Monday, September 27, 2010

"Zero Problems, Maximum Trade"

There has been a lot of discussion regarding the political motivations behind Turkey's ambitious foreign policy moves, but what about the economic angle? The evolution of the mantra governing Ankara's new foreign policy from "Zero Problems With Neighbors" to "Zero Problems, Maximum Trade" seems to say quite a bit about what role economics and the pursuit of economic growth have to do with Turkey's changing approach to many of its neighbors.

I took a look at the economic underpinnings of Turkey's foreign policy in a recent article for Institutional Investor magazine. A pdf version of the article can be read here.

Today's Zaman, meanwhile, report today about another Turkish initiative that brings together Ankara's economic and political ambitions meet: the creation of a free-trade zone with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The article can be found here.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mass Politics

I have an article and photo essay up on the Eurasianet website about yesterday's historic mass at the Akdamar island Armenian church in eastern Turkey's Lake Van. It was the first time a mass had been held in the church in 95 years and the event saw the largest number of Armenians in the Van area since 1915, when they were either driven or wiped out by the Ottoman authorities.

Although the event was seen by some as an elaborate public relations effort on behalf of the Turkish government and there was some controversy over the Turkish authorities failure to place a cross on the church's roof (its name in Armenian is, after all, "Church of the Holy Cross"), I still think the event was a significant one, in terms of getting Turks to come to terms with the fact that their country actually has an Armenian history and that Armenians can stake a claim (in historical and cultural terms) to parts of Turkey.

From my article:
As an Armenian growing up in Basra, Iraq, Vanuhi Ohannesian was always hearing about eastern Turkey’s Lake Van region, her grandparents’ birthplace and the place after which she is named.

Ohannesian’s grandparents were forced to leave the lakeside city of Van in 1915, when the Ottoman authorities drove out the region’s ethnic Armenians; her father was born during the family’s trek from Van to safety in Iraq.

“My father died two years ago and was always telling me to come to Van. He said this was our motherland,” said 68-year-old Ohannesian, who today lives in Los Angeles.

Some 95 years after her grandparents’ flight from Turkey, Ohannesian finds herself standing beside one of the Armenians’ most sacred sites, the 1,089-year-old church on Lake Van’s Akdamar Island. Closed since 1915, the island church was restored by the Turkish authorities between 2005 and 2007 and reopened as a museum.

On September 19, the authorities allowed a historic mass to be held on Akdamar, an event that drew several thousand visitors to the island throughout the day, including many Armenians from abroad, such as Ohannesian, who had never been to Turkey before.

“I never believed I would be coming here,” said Ohannesian, standing on a small hill that overlooks the church and holding a small bottle filled with lake water which she plans to bring back to Los Angeles and place at her father’s grave. “We believed people didn’t change, that if they did something once, they would do it again....”

....Cengiz Aktar, director of the European Studies Department at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, says the event may have been symbolic, but it also represents a deeper, more encouraging dynamic.

“It’s part of a slow but steady process of normalization regarding the non-Muslim minorities in Turkey and the glorious past of coexistence of religions in this land that was shattered by the emergence of the nation state,” said Aktar, who is active in civil society Turkish-Armenian reconciliation efforts.

“At the end of the day, there is a reality that is unearthed,” he continued. “This is what should prevail. At the end of the day, we are rediscovering the Armenian past in this region.”
You can find the full article here, and the accompanying photoessay here.

(photo: view of the Akdamar church in Lake Van, Turkey, taken in 2006. Photo by Yigal Schleifer)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Referendum Talk

I was on Chicago Public Radio's "Worldview" program talking about the Sept. 12 referendum in Turkey and the constitutional reform package that Turkish voters passed today. You can hear the interview, which also covers a number of other related issues, here.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

From Tehran to Jerusalem

In recent months, the two most glaring trouble spots for Turkish foreign policy have been relations with Israel and Iran. In the case of Israel, it's been the deterioration in relations that has caused trouble for Turkey, while in the case of Iran it's been the improvement in relations that has proved problematic (at least in terms of relations with western allies). The International Crisis Group has a new report out that takes a clear-eyed look at Ankara's relations with Israel and Iran and how the changes in those relations are fueling questions about in which direction Ankara is heading. Like other ICG reports, it also offers some very practical suggestions for everyone concerned about how to take things forward. From the report:
Damage to Turkey’s relations with Israel and suspicions in Western capitals about its relationship with Iran have dealt setbacks to Ankara’s “zero-problem” foreign policy. At the same time, there have been many misconceptions about Turkey’s new engagement in the Middle East, which aims to build regional peace and prosperity. From a Turkish perspective, Israel and Iran issues have separate dynamics and involve more collaboration and shared goals with Western partners than is usually acknowledged. Ankara’s share of the blame for the falling out with Western friends and Israel has been exaggerated, but there are problems in the government’s formulation and presentation of its foreign policy. These include short-sightedness, heated rhetoric, over-reach and distraction from Turkey’s core conflict-resolution challenges in its immediate neigh bourhood, including a Cyprus settlement, normalisation with Armenia, resolution of new Kurdish tensions and commitment to EU convergence....

....Turkey has changed greatly over the past two decades, becoming richer and more self-confident, no longer dependent on Washington or Brussels alone. While Ankara should not exaggerate its own importance or capacities, its Western partners should recognise its genuine significance in its region and beyond and spend more time talking to it quietly, constructively and at high-levels. To this end, Washington and Ankara in particular might usefully consider establishing new mechanisms for regular dialogue and better coordination on the full range of their shared foreign policy interests, including in the Middle East. Moreover, while Turkey remains committed to its EU path, France and Germany must keep its membership perspectives credible, if all are to take maximum advantage of their shared Middle East goals. These commonalities remain a strong basis for cooperating to increase stability and diminish conflicts in the region.
You can find a link to the full report here.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Kurdish Kurdish Opening

I've been on the road lately, so I'm just now catching up on current developments. One article that jumped out at me is Henri Barkey's Aug. 31 piece on the Foreign Policy website, "Turkey's Silent Crisis." In the article, Barkey -- who just returned from a trip to Southeast Turkey -- takes a look at the resurgent Kurdish problem in Turkey and at some of the trouble brewing under the surface. One of the interesting developments he looks at is how Kurdish politicians in Turkey are increasingly organizing an effort to move towards some form of local self government (trying to nip this movement in the bud, the Turkish state is currently prosecuting dozens of Kurdish mayors in the southeast). From his article:

The end of the Kurdish opening has also served to consolidate Kurdish attitudes toward the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the primary legal Kurdish political organization. The BDP has close ties to the PKK and increasingly sees itself as the Turkish equivalent of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

In the absence of political progress with the government, the BDP and Kurds in general are also beginning to put together the rudimentary institutional structures of self-governance in the southeastern provinces. The prosecution's 7,500-page indictment against members of the BDP, largely resting on conjecture and unsubstantiated allegations, nevertheless manages to sketch the contours of a parallel self-governance structure the Kurds have been attempting to put into place -- independent of Ankara.

For most activist Kurds, the PKK's armed insurrection is of secondary importance. The PKK, and especially its imprisoned leader Ocalan, is a symbolic force that they admire for raising the Kurdish issue to the forefront of Turkish politics. "Without the PKK, no one would be talking of Kurdish rights today," goes the refrain. At least in the southeastern provinces, Kurds now have an important advantage: control of the municipalities. This provides them with organizational capabilities to deepen their political struggle for recognition. Psychologically, the Turkish state may have already lost these provinces.

You can read the full article here. To get a better sense of what the BDP's leadership is thinking, take a look at this interesting interview with its co-chair, Gultan Kisanak, where she talks about the party's demands for decentralizing the Turkish state.