Swedish Presidency of the EU Might Change Turkey’s Options

December 15th, 2009   Uncategorized

In 2008, the AK Party – the Turkish cooperation partner of the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation and Moderaterna – had an eventful year. Last summer the Turkish constitutional court threatened to shut down the party. Subsequently, fights flared up when the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK) moved from its bases in Northern Iraq and attacked both military and civilian targets in Turkey.

 In addition, the AK party was forced to deal with allegations of corruption, a particularly sensitive subject to a party whose unique selling point is to try to move away from Turkey’s corrupt past. Furthermore, there was the so called Ergenekon affair, a conspiracy by the “deep state” – people with a background in the military or the elite bureaucracy – against the democratically elected government.

The Negotiations on EU Membership

The last year offered several setbacks in the membership negotiations with the European Union. The decision to appoint a new EU-negotiator, Egemen Bagis, who is one of Prime Minister Erdogan’s closest advisors, has generally been interpreted as an improvement of the negotiation team. It is also seen as a signal that the pace of reform is about to increase as the regional election campaigns ends in March. Bagis already seems to have intensified the Turkish preparations.

The visit of President Erdogan to Brussels could also be viewed as yet another sign of Turkey raising its profile in the membership negotiations. It is also possible that the purpose of the visit was to counteract the impression of a weakened Turkish interest in the EU-membership due to the resistance from several of the EU-countries. Although the negotiations are progressing, the pace is slow, though not only because of the EU. The Turkish government and the AK-party’s current focus on the regional elections, is also assumed to slow down the reform process.

In the meantime, the EU has experienced difficulties deciding about the negotiation process. Several chapters are still locked, despite it being in the interest of the union to open them for negotiations. Among them are the chapters about energy- as well as foreign and security policy. During the Swedish chairmanship, two of these may be opened, the chapters about environment and competition. 

Reform Process

It is not fair to say that the Turkish reforms have ceased completely. During the last year, the freedom of speech has been strengthened, as well as the minority cultural rights. This affects in particular the Kurdish population who may, since the turn of the year, enjoy their own tv-channel in Kurdish. The broadcasting has been a huge success and the amount of viewers is high in the South East of Turkey.

 In addition, several initiatives have been taken to strengthen the civil rights. This development is in accordance to the demands posed by the EU, but also to the principles that guide the writing of the new constitution. The proposal has been severely delayed but the ambition is to break Turkey’s etatist tradition and create a new law based on the political and civil rights of the individual. From a Turkish perspective, such a change would be nearly revolutionary.

 The Regional Elections

On March 29, regional elections will take place in Turkey. The AK party is the favourite and the internal goal is to get at least 40 percent. This time, the party seek to gain majority in the centre of Istanbul. The surrounding city is since long in the hands of the party, as well as the South East, that is the Kurdish area.

Turkey in the Middle East

Turkey has long had a special position in the Middle East. It is often said that Turkey is the only country to have good relationships with everyone involved – Israelis as well as the Palestinians and the Arab states. For that reason, it came as a surprise for many when Prime Minister Erdogan used such condemning words when criticising the invasion of Gaza this Christmas. Although the statements probably expressed a real upset, they were likely fuelled by the visit of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s to Ankara a few days prior to the attack where he failed to inform the Turkish Government of the upcoming events. Keeping in mind that Israel tried to achieve a maximum element of surprise, the silence is not difficult to understand. Nevertheless, not being informed in advance implied a loss of prestige for the Turkish government. The setback was further emphasised as the opposition blamed Erdogan for knowing about the attack, thereby cooperating too closely with the Israelis. It should be noted that Turkey has played an important part in the Palestinian reconciliation process. In the Turkish debate, it has therefore been claimed that Erdogan’s outrage in Davos was staged and aimed at mobilising the party sympathisers prior to the elections in March. His critics consider the sympathetic masses who met him at the Airport on his return from Davos as yet an indication of this.

 Although the dialogue between Israel and Turkey has been unusually restrained over the last year, a normalisation of the relations is expected. It is said that the present situation mirrors incidents in the past and is, thus, likely to develop in the same direction. That would also make a reopened dialogue between Syria and Israel and hosted by the Turkish, possible.

Ergenekon – a Coup D’état in Waiting?

The Ergenekon affair has been in the headlines of the Turkish newspapers for several years. The name is taken from Turkish fairy tales and is the collective name for a secret anti-west and anti-Semitic movement. Their goal seems to be a coup d’état aimed to remove the AK party from government. Information about the society has been circulating for a long time but a thorough investigation was not initiated until 2007. The investigation has revealed concrete information such as hidden weaponry, as well as some remarkable witnesses. Now and then, new information is presented and the unique Turkish media and debate climate provide good ground for different kinds of conspiracy theories. In this case it seems, however, as if the theories are backed by evidence. So far nothing indicates that the evidence is fabricated. The Ergenekon affair has shown that the political stability created by the AK-party is not universally accepted and that the AK party is exposed to a significant amount of pressure.

 The Prospects for 2009

Turkey’s relations with the European Union will be placed early on the agenda this year. This includes the membership negotiations but also the Cyprus issue, which has to be solved before Turkey is allowed to close the negotiations with the EU.

The domestic affairs will be dominated by the financial crisis and the general economic downturn, the regional elections and the Ergenekon affair. If the elections in March go well, the government will most likely try to intensify the reform process once again. Perhaps the new constitution will also finally be handed over to Parliament. The relations with Nato, which have been weak ever since the invasion of Irak, will most likely be attended to as well as Turkey’s role as a negotiator for its neighbours. However, relations to neighbouring countries also bring up significant challenges. Primarily, the challenges apply to Armenia, where the precondition for normalising the relations are relatively good as well. There is also the relation to Iran, which offers a constant balancing act between Turkey’s friends in the EU and Nato and their great neighbour in the east.

 For Turkey, geopolitics will always play a large role. The AK-party development will most certainly be heavily affected by the economic development. So far, the high growth and fairly positive development in the less developed areas have benefitted the party. With raised unemployment, this might change. Turkey belongs to the countries that are most severely affected by the downturn and who need support from abroad, through IMF. While the pressure is significant on the government, the opposition seems remarkably weak. At the moment, there is no alternative to the AK party that is able to give Turkey the stability and strength needed to get through the stormy weather.



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