International Conference on Whither Turkey? : Dimensions of future Turkish domestic and foreign policy ; Berlin, June 4.-7., 1998 ; a brief summary / reporters: Wolfgang Aoydl and Mensur Akgün. - [Electronic ed.]. - [Istanbul, 1998]. - 11 Bl. = 27 Kb, Text
Electronic ed.: Bonn: FES Library, 1999

© Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung


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Some participants at Aspen Institute's and Friedrich Ebert Foundation's Berlin conference on Turko-Western relations may have read the meeting's motto with mixed feelings: "Whither Turkey? Dimensions of Future Turkish Domestic and Foreign Policy". After all, ten years ago nobody would have asked whether Turkey was moving anywhere. Turkey was taken always there, it was almost for granted - a staunch ally, securely anchored in the Western alliance, a European neighbor tightly tethered to a post just outside the European Union's front door.

But 75 years after its founding by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and ten years after the end of the Cold War, new prospects have opened up for Turkey, both at home and abroad. The country does, indeed, have the potential to sometime exert influence over a vast swath of territory stretching from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China; countries, incidentally, which are rich in resources of natural oil and gas.

On the domestic front, the struggle between Atatürk's secular and etatist ideology on the one side and political Islam on the other, has not yet been decided. Turkish society has still to make up its mind which road it will choose. Or as one Turkish participant put it: "We are living in interesting times."

It was the conference's aim to evaluate potential new dangers and opportunities arising from these circumstances, while taking into account Turkey's long-standing relationship with the West. Soon it became clear, however, that West in this case does not equal West. In particular, there were differences of perception and opinion between the US and the European Union regarding Turkey's future role.

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Turkey, the United States, and Europe

Strong criticism was directed by both American and Turkish participants against the European Union’s decision at the Luxembourg summit meeting in December 1997 when Ankara was excluded from a shortlist of potential candidates for EU membership. One retired American official charged that "the Europeans have no strategic sense and vision" of Turkey's potential influence.

A US government official even called Europe's Luxembourg decision "not a rejection, but something worse - indifference". In consequence, Turkey had become an irritant in relations between America and Europe. The US, however, needed Turkey, just as it needed "allies all over the world, we can't shoulder the burden alone, anymore."

Turkish speakers also lambasted the European Union's Luxembourg decision. A senior Turkish official charged that Europe had even failed "to fulfill its own obligations" and had consequentially "lost most of its credibility in Turkish eyes". A Turkish businessman put it slightly differently: "The European Union put a bullet in its own foot", he said. "The EU is now limping, with an erratic Turkey on its threshold, a loose cannon on deck, with a lot of gunpowder in it."

America's "strictly strategic view" of Turkey was summarized by an American academic. He pointed out that Washington saw the Turkish republic as a long-time, close NATO ally, as a "democratic and secular state in a region where they are rare" and as a major emerging market. It was also in the United States' interest to continue to have access to the airforce base at Incirlik and - possibly - other facilities on Turkish soil, if and when the need arose. Furthermore, America perceived Turkey as a factor with whose help it could wield influence in areas as disparate as the Balkans, Central Asia and the Caspian basin. Lastly, Turkey's budding relationship with Israel was viewed very positively by the US administration: "These new ties are seen as an absolute good."

A rather more skeptical opinion of Turkey's ability to make its weight felt in both the Caucasus and Central Asia was put forward by a Russian participant. He first expressed his surprise that Russia did not figure at all in official Turkish deliberations about her own geostrategical role. Then he went on to say that "Moscow needn't worry about Turkish influence in Central Asia, because she hasn't got the clout to enforce and guarantee a Pax Osmanica."

The American academic, however, acknowledged Europe’s domestic dimension of the Turkish problem. With more than two million Turks living in Germany alone, every decision concerning Turkey would have an immediate impact on the domestic scene. Additionally, a German politician pointed out, every EU member state's internal affairs sooner or later become European domestic policy. This, he said, helped to explain why Greece does have a built-in advantage over Turkey.

He also drew attention so some basic misconceptions which have governed relations between Turkey and the European Union over many years. "The Customs Union between Turkey and the EU was seen in Turkey as a first step to full membership; the Europeans however did not view it as a necessarily binding element for eventual membership". Europe, as a matter of fact, had always evaded the central question: Do they want Turkey inside their club or not.

His views were partially shared by a German academic. "We have deceived Turkey for years, we even withheld money which is due to her, and she still wants to be a member - isn't that a good sign?" That being said, there was, however, the problem of relinquishing sovereignty to Brussels and consequentially the question, how, when, under which circumstances and conditions and - indeed - if Turkey wanted to join the European Union, at all. A German official stressed that both NATO and the then European Economic Community had always viewed Turkey as a European state. "But now, I am waiting for a clear indication from Turkey's, how and where she sees her own role and her geopolitical environment."

A Turkish official maintained that his country "is willing to be part of the Western system, but at the same time, has to safeguard its individual rights". "There is a historical delay of 140 years", he said, "Turkey is still fighting for its nation-state process to be established." However, another Turkish official

demanded that "Turkey does not want further delays for its membership nor can she wait behind other candidates, most of which cannot compete with Turkey". Another senior government representative from Ankara stressed that the Custom Union agreement showed that Turkey is prepared to relinquish "some" sovereign rights to European political institutions.

A German participant, however, reminded the conference, that Turkey throughout its history always selectively chose what she wanted from the West. "For the first time ever, Turkey has to decide whether or not she really, totally and wholly wants to be part of Europe. She has to face the unwholesome question, whether or not she will eat all of the cake, and not just pick out the raisins." There had never been an open and serious discussion about European membership in Turkey. "Unfortunately, the Europeans have always facilitated the Turks in evading this discussion."

There remained, however, a rather bland and banal problem for the European Union to swallow, as a British speaker pointed out: "Turkey is simply too big, it's a fact of life. She is more difficult to absorb for the European Union than a small country like the Czech republic."

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The Cyprus Problem

A large part of the discussion was devoted to the Cyprus question, which has bearings both on American strategic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean cum Middle East and on the EU's enlargement process. It also became apparent that Turkey's future relationship with Europe and the West is intrinsically linked to developments on Cyprus. Or in the words of a German academic: "The EU policy towards Turkey is in a mess also due to the EU's approach towards the issue of Cyprus' accession. Turkey's EU policy is in a mess due to the self-inflicted 'all or nothing' approach towards the issue of EU membership."

He claimed that „the March 1995 decision of the EU had become a major stumbling bloc in the way of a solution to the Cyprus problem". In his opinion „Ankara and Denktash had overestimated the deterrent effect of their warning that they would start a process of closer integration of TRNC with Turkey if the EU should start accession negotiations with Cyprus." And the Turkish Government should realize that „the Cyprus Factor did not offer enough leverage to induce the EU to include Turkey in the split group of those countries with which the Union had declared its readiness to open membership negotiations."

The academic elaborated on a number of scenarios for Cyprus, none of which turned out to be very positive. They ranged from armed conflict between Greece and Turkey, in case Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles were actually deployed on the island, to a permanent division of Cyprus with the Cypriot republic joining the European Union and the Turkish occupied North being left in a sort of Ankara-controlled limbo. In all cases, however, "Turkey's entry into the EU would definitely become impossible".

The EU, the speaker maintained, had nobody to blame but themselves. "The EU was mistaken in the assumption of being able to use the negotiation perspective (of Cyprus with the European Union) as a catalytic element in bringing about a solution of the Cyprus problem. Hence, today, EU-Turkey relations are at an all-time low and a solution to the Cyprus problem seems to be farther away than ever. The security situation in the Eastern Mediterranean has considerably deteriorated and an outbreak of military violence between Greece and Turkey cannot be foreclosed."

There was only one reassuringly positive picture the speaker painted, but it depended on a great number of "ifs": If American intermediaries convinced both Cypriot communities that their common future would be better off if they agree to a formula for the solution of the Cyprus problem; if serious negotiation about a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation ensued, if limited Greek-Cypriot repatriation became possible; if a balanced security regime with outside guarantors would lead to an entry of the whole island into the EU, and if - simultaneously Europe would accept Turkey as a candidate, which in turn embarked upon a large-scale reform drive - only then could a negative outcome be averted. The speaker himself, however, conceded: "I fear, that this is less of a scenario but more of wishful thinking."

The academic's views sparked off a very frank and lively exchange, in the course of which some markedly differing points of view from Turkish participants were put forward. One of them, for instance, complained that there has never been an open discussion about the substance of the Cyprus problem in Turkey: "We are afraid of discussing it, because we think there are people in Ankara who take these decisions. I know nothing about the problem, because nobody tells me what the alternatives are."

These opinions, however, were refuted by Turkish officials who stressed that the Cyprus question was the only question on which a national consensus existed in Turkey. "There is no more room for flexibility" one Turkish participant claimed. He also pointed out that "you can't solve the Cyprus question without Turkish cooperation. We warned you against wrong moves before, we do it again. You will have to accept the consequences."

Another senior Turkish government representative even went as far as to suggest that the whole problem of responding to S-300 missiles now rested with the General Staff in Ankara and was not any longer dealt with the civilian administration. He and yet another government representative also pointed out that "all previous frameworks and parameters envisioned to solve the Cyprus problem have been eliminated" by the EU's decision to start membership talks with the Greek-Cypriot government in Nicosia.

These remarks prompted an immediate response by a German politician who reminded the participants of the link between the Cyprus problem and Turkish aspirations to EU membership. "If it is true that there really is not any more room for maneuver in Cyprus on the Turkish side, then we may very well conclude all discussions about Turkey's EU membership right now", he said. All countries except Turkey regarded the 1974 invasion as a contravention to international law. "There is no way to simply gloss over this fact."

A Turkish official, on the other hand, reminded that it was not the Turks but the EU did in fact gloss over the facts. He referred to the Commission’s opinion prepared in 1976 on the Greek request for membership and read the actual text which said „the examination of the Greek application for membership will not affect relations between the Community and Turkey nor the Turkish rights under the Association Agreement".

The discussion, however, led an American scholar to a rather surprising suggestion: "Why should one have a Cyprus solution, at all? Is it really the end of the world, to have the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus with Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus with Greece?"

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Turkey's Domestic Scene

A major precondition for Turkey playing a significant regional or even geostrategic role is, however, her internal situation. Therefore, a great deal of attention was focused on the Turkish domestic scene. There was an understanding on the Turkish side, that the 90’s were in fact the "most dried up period in domestic Turkish policies, ever" - as one politician put it. "No political party has any visions, not party emanates any motivation", he said.

A scholar from Istanbul took stock of the situation and noted a "collapse of centrist policy" in Turkey over the last years. This in turn led to a fragmentation of parties and electorate alike which eventually enabled the Islamist Refah Party to gain a majority of votes at the last general election in December 1995, he contended. Refah, however, refused to play by the rules, "forced the political boundaries and went overboard". As the secular parties failed to pull Refah back from the brink, the military had to step into the vacuum which had been created by the political party leaders.

The academic partly blamed the European Union for this development, saying that the Luxembourg decision exacerbated the negative points. He considered it a "very disturbing trend that the military has started to shape its own foreign policy which is seen exclusively through security prisms". The military, however, was neither prepared nor equipped for a hazardous trip into foreign affairs, since what lurked out there was "full of traps and a swamp". By deposing the Refah government, the military "may have overstepped an invisible line". Generally, the scholar said, one couldn't fail but notice a "process of de-democratization, a continuing process of „introvertedness", of nationalism bordering on xenophobia, a prevalence of the military". "We are going the opposite way", the academic reiterated, "unlike Bulgaria or even Iran."

Both German and American participants basically concurred with his view. One German scholar stressed that Turkey was "a potential regional power only, once she solves her internal problems, especially, since the impact of civil society on the country has almost been like nil, so far". An American ex-official agreed: "Turkey's major foreign policy problem is its domestic situation, i.e. the war in the South East".

An American academic also noted "internal contradictions", challenging the state authorities to define their version of "secularism": "American belief in secularism is different from Turkeys. Here, secularism has quite a different meaning, which is - at least partially - anti-religious." His views were supported by a German scholar who suggested that a clear separation of state and religion should at long last be executed in Turkey by abolishing the state appointed authority for religious affairs (Diyanet).

The divide between secular and religious forces was also highlighted by a Turkish speaker who warned against the polarisation between these two forces. "We must built bridges between them, maybe even to the extent that we promote the liberal, tolerant ideology of the Turkish Alevis among them."

Generally, American participants advised Turkish politicians and officials to pay more attention to the Turkish electorate which had always proved to be "very astute" in the past. Their cool-headed, sober behavior went back to the first elections after the 1980 military coup, a US official said, when it was thought one could buy them off with a choice between a "Yes Party" and a "Yes, sir Party". They observed that Turkey, in the near future might become a more difficult partner for the Western states.

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Pipelines and Economic Orientation

With respect to geopolitical importance of the oil-pipelines, which are said to carry Caspian oil to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, a Turkish scholar claimed that the strategic value of this highly politicized economic issue was exaggerated. He argued that nobody would allow Turkey or any other country to use any pipeline as an instrument of foreign policy. If the pipelines are ever realized, Turkey will be bound by her commitments in the special operation agreement, in addition to those in the European Energy Charter. He added „despite the support extended by the American administration, the pipelines can only be constructed when they are economically feasible."

According to the Turkish scholar the realization of Baku-Ceyhan pipeline would neither make Turkey an indispensable part of the Western world nor firmly connect her to the Caspian region. Turkey, he said, had not really discussed the true dimensions of the project. Instead Ankara chose to confront Russian which happens to be Turkey’s second trading partner. A new Straits regulation was promulgated by the Turkish Parliament on 11 January 1994 and the passage of large oil tankers made prohibitively expensive. Despite the recent changes, Turkey still seems to consider Russian Federation as her natural geopolitical competitor. The scholar argued that so far the new energy policy and the special relations developed with the „Turkic" world did not affect the basic premises of the Turkish foreign policy.

Some Turkish participants did not agree with this view. For them Baku-Ceyhan was an extremly important project. Another academic from Turkey pointed out the possibility of a future Russian-Turkish rapprochement and further reconciliation as the two countries excluded from the EU’s enlargement process. However, a Russian participant did not take this as a serious alternative for both countries. An American scholar also supported the Russian assessment.

With respect to on Turkey’s future economic orientation, a German academic argued that all the links connecting Turkey to various regional settings were complementary, „not alternatives". He enumerated OECD, EU, Customs Union, Energy Charter Treaty, ECO, BSEC as some of those links and asserted that the Western links would stay for the foreseeable future more intense than the others. But yet Turkey had to overcome some of her basic economic problems in order to be further integrated to the Western economic sphere. The academic claimed that the inflation rate was certainly the major problem because it deterred investors and despite the considerable amount of direct foreign investment in Turkey, the potentials were not exploited. He maintained that „further international interdependence is the asset on which the Turkish economy can count and from which it will benefit."

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Suggestions and the Next Steps

Considering that the discussions during the conference were remarkably and gratefully frank, there appeared to be a rather surprising general agreement: Let things between Turkey and Europe cool off, put everything into perspective. There was a fairly provocative statement by a German academic who maintained that the European Union after their Luxembourg decision simply "got rid of the Turkish problem and can even be sure that Turkey remains Western oriented and a member of NATO." Even if Turkey would not join the EU, "things would not become unmanageable" and "transatlantic relations would never be seriously damaged because they are ruled by overriding interests". He went on to suggest that Turkish EU membership should be taken off the agenda "for a year or two" while at the same time both the customs union and the association agreement should be broadened.

His view was largely echoed by an American official who pointed out that Turkey still had no real alternative to the West. "Neither has there been a change in Turkey's orientation, nor will there be. The assumption that Turkey could be lost to the West was but a canard by (former Prime Minister Tansu) Ciller. But this is not a God-given presumption."

A note of caution was also sounded by a Brussels based politician. In his opinion, the EU's enlargement process "is just not realistic, at all". The Union was incapable to digest new members, he said. Even in most fortuitous circumstances one would have to reckon with 20 to 30 years for the first two batches of candidates to join. "In this context, the debate about Turkish membership becomes ridiculous. Instead, Europe should rather start to think about alternatives for Turkey."

Time and patience was also of the essence in the Turkish businessman's remarks. "We knocked at the door of your tennis club and asked to take part in the tournament. True, I am the first to admit that we are not properly dressed for a tennis match. But to turn away an enthusiastic sportsman from entering the tournament is a shortsighted decision, especially if the applicant is your very close neighbor next door. An intelligent decision would be to request from him to be patient, to change from jeans into tennis shorts, from boots into rubber shoes, and eventually get his economy in order so that he can afford to buy a tennis racket."

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | November 1999