Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is undertaking a bold resolution process that could remake domestic politics and enhance its foreign policy clout When the bodies of three ex-members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were found in a Paris office, the real target appeared to be a fledgling resolution process thousands of miles away in Turkey. Just days after the government announced it was in disarmament talks with the jailed leader of the armed PKK, a founding member of the group and her two associates were killed, execution-style, in Paris.
Within days, a 30-year-old member of the Kurdish activist scene in Europe was arrested after being caught on security-camera footage leaving the building on the busy Rue Lafayette around the time of the murders. Kurds across Europe and Turkey pointed to a vast conspiracy to infiltrate the PKK – and held their breath to see whether the resolution process could survive.
The Paris killings shocked Kurds and Turks alike, but negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK leader held in isolation since his 1999 capture, continued. Within two months he ordered his followers to cease fire and withdraw from Turkey to their bases in northern Iraq. The call came on March 21 during the New Year festival of Newroz. In the past, the festival was regularly marked by violent protests; this time an estimated 1m people turned out in Diyarbakır to peacefully rally behind Öcalan. Within days, the autonomy-seeking PKK had agreed to pull back its forces.
This has been hailed as the best chance for peace in the 28-year conflict, which has claimed more than 40,000 lives, held back economic growth and hampered Turkey’s EU membership bid. It is testament to the political risks that Prime Minister Erdoğan can take after a decade in office. He was able to sell a sceptical public on negotiating with Öcalan, though he is viewed by most Turks as the enemy of their unitary state. By February 2013, a survey showed 60% of Turks support the resolution process and that almost all believe Turks and Kurds, who make up an estimated 20% of the population, can live together. If reconciliation becomes a reality, it will have consequences far beyond Turkey’s borders, considering the large populations of Kurds that live in Iran, Iraq and Syria.
The PKK withdrawal is but a first step. Comprehensive peace will take more time. “To make peace, there are certain difficult political decisions that will have to be made,” said Aliza Marcus, author of Blood and Belief, a history of the PKK. “The danger is that, if expectations are disappointed, and if there is no real follow-through, nationalist Kurds will be pushed even further away. It will be far more difficult to win their trust next time.” Steps include changes to the counter-terrorism act and, eventually, some sort of amnesty for the PKK rank and file. The cornerstone of the process is a new civic constitution, one that broadens the definition of a Turkish citizen, embraces greater freedoms and expands the role of local administrations.
A New Chapter
Since 2007, Erdoğan has been promising a new constitution to replace the current one, which was drawn up in 1982 during military rule and reflects a palpable distrust for the national will, including political parties, parliaments and civic groups. In the latest push, a commission composed of parliament’s parties – Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP); the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP); the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) – was convened. Thus far, however, there has been no agreement on any of the difficult issues, prompting Erdoğan to again state in April 2013 that his party will take its draft directly to the people in a referendum if parliamentary consensus proves impossible.
The most contentious issue is the introduction of a new executive-style presidency. It is an open secret that Erdoğan aspires to the post, if it is transformed from its current ceremonial status to an office with real power. Due to an AKP bylaw limiting lawmakers to three terms in office, Erdoğan is in the final leg of his career as prime minister. Such a drastic change to the republican system does carry risks, and some of his supporters warn it may cause fractures in his own party.
“The issue of the presidential system appears to be about personal ambition,” said İhsan Yılmaz, a professor of political science at Fatih University. “There are those in Erdoğan’s party who already view him as authoritarian. Pursuing this at the expense of a more liberal constitution could mark the start of the AKP’s decline.”
Arguably Turkey’s most powerful ruler since the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Erdoğan has increased the AKP’s share of the vote in the three general elections since 2002. He has sidelined a military that had toppled four governments since 1960, tackled long-standing taboos like the Kurdish problem and, in certain areas, he has expanded personal liberties. Though its candidacy has stalled, Erdoğan has moved Turkey closer to EU membership than any of his predecessors. He has overseen Turkey’s emergence as a foreign policy heavyweight and its greatest period of economic prosperity.
Not everyone has benefitted. Hundreds of military officers, including a former chief of the military General Staff, are in jail on charges of conspiring to topple Erdoğan’s government. Thousands of Kurdish activists, more than 50 journalists and hundreds of students, lawyers, academics and politicians are also in prison in a web of legal cases, mostly on terrorism-related or coup-plotting charges. The government has argued that locking up suspected members of shadowy networks has brought unprecedented stability to Turkey; opponents accuse the government of a witch-hunt. Human rights groups question whether pre-conviction detentions lasting more than five years, in cases that try hundreds of defendants at a time, violate the right to a fair trial. Reporters Without Borders describes Turkey as “the world’s biggest prison for journalists”.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said the rates of incarceration were worrying. “The ongoing imprisonment of journalists and the many people, mostly Kurds, detained on overly broad terrorism charges on what seems to be very little evidence of terrorism raise concerns about the government’s basic human rights responsibilities.”
Even Erdoğan’s backers fear his growing influence over nominally independent institutions like the judiciary. “We run the risk of growing authoritarianism,” said Nazlı Ilıcak, a former lawmaker in the AKP’s forerunner, the Virtue Party, a newspaper columnist and an Erdoğan ally. “I am concerned that if the government takes full control of the judiciary, we won’t have justice.”
In 2012, judges delivered a verdict that sent 325 active-duty and former soldiers to prison. Despite concerns about the fairness of the trial, liberals welcomed the judgment. “This case is a major step towards finishing military tutelage, but it’s not enough. The constitution must enshrine civilian control over the army. Turkey still needs the guarantee of a liberal democracy,” said Şahın Alpay, a professor of political science at Bahçeşehir University, after the verdict.
The cases have raised the question about whether an army, with so many officers, including 64 generals and admirals, in prison or under investigation, is ready to confront military challenges. “The number of jailed officers has now reached critical levels,” Murat Onur, a Washington-based security analyst, wrote for the Foreign Policy Association in March 2013. “The AKP leadership has ambitious plans such as increasing Turkey’s military involvement in overseas peace operations and making the country a long-term development aid provider in the near future. These ‘global player’ ambitions are, however, unlikely to materialise with a decaying military force.”
One potential flashpoint is the civil war in Syria, with which Turkey shares a 900-km land border. Once a close ally, Erdoğan turned into a fierce critic of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad over his handling of the conflict that has entered its third year, claiming 70,000 lives and displacing millions of people, nearly 300,000 of whom have sought refuge in Turkey. The conflict has at times threatened to spill over: In June 2012, Syrian air defences downed a Turkish reconnaissance plane, and since October 2012 Syrian shelling has repeatedly struck Turkey at the border, killing at least 12 soldiers and five civilians. Ankara has invoked Article IV of the NATO treaty, and the Netherlands, Germany and the US have sent Patriot missiles to Turkey.
Syria revealed the first cracks in Turkey’s strategic alliance with Israel, and it was Syria that ultimately compelled the two sides to mend fences more than four years later. Back in 2008, Turkey had served as a mediator in peace talks between Israel and Syria, until the former launched a surprise offensive in Palestinian-run Gaza in December of that year. Erdoğan felt personally insulted that he had not been informed, and amid exchanges of barbs and diplomatic slights, ties with the Jewish state turned frosty.
Then in May 2010, an international convoy carrying humanitarian aid to Palestinians set sail from Turkey in a bid to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Before the flotilla of ships reached Israeli waters, commandoes stormed the vessels and killed nine Turkish activists.
A UN inquiry ruled in 2011 that Israel had used excessive force, and Turkey downgraded diplomatic relations and suspended military cooperation, demanding Israel apologise for the naval raid, pay compensation to the victims and end the blockade of Gaza. It took nearly three years for the two sides to reconcile, when in March 2013, US President Barack Obama arranged for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to telephone Erdoğan and apologise and pledge to pay damages.
“Regional issues are what pushed the two sides to make up. The Turkey-Israel fallout, or non-alignment, on these issues contributed to the general lack of stability,” said Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College in New York. He was referring to the crisis in Syria, as well as Iran’s nuclear programme, matters of concern for both countries and their mutual ally, the US. “The US sees Turkey and Israel’s coming to some understanding as crucial.” Rebuilding the strategic alliance will take time, but the rapprochement promises to reduce some regional tensions. “It has breathed new energy into the region,” Fishman said.
The apology from Israel is one bright spot in an otherwise difficult foreign policy terrain. For centuries, Turkey and Iran have had a peaceful rivalry, and in recent years cooperation was strengthened through energy and diplomatic ties. Erdoğan’s criticism of what he saw as the West’s double standards towards Iran, which says it seeks nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, had also drawn the neighbours closer. However, the Syrian crisis has damaged the relationship, as Iran, a close ally of Damascus, has at points taken a bellicose tone with Turkey. Tehran also objects to Turkey hosting a NATO missile shield that it suspects is aimed at preventing a counter-attack if Israel were to bomb Iran. Turkey also had to distance itself from Iran commercially to abide by the ever-tightening US and EU sanctions launched due to Western suspicions that Iran wants to make an atomic bomb.
Another casualty of Ankara’s deteriorating ties with Damascus and Tehran is Baghdad, whose Shiite prime minister, Nuri Al Maliki, has drawn his war-torn nation closer to Iran’s orb of influence. Al Maliki is most outraged over Turkey’s energy relationship with the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The Kurdish region has boosted trade with Turkey to about $8bn annually and now wants to export its vast hydrocarbons resources through Turkey to markets in Europe. Al Maliki insists the federal government is the sole export authority and only it can sign contracts to exploit the country’s mineral wealth. His advisers have said Turkish-KRG energy ties could split Iraq.
Energy has also complicated already poor relations with Cyprus, Turkey’s main stumbling block on its path to EU membership. Ankara does not recognise the Greek Cypriot government after invading in 1974 to thwart a short-lived Athens-backed coup. Turkey keeps some 30,000 troops in the island’s northern third to protect an estimated 300,000 Turkish Cypriots and mainland settlers. In September 2011, Cyprus announced that offshore drilling for natural gas would begin. In turn, Turkey threatened to intervene militarily, arguing that diplomatically isolated Turkish Cypriots must also benefit from any natural gas discoveries and questioning Cyprus’ territorial demarcations.
Turkey must take steps towards recognising Cyprus, a member of the EU, to further its own bid. Erdoğan’s government has been negotiating entry since 2005, but talks on 16 chapters are frozen because of Turkey’s refusal to open land and sea ports to Cypriot trade; Turkey first wants a settlement between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, but that has so far proven elusive, despite numerous attempts by the UN. Meanwhile, conservative governments in Germany and, previously, France whose populations are concerned about a large, poorer, Muslim nation joining the bloc have also thrown up hurdles. The eurozone crisis has diminished European appetites for expansion and Turkey’s chequered human rights record, worsened by the long war with the outlawed PKK, has hampered progress on accession.
In 2013, Erdoğan has pressed his government’s EU case again, making several trips to EU capitals but also sounding a note of caution. Ahead of a trip to in February, he said, “We continue our bid apace but the EU is not a necessity for us. If the EU doesn’t take us, it is not the end of the world.” As the accession process slowed, Turkey diversified its diplomatic priorities. For example, it is boosting relations with African nations, and its role in helping Somalia with reconstruction has won it plaudits. Turkey is also keenly aware that it has become a role model for Arabs experiencing political transformation following uprisings in countries like Tunisia and Egypt. Resolution to the Kurdish question will boost Turkey’s foreign policy credentials.
Still, what makes Turkey special is its ability to bridge the divide between Europe and the Middle East. The EU offers Turkey a path to strengthened democracy and economy, and membership promises to bolster geopolitical stability for Turkey, the bloc and the Middle East. In the meantime, a booming economy, growing diplomatic clout and a number of reforms to solve its internal problems show that Turkey is already well on its way.