Turkey in the International Political Limbo


Since the abolition of the Ottoman empire, Turkey has been seeking its role within the European and Middle Eastern political games. When the Soviet Union was at its height Turkey took a strong anti-soviet stance. After the second world war socialist, pro-Soviet political groups became one of the main targets within Turkey. Almost all political parties agreed that radical leftists were the existential enemy of the country. During this process of security threat evaluation, which was based on fears of Soviet intervention or communist rebellion within, Turkey saw the United States as a natural ally. Turkey found itself as a bulwark of resistance, but this was not last for long.

After the dissolution of USSR Turkey’s European aspirations were strong as well as its adherence to emerging political Islam. Despite that some experts were constantly underlining that Turkey was the only country which was democratic and Islamic at the same time, political Islam gradually becomes an issue.

Turkey, during the process of anti-Soviet resistance, gradually became a less secular nation, as it was in the early days of Ataturk reforms. Changes especially noticeable since the 1980 coup, when pro-western and anti-Soviet, but also visibly religious military men took over the government. Everything became much more clear when the USSR disbanded and Turkey becomes the nation without rivalry and therefore without clear foreign vector. Turkey was not too strong to enforced its own independent foreign policy and was not too weak to submit directions of other powers.

First, Turkey tried to join the EU but failed. This was a mutual matter of distrust. The idea of Turkish nationalism reemerged again and Pan-Turanism (also known as Pan-Turkism) awoke, but this kind of nationalism was not sufficient to provide clear foreign objectives. The final outcome was that the semi-religious coalition of politicians came to power in 2002 and maintain the idea of strong, independent, religious Turkey without foreign interference. All of that cleared the way of the aspiring idea on Turkey as a leading regional power.

Turkey gradually gave up the idea of joining in EU and recently even proclaim anti-western rhetoric. Since then Turkey has become the Middle Eastern player, but poor experience and low trust from others. During this process, Turkey approached Russia. Despite that Russian and Turkish interests are unfit for the long run, though both countries are trying to expel outside forces from the Middle East to set their own order over the region. But this process is a real limbo for Turkey because key players in the Middle East are the United States, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and they are unwilling to feed Turkey’s ambitions in the region. It is very less likely to expel or at least persuade them to concede their positions for Turkeys favour. Turkey has a little to offer other regional powers or superpowers. Without a strong political partner, Turkey is unable to set long political order in the Middle East.

But Turkey’s aspiration to meddle in the Middle Eastern affairs is not only causing for the country’s challenges but to become independent international player altogether is the main reason why Turkey lies within international political limbo. This is a two-dimensional issue. First, if Turkey wants to set its own conditions around the Middle East or any other region, then it will meet other regional, mainly opposite powers. For example:

In Eastern Europe, there is EU, the US. They already set their conditions, which hardly fits Turkey’s current foreign or internal positions. Beyond them partially there is also Russia and its interests, which has historically antagonistic stance over Turkish Balkan claims;

In the Middle East, there are too many contenders, which have a almost equal power and none of them is favourable for long-term increasing Turkish involvement;

In the Turkic people settled regions, which are central Asia and western China, Turkey will also meet Russian, Chinese and the US interests. In that case, especially Chinese authorities will have bigger doubts to see increasing Turkish involvement within or near its borders. This is true in terms of Chinese long attempt to overcome ethnic Uyghur (which are Turkic people) problem in the Xinjiang region.

All of the areas which I mentioned above Turkey can be strong partner and ally of other, stronger powers, but it can hardly become a leading power. But as we mentioned above Turkey has a two-dimensional issue. First one is its changing foreign policy, but the second one is much more unpredictable – mood, attitudes and dispositions of people within the country itself. Turkey is a big country, with different geographic, political and economic environment and activity. Richer, coastal areas are much more European, less religious and inclined to the idea about Turkey as a part of the Western world compared to land lock areas. The decade ago the Central Anatolia was much poorer then coastal regions, but over these years they got rid of poverty and gained economic stability. People in these regions tend to be much more religious and see Turkey as the Eastern but not Western power. The secular, westernize population hardly find a common ground to religious and nationalist groups. Latter also divide secular and religious nationalism, which is creating yet another round of speculations. Turkey is a divide nation on its political future and international stance.

In the XX century Turkey has changed several times its attitudes to foreign policy: From Caliphate to secular power, from anti-Soviet to anti-US rhetoric, from EU to the Middle eastern aspirator and so forth. This is the focal point for the conclusion – Turkey lies in uncertainty and seeks its role in the world but the geography and current international political environment is a limbo for the country.

It is going to be a mistake to think Turkey as a weak power, which can not change political flows in the any given region around it, but the reality is that for now, Turkey can’t be an independent regional power which dictates how things should going to be around it.

Giorgi Koberidze
Senior Fellow

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