today than ever been before, despite growing polarization in society because of the fault lines cracked open by its transformation.
Dr. Aybet also touched on the important milestones in the transition, such as the controversial appointment of Abdullah Gül to the Presidency in April 2007, which resulted in the memorandum issued by the Turkish General Staff (TGS) regarding threats to the secular nature of the Republic. Following the July 2007 victory, Prime Minister Erdogan sought to amend the constitution allowing for the removal of the headscarf ban from universities and public spaces. This led to a further crisis when the constitutional court opened a case against the AKP in an attempt to ban its leading members from politics for at least five years. The case was dropped by a narrow vote in the court. Meanwhile, recent turmoil in civil-military relations has ensued with the ongoing Ergenekon trial against the so called 'deep state', which has included the arrest of former generals, amongst others, plotting to incite a military coup to overthrow the AKP government. The recent un-authenticated document related to the trial, published in the Turkish daily Taraf, reveals allegations of a more recent coup attempt by a group within the TGS. If the document is found to be a fake, it could undermine the legitimacy of the Ergenekon case as a whole. If it is found to be genuine and links are established to the military - which the TGS have denied in their own investigation so far - then it could seriously affect EU relations, in terms of Turkey's performance as a stable democracy. In any case, given the National Security Council meeting on the 30th of June, which lasted over seven hours, it is clear that the gravity of the matter on the future of civil-military relations is taken equally seriously by all parties.
In the meantime, there have been cases brought against the Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) by the chief prosecutor for the party's links with the PKK, as well as the re-opening of a ten year old alleged corruption trial against the President. While the constitutional reform process has not moved forward since the dispute over the headscarf issue in early 2008, Dr. Aybet posits that the recent crises over the political immunity of DTP MP's as well as the President, who also faces the possibility to stand trial, could kick start a new momentum in constitutional reform. This would be linked to a renewed attempt to amend existing legislation on political parties, especially with regards to party closure cases and political immunity of elected parliamentarians, bringing the legislation in line with the European Court of Human Rights and recommendations of the Council of Europe's Venice Commission.
The comparison between the first and second term of the AKP's rule is quite significant. During their first term, coming into power after Turkey's worst financial crisis in 2001, and having inherited the implementation of an IMF plan negotiated by the previous government, the AKP was able to concentrate its efforts on cleaning up the banking sector and implementing the IMF package as well as the EU induced reforms once accession negotiations started. Although relations with the EU had a shaky start in the first term from 2002-2007, congruently relations with the U.S. seriously deteriorated over the Iraq war. With regards to the U.S., Turkey's refusal to allow the transition of U.S, troops to Iraq in 2003, and the U.S.'s constant deferral of the PKK problem in Northern Iraq, exacerbated an already tense relationship.
In contrast, the second term saw an improvement of relations with the U.S., after the October 2007 parliamentary decision in Turkey for an incursion into Northern Iraq. The U.S. responded by agreeing to share intelligence with the Turkish armed forces, following increased attacks by the PKK. Moreover, the U.S. condemned the PKK and put pressure on the Baghdad government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), while giving support to Turkey's short term cross border operations. Ironically, as US relations turned for the better, with damage limitation sought by the last year of the Bush administration, relations with the EU took a turn for the worst. As Turkey's internal reform process stalled, the EU became less accommodating and by 2008 drew two firm red lines, one was the resolution of the accession protocol regarding Cyprus and the second was the removal of the casus belli against Greece dated from 1995, over the extending of territorial waters. The EU's tougher stance did not help matters within Turkey. Dr. Aybet emphasized that the dynamics of Turkey's internal politics are quite distinct from the processes induced by conditionality. For example, it would have been impossible for any Turkish government to call for a revision of Article 301 ("insulting Turkishness") in the constitution at the time of exacerbated PKK attacks in October 2007.
The reform process stalled once more when AKP focused their attention on local elections in March 2009, after the resolution of the party closure case in August 2008. Despite having emerged as the leading party, AKP became more defensive and less confident after a 9% drop in votes at the local levels. Dr. Aybet suggests, that this has meant that policies have been focused on short term, populist measures designed to win favor at the next general election rather than long term strategies. This may indicate a period of further sluggishness with regards to reforms and the deferral of the IMF agreement, the last having expired in 2008, which would put restrictions on spending. A significant difference between the first and second terms of the AKP government, is that the second term has so far been lacking two important external anchors which guided policy in the first term: the EU and the IMF.
Without the two anchors which characterized the first term and with the appointment of a new Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, in the second, Aybet observes that there seems to be a shift in focus to the Middle East and Africa with less emphasis on relations with the West. Especially given Davutoglu's theoretical vision of foreign policy based on geopolitics. While both the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister have reassured EU leaders of their continued commitment and the completion of reforms, deeds are likely to be taken far more seriously than words, given the prolonged period of reform stagnation due to incessant political crises.
Dr. Aybet posits that if we take the conceptual basis of Davutoglu's ideas, they seem to rest on a belief that if Turkey concentrates its efforts as an interlocutor in the Middle East rather than integration with Europe and the transatlantic partnership, then the 'West' will somehow have to go through Turkey to get to the Middle East. Aybet believes this could have been the idea behind Erdogan's show stopping storm-out in Davos. By siding with Hamas, Erdogan wanted to be the one who could 'deliver' Hamas when and if the parties were ready to accept Turkey as a player. She further stated that this could have been a play for diminishing Iran's influence on the organization. This was a reasonable and rational calculation based on the observation that a solution would not be possible without Hamas' participation. However, it was the tone in which the Davos message was delivered that sent mixed signals. As Soli Özel points out: "The important question here is whether Turkey will engage in the region as a member of the Middle East or as a member of the Atlantic Alliance with particular strengths in the region." It is an important question which the AKP, unlike their fist term, seem to be wavering about in their second term.
It is also uncertain how far Turkey can push its mediator role. As Iran becomes more inward looking, engagement with the west may become more difficult. Thus making the role that Turkey can play as an interlocutor uncertain. In the resumed Syrian-Israeli talks, Israel has been looking upon Turkey's intermediary role with a lukewarm attitude after its siding with Hamas. With regards to the Middle East Peace Process, despite President Abbas's visit to Turkey in February, Fatah is still skeptical of Turkey's role as a mediator after its pro Hamas position. Whether Hamas would like to see Turkey as its 'deliverer' to a legitimate status in the talks and how far this has curbed Iranian influence on Hamas is also uncertain. On the other hand, Dr. Aybet points out, that as the Iranian regime starts losing its regional legitimacy, after the election turmoil, organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah might start wondering if they should start looking for another benefactor in the region. But whether this will bolster Turkey's role as an interlocutor or negotiator is also undecided. Dr. Aybet stresses that for Turkey to focus its policies on the various possible mediatory roles in the Middle East as a play to strengthen its hand vis a vis its Western relations is a strategy that is based on total uncertainty.
As former Ambassador Özdem Sanberk points out, if Turkey stalls the internal reform process any further, this will not only pull it further away from the West but it will also cease to have any influence in the region and the Islamic world. Being a fully functioning democracy in line with EU standards will not increase Turkey's influence because it will be a 'model' for the Islamic world, but a country with a stable economy and functioning democratic institutions can be a player – not a functional ally- which in turn will affect how its seen in the region as well as in the transatlantic relationship.
Dr. Aybet points out that the second term of the AKP will probably be forced into further clarity with two outstanding foreign policy issues. The first is Iraq and the status of Kirkuk. As the US force withdrawal is seeing intensified violence, particularly in the North of the country, issues surrounding the status of Kirkuk will be revisited in Turkish foreign policy as well as its impact on domestic politics. Second, the road map for normalizing relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan is going to require a very delicate balancing act on the part of Turkey. So far Turkey has been accommodating both sides of the story – Azeri sensitivities over the border opening and commitment to the Swiss brokered road map which sees normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations without preconditions such as the resolution of the frozen Nagorno Karabakh conflict, although Turkey's interpretation of the agreement does not exclude preconditions. While Turkey's energy dependence on Azerbaijan and its desire to boost Azeri imports for domestic consumption play an important role, the normalization of relations with Armenia is also a priority and this requires a sophisticated fine tuning in foreign policy. However, populist rhetoric, which Prime Minister Erdogan has displayed not only in Davos but also in his recent visit to Baku, makes fine tuning much harder to accomplish.