Towards a Defining Moment

December 7, 2020

Last week’s virtual meeting of NATO foreign ministers witnessed an unprecedented exchange between Secretary Pompeo and Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu. It made headlines in Turkey but more concerning are the questions currently raised both in Turkey and the West regarding the compatibility of Turkey’s foreign and security policy with NATO commitments, hence its place in the Alliance.

Pew Research Center had reported in February that NATO is generally seen in a positive light across publics within the Alliance. A median of 53% across 16 member countries surveyed expressed a favorable view of NATO, with only 27% holding a negative view. Turkey was the exception. Only 21 percent of those polled had a favorable view, while 55 percent thought of the Alliance unfavorably.[i] This was troubling because NATO has been the institutional main pillar of Turkey’s relations with the West.

This week the EU is meeting at summit level and the “Turkey problem” appears high on the agenda. The battle of words between Presidents Erdoğan and Macron continues unabated.

By contrast, another EU summit held in Brussels on December 17, 2004 had decided that accession negotiations with Turkey would start on October 3, 2005. The process was accordingly launched at the Luxembourg Intergovernmental Conference.   This was three years after the Justice and Development Party (JDP) had come to power when “democratic reform” appeared a priority. Everybody knew that this was an open-ended process likely to lead nowhere but it enhanced Turkey’s global standing, nonetheless.

At midnight on January 1st, 2005 Turkey knocked six zeros off the lira. “The new lira is the symbol of the stable economy that we dreamed of for long years,” said Süreyya Serdengeçti, then Governor of the Turkish Central Bank. At the time, a dollar was worth 1.34 lira.

In brief, despite lingering doubts about JDP’s Islamic roots, its potential for identifying with the Moslem Brotherhood, Turkey was riding a wave of optimism.

A decade later, JDP’s “new Turkey” is only a shadow of its former self. With weak and submissive institutions, our democratic decline is relentless. Earlier worries that the country would turn into a partocracy, that “rule by decree” would replace legislative process are the reality of this “new Turkey”, proving that democracy was never the goal or the final destination but a vehicle to power. Moreover, politics remain confrontational and the country is extremely polarized.

The negative impact of our democratic downturn on the economy is becoming more visible with each passing day. Today one dollar is worth 7.87 liras, up from 1.34 in January 2005. And the underlying reason is our democratic decline, period.

According to a Pew Research Center Report of January 5, 2006, 65% of Turks preferred democracy over strong leadership.[ii] A decade later, through the constitutional referendum of April 16, 2016, we replaced our parliamentary system with a presidential system, at the center of which is strong leadership. In the past, the ups and downs of Turkish democracy were attributed to leaders, governments, the military. By voting for this system, although with the narrowest margin, the people of Turkey failed a democracy test.

Turkey is bordering on regional turmoil yet our foreign policy lacks foresight, transparency, and public scrutiny. Yes, we have legitimate concerns, well-grounded points on regional issues; our frustration with the EU is not utterly without reason; EU’s egocentric policies across the spectrum are well-known; the West too has committed mistakes; but our rhetoric has become the greatest disservice to our interests. The misleading public discourse about our waging a second War of Independence may be more a harbinger of draconian economic measures for JDP’s economic survival than Turkey’s survival.

Countries which are still trying to work with us do so not because they embrace what we have come to represent but because we are bordering Iraq, Syria, Iran, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and Turkey matters.

As things stand now, the only option for Turkey’s relations with the West would be transactional cooperation if such areas can be identified with reason. But even this may prove a difficult task.

Despite some tough messages at the end of this week’s summit, the EU would refrain from an all-out confrontation with Turkey. EU leaders would allow time for President-elect Biden’s inauguration which is only a month away so that they can consult Washington before setting out a new Turkey policy. And the path Washington would take would largely depend on the answer to the question whether Turkey has already changed axis or restoration of decades of partnership and alliance remains a possibility given time.

In brief, the defining moment for Ankara’s relations with its nominal allies is approaching. And there are no opportunities left, between now and then, to change what seems to be a lasting impression.

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[i] https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/02/09/nato-seen-favorably-across-member-states/

[ii] https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2006/01/05/russias-weakened-democratic-embrace

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