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11 November, 2011

Istanbul Rising

Where are Turkey and Erdogan moving?

Natural disasters hit rich and poor countries alike. The devastating earthquake in eastern Turkey came at a time when this burgeoning nation of 73 million is emerging as an increasingly important emerging market and regional power. Perhaps to demonstrate that it is no longer a developing nation, Ankara insisted at first that it could cope on its own. The scale of the suffering soon shattered this foolish pride and Turkey opened its doors to aid and rescue workers from around the world.

But in recent months Turkey has been at the centre of a political earthquake. The central role of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, its ebullient Prime Minister, is now playing in the Arab Spring and has made Turkey a vital factor in Middle East politics for the first time since the Ottoman Empire ended. Turkey's Islamist Government is consciously offering itself as a model for Arab democrats. Its burgeoning economy is forging new trade links with the Gulf and North Africa. Its new policy of "no quarrels with neighbours" has given it a regional weight that it is using as a counterbalance to its stuttering attempts to become a member of the European Union.

Turkey's economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, hitting a growth rate of 11 per cent recently. Already the world's sixteenth largest economy, Turkish is now being compared to the BRICs — Brazil, India, Russia and China — and is attracting large investments from Western countries looking for an alternative to the sluggish growth and crisis of confidence in Europe.

The rapid rise in the Turkish standard of living has made Erdogan and his AK party immensely popular in the country. He has just been re-elected for the third time — with an increased majority — and will soon be the longest serving leader since Kamal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic. Erdogan has fended off challenges to his rule from the once all-powerful military and has decisively reduced the influence of generals have in Turkish politics. And so far he has restrained those Islamists clamouring for a more clearly Islamic tint to his government, while insisting he will not change Turkey's secular constitution.

Europe has been slow to appreciate Turkey's new strength. The old 19th century image of the "sick man of Europe" still influences thinking. At the same time the Turkish application for full membership in the EU has raised fears that Europe would be decisively changed by the admission of its only Muslim member, a country that would soon overtake Germany as the biggest in the EU but which still has a large number of relatively poor farmers. France and Germany in particular have expressed doubts about eventual membership, with Berlin suggesting instead a "privileged partnership" - something the  Turks find insulting and unacceptable.

But to those countries bordering Turkey, the country already looks like a giant. Istanbul is the biggest, most dynamic and most cosmopolitan city for a thousand miles (indeed, with 17 million people it is now Europe's largest city). The Turkish economy dwarfs that of any of its neighbours. And Turkey's influence is now spreading north into the Balkans as well as south into its former Ottoman possessions in the Arab world. Turkey has provided much needed support to Muslim Bosnia. It has growing economic links with its old enemy Russia. And its burgeoning economy is finding export markets throughout eastern Europe. It has even formed an economic group that recognises this new reality: the Black Sea Association, joining Turkey, Greece, and a number of Balkan countries, is a trading and political grouping in which Ankara overwhelmingly plays the most important role.

Turkish politicians like to speak of their country as the linchpin of three overlapping circles: Europe, the Arab world and Central Asia, where Turkey has the advantage of linguistic, religious and historical links. But while West Europeans now speak of Turkey as a strategic "bridge" between East and West, the Turks themselves do not like the metaphor suggesting they are merely a link; they prefer to see themselves as the center of a combined East and West.

Turkey's emerging importance raises several troubling questions, however. The first is whether the country, angered by what it sees as the slow pace of accession negotiations with the EU, is now losing interest in a European future and is turning its attention south to the Muslim world instead. Erdogan constantly denies such charges, insisting that Turkey is still faithful to the Kemalist idea of Turkey as a European nation. True, he is deeply frustrated by what he sees as the foot-dragging and anti-Turkish views of President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel. But he knows that many Turks see the accession negotiations as a vital spur to domestic reforms on human rights, social change, Kurdish minority rights and other democratic advances. They would be horrified if the European goal was abandoned, fearing this would open the door to conservative Islamist or Turkish nationalist forces.

The second question is whether Erdogan really believes in a secular constitution or whether his party is quietly pushing an Islamist agenda that will become more apparent and more radical later on. The battle over headscarves - whether the law should be changed to allow Turkish women to attend university if they wear headscarves - was seen by many secularists as a key confrontation between the Islamists and Turks who are fearful of any more overtly religious elements in public life. A similar battle was fought on the AK party's early attempt to make adultery a crime - an attempt that was eventually abandoned, largely because of strong pressure from the EU.

So far Erdogan has insisted that he has no intention of altering Turkey's secular constitution. Indeed, he surprised many of his own supporters, and dismayed thousands of Islamist admirers in the Arab world, when he insisted during a recent speech in Cairo that the secular model was the best form of government, and that Arab Islamists should follow the Turkish pattern.

The third worry is that Erdogan is becoming too ambitious, too confident of his success to win support from his neighbours. The Arabs have indeed looked to the Turkish model in recent months. But they still have long and bitter memories of the 500 years of Ottoman rule in their lands, and are dismayed by the new nationalist tones of many Turks who are now calling for a reappraisal of the Ottoman Empire, suggesting that it has been unfairly criticised since its collapse in 1918.

Erdogan has done much to please the Arabs, in particular by taking a far tougher line with Israel. His public confrontation with Shimon Peres at the Davos summit two years ago marked the beginning of a fast deteriorating relationship with Israel - one that has alarmed America in particular, and is seen by many in the West as Ankara's attempt to court Muslim public opinion. The Israeli attack on the flotilla bound for Gaza, the killing of nine Turks aboard the ship and Israel's refusal, after months of quiet negotiations, to issue an apology or pay compensation has infuriated Erdogan. He is, in any case, a prickly man, quick to take offence. But it looks as though a once strategic military relationship, long seen in Washington as vital to regional security in the Middle East, has now been irreparably damaged.

All this raises the question: what does Erdogan want, and where is Turkey heading? Will it remain a key NATO ally, especially as its former fears of the Soviet Union have been replaced with a keen desire to cement its good trading relations with Russia? Will it pull away from its alliance with America, especially after the cooling of relations after Ankara refused to allow US forces to use Turkey as a base in the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Will it try to play a more activist regional role, as it did last year in an unsuccessful attempt in conjunction with Brazil to broker a deal between Iran and the West? And will it make enough genuine reforms and grant enough autonomy and language rights to the Kurds to win them away from violence and support for PKK terrorism? Or will the urge of the Turkish Armed Forces to seek a military solution lead to a new round of fighting in eastern Turkey and more Kurdish terrorism?

A key test may be what the Erdogan government now does about Syria. Until last year, the Prime Minister had invested much in a new relationship with Syria and with President Assad in particular. Erdogan has since been alarmed and infuriated by the Syrian leader's refusal to make the reforms that Ankara said are needed to answer the calls of Syrian demonstrators for more democracy. He has warned Assad of disaster unless he changes course. But although the Turkish army is the only force able to intervene in Syria, Erdogan is unlikely to do so unless widespread civil war breaks out and Turkey has an explicit mandate from the United Nations.

There is no question that Turkey's new status as a regional powerhouse will be severely tested by Syria. What is beyond doubt, however, is that there is a new resurgence in a country once written off as the weak remnant of the Ottoman Empire. As it was 400 years ago, Turkey is again a country that all its neighbours need to watch.

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