Friday, July 30, 2010

Turkey Flying High

The Wall Street Journal's Turkey correspondent, Marc Champion, has another great article out, this time taking a look at the spectacular recent growth of Turkish Airlines (THY) and how that is both mirroring and working hand-in-hand with Turkey's rising political and economic ambitions.

Though no longer fully state-owned, THY is very much being used as a tool of state policy, with flights to strategic new destinations (mostly in economic terms) all over the world being added almost at the same time as the government makes diplomatic and trade overtures in those same places.

I was especially struck by how some of the industry concerns and criticisms of the airline's rapid growth mirrored some of the concerns being aired about Turkey's rapidly evolving foreign policy. From Champion's piece:
Meanwhile, there's some discreet grumbling among THY's Star Alliance partners about the airline's expansion and pricing strategy.

"Turkish seems to be the new Emirates—no-one wants to be in an alliance with Emirates because there is no room for a partner, the aim is to connect everything via Dubai," said an aviation official, who declined to be named. That could mean trouble for the future, the official said….

….There are concerns, too, about the speed of Turkish Airlines' growth. The crash of a Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 as it approached Amsterdam airport last year, killing nine, revived memories of the airline's historically spotty safety record before it bought one of the world's newest fleets. Meanwhile, when fog blocked Ataturk Airport in November, the airport's systems crumbled. Just a few transit-desk computer terminals were available to change the flights of thousands of stranded passengers after passenger-information screens froze. At one point, passengers stormed over the transit desk and began pounding on the door of the office where frightened ground staff had retreated.
Indeed, much of the criticism being aimed at Turkish foreign policy these days -- particularly by Ankara's traditional Western allies -- is that it is less consultative and increasingly self-centered. Inside Turkey, meanwhile, there are concerns that Ankara has too many balls up in the air on the foreign policy front without sufficient resources to keep those balls from crashing to the ground. Launching initiatives and opening up embassies and consulates all over the world (just like adding flight destinations) is a great idea, but not if you don't have sufficiently trained personnel to follow through on those initiatives or meaningfully staff those postings (or properly fly the airplanes).

Those interested in charting the course of Turkish foreign policy in the coming years, then, might also want to start keeping their eye on how Turkish Airlines does and where it goes. It could tell a lot.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Kurdish Problem, Again

The signals coming out of Turkey's predominantly-Kurdish southeast region and from along the border with Iraq are not comforting. In recent weeks, Turkish soldiers are being on an almost daily basis in attacks by the resurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkey's state-run news agency happily reports that 46 PKK members have been killed in the past month, failing to mention that most of them are also young Turkish citizens whose bodies will be returned home to be buried and mourned. Turkish jets have been bombing targets in Northern Iraq with increasing regularity, while Today's Zaman reports that military checkpoints have now been reintroduced in the southeast and that a previously-abandoned ban on herders taking their flocks up to the region's high plateaus has also been reinstated.

It seems like the hope and good will created by the Turkish government's "democratic opening," a reform initiative announced last summer that's mostly designed to deal with the decades-old Kurdish problem, has very quickly evaporated. Cengiz Candar, an astute analyst whose warnings are worth listening to, writes in a column in today's Hurriyet Daily News:
The democratic initiative is not going anywhere. It has come to a halt, deviated even. We have an endless number of signs showing that we are back to the square one....
....The pre-1990 conditions settle in the Southeast again. We are going back to a state in which people are fed up with check points and barricades.
The full column (worth reading, though poorly translated) is here.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fixing One Leak, Springing Another

While reporting for my recent Eurasianet story about the current strained state of Turkey-U.S. relations, one Washington analyst told me he believes that the tension between Turkey and Israel has now seeped into the relationship between Ankara and Washington.

Well, now it appears that the Turkish-Israeli tensions has also seeped into Israel's internal politics. The first attempt at holding a high-level gathering between Turkish and Israeli officials since last month's Gaza flotilla raid -- a (no longer) secret meeting in Brussels yesterday between the Turkish Foreign Minister and Israel's Minister of Trade -- has led to controversy in Israel, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman loudly complaining that he was cut out of the loop. More on the details here and here, plus some good analysis by Judah Grunstein here.

A few thoughts about this latest development on the Turkey-Israel front. One is that, among the many other things that it has brought into sharp relief, the Mavi Marmara incident has also made clear what a rickety contraption the Netanyahu government is. At a time of deep crisis with what used to be one of its most important allies, Israel not only can't utilize its Foreign Minister for problem solving, but actually has to keep him and his ministry in the dark about what it's doing to fix the problem. Officials in Ankara have previously said that they don't believe they can work with this current Israeli administration, and it's hard to see how this latest development will give them more confidence in Bibi and company.

Two, although the meeting in Brussels was a positive step, the fact remains that there is no serious high-level contact between Turkey and Israel. This was already true before the flotilla incident (and was likely one of the main factors that contributed to the tragedy that ensued) and has only gotten worse since. Before the incident, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who serves as a stand-in foreign minister in situations where Lieberman is persona non grata, had a good rapport with the Turks. Post incident, the Turkey portfolio is now in the hands of Minister of Trade Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who also has a good rapport with Ankara but is not the diplomatic heavyweight that the current crisis requires.

Finally, the "secret" meeting in Brussels is an indication of really just how fragile the Turkish-Israeli relationship is right now. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the other day again offered up Turkey as a mediator between Syria and Israel, but the truth is that it's looking more and more like it's Turkey and Israel that could use some mediation help. We've gone from Turkey holding secret talks between Israel and Syria to Turkey and Israel being reduced to holding secret talks between themselves. Not good.

The road forward, meanwhile, looks problematic. Turkey had previously pegged any improvement in its relations with Israel to an improvement in the Gaza situation. Post flotilla, Turkey is now conditioning any normalization in the relations on Israel also making an official apology, compensating the families of the victims and allowing for an international inquiry. As one friend put it here, it's gone from Gaza to Gaza "plus on your knees." Hard to see Israel meeting all of those conditions.

A Turkish official told me that Ankara has made clear to Israel that there's a defined "road map" for normalizing relations. Considering the success that other recent "road maps" have had in the region, improving Turkish-Israeli relations could be a lengthy process.