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Which way will Turkey turn, East or West?

Turkey makes no bones about its aspirations to act as a bridge between East and West, but a string of recent events have left the West wondering how stable any such construction might be.

Turkey with flag on a map

Turkey is the geographic bridge between Europe and Asia

The problems began earlier this year when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed out of a panel discussion in Davos over the Israeli offensive in Gaza. Since then Israeli-Turkish relations, traditionally very strong, have been on a steady downward curve which culminated in Ankara excluding Israel from a recent NATO exercise.

Then this week, ahead of a two-day visit to Iran, Erdogan dismissed Western worries over Teheran's controversial nuclear program as 'gossip' and accused the perpetrators of hypocrisy.

"Although Iran doesn't have a weapon, those who say Iran shouldn't have them are those countries which do," Erdogan told Britain's Guardian newspaper.

His comments were welcomed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called on his neighbor to strengthen existing bi-lateral ties. "Iran-Turkey cooperation would benefit both countries, the region and the whole world," state broadcaster IRIB quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.

Good local relations

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Ahmadinejad gave Erdogan a warm welcome to Iran

But is that the kind of partnerhsip into which Erdogan wishes to enter? Guelay Kizilocak, deputy chairwoman of Germany's Center for Studies on Turkey, says the picture is much broader.

"Turkey wants to have its say in the Middle East," she told Deutsche Welle. "And in order to help shape the region, it wants to improve relations with all those countries in it."

Indeed, Ankara's 'zero problems with neighbors' policy of the past few years has resulted in the abolition of visa requirements for Syria, a breakthrough in the country's difficult relations with Armenia and closer ties with Teheran.

"Iran is part of the overall package," Kizilocak stressed. "It is an important country in the region, so if Turkey wants relations with Syria and Iraq, it has to have them with Iran as well."

Protecting its own interests

Cemal Karakas, a Turkey expert with the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt says Ankara has been trying to enhance its profile in the Middle East for some time.

"Turkey is no longer a neutral observer in the region, sticking rigidly to the NATO doctrine," he told Deutsche Welle. "It's foreign policy is more active and has Turkey's interests at heart."

And one of those is fuel. Turkey is a poor country and relies heavily not only on Azerbaijan but Iran for energy supplies.

A man rides a camel while unwanted gas byproducts are burned off at a petrochemical factory in the background in the desert

Turkey has one eye on Iran's gas

In pursuing it own interests, however, Turkey does not necessarily walk in step with the West, and thereby potentially damages its chances as occident - orient go-between. But Karakas isn't convinced that Turkey is up to the job of mediator.

"A country can only propagate peace to the outside world if it is peaceful itself," he said with reference to Turkey's treatment of Kurds and religious minorities. "There has been progress, but not enough to meet EU standards."

Keeping options open

The question many commentators are asking is whether, in light of recent gestures to the East, Turkey still wants a place in Brussels. Kizilocak says it does, but says the euphoria Turks once felt at the prospect of membership has been quelled by the reality that the EU is keeping them at arms length.

As it stands, the earliest they could join is 2015, but in terms of politics that is a long way off, and it is conceivable that by then, interest will have waned altogether.

An EU flag with Turkish flag in the middle

Will there ever be a gold star for Turkey?

Karakas says that even if Brussels did decide to let Ankara in, it would not open the door as wide as it has to other members. "The EU has outlined a series of protection clauses," he said, citing conditions which would limit the free movement of people and restrict financial support for farmers.

"These things are making their way into the debate and people are starting to wonder why they should make the effort to take the necessary steps it they are not going to be treated the same as other countries."

So although Turkey will continue with its accession negotiations, it is realistic enough not to put all its eggs in the European basket. It is actively pursuing other options, a third path, as Karakas puts it. And that might ultimately see it drawn deeper into the Middle East fold or holding hands with fuel-rich Russia.

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge

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