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Turkish diplomacy : keeping the balance

Wednesday 30 June 2010, by Ariana Ferentinou

One day at the end of October of 1989 - it must have been the 30th - I was standing inside one of the recording studios of the BBC, Bush House in London. In front of me a British studio manager was trying to control the sound coming out from a chaotic console. In front of him, behind the glass separation, two Turkish radio journalists from the BBC Turkish Section were broadcasting live. There was a lot of commotion in the room where I was standing. Two or three Turkish production assistants, all girls, were trying desperately to connect outside contributors to the studio via telephone lines. There was a lot of tension as it was the first mega-radio production of the Turks in the BBC...

Commentators from Turkey – I can remember Sami Kohen, even Cengiz Candar were kept on line from Turkey to be connected to the studio. Those were the days of lower technology but probably higher professional fervor. Benni Ammar, a brilliant Arab Jewish journalist, then heading one of the large departments of the BBC, who was there, suddenly turned to me and asked: “Do you know what Başbakan means in Turkish?” “No, I said.” “Prime minister,” he said, and explained that “baş” means ‘head.” And he went on to ask: “Do you know what Cumhurbaşkanı means?” “No,” I replied. “President. Turgut Ozal is becoming Cumhurbaşkanı. Write it down. This is very important moment for the region.”

My knowledge of Turkish was non-existent then, and I did not pay too much attention at Benny’s prophetic speculation. During those days, I was more interested in the serious changes in the political scene in Greece after the dramatic fall of the Andreas Papandreou government, his near fatal illness and his stormy private life, which was feeding rich material for the British cartoonists. It was later on that I understood why I should have noted down that date. It was the 31st of October 1989. Turgut Ozal had just been elected as the prime minister of Turkey for the second time. A few days later, on the 9th of November, the Grand National Assembly had elected him as the eighth president of the Turkish republic.

That was a period when Turkey had entered or re-entered the world stage after the dark coup years of the 80s: the British media - as well as the world media - suddenly began to focus on this funny-looking, short, charming man who was talking about a “new era” in Turkish foreign policy. They were mesmerized with him rediscovering the roots of the Turks in the Turkic republics of Central Asia, who themselves had just entering the world stage after the end of their domination by the “evil empire.” In that ever-smiling mustached bespectacled man the British media were analyzing the “new role” of an Islamic yet secular Turkey, which could fill in the political and cultural void left after the collapse of the Soviet doctrine. And they were debating about the extent of the potential expansionist policies by Turkey to the north and to the east. I remember that several Greek analysts pointing out of a possible “new Ottoman style expansionist policy that would pose a serious threat to Greece and Cyprus.” It was in the period of Özal that the idea that a Turkey by enhancing its ties with its Turkic (Islamic) brothers to the East could be a stronger regional power and dictate its own terms to Europe. Furthermore, it could be a stronger partner with the U.S.

When I moved to Turkey at the end of the 90s, I realized that the policy of “looking to our brothers in the north and east” was never really absent from the political discourse in Turkey. It was used several times by subsequent prime ministers as Tansu Ciller, Mesut Yilmaz and Bulent Ecevit whenever Turkey was cornered by the West or wanted something from the East. If my memory is not failing, was it not Ecevit who had first called the treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis “genocide!” Resorting to our “Muslim brothers in the East and our Turkic brothers everywhere” and “develop our traditional regional power base” has been a diplomatic framework used at least in the last two decades in Turkey.

So I am perplexed when I watch the surprise or even fear with which today’s commentators are seeing the foreign policy of the present Turkish government as a phenomenon of virginal generation perceived by the present Turkish foreign minister. Prof. Davutoglu’s - another charming smiling bespectacled mustached Turkish politician - extensive treatise on “diplomatic depth” has puzzled the neighbors of Turkey, especially in the West. They are reading in the Turkish prime minister’s recent tough talk against Israel, Davutoglu’s strong theoretical influence.

I think the discussion that should take place at the moment is not whether Turkey is changing its political fabric - and foreign policy - under an Islamic rooted government. Speaking specifically about diplomacy, it may be more appropriate to look at what is happening in Turkey lately - including the ups and downs of its diplomatic projects - as an issue of management or mismanagement of a policy whose main framework has remained the same at least since the time of Özal. It is a policy based on keeping sensitive regional, cultural, economic, political balances, staying a bit on the East and a bit on the West, but trying not to tilt too much on any side. Because, as it happened in the case of Özal’s “Turkic policies,” Turkey failed to materialize its vision of the great power because it over-stretched itself and appeared “too eager.”

Turkey’s fate seems to be to keep balances. In an interesting way it is like the geography of Turkey’s biggest city, Istanbul which has been trying all through its history to balance between two continents and at least two world views.

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Source : HdN, Sunday, June 20, 2010

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