The Middle East is more important to Turkey's economic and security interests than Europe is, says a new study. But analysts say Turkey's approach to domestic challenges could undermine the recent gains made abroad.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been making overtures to the Arab World
Speaking to a packed house at Cairo's Opera House recently, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan drew standing ovations from the crowd in attendance: the leader of one of the largest Muslim-majority democracies was welcomed as the personification of one model of governance that holds appeal to many in a region in flux.
But from observers around the world, Erdogan's remarks drew a mixture of hope and concern. There were those who were encouraged by the warm feedback Erdogan received with his comments on the importance of popular participation. Others worried that his caustic denunciations of Israel heralded not just a further decline in Turkish-Israeli relations, but in the overall security of the region.
Against the backdrop of a Turkish foreign policy that appears more assertive than any time in recent memory, newly-released statistics about the views of the Turkish public are raising questions about the future of some of Turkey's longest-held alliances.
According to a study conducted by the German Marshall Fund in May and June of this year, over 40 percent of Turks find the Middle East to be more important to their country's economic and security interests than Europe, which just one-third of Turks found to be most important. And while there was a significant increase over last year, still less than half of the Turkish public thinks membership in the European Union would be a good thing for Turkey.
Turned away, or pushed away?
Six years after the start of Turkey's accession talks with the EU, the possibility of Turkey gaining full member status technically remains valid, but after a series of "frozen chapters" - EU parlance for sticking points - few are optimistic for the short term.
"The Turkish public hears arguments against its succession, but the factors mentioned are out of Turkey's control," Ozgur Unluhisarcikli of the German Marshall Fund told Deutsche Welle. Namely, the Turkish population hears European leaders voice concerns such as the large size of Turkey's population; the idea that it is not "culturally European," or that its economy is not developed enough.
"There is a tendency in Turkish society to believe that the Europeans are not telling us the truth. That once we meet these criteria, they will create new criteria for us to meet. It's like chasing a rainbow," he said.
Many in Turkey perceive accession talks to have stopped indefinitely, and this has negative consequences for the progress of Turkey's own democratization, according to Senem Aydin Duzgit, an Assistant Professor at Bilgi University Istanbul.
Will it ever happen?
"The EU effectively has no power over Turkish democracy right now, because there is no conditionality. But some people still look up to the EU, seeing it, increasingly, as the only option left to anchor the internal democratization of the country, which is going in a more negative direction than its foreign policy."
Perhaps the most worrisome aspects of Turkey's delays with democratization concern the Kurds - an ethnic minority group in Turkey with a population of about 14 million, comprising around one-fifth of Turkey's overall population. Like the Kurdish populations in neighboring countries, Turkish Kurds have long been denied access to many of the civil and political rights that the ethnic majority enjoys.
The Turkish government has made attempts in recent years, in fits and starts, to address these inequalities, but many Kurds feel progress has been insufficient. Meanwhile, violence in Kurdish areas has eroded support among the Turkish majority for expanded Kurdish rights: since 1984, a subset of the Kurdish population across Turkey and Iraq has engaged in an armed insurgency, loosely organized under the flag of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which Turkey and others have declared a terrorist organization.
Turkey's current government, lead by Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) has done more than any previous government to resolve this tension, says Joost Lagendijk, a Senior Adviser at the Istanbul Policy Center. In a speech in May of 2009, Turkish President Abdullah Gul named the Kurdish issue Turkey's most important problem, and laid out a package of reforms known as the "Democratic Opening."
But in a recent report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) notes that the pace of political reform has been dangerously slow. Since Turkey's latest elections, in June, more than 110 people have died in violence stemming from hostilities between the PKK and the Turkish government.
"I see a very ironic picture," says Duzgit. "On the one hand, Erdogan is telling Syrians and others that he supports them in toppling their governments, and establishing new systems. But on the other hand, Turkey has its own internal fighting happening. But in that 'internal fighting,' Turkey is 'defending nationalist ground.'" Because of nationalist constituencies within Turkey's electorate, however, Duzgit sees Erdogan's practical options as limited.
There is added cause for concern as the situation in Syria deteriorates and US troops withdraw from Iraq - two areas that have historically contributed to Kurdish instability within Turkey. The ICG has called on Turkey to "resolve the principal domestic roots of its most urgent and dangerous problem."
Deterioration with Israel
Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have voiced alarm over the rapid decline in relations between Turkey and Israel, which some believe will actually limit Turkey's ability to navigate the changing landscape of the Arab Spring.
"Turkey's interest does not lie in continuing to bash Israel. Because it wants to be a player in the Middle East; it wants to be a mediator. And Israel is at the core of many problems in the Middle East," Lagendijk said.
Turkey's Israel bashing is not going down well with the United States
Though the recent rhetoric has raised Erdogan's stock on the Arab Street, Lagendijk sees it endangering a key relationship: that with the United States. "Erdogan's rhetoric makes life more difficult for Obama, and also for Turkey, in the US Congress, when the perception is that Turkey is bashing Israel all the time," he said.
And though anti-Israel currents in the Middle East have allowed Erdogan a recent spike in populist appeal, Lagendijk sees a longer-term trend in what the region values about Turkey: the degree to which it is engaged with the West.
"Even though the prime minister sometimes makes aggressive speeches, he will never even imply that Turkey will turn its back on the West and look for its future in the Middle East. One reason is precisely this: because Turkey is negotiating with the EU; that engagement with the West is one of the things that makes it so appealing to the Middle East."
Some analysts think the enthusiasm for the Middle East reflected in the survey depict the emotions of a unique moment in time more than a larger trend. There is a lot of excitement in Turkey about the future of the Middle East, and the prospects of new ties where relations have been limited for decades, said Lagendijk.
"Contrast that with the EU, which has had very bad press for the last few years, basically because talks about Turkey's EU membership are not going anywhere."
Turkey was the target of $4.76 billion (3.54 billion euros) of foreign direct investment (FDI) from Europe in 2010, according to Turkish government statistics. This represents more than three-quarters of the total FDI Turkey receives. Trade between the two is likewise essential to Turkey's overall economy, and the volume of Turkey's trade with the EU is still more than twice what it trades with the Middle East, says Unluhisarcikli. "The European Union is by far the most important actor for the Turkish economy," he said.
In addition to the substantially larger amount of economic activity Turkey has with the EU, analysts note the importance of the type of trade between the two. Turkey aspires to be a high-technology trading power, however up to now, the majority of Turkey's trade with the Middle East has been in lower-tech goods. Analysts say while the trade is helpful to Turkey's bottom line, it doesn't necessarily serve Turkey's long-term strategic interests as well as the trade with the EU does.
"To put it bluntly, the future of the Turkish economy does not lie in exporting cookies to Iran, or Syria," said Lagendijk.
Author: Eve Bower
Editor: Rob Mudge