29 Mayıs 2009
A French colleague Jerome Bastion and I are contributing to a program that is broadcast live from TRT Türk, the state’s radio and television’s new channel. The program, which is broadcast on weekdays, is based on the exchange of views between a Turkish journalist and a foreign journalist.
Jerome and I inaugurated the program on a Monday two weeks ago. As French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statements against Turkey’s European Union bid had made headlines, this was the first issue about which we exchanged views.
Bastion, who by the way speaks excellent Turkish, and I agreed that these statements were part of the electoral campaign as the European Parliament elections set for June 7 was nearing.
Last Monday, we had to start our third program together with the same issue, as Turkey’s negotiator Egemen Bağış’s statements against Sarkozy and Merkel had made headlines in daily Hürriyet. "Which role model do you prefer, that of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or that of Taliban?" he was asking the two leaders.
I was in Germany a day before Bağış’s statement appeared in the press. I asked some German politicians and experts present at the seminar that I attended whether Turkey bashing will increase as there are only few days left before the elections. "The economic crisis marks the campaign, not Turkey bashing. Merkel and Sarkozy’s statements did not even appear in the press," I was told.
Apparently, the press in Europe showed interest in the subject only after the Turkish leadership criticized Merkel and Sarkozy for their statements.
Returning to Istanbul, I realized that the repercussions of a statement made 15 days ago and hardly noticed in Europe were still continuing in Turkey. Let’s set aside the mistake of comparing Turkey’s prime minister with a terrorist. What is expected from Bağış is to give impetus to Turkey’s accession process, not to spend his energy making statements that are not contributing to the technical negotiation process. Bağış was picked for this job in order to force the bureaucracy to act more quickly and to eliminate obstacles in the reform process.
One would have expected Bağış to break the cycle of starting negotiations on only two chapters during each presidency. Yet it looks like talks on only one chapter, the one on taxation, will start during the Czech presidency. And that is not even for sure, since the Turkish side has left everything to the last minute. Actually, the aim was to start talks also on the chapter of social policy and employment.
Yet the government could not pass the law on trade union rights. The main reason behind the impasse is the fact that both employers and the trade unions are opposed to the draft of the new law.
The European Union insists that the threshold for any trade union to go to strike should be 30 percent. That is, 30 percent of the trade union members should give their green light to go to strike. The threshold at the actual draft law is 50 percent. Employer unions are opposed to that change. In Turkey workers can get organized in trade unions according to their sectors. However, the EU demands Turkey to allow the founding of separate trade unions in each and every working place.
On the other hand, the EU’s demand to decrease the number of necessary conditions to get union members makes workers happy. But the EU demand to expand members’ rights and trade union administrations to be more transparent and democratic is opposed by trade union "bosses."
What is expected from Bağış is to eliminate problems about this draft by working day and night, not to respond to Europeans. It is not an accomplishment to shelve social policies and employment chapters by saying to the EU, "There is economic crisis."
The radio station in which my colleague Jerome works is on strike. As I told him, I am a stranger to strikes. And it seems that I would continue to be.
1 Mayıs 2009
Since President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Azerbaijan had been informed at all stages of the Turkish-Armenian talks, some believe that the reaction of Azerbaijani President İlham Aliyev is artificial. They would argue that the Azerbaijani leader approves of the agreement reached by Ankara and Yerevan, but that he is obliged to react differently to appease public opinion.
It would be rather hard to be convinced by that argument, especially after the statements Aliyev made a few days ago in Brussels. Clearly emphasizing that there is contradictory information as to the content of the talks between Turkey and Armenia, Aliyev asked: "Is the solution to Nagorno-Karabakh linked to the Turkish-Armenian talks or not? There is a simple answer to this very simple question."
It is clear that Aliyev has previously asked this question to the Turkish leadership, but received either a vague answer, or one that did not satisfy him.
According to the information I got prior to the days when it became clear that Azerbaijan was upset about the talks, Ankara and Yerevan had agreed on the wording about Nagorno-Karabakh, a linkage that was expressed as, "Sufficient progress on the solution of Nagorno Karabakh is required to open the borders."
But the term "sufficient" was not sufficient to satisfy Aliyev. "What does sufficient mean?" he was said to have asked his entourage in disappointment.
Process cannot continue at Azerbaijan’s expense
In fact, it is due to Aliyev’s reaction that Ankara and Yerevan fell short of signing the road map document as well as sharing its contents with the public.
Otherwise, it looks pretty certain that the two sides reached a consensus on the specific steps to take to normalize relations, as well as the timetable. But now it became clear that the two sides would not be able to implement this timetable unless there is progress on the negotiations for Nagorno-Karabakh. The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, seems to have realized that it cannot continue this process at the expense of Azerbaijan.
As one of Turkey’s prominent writers, Cengiz Çandar, promptly pointed out, Turkey closed its borders with Armenia in 1993 after the neighboring country occupied the seven regions surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. So withdrawal from these regions might be enough to open the borders.
But the problem is that the Armenians do not want to withdraw unless there is an overall agreement on the solution. They do not want to give away their most important bargaining chip unless they can be guaranteed a solution that will satisfy them.
U.S. and Russia to step in
At this point, we should expect an intensification of diplomatic efforts to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. As Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan hinted, we should expect the United States to put its weight behind the talks. But American efforts alone might not be sufficient to reach an agreement. It looks rather difficult to forge a solution without the involvement of the Russian government. But the way to attract a constructive contribution from the Russians passes through the regional natural-gas agreements.
In this respect, heavy responsibility falls upon the shoulders of Aliyev. He will use his country’s natural gas as a trump card against the Russians. But he also knows that he cannot trade all of Azerbaijan’s gas for a deal in Karabakh. That will make his country dependent on Russia. He will have to play his cards very carefully. Will he coordinate with the Turkish leadership during that process? That remains to be seen.
18 Nisan 2009
Actually one should rather talk about a loss of confidence between the Aliyev administration and the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. The criticism voiced by the Azerbaijani press was lately targeting the AKP and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan specifically. The reason behind the confidence crisis lies in the Azerbaijani claim that they are being left in the dark about the Turkish-Armenian talks.
The administration has been using the press to voice its reaction to Ankara. Nowadays, Azerbaijani officials are no longer hiding their frustration about Turkey. In a speech he delivered recently in the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, the deputy foreign minister, Araz Azimov, said the Turkish side has not shared the documents that are being exchanged between the Turks and the Armenians about the timetable and the conditions of the normalizations of relations.
He said it’s been sad to learn the existence and the content of the documents from the Minsk group, the diplomatic group tasked by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes European as well as Russian diplomats.
Azimov also said in the conference, which was open to the representatives of foreign embassies and the non governmental organizations, that their proposal to coordinate Turkish-Armenian talks with negotiations conducted for Nagorno Karabkh was turned down by Ankara, as well as the proposal to reach an understanding on when the borders should be opened and under which conditions.
The Turkish side says it is informing Baku. Azerbaijani officials claim the opposite. It might be difficult at this stage to properly establish which side is telling the truth and which side is manipulating public opinion. What is real is the Azerbaijani anger.
As to the loss of confidence, we have a test case which will tell us to what degree the confidence crisis is real: the Nabucco project. It will be highly difficult to expect Azerbaijan to commit its gas to Nabucco, the natural gas pipeline project supported by the European Union to end its dependence on Russia.
This is President İlham Aliyev’s only tool of pressure if he wants to stop the Turkish government opening the borders before substantial progress on Nagorno Karabakh has been made. He has been telling the European delegations visiting him that the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceypan oil pipeline has not proven to be that beneficial, that the cheapest way to transport gas and oil to the international market is via Russia since the proper infrastructure already exists from the Azerbaijani frontier.
No doubt, talks with Armenia are proving a headache not only for the Turkish Foreign Ministry but for the Energy Ministry as well.
10 Nisan 2009
No doubt the ruling Justice and Development Party, or the AKP, is responsible for this major diplomatic failure. Instead of treating its European counterparts as allies, the AKP has preferred to act as the "other." One should also congratulate the Foreign Ministry for its success in making Turkey look unreasonable in a fully justified position.
The basic rule of multilateral diplomacy is to avoid being isolated. The moment the word was out about Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s intentions to be a candidate for NATO secretary-general, Turkey should have conveyed its fully justified reservations to its allies within NATO. It should have sought the United States’ support once it became clear that the EU was rallying behind Rasmussen.
What was also crucial was how Turkey formulated its reservations. Turkey’s reservations should have been phrased from the perspective of NATO’s interests, not of the Islamic world. The assertion that the Islamic world would react to Rasmussen has been counterproductive. Turkey should have said that Rasmussen would be a liability rather than an asset for an organization that will increasingly conduct out-of-area operations in predominantly Muslim geographies. It should have said that the election of Rasmussen to the top job of the alliance, whose operations will have to have a humanitarian dimension, would give ammunition to the likes of al-Qaeda.
The fact that Turkey acted like the spokesperson of the Islamic world has given ammunition to those who question Turkey’s European identity.
On the other hand, when the need raised for a fallback position in the face of the strong consensus over Rasmussen, the fact that the government entered into a petty negotiation has strengthened Turkey’s image that its red lines fades away once it receives small concessions. Turkey backed down from a position of principle, a position that it has upheld for the prestige of the alliance for some small gains, which are based on certain pledges. It remains to be seen to what degree these words will be kept.
The Turkish government should also feel ashamed of the policy it followed on France’s return to the alliance’s military wing. Turkey implied that it would not just silently watch France’s return to NATO. The government hoped unrealistically to negotiate a deal with France whereby Paris would ease its objection to Turkey’s accession process to the European Union. It seems that France did not even bother to talk to the Turkish side. The Turkish delegation in NATO tried to insert a phase of conditionality to the summit declaration in the lines of "the alliance welcomes France’s return to the alliance, subject to the council decision." If it had succeeded in inserting that phrase, NATO would have been obliged to take an official decision on France. No one took this initiative seriously within the alliance, and Turkey was left all alone on that issue as well.
All this humiliation is the result of the fact that the government does not know how to operate with Europeans. The foreign ministry also bears responsibility on the mishandling of the NATO issue.
Turkey’s policy on NATO evolved in a big vacuum. There was total chaos on the implementation of the policies endorsed because no one knew exactly what the general outlines of these policies were. It was unclear to NATO members what Turkey wanted for which reasons, even a few days before the summit.
The government was busy with elections. While he was going to every corner of Turkey for election campaigns, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did not realize that he had to talk one by one to EU leaders in order to avoid pressure from them, including his best friend, Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi, to back down. No one told him he had to lobby his European counterparts because there was no one in his entourage to guide him. Unfortunately the Foreign Ministry’s top administration could not see that the whole process was headed toward major humiliation. Even if it did, it has no access to the government. The AKP does not bother to listen to the ministry because its leaders so despise the "mon chers."
It is a fact that the ministry is totally sidelined. But the ministry’s top administration is not moving a finger to make its voice heard. The AKP was also in government four years ago. But things were very different when Uğur Ziyal was at the head of the foreign affairs.
3 Nisan 2009
But those who believe that Obama is coming to reward the Justice and Development Party, or the AKP, administration are missing a point. What pushed Obama’s aides to convince their president for an early visit to Turkey was not a need to show appreciation for the AKP’s policies. To the contrary, the sense of loosing Turkey has also played an important role in the administration’s reasoning. Let me come back to this point in a moment.
The Turkish officials believe National Security Adviser General James Jones has played a key role in the decision to come to Turkey. Jones not only knows Turkey well, it also understands Turkey’s importance. He is a close acquaintance to former Foreign Minister Hikmet Çetin, to the point of staying in his residence in Afghanistan when Çetin was in Kabul as NATO’s representative.
Jones and Obama’s advisers also see the role Turkey can play in achieving American foreign policy goals, as the two countries visions’ mainly overlap on various issues. In the eyes of the Obama administration there is great potential for an effective cooperation between the two countries, provided that Turkey does not slip away. Turkey has a track record under the AKP rule of going on its own. The fact that Turkey has become less predictable in Washington’s eyes has played a role in Obama’s team country analysis.
The fact that Obama comes to Turkey at the end of a Western tour is interpreted by the Turkish bureaucrats as a wish on the part of Obama’s team to emphasize Turkey’s western identity. The embassy in Washington has insistently and specifically asked Obama’s team whether he was coming to attend the summit of Alliance of Civilizations or for a bilateral visit. The answer was that Obama was coming for the bilateral visit. The fact that the speech he will deliver in Ankara at Parliament will be the highlight of the visit rather than his attendance at the summit in Istanbul, shows that the new administration in Washington wants to see, in the words of a Turkish observer "a transatlantic partner which has good relations with the Middle East, rather than a Middle Eastern country, which is also a NATO member." As another Turkish observer rightly put it, western institutions like the EU and NATO have become nearly non existent in the rhetoric of Turkish officials. NATO is celebrating its 60th anniversary this weekend, a phenomenon hardly noticed in Turkish public opinion. But whose fault is it?
The government has not moved a finger for a special commemoration.
It is thus very important for the AKP leaders to understand this nuance. The new administration in Washington wants to underline Turkey’s western characteristics, its secular democracy. They should not misinterpret the United States’ traditional way of dealing with Turkey: "first praise the administration by giving it a sense of importance and then talk about the details of cooperation."
The "my way or highway attitude," of the neoconservatives under the administration of George Bush has backfired not only in Turkey but all over the world. Now there is an administration in Washington that listens to its allies. But it also expects them to deliver. In order to avoid any crisis in the relations, AKP rulers should have the right analysis of the new administration.
24 Mart 2009
The first issue is now officially on the table as the French Parliament last week approved the country’s return to the alliance’s military wing. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to announce this officially in a letter to the secretary general of NATO and in calls to some alliance members.
Within the alliance, no one seems to raise an objection to this Ğ except Turkey. Ankara does not object to the French decision to return to the fold. On the contrary, if one looks at the official rhetoric, Turkey should be happy to see one of Europe’s strongest and most professional armies contribute to NATO again. The Turkish objection is rather technical, but obviously politically motivated.
Although Turkey is not officially linking TurkeyĞEU relations with FrenchĞNATO relations, Turkish officials have been telling the French that public opinion in Turkey has made the connection. They have told Paris that since France is seen as one of the countries blocking Turkish entry to the EU, the public will have a hard time understanding if its government consents to the French return to NATO. Basically, Ankara is implying that Paris should make a gesture of easing its position on Turkey by lifting its "unofficial veto" on opening talks in at least one or two accession chapters.
However, it looks like the French will not be backing down on their position regarding Turkey’s EU accession. They are not open to negotiation. It also seems unlikely that Turkey will be able to generate support on this issue from its allies. Hence it might be highly difficult to see Turkey using all in its capacity to spoil the enthusiasm of the French.
On the issue of NATO’s next secretary general, however, Turkey has a stronger case to make. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen seems to have increased his chance at the position with the U.S. decision to support him. But Turkey’s objection to Rasmussen is only partially due to the country’s strained relations with Denmark. Obviously Turkey resents the Rasmussen government’s position on letting the pro-PKK channel RojĞTV broadcast from Denmark. But this will not suffice to convince alliance members to opt for another candidate. Rasmussen’s handling of the cartoon crisis in 2006, however, is a relevant and stronger argument with which Turkey could mobilize support within NATO for its position.
During the crisis that erupted after the publication of a cartoon depicting Prophet Mohammad with a bomb in his turban, Rasmussen clearly ignored the sensitivities of the Muslim world. At a time when NATO is planning to increase its role in Afghanistan, how can Rasmussen go to Afghanistan or Pakistan as NATO’s representative?
It is quite clear that the EU does not want to back the candidates from Bulgaria and Poland. While the Bulgarian candidate is seen as not up to the task, the Polish candidate is opposed because the EU is loathe to have a known anti-Russian at the head of the alliance. Therefore, the European bloc will probably rally around Rasmussen. But despite this increasing support, one should expect Turkey to lobby hard against him. Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan has already conveyed his country’s concerns to the alliance’s current secretary general. If Turkey remains the sole dissenter within the 26-nation alliance on the conditions of French reentry to NATO’s military wing, it is hard to see the government insisting on its position. But if the vote on the candidacy of Rasmussen remains 25 to 1, it will not come as a surprise to see Erdoğan veto the Danish premier, even despite advice to the contrary from the Foreign Ministry.
23 Mart 2009
In fact, it was already disclosed prior to Gül’s visit that the two countries’ diplomats have been holding secret meetings from time to time to seek ways to normalize relations, but the substance of the talks which took place in some European cities had never been revealed. With Gül’s visit, the secret talks became official but the secrecy over the content still continues.
If we compare it for instance with the exploratory talks conducted between Turks and Greeks for more than five years, we have at least an idea of the frequency of the meetings through the statements made by the two governments on the place and date of the meetings. We don’t even know where and when Turkish and Armenian diplomats are meeting. This also stems from the fact that there is no diplomatic relations between the two sides.
Azerbaijani Press critical of Turkey
In order to understand to what degree they are close to an agreement, one should look to the Azerbaijani press. Whenever the likelihood of Turkish Armenian reconciliation would increase, Baku would become extremely anxious. When you scan now a day the Azerbaijani press you can easily sense the feeling of alarm. The Turkish government is under fire from the Azerbaijani press who fear Turkey will reconcile with Armenia at the expense of Azerbaijan. Since we can easily say that the Azeri press is not the most democratic press in the world, one could assert that the criticism against Turkey in the press reflects the resentment of Ilham Aliyev administration. The gist of the matter lays on whether the solution to the Nagorno Karabagh problem is part of the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. Basically, Turkish side is expecting Yerevan to stop encouraging the diaspora for the recognition of 1915 killings of Armenians as genocide, accept the establishment of a joint commission to investigate the 1915 events and recognize the Turkish borders in exchange for opening the borders and establishment of diplomatic relations.
10 Mart 2009
As soon as he was inaugurated, Turkey invited Obama to the summit of the initiative of Alliance of Civilizations, scheduled to take place the first week of April. Following his pledge that he will visit a Muslim country to convey his messages of reconciliation with the Islamic world during the opening months of his administration, word was out that Turkey was among the countries along with Egypt and Indonesia, for the site of that speech. After the prime minister’s Davos incident though, it was only natural to speculate that Turkey will no longer be an option. Administration officials made it clear that Turkey will not be the site of the major address that he pledged to deliver in a Muslim capital. Actually, this comes as a relief. The fact that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton preferred to emphasize Turkey’s secular nature rather identifying it as a moderate Muslim country, comes as a relief too.
Turkey and the United States are allies not because Turkey is a moderate Muslim country, but because they share the same values and visions. (Obviously one has to set aside the Bush era.) The fact that Turkey has a Muslim population makes it a more valuable ally to Washington since it brings its insight of the Muslim world, but it is not the main basis of the relationship.
Turkey is centuries away as far as mentalities are concerned from the Muslim masses Obama wants to address. Even in their eyes, Turkey is part of the Western world not of the Eastern world. Yes, this trend has been partially reversed under the administration of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. The fact remains however that Turkey would still not be the perfect site to address the Islamic world. Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East peace process together with reconciliation with Iran and Syria, all these make Turkey an indispensable ally for Obama.
Turkish - Armenian reconciliation behind Obama’s visit
But let’s not exaggerate Turkey’s role. As journalists we should stop asking the U.S. officials if Turkey can play a role of mediator. The United States no longer needs a mediator. It will hold direct talks with Syria and Iran. What Turkey can do, as it has done during previous administrations, is to offer its insight, be helpful to break the mutual prejudices. Metaphorically, as the sides will have difficulty in speaking the same language at the beginning, Turkey could help translate, which will facilitate mutual understanding.
The fact that Turkey is in the right position to help the new administration in its foreign policy priorities is not by itself enough to explain Obama’s early visit. The prospect for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation must have also played a role in this decision. We know that there has been considerable progress in the negotiations between Ankara and Yerevan to normalize relations. Although both capitals have been very careful not to have any leak to the press as to the level of progress of the talks, there are signs that the two sides are very close to a final agreement.
However, prior to the declaration of Clinton’s visit, Ankara was evaluating the right timing. Ankara was questioning the merits of reaching an agreement before April 24. "What happens if we reach an agreement and announce it prior to April 24, and despite that, U.S. Congress passes a resolution recognizing Armenian claims of genocide or Obama makes a statement on that direction as he pledged during his electoral campaign. It will look like a major diplomatic defeat," a senior Turkish official familiar with the talks with Armenians had told me. So, it would not come to me as a surprise if the Turkish side had started to drag its feet to gain time. It only looks logical for Obama to come to Turkey to encourage a reconciliation, which in turn will facilitate backing down from his pledge. After all, it became quite evident that Washington is unwilling to hamper its relations with Ankara because of genocide claims. All the delegations that visited Ankara after Obama’s inauguration, from Robert Wexler to Richard Durbin, have told the Turkish side that the likelihood of recognition either by the Congress or the administration is very dim.