Friday, October 30, 2009

Ankara's Road to Damascus

I have a new piece up on the Christian Science Monitor about how Turkey's foreign policy ambitions are forcing it to confront some of the "domestic" problems that for decades have been no go areas for the country. Without solving these issues (Kurdish, Armenian and Cyprus problems, in particular), Ankara's ability to achieve many of its foreign policy goals in the region could be severely limited.

From the article:
Stymied by European resistance to its bid for EU membership, Turkey's government has forcefully realigned the country's foreign policy over the past few years. Led by the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), it has sought to engage more with the surrounding region and to establish itself as a neighborhood soft-power broker.

But observers say that Ankara's foreign policy ambitions are tied up in first resolving what were, until recently, taboo issues – particularly the Armenian, Kurdish, and Cypriot problems – that have cast a heavy shadow over Turkey's domestic politics for the past few decades.

"Turkey wants to play internationally, and to play internationally it has to put [its] house in order," says Henri Barkey, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"With their strong military and economy, they have the hard power, but what they are trying to do now is build up their soft power. Turkey is lecturing other countries, like Israel and the Chinese, about human rights issues, and here you have a country where the Kurdish language is illegal. That is absurd," he says.

Ankara has been making moves on these issues. On Oct. 10, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu signed a deal in Switzerland that paves the way for restoring diplomatic ties with Armenia and for the two countries to review their mutually contested history. Four days later, Turkey hosted Armenian President Serge Sarkizian for another round of "football diplomacy" – a World Cup qualifying match between the Turkish and Armenian national teams.

The same day, Mr. Davutoglu was in Syria, signing yet another important deal, this one abolishing visa requirements between two powers that only a decade ago were on the verge of war after Ankara accused Damascus of supporting the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Turkish leaders have also made clear their intent to soon introduce a broad democratization initiative to deal with the Kurdish issue. And Turkey has given its support to reunification talks between the Greek and Turkish governments of divided Cyprus.

The Turkish government's moves are being enabled, on the one hand, by a gradual change in society and political life that has made it easier to talk about these issues.

"Until very recently, the public had been conditioned to accept things from the perspective of statism, nationalism, and chauvinism," says Dogu Ergil, a professor at Ankara University. "But the dominance of the state over issues and making them taboo and undebatable is fading."

Ankara also appears to be driven by a realization that these taboos were hurting Turkey's ability to make an impact abroad. "That position was limiting.... Until recently, Turkish foreign policy was mostly reactive, it didn't take any initiatives, and it didn't do things beyond its own borders," says Mr. Barkey.
You can read the whole piece here.

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