Setting an example: Regional peace high on the agenda as the country seeks to strengthen its role model status

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With its thriving economy, democratic system and moderately Islamist leadership, in recent years, Turkey has been frequently put forward as a role model for other nations in the Islamic world. This has been helped by growing soft power, evident in everything from the popularity of Turkish soap operas in Egypt to the ubiquity of Turkish goods in Iraq. Turkey appears to combine successfully both Western and Muslim worlds; indeed, what was once seen by many to be an identity crisis is now widely seen as a valuable flexibility – and unparalleled ability to bridge global divides. Turkey’s foreign relations have benefitted considerably from this widely prevalent view, particularly under the guidance of the current foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. Taking office in May 2009, he reaffirmed his commitment to the “zero problems with the neighbours” policy, a stated commitment to address the range of long-standing disputes Turkey has had with many of the countries immediately surrounding it. Three years on, this policy may have fallen foul of events in many areas, yet as an example of a new spirit of engagement – and confidence – it has much to commend it.

GEOSTRATEGIES: Turkey shares land borders with Greece, Bulgaria, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Georgia, all of which have been hostile neighbours at some point in recent decades. In 1998 Syria and Turkey came close to war, over Syrian support of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) terrorist group, while relations with Iraq and Iran have gone through major ups and downs over the years. Relations with Greece have frequently also been poor, particularly over the Cyprus issue. Turkey’s land frontiers had been largely frozen over by the NATO/Soviet divide, but after 1990 they began to open up again. The end of the Cold War also changed balances in the Middle East, beginning a period of on-the-ground Western, and particularly US, involvement in Iraq. In the Caucasus the collapse of Soviet power and the eruption of armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan led to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, which still dominates relations between these two countries and Turkey. Georgia’s fragmentation and Russian support for breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia also demonstrates the fragility of this region. In the Balkans, relations have dramatically improved with Greece and Bulgaria, although the treatment of ethnic Turks in both countries remains a concern. Turkey has also extended its influence in former Ottoman territories with Muslim populations, such as Kosovo and Bosnia. With Syria, hostility remained, with Turkey also forging an alliance with Israel during the 1990s.

EU NEGOTIATIONS: The EU path has been a tortuous one, however. The political leaderships in France and Germany have both been opposed to Turkish membership. Berlin and Paris have argued in favour of an ill-defined “privileged partnership” as an alternative, a status Turkey rejects. Therefore, while negotiations may continue – and the government is keen that they should do – progress is likely to be extremely slow. In the current climate of eurozone crisis, too, the issue is not high on the agenda in Brussels or Ankara.

Concurrent with this cooling in relations, under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) Turkey initiated a multilateral foreign policy, in particular turning greater attention toward the Arab world. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began a process of breaking with Israel at the Davos summit in 2009, verbally attacking Israeli politician Shimon Peres. Relations then reached an all-time low after the Mavi Marmara incident, on which eight Turks and an American of Turkish origin were killed by Israeli commandos in May 2010. Turkey still awaits an apology from Israel for the event and has in the meantime suspended all military cooperation. Turkey’s stance against Israel was immediately popular in the Arab world and beyond. Relations with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Libya improved greatly, with commentators suggesting a period of “neo-Ottomanism” had begun. Davutoğlu instead sees Turkish policy as being aimed at creating a new framework for regional peace. With the region going through enormous changes, the need for this has perhaps been reinforced.

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The Report: Turkey 2012

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