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A new regional power in the Eastern Mediterranean?
October 14, 2011 08:47AM
Turkey's choice between strategic partnership and competition with the West
By George Niculescu, EGF Affiliated Expert
On 27 June 2011, a roundtable discussion in Brussels enabled an interesting debate on the future of Turkish domestic and foreign policy. While internal debate on how to deal with internal political, ethnic and religious diversity, and on the future of Turkish democracy in the third term of the AKP government is stronger than ever, Turkey might be emerging as a new regional power in the Eastern Mediterranean. This would be the outcome of a number of factors, including: internal political stability reinforced by the June 12th elections; continued economic growth since 2002, under two AKP governments; the recent sweeping changes in the Arab world, and Turkey's potential ability to play a regional model role; and the indecisive response of the European Union and the United States to the challenges stemming from the Arab Spring. To that end, Ankara might start to adjust its relations with the key regional players (i.e. Egypt, Israel, Iran, US and the EU).
What sort of regional power might Turkey actually be? In light of the discussion with Turkish experts during the roundtable above, it might look like: an over-assertive power seeking to fill in, what it perceives to be, a regional power vacuum; a player manifesting increased proclivity towards unilateralism exacerbated by cooperation with controversial actors like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood; a gloomy partner of the European Union seeking to change the current status as hopeless candidate to EU membership into a more influential role as strategic partner; an actor insensitive to Western strides to solve the Cyprus issue which had blocked progress on its own way to European integration, and had created the current deadlock in NATO-EU relations.
However, this is not a Turkey which its Western Allies and friends would like to see. One cannot stop Ankara playing a more prominent regional role, not only in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also in the Caspian-Black Sea area and in Central Asia. However, Ankara should not take for granted the current internal political stability while EU membership-inspired democratic reforms leading to peaceful solutions for effectively dealing with domestic diversity would be slowed down or completely shut down. Authoritarian solutions may work in the Russian Federation or in China, but it is doubtful that, for example, it would bridge the Kurdish gap in Turkey.
Neither should Ankara take for granted Turkish economic growth, fuelling the last 10 years of prosperity, while putting EU membership on a second footing. Many Turks, including in leading positions, are forgetting that the EU is a security blanket for Turkey against possible hard times which might be laying ahead, as well as the importance of Turkey's EU candidate status for stimulating foreign investment even from non-EU countries (like China or India).
Turkish government should also remember that making steady progress on solving the Cyprus issue would equate with removing a huge hurdle in the run-up to membership of the EU, which is essential to Turkish aspirations for regional leadership.
And finally, but not least important, Turkey should carefully assess its own strengths and weaknesses, its perceptions on the strengths and weaknesses of the European Union and the United States, as well as on who needs more the other in its relationship with the West, and figure out whether it wouldn't actually gain more from a revitalized strategic partnership with its traditional Allies in the West than from starting a hopeless competition with them, possibly from within new regional alliances.