Mandate for a new Turkish era

Gazing out over a sea of cheering Turks after his election victory last week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised his voice to address an audience far beyond the Turkish borders.

By Susanne Guesten (Viewpoint)

Published: Tue 21 Jun 2011, 9:46 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:50 AM

“I greet with affection the peoples of Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Cairo, Tunis, Sarajevo, Skopje, Baku, Nicosia and all other friends and brother peoples who are following the news out of Turkey with great excitement,” Erdogan called from a balcony in Ankara, hours after sweeping into a third-term in office in a parliamentary election that won his Justice and Development Party 50 per cent of the vote.

“Today, the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Balkans have won as much as Turkey,” Erdogan said. “We will become much more active in regional and global affairs.” To the elated crowd, he added: “We will take on a more effective role. We will call, as we have, for rights in our region, for justice, for the rule of law, for freedom and democracy.” With his victory speech, Erdogan outlined a shift in Turkish foreign policy approach that could have wide-ranging consequences in a turbulent region, analysts say. Caught off-guard by the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring, Ankara is ditching a policy that prized stability above all else, rested almost exclusively on contacts with regional governments and made Turkey, a country aspiring to be a regional leader, appear like a friend of dictators.

In the new era, Erdogan will bypass governments in the region if necessary and reach out to their citizens with support for democratic and economic reforms, government officials and foreign policy experts say. While the approach is new, Ankara’s strategic goal remains to bolster a region that can prosper and also offer opportunities for Turkey’s growing economy.Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s chief foreign policy adviser, said, “Right now, change is the key to stability in the region,” adding that “we will see a lot of exchange between Turkey and these countries.” He emphasised that Turkey would be “supportive of the process” of transition to democracy.

Outreach to populations in the region does not preclude more traditional ties to governments. One element likely to play a key role in the new Turkish approach is the near pop-star status enjoyed by Erdogan in parts of the Middle East. He has become hugely popular among Arab populations because of Turkey’s success in joining Islam with democracy, says Celalettin Yavuz, deputy director of the Turkish Center for International Relations & Strategic Analysis, a research group in Ankara. Another part of Turkey’s appeal is its growing affluence. The country’s gross domestic product has tripled since the governing party, or AKP, came to power in 2002. “They want to see the AKP. as a model and Erdogan as a leader,” Yavuz said about people in the Middle East.

Until last year, Turkey’s regional foreign policy efforts had been focused on projects like a free-trade zone of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, Yavuz said. “Now, who is even talking about such a common market in the region?” Erdogan’s victory speech marked the official start of the new era, analysts say. “It is a historical initiative – he was setting out a new vision” for Turkish foreign policy, said Hasan Kanbolat, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, another research group in Ankara.

Semih Idiz, a columnist for the newspaper Milliyet and foreign policy specialist, agreed. Erdogan was “reaching out to the people rather than the establishment” of countries around the region, Idiz said. “It’s a new approach” to the challenges of the Arab Spring, he added.

“Until now, relations were predicated very much on the status quo,” he said, pointing to Turkey’s previous foreign policy of open borders, trade and high-level exchanges such as joint cabinet meetings with neighbouring countries.

“Human rights and democracy remained in the background” under that approach, Idiz said. Now that is changing, he said, and Turkey is casting itself as a “champion of human rights and democracy” in the region. But problems with Turkey’s new policy have already become apparent in the case of Syria. After the start of the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Al Assad in March, Turkey took a cautious line, asking Damascus to carry out reforms but avoiding harsh criticism of the government crackdown against the opposition that has killed more than a thousand people, according to the Syrian opposition.

Last week, Erdogan changed course and accused Syrian forces of committing “atrocities.” His remarks came after thousands of Syrians fled into southern Turkey to escape the Syrian security forces. Amid growing frustration in Ankara, Erdogan also allowed the Syrian opposition to gather for a major conference in the southern Turkish resort of Antalya this month. Soon after Erdogan spoke out against the Syrian government, supporters of the regime in Damascus marched on the Turkish Embassy there. Meanwhile, in Iran, state television this week accused Turkey of supplying the Syrian opposition with weapons.

Susanne Gusten reports from Turkey and has been extensively covering the Kurdish conflict

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