A ‘shift of axis’ by Turkey?

By Rahimullah Yusufzai
A wide, sometimes bitter, public debate has been going in Turkey about the country’s foreign policy since the death of nine unarmed people in the May 31 attack by Israeli army commandoes on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which was part of the Gaza-bound Freedom Flotilla in international waters. The questions being asked are whether Ankara is turning its back on the West and drawing closer to the East. This is described as a “shift of axis” and there is even talk of Turkey joining a Eurasian Union along with Russia, China and other regional countries, or finding its moorings as leader of an Islamic bloc in the Middle East and Central Asia.

The debate is raging in the media and at public forums. The issue is intensely being discussed not only in Ankara and Istanbul, but also in far-off places such as Erzurum in north-eastern Anatolia that one was able to visit this week, in connection with the second Turkey World Trade Bridge meeting organised by the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON). In fact, the TUSKON initiative too is part of a resurgent Turkey’s efforts to put on display it’s industrial and other products and clinch mutually beneficial trade and investment deals with business and investors groups all over the world.

More than 2,200 businesspersons from 135 countries had registered to attend TUSKON’s summit and interact with a large number of their Turkish counterparts in Istanbul and in several provincial capitals. It was not only a grand exhibition of Turkey’s progress in all walks of life, but also an opportunity to explain the Turkish values of trustworthiness and hospitality.

The ruling A K Parti (Justice and Development Party) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its supporters in the media and civil society have been deriding as “black propaganda” all this talk about Turkey abandoning the West and turning its face to the East. Accusations have been made against strong lobbies in the West of starting a campaign against Turkey after the May 31 incident and punishing the A K Parti government for condemning Israel for the raid on the aid ship Mavi Marmara and demanding an international investigation into the Israeli aggression against civilian peace volunteers trying to defy the blockade of Gaza.

In the context of Turkish politics, those sympathising with AK Parti and many independent media commentators believe the pro-Israel and pro-West lobbies have recruited anti-AK Parti and anti-Erdogan forces and neo-nationalist groups to run this propaganda campaign based on lies and slander. Their argument is that, despite repeated rebuffs, Turkey under the leadership of AK Parti is still committed to becoming a member of the European Union, and to this end, far-reaching reforms have been carried out on a scale never seen before.

This “black propaganda” campaign appears multi-pronged. As AK Parti has Islamic roots, it is accused of having a hidden agenda of reshaping Turkey’s traditional pro-West foreign policy into one based on Islamism. It is charged with pursuing a neo-Ottamanist foreign agenda and following a neo-caliphate policy. AK Parti critics believe Erodagan and his colleagues are gradually abandoning the principles of secularism defined by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and attempting to Islamise Turkish society. The Ergenekon case–in which members of a clandestine terrorist organisation including serving and retired military officials, businessmen and media professionals have been accused of conspiring to overthrow the AK Parti government–has contributed to the tension between the Islamic-rooted ruling party and the secular opposition and made the “black propaganda” debate even more bitter.

Dozens of Ergenekon members are currently in jail pending trial, and their fate will have a profound impact on the course of Turkish politics. The government is keen to punish those who plotted to undermine AK Parti and pave the way for a military takeover by assassinating prominent figures, mostly non-Muslims, to create chaos and bring the ruling party under internal and external pressure.

The judgement by the Constitutional Court examining a series of AK Parti-sponsored constitutional amendments passed by parliament could also impact the direction of Turkish politics. The judiciary is monopolised by the secular elite that have often been accused of conniving with the powerful military in the past to keep in check the democratic forces, particularly the Islamic-oriented parties. However, the situation has changed and most Turks want parliament to be supreme, instead of remaining under the tutelage of the judiciary and the military.

AK Parti’s impressive electoral performance in the last two general elections and its formidable democratic strength have enabled it to carry out the far-reaching reforms needed to make Turkey a member of the EU, and, as its confidence grew, to pursue constitutional amendments in parliament to strengthen democracy and reduce the authority of non-democratic forces.

Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu are the architect of Turkey’s forceful new role in world affairs. The latter, who took up his job a year ago, has been trying to build and consolidate Turkey’s growing reputation as an increasingly important regional and global player.

Though the present crisis in Turkey’s relations with Israel gave an impetus to its efforts to pursue an independent course in its foreign policy, unencumbered by US demands, this secular and moderate Islamic country has long presented itself as a bridge between the East and the West. Its membership of Nato and its close ties with the US placed it in a unique position to bridge the widening gulf between the West and the Islamic world. However, this hasn’t happened, primarily due to the unilateral US policy of using force to settle disputes and its unconditional support for Israel despite that country’s blatant violation of international laws and occupation of Palestinian territories.

Membership of Nato, friendship with the US and old ties to Israel should have enabled Turkey to succeed in its mission of becoming an EU member. These factors didn’t help, and Turkey’s dream of EU membership appears unlikely in the near future. In fact, recent events could have reduced Turkey’s chances of attaining EU membership.

One has to praise Ankara’s perseverance in not giving up effort to join the EU. Vocal groups in Turkey have voiced suspicions about the EU, but the economic benefits the country could obtain through EU membership have far outweighed other considerations and prompted all state institutions to pursue this goal. Rather, the AK Parti government is being advised by well-wishers to pursue Turkey’s EU bid with stronger emphasis to counter the “black propaganda” against it.

Apart from Turkey’s feud with Israel and the obvious US uneasiness over Ankara’s strong criticism of Tel Aviv’s atrocities against the Palestinians, another issue that has raised alarm in the West concerns Turkey’s friendly relations with Iran. Turkey has been pragmatic in its approach to Iran, a neighbour and a major supplier of its energy needs. It has opposed economic sanctions against Iran and, together with Brazil, unsuccessfully proposed a peaceful solution of the dispute concerning Tehran’s nuclear programme. This has certainly increased mistrust in the relations between Turkey and the West.

Erdogan’s references to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as “my brother,” his defence of Hamas and his forceful pleading of the case of Gaza’s 1.5 million blockaded Palestinians cannot endear him to Western powers, even though the pursuit of such causes have made him a hero in the Arab and Islamic world. However, the fact remains that Erdogan and Turkey aren’t about to jump ship and say goodbye to the West.

Some of the actions of Erdogan and AK Parti are also geared to gaining advantage in Turkish politics by responding to popular public demands. Henceforth, Turkey will definitely pursue a more independent foreign policy that could be annoying for the US and the West. But it will neither give up its bid for EU membership nor undertake the so-called “shift of axis.”

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahimyusufzai@yahoo.com


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