A country struggling to find its place

Man stands in front of the Hagia Sophia, his back to the camera, wearing a Turkish flag t-shirt
The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul's landmark, is now also synonymous with Turkey's conservative Islamic trajectory

Tensions with the West and ambitions to become a regional peacekeeping power have brought Turkey's grand strategy into focus. Will distancing itself from Western values and ideas of democracy end in the country disengaging from Europe?

Essay by Yasar Aydin

As the Republic of Turkey celebrates its centenary, the country's political elites are less than jubilant. The mood has doubtless been dampened by economic and security-policy challenges. Turkey is facing high inflation, suffering from an economic slump and high levels of unemployment, and battling the effects of a lack of capital and foreign direct investment. The country is also caught in the middle of geopolitical turbulence, surrounded by wars and armed conflicts. 

Power politics and ideology play a part in this reticence, too. Elaborate jubilee festivities would place President Erdogan in the shadow of Ataturk, from which he is trying to escape. The Turkish president and his followers, after all, believe that Ataturk took the country down the wrong path with his secular cultural revolution and Western orientation. 

Erdogan is therefore countering Ataturk's secular, Western republic with his own "New Turkey". Since the countrywide wave of protests in 2013 at the very latest, and more clearly still since the failed military coup in 2016, Erdogan and his government have been pursuing ideas of society and legitimate rule that diverge from secularism and democracy. 

And so, step by step, over the last ten years Turkey has been transformed into an authoritarian state, whose elites are on a path to rhetorical confrontation with the West. Ankara's foreign and security policy is no longer oriented towards Europe, and it is ignoring the judgements of the European Court of Justice. 

The separation of state and religion – a central achievement of Ataturk's republic – has largely been abolished, and the country has turned its back on the west. It is now confidently looking east and south, cooperating with Qatar and Iraq, and sending its troops into Libya, Syria and the Caucasus. We may ask ourselves what remains of the project of Western, secular civilisation.

Am 29. Oktober 1923 rief Mustafa Kemal Atatürk die türkische Republik aus
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk proclaimed the Turkish Republic on 29 October 1923. Since then, the country has been searching for its place between Europe and the Islamic world (Foto: DW)

A success story, if not an unqualified one

Despite socio-political setbacks, economic crises and military coups, and Turkey's emergent autocracy, a 100-year-old republic can be described as a success story. Its founders set out four aims: 

Firstly to complete the building of the state and the nation, and to establish a strong national culture and national consciousness. 

Secondly to cultivate a national bourgeoisie and a dynamic private sector, one of the main pillars of a modern nation state. The historian Yusuf Akcuraoglu – an influential member of the Young Turks and one of the republic's founders – pointed out the significance of a national bourgeoisie as early as the start of the 20th century. 

Thirdly to link up with modern capitalism – in other words, to establish a market economy. 

Fourthly and finally, to anchor Turkey securely in the Western world.  

Turkey's successes include its relatively swift transformation from an absolutist monarchy firstly into a constitutional monarchy, and later into a secular republic, and from a multi-ethnic state into a modern nation-state. Although the political system has for a long time now been described as "Competitive Authoritarianism" (Steven Levitsky), Turkey has a dynamic, liberal and democratic civil society.

The country – contrary to its political elites' ideas of governance and society – is part of Western civilisation and is closely tied to Europe on an economic, political and social level: around five million people originally from Turkey live scattered across Europe; several million EU citizens visit Turkey every year; and European businesses invest, manufacture and cooperate there. Turkey is firmly anchored in NATO, is a member of the European Customs Union and – though talks have now stalled – is still a candidate for EU membership.

From international pariah to global player

At the Lausanne peace conference in 1923, the Turkish delegation led by army general Ismet Inonu, an ally of Ataturk's, managed to thwart the partition of Anatolia into various spheres of influence, deny Greece and Armenia's territorial claims and abolish the capitulations. 

The nation's fight for independence and the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne gave the young republic an international reputation, and in 1932 it was accepted into the League of Nations. But having experienced diplomatic powerlessness, a sense of being at the mercy of European "machinations" spread among the Ottoman elites.

In the light of such "humiliating" experiences when it came to the "Oriental question", Turkey's decision makers placed a high value on independent foreign policy. 

With a targeted policy of forming alliances and conducting public diplomacy, the state's leadership increased Turkey's room for manoeuvre on foreign and security policy in the 1930s. The central tenets of Ataturk's "independent foreign policy" were neutrality in alliances, the development of good relations with neighbouring states and friendship towards the Soviet Union. 

After the Second World War, Turkey focused on forming closer connections with the West – Ankara transitioned to democracy, introduced a multi-party system, joined NATO and agreed to the construction of a U.S. air base in Incirlik. Until the late 2000s, the Western connection served as a guiding principle for Turkish foreign and security policy. 

This changed when Greece and the Republic of Cyprus, or the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, began to place obstacles in Turkey's path to Europe. Geopolitical upheavals such as the Arab Spring, and the stabilisation of domestic power by controlling the military, also played a large part in Erdogan changing course away from Europe and maintaining a purely instrumental, transactional relationship with the European Union.

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Westwards reorientation not an option under Erdogan

There is much to suggest that in the short term, none of this is going to change. Turkey is extremely unlikely to commit itself to Western, European values and ideas of democracy, since these run counter to its president's interest in retaining power. But the fact is that Turkey is economically reliant on the European Union – as an export market, investor, provider of know-how and source of tourists. Complete disengagement from Europe is therefore also unlikely, though it can't be ruled out. 

What can be largely ruled out, however, is a reorientation towards the West while Erdogan remains in office. The democratisation and rule of law that would be necessary for this fundamentally go against his strategy for staying in power. The lesson that the European Union can take from this is that any concessions on the modernising of the Customs Union and visa-free travel would be tantamount to endorsing an autocratic regime. 

At the same time, the EU should not close its eyes to the fact that Ankara has to perform a balancing act in relation to Moscow. Turkey cannot suspend trade, diplomatic relations or strategic cooperation with Russia. As much as Turkey is strategically linked to the West, it is also reliant on a functioning relationship with Russia. 

Ultimately, how Turkey positions itself in the system of global competition will depend on geopolitical forces, and the extent to which the Turkish population resists Erdogan's authoritarian regime. 


Yasar Aydin

© Qantara.de 2023

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin