Dilemmas, Diagnoses, visions

Return of an Empire?

Just a decade ago, Turkey might have been described as a “sick man”. 

Its key macroeconomic indices were unequivocal. In 2001 it had a public finance deficit of 23.9 per cent, its GDP had fallen by 5.7 per cent, and its public debt had reached 77.9 per cent of its GDP. Inflation had soared to the catastrophic level of 56.8 per cent. In this context, the scale of the progress it has made in the interim is impressive. This success has been achieved in a relatively short time, most notably since the leader of the Justice and Development Party, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, became prime minister in 2003. By 2011 the country’s debt had been slashed to 39.8 per cent of GDP, inflation suppressed to 6.5 per cent, and the deficit reduced to the level of -1.1 per cent, which is the stuff of dreams for most EU countries. Over the period 2001–2011, nominal GDP rose from 218 billion dollars to 585 billion dollars. The world looks on in astonishment, asking itself what the roots of Turkey’s expansion are, what potential obstacles it faces, and how long it can keep this up.
But Turkey has grabbed the attention of the political scientists not only in view of its economic successes; not for the first time in history, the immense significance of the country’s strategic situation has become clear. A synergy has come into play between two factors: the first was the demise of the Soviet Union, and the second the rise in importance of energy policy, including access to natural fuel assets. Turkey has no energy resources of its own, aside from water, and is dependent on imports for 70 per cent of its needs. Traditionally, the main supplier of its energy was the Soviet Union, and at present it is Russia. The situation changed with the collapse of the Soviet Empire, when Turkey’s new neighbours became the independent Georgia and Armenia, and Azerbaijan developed into a potential oil and gas power – potential, because as a country it had to find a new export route for its natural assets that did not require access to the Russian pipeline system. Its fellow former Soviet state Turkmenistan, which sits on the world’s biggest deposits of gas yet discovered, was in a similar situation. There is only one new route: through Georgia and Turkey. Iran, too, is interested in finding an alternative to the Ormuz straits. Likewise Iraq, whose largest deposits of crude oil lie in the north of the country close to the Turkish border, in the Kurdish autonomous region. If we add to this outline of the situation the fact that the completion of the Russian South Stream requires access to Turkish territorial waters, what we see emerging is a clear picture of Turkey as a key player in the future of the supply of energy to Europe and the Middle East, a country of immense significance for the key fuel producers in the region. Turkey can negotiate with all of them, name its terms, and at the same time secure for itself supplies of raw fuels at competitive rates.
As recently as in 2012, after three years of negotiations, Turkey agreed to the transit of 10 billion cubic metres of Azeri gas a year to the border with Bulgaria, and in addition, Baku undertook to sell Turkey up to six billion cubic metres annually until 2018, at prices that are non-negotiable until the end of that period. The nature of these agreements confirms the key, decisive position of Turkey for the opening up of a fourth route for the supply of gas to the European Union; the most ambitious variant of this concept provides for the import of some 60 billion cubic metres of gas. Turkey’s ability to secure the guarantee of additional supplies of gas at favourable prices is confirmation of its strong position in relation to Azerbaijan, which has no option but to ally itself with Ankara in view of its strategic energy and political interests (alliance in the conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh). Thus, we see a scenario emerging in which in the future Turkey will start to compete with the EU over imports of Azeri gas, exert an influence on the shape of the Southern Gas Corridor, and fight to maximise its profits from the transit of gas to the EU.
Energy policy has also become a groundbreaking factor in Turkey’s relations with the Kurds. This wound in its flesh (the Kurds account for around 19 per cent of its population) has ceased to bleed ever since Turkey proved itself the primary patron of the Kurdish emancipation movement within the federal Iraqi state.
The collapse of the USSR gave Turkey access to the Turkic-speaking republics of Central Asia, and also presented the opportunity for a new presence in the Balkans, where it has ambitions to play the role of stabiliser of the situation. Granted, its hasty recognition of Kosovo strained its relations with the most important state in the region, Serbia, but Ankara poured oil on troubled waters by waiving visas for Serbians, producing a free trade agreement, and making significant investment (e.g. the construction of the Novi Pazar-Tutin motorway). Turkish diplomacy manoeuvred adroitly between Belgrade and the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, initiating a series of tripartite meetings. It also helped to disarm the conflict with the Serbian Sandžak region, inhabited by a Muslim minority. And this is only a selection of its activities in this region.
Its involvement in the affairs of the Central Asian republics goes deeper still. Erdoğan was the first prime minister to visit Kyrgyzstan after the toppling of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. He offered the country assistance on its road to democratisation and in implementing economic reforms. Here again Turkey offered a visa-free traffic system, study grants, and the promise of investments, as Ankara has set its sights on presence not only in the spheres of business and education in Central Asia, but also in a political capacity. Significantly, it is proceeding with caution, proposing that the format of its currently bilateral meetings be expanded to invite the Russian prime minister, which is intended as a clear signal that Kyrgyz-Turkish cooperation will not threaten Moscow’s interests.
The intellectual foundation for Turkish policy is the concept of “strategic depth” as formulated by the incumbent foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. In his book of the same title he expounded on his theory of “geographical depth” and “historical depth”. Geographical depth is the emphasis that Turkey is at once a European and an Asian state, at once Middle Eastern and Caucasian. It is not only an old Mediterranean country. It is a central country whose identity cannot be reduced to a single geographic and cultural region. As such, it has to be a presence in many directions and conduct a multi-vector policy, and this demands a change in its geopolitical position. It is no longer a buffer state, but the centre of a new regional architecture. There is considerable accuracy in the analysts’ neologism “neo-Ottomanism” in this context. Historical depth is the challenge to take into account in the process of policy formation Turkey’s historical responsibility in respect of the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East. It also entails involvement in regional structures ranging from the European Union to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The idea behind this broad spectrum of activity is to enable Turkey to achieve, by 2023 – the centenary of the creation of the republic – the status of a global player.
This policy of strategic depth is to be founded on five pillars. The first is a balance between democracy and security; the second is “zero” problems with its neighbours. The third is to be the forging of relations with states in neighbouring zones of influence, and the others are a multi-vector foreign policy and more extensive use of soft power.
The greatest effort has been invested in the “zero problems with neighbours” pillar, through attempts to improve relations with Georgia, Armenia, Cyprus, Syria, and the Kurds. At present, we appear to be witnessing a profound crisis in Davutoğlu’s plans, however. The civil war in Syria, tensions in relations with Israel, the downfall of the Turkish-backed government of Muhammad Mursi in Egypt, the Cyprus dispute – all this has suddenly brought problems springing up around Turkey. In spite of having a huge army at its disposal, it has had to call on the US and NATO for military aid to guarantee its security.
Yet it can boast undeniable successes in its “soft power” diplomacy. This category of description of the potential and role of particular states has had a spectacular career trajectory. What is more, methods of measuring it have even been developed, two of which are worth mentioning here. The first is based on an index known as the Elcano Global Presence Index (IEPG), developed by the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid. A state’s global presence is measured in terms of its military, economic and soft presence, with the latter accounting for 45.95 per cent of its total score in statistical terms. This category is all about the importance of its image and reputation – fields observed include tourism, migration, sport, flows of cultural products (films, songs, television and radio programmes, and information – chiefly via the internet), technology, science, education, and official development aid (ODA).
The table for 2012 is headed by the US, Germany and Britain. Turkey is in 27th place (by comparison, Poland is 30th). What is telling, though, is the fact that Turkey’s soft power index has consistently been far better than its overall position in the ranking. In 2012, for instance, its soft power factors put it in 18th place among the 60 countries analysed, and in 2000 it was as high up as 12th.
The second assessment method is known as the Nation Brands Index. In this comparison, Turkey is 45th, but it has also qualified for a place on the interesting sub-list of “states of the future”. This is a group of the 15 countries with the best future outlooks, and Turkey is tenth among them. Note should also be made of Turkey’s rapid ascent up the table; as recently as in 2010 it was 55th. Among its highest-ranking brand-building factors were heritage and culture (19th place) and tourism (25th). An incidental detail of the breakdown of its tourism assets is that its beaches were ranked highest.
Turkey’s success in terms of its image is also reflected in hard economic data. The World Economic Forum included it in the group of 21 countries in transformation, and its position in the global competition index has seen vast improvement in recent years: in 2010/2011 it was 61st, in 2011/2012 59th, and in 2012/2013 43rd (out of 141 states analysed). It scored particularly highly in areas such as market size, level of local competition, and business start-up speed. The state of its infrastructure was also rated highly (in 51st position). I cite these statistical details because Turkey’s successes are slowly altering its position as a candidate for EU membership. In 2013 France lifted its veto on the key chapter of negotiations concerning regional policy. On her most recent visit to Ankara, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, declared her support for the continuation of negotiations, although she did not fail to stress her scepticism toward the idea of full membership. She could not, however, deny that Turkey is today one of Germany’s key non-EU trading partners, a country that holds the interest of German business. Proof of this is the organisation of a German-Turkish energy forum this year. Nevertheless, this does not alter the fact that the official negotiations, begun in 1987, are proceeding at a snail’s pace; Turkey was not awarded official candidate status until 1999 at the Helsinki summit. Of the 35 negotiation chapters, only 13 have been opened, and just one closed (science and scientific research). To date, at least 13 countries have declared their willingness to support Turkey in its bid for membership of European structures; the list of avowed opponents numbers five. Netting the world’s 16th-largest economy would undoubtedly boost the EU’s economic strength, and the slogan “to reclaim Byzantium” sounds attractive, but 1,500 kilometres of borders with the Middle East, the threat of terrorism, and the wars spilling over all around it certainly do nothing to improve its integration prospects. On the other hand, the presence of Turkey without regard for the civilisational challenge would alter the entire structure and hierarchy of power within the European Union. Some countries (Poland among them) believe this potential for change would be beneficial; others are deeply mistrustful. Time and the image of Turkey’s civilisation are arguments in favour of membership, but the successes of the republic in embarking on a course of development and dynamising its economy to a degree similar to that achieved in China have been such that Turkey is less and less focused on the EU as a political aim, seeing for itself a broader and more ambitious role than merely that of a member of the European community.