GeriBarçın Yinanç Turkey opts for Ahmadinejad
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Turkey opts for Ahmadinejad

While EU foreign ministers expressed serious concerns and called for an inquiry into the election, Turkish President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did not wait long to congratulate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who claimed victory in his country’s recent polls. Both Turkish leaders called Ahmadinejad separately on Sunday, as his rivals were challenging the election results.

This apparently stems from the fact that:

First, prior to the Iranian elections, Ankara predicted a victory for Ahmadinejad over his rival Mir Hossein Mousavi; and

Second, although there have been irregularities, the prevailing view holds that allegations of serious fraud to the point of stealing the elections from Mousavi, as his supporters claim, are exaggerated.

Although Western countries had hopes that the advent of a moderate leader might have opened the way for reconciliation, some Turkish decision-makers are of the view that Ahmadinejad’s victory is not bad news. To the contrary, officials familiar with Iran believe that normalization of relations between Iran and the West can be achieved more easily with Ahmadinejad than Mousavi.

"Had Mousavi come to the government, his job would have been very difficult. The conservative, anti-American mullahs would have tied his hands and made it very tough for him to engage in dialogue with the United States," said one official, who asked to remain anonymous. The same official reminded me that the main supporters of Mousavi, who formed the camp of moderates for former presidents Hashimi Rafsancani and Mohammad Khatami, ruled the country in the past, but failed to bring about change, adding, "Those who thought that Mousavi would have changed Iran’s nuclear policy are mistaken."

Ahmadinejad, a better interlocutor

Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, has strengthened his hand after the election, which will make it easier for him to challenge the radical clerics in case he needs to. It is no secret that Ahmadinejad has the backing of radical clerics, including the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamanei. But he is less radical, and more open to reconciliation and dialogue, than his supporters, some Turkish experts say.

In fact, according to one expert, the influence of the religious cleric is gradually eroding as Ahmadinejad takes steps to make Iranian politics more influenced by civilians, including, apparently, replacing some religious officials with civilians in certain administrative posts. Ahmadinejad has made many trips to Iran’s rural areas, prompting others to go there as well. No wonder he has done so well in rural districts. Obviously, one cannot ignore the picture that came out during the election campaign, as well as in the aftermath of the elections. A good chunk of Iranian society is not happy with the country they live in. They want change. Ahmadinejad might then take the course of action of Armenian President Serge Sarkissian, who was believed to be a hawk compared to his rival Levon Ter Petrossian, who mounted a serious challenge. Instead of ignoring this, Sarkissian, once elected, absorbed the message of those who voted for Ter Petrossian and defied expectations by taking a more moderate line on relations with Turkey.

Furthermore, Ahmadinejad might also realize that he can no longer continue his populist economic policies based on distributing money to the poor without generating wealth, which was only possible with high oil revenues. With the current low oil prices, the Iranian economy might hit the wall, prompting the president to look for a way out of his country’s isolation.

As far as Turkish-Iranian relations are concerned, the Turkish government seems content to have Ahmadinejad at the head of the Iranian government. Ahmedinejad is said to enjoy excellent relations with both President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan. In fact, he is known to be an admirer of Erdoğan, especially of his style - perhaps even more so after Erdoğan walked off the stage during a meeting in Davos at which he had a harsh exchange of words with Israeli President Shimon Peres. But personal issues aside, Turkish officials believe the two countries enjoyed good relations during Ahmadinejad’s first term in office.
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EU drive weighs over US interests

It was approximately a year ago. An official from the European Union Secretariat General in Ankara was lamenting the delay in starting talks on the chapter for taxation Because of the lobbying efforts of rakı producers, the government was not bowing to pressure to align its laws with European Union standards on value-added tax and excise duties, and eliminate "discriminatory" levies on alcohol and imported tobacco. "I just do not understand. The majority of the rakı producing sector is in the hands of the American firms. We just can not progress on accession talks with the European Union so that the interests of American firms are not hurt," he was saying without hiding his dismay.

Talks on the chapter for taxation finally started last month. Turkey will obviously end up decreasing taxes on imported alcohol.

I personally do not expect Turkish raki drinkers to desert the national drink and convert to the club of "whisky drinkers," in one night just because the prices of imported alcohol have fallen.

But there is an ironic situation: call it neighborhood pressure or being more royalist than the king; with the exception of the strongholds of the "white Turks," such as Istanbul and Izmir, some are facing problems related to the consumption of alcohol in public places. There are serious doubts on the fact that the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, wants to impose an alcoholĞfree life style. The irony is that, the AKP will go on record for providing imported alcohol at lower prices.

I am sure some party officials might use this argument to prove that the AKP does not have a hidden agenda.

Meanwhile, one might expect that a lengthy article in daily Milliyet criticizing the opening of talks on the taxation chapter, on the grounds that it will not serve Turkey’s interest, penned by one of the paper’s most prominent columnists, should meet the reaction of the bureaucrats. "On the contrary," said one of them. "At least one journalist took the time and energy to look into the issue. He got it wrong, but then again he showed an interest," he said.

While the press is usually critical of the government’s slow pace to push for reforms to speed up accession talks, the government seems to be complaining about the media’s indifference to the EU process.

Turkey’s chief negotiator Egemen Bağış complained last week of the fact that no one reported about his talks with Czech officials during a visit to Prague, whereas the statement he made upon his return to Turkey relating to opposition leader Deniz Baykal immediately made the headlines.

He has a point. It is a fact that the press is not doing a good job on covering the accession process. Take the latest example. Very few media outlets provided a full fledge analysis on the consequences of starting talks on the chapter for taxation.

Bağış was complaining equally from the stance of the opposition parties. Speaking at a press conference last week to evaluate his first six month in office, he basically placed the blame with opposition parties for the slow pace of reforms.

He was reminded by many of the journalists present at the press conference, however, that in certain instances, it is not the obstruction of the opposition blocking the way for legal amendments.

Take the case for establishing an independent body to investigate corruption. Right now there is no independent body to investigate corruption.

Or take the case of the office for the public procurement. One can hardly say it has full control over public procurement bids. Bağış admitted that part of the delay was caused by the bureaucracy.

Apparently, on the case for the public procurement office, the Treasury has been raising some objections.

Instead of placing the blame on the opposition all the time, Bağış might opt for pushing internal mechanisms. He might not admit it; but this maybe even harder than overcoming the obstacles of the opposition.
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AKP’s reforms a la carte

The reopening of the Greek Orthodox Halki seminary on the island of Heybeliada, shuttered since 1971, is back on the agenda. This will no doubt spark reactions from two groups. I call the first, "the Lausanne group," the second, "the Vatican group." The Lausanne group will claim that there is a reciprocity principle in the peace treaty signed in the aftermath of World War I. The reciprocity principle is established between the Greek minority in Turkey and the Turkish minority in Greece, according to this group.

First of all, not all the experts share this view. "There is not a direct reciprocity. There are parallel commitments," some experts argue. Second, the same experts argue that the concept of human rights has changed since then.

Human rights, whether minority rights, religious rights or women’s rights, have become a top priority in international relations. Thus it comes as a big surprise when Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s Chief Negotiator on EU talks, says the reopening of the seminary is an internal issue. He should be the last one to say that.

In fact he should be the first one to know that human rights cannot be perceived as an internal issue especially in a country that aspires to become a member of the EU.

Meanwhile, even if one assumes that there is a reciprocity principle as far as the Greek minority and Turkish minority is concerned, has this negative linkage led to any improvement in the situation of the Turks in Western Thrace? It has not. Wouldn’t it be better if Turkey changed tactics, started by improving the rights of the minorities in Turkey and then continue with pursuing an improvement of the rights of Turkish minorities in other countries?

Can you imagine Turkey complaining of Greece to the EU? Can you imagine a platform where, whenever Turkey starts criticizing the situation in Greece, the answer is, "yes but you don’t have a better record."

The wrong doing of Greece should not legitimize the wrong doing in Turkey.

The Turkish government should respond to the requests of its own citizens: the Greek minority. Then it will realize that the positive side effect of such a policy will enable it to exert a more effective pressure on third countries with which it wants to pursue a human rights agenda.

The second group, which I call, "the Vatican group," is composed of those that oppose the reopening of the seminary saying: "This will start a process that will lead to the recognition of the ecumenical title of the Greek Patriarchate. We will create a new Vatican." First of all, is the Vatican "a breeding ground for evil ideas?" Second, if the orthodox churches have decided among themselves that the one in Istanbul is the first among equals, who are the Turks to disagree with that? Third, what is wrong with being home to an important religious institution? Turkey can only benefit from the existence of an important religious institution on its soil. 

All these are difficult to be accepted by the majority of Turks because they are taken hostage by the official ideology and the paranoia inflicted on them by the state institutions.

It looks like the honor of reopening the Halki seminary will most likely belong to the Justice and Development Party, or the AKP. Just as it will go on the record for being the most courageous political party to curb the authority of the army, it might as well go on history as the party that has done the most to improve the rights of the minorities.

But there is a problem about the democratic and reform oriented nature of the AKP. It is very selective.

In other words it only moves on the issue that suits its interests. It will look for ways of reopening the seminary, because the AKP believes it is cost free and it will gain the appreciation of not only the EU but the United States as well. The AKP can introduce through a midnight operation a legal amendment paving the way for the military to be judged in civil courts.

The AKP says the legal amendment is required for the EU reform. But when it comes to other reforms that the EU has been emphasizing, the AKP is playing the three monkeys; like making the necessary amendments to avoid political interference on the appointments of judges, or creating an independent body to investigate corruption. These are just two among several issues where the EU has been asking for changes, which does not suit the interests of the AKP. That obviously sheds doubt on the credibility of the AKP.
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Obamasceptics should be aware that it takes two to tango

The US Middle East policy is designed by President Obama. It is a president driven policy. This, according to an Israeli scholar, constitutes a sharp contrast to the second term of Bush’s presidency, when there was a dual administration; that of Secretary of State Rice and that of Vice President Cheney, and Bush acting like a Supreme Court judge I will not hide it. Yes, I am a fan of American President Barack Obama. No, I do not think he is superman. Therefore I do not have extremely high expectations from him. He might end up not delivering enough. However, looking from the theoretical and conceptual level, I believe he has got the right thinking and the right vision. It remains to be seen to what degree this vision will translate into reality.

Obviously, it is only natural to be suspicious of his performance. But I find the complete lack of faith in Obama, the conviction of some that he does not say anything new and that there is and there will be no radical changes in the U.S. administration’s policies, astonishing.

That is why the analysis of an Israeli scholar on the Obama administration’s policy on the Middle East has strengthened my view that we are dealing with a totally new mentality and way of doing things in Washington. I would like to share this analysis delivered at the Halki International Seminar that took place last week with Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review readers.

First of all the U.S. policy in the Middle East is designed by President Obama. It is a president-driven policy.

This, according to the Israeli scholar, constitutes a sharp contrast to the second term of George Bush’s presidency, where there was a dual administration: that of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and that of Vice President Dick Cheney and Bush acting like a Supreme Court judge.

Second, the enormous discipline of the electoral campaign team is carried to the administration. Once a decision is taken, everyone goes along with it.

This is the administrative aspect; as to the substance, the scholar has emphasized five points: President Obama is committed to doing something substantial, to achieve a breakthrough on the Arab-Israeli sphere, in the early stage of his administration.

He is willing to engage with the "nasties," like Iran.

He knows he cannot do it alone, he is aware that he needs allies.

His is an interest-driven policy. He has a Kissingerian approach. As the scholar said, it might sound a bit weird to have a democratic president with Kissingerian thinking, yet what drives President Obama’s policy is the answer to the question: What is in our interest? He is the first American president in the history to say: A Palestinian state is in our national interest.

President Obama’s policy is based on the concept that all major problems are interconnected.

Whereas with the Bush administration, there were separate tracks for Syria, Palestine, Iran etc.

He knows for instance that in order to engage with Iran he needs to get the Israeli-Palestinian track moving in the direction of a solution. In the words of the scholar, "He needs to get Palestinian suffering out of the TV screens."

All of this is qualitatively different than Bush’s approach.



Message to the Arab world: ’End hypocrisy’

His speech in Cairo is also testimony to the fact that he will have a different way of dealing with the actors in the Middle East.

The main message to the Arab world, according to the scholar, was the following:

"We want to help you, but we are not going to take out the chestnuts out of the fire for you. You need to help us if you want us to help you."

Obama has also told Arabs what to do in order to help him.

He told the Arab leaders to stop whining and start thinking in terms of their national interests. He also told the Arab world to give an end to hypocrisy. By hypocrisy, he meant the habit of Arab leaders to say one thing in the White House and another in front of the cameras. He no longer wants Arab leaders to use their public as a pretext.

But as the scholar rightly put it, Obama’s main challenge remains what he called, the "leadership deficit." With the exception of King Abdullah of Jordan, there aren’t any willing and able leaders who can combine courage and credibility.

Which brings us to the fact that it takes two to tango.

In fact in the Middle East it takes two, three, four, five to tango, all dancing to different tunes. Thus Obama skeptics should be aware of the fact that if he might not be able to deliver enough, that might not be totally his fault.
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From the Halki International Seminar: Caucasus quagmire

Had I started to write this article during the weekend, I would have started by saying that despite the relative calm in the Caucasus, the region’s future proved to be one of the most debated issues during the Halki International Seminar. Just as I came back from three days of brainstorming this weekend with a group composed of journalists, academics, current and ex-bureaucrats from the Eurasia region, news came about the suicide bomb attack against Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the head of Russia's turbulent Ingushetia region, reminding us how relative calm can be easily disrupted.

This actually is the gist of the matter when it comes to frozen conflicts. The term "frozen" might be delusional since it might hide the fact that a frozen conflict might in a second melt down to a bloody war.

In this sense, the debate on the frozen conflicts in the Caucasus was an eye opener for me, since the discussions have provided not only information about the current situation but also a perspective on what to expect.

It goes without saying that Russia’s policy towards the region is shaped by its "sphere of influence" approach to security.

"For Russia, there are no frozen conflicts," a Russian scholar bluntly said. "These areas are simply instruments for Russia’s policy to exert influence. Hence, Moscow wants to keep the status quo to maintain its sphere of influence," he added.

The West is critical of Russian "sphere of influence" approach to security. But let’s face it Ñ the West is also responsible for Russia’s resistance to give up its old reflexes. The United States and the EU have never been sensitive enough to Moscow’s sense of encirclement. That’s why the war last summer between Georgia and Russia caught everyone by surprise.

The scholar implied that Russian intervention took place in order to stop NATO enlargement. In fact, it did bring about the expected result: a pause to the North Atlantic Alliance’s enlargement.

And no one contested the view that it will be almost impossible for Georgia to get back Abkhazia and South Ossetia, at least in the foreseeable future. As the Russian scholar rightly put it, Russia has created two new "Northern Cyprus," but without the consequences that the creation of Northern Cyprus has had on Turkey.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not dominating the Russian - European/American agenda, the way Cyprus problem does so to the Turkish - European agenda.

Yet, Russia needs a positive agenda with the West, argued the same scholar. Hence, it might take some steps towards the resolution of other frozen conflicts in the region, such as Trans Dniester and Nagorno Karabakh.

Many agreed that the easiest one to be solved is the problem in Tarns Dniester, since it's neither an ethnic nor a religious conflict. One should not forget that, no matter how the problem is solved, Russia will only be helpful with the condition that the result will not hamper its policy of keeping Moldova in its orbit.

The same is valid for Nagorno Karabakh. It is much more difficult to solve it, though. Since it is much more complicated and involves more stakeholders, such as Turkey. As an Azerbaijani participant rightly pointed out, a solution should provide a win-win situation for all the regional players. None should think that a solution would create an outcome that will be contrary to its interest. The Russian presence and influence in Armenia is well known, whereas Azerbaijan is trying to maintain an equidistant relationship with both Russia and the West. The resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh, which will be accompanied with the normalization of relations between Ankara and Yerevan, will inevitably end with Armenia and Azerbaijan coming out of the Russian orbit. Though some speculate that Russia wants a solution to Nagorno Karabakh in order to further isolate Georgia, the fear of loosing Armenia and Azerbaijan (and with it their gas) will outweigh its desire to see Georgia further isolated. Thus, Russia will remain one of the greatest challenges as far as the resolution to the Nagorno Karabakh problem is concerned.

One last note from the seminar: some participants were wondering what happened to Turkey’s initiative, the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation platform. I told them one should not be surprised of the fact that we no longer hear much about it. It was doomed to fail from the very beginning. It was not well thought out in advance. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his advisors came up with the idea and announced it without a healthy internal debate and tossed it to the bureaucrats so that they would fill it in with substance. It was just another product of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s ambition to prove it is a player.

The problem is, if it comes with empty plans like that, it will soon see its credibility in pieces.
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A stumbling block to Nabucco project

We are at the last quarter of June, and it looks like it will take a miracle to have a signing ceremony in the remaining days of the month.

In contrast to the expectations, it was not possible to reach an agreement on taxing issues.

 

It seems that we are back to square one on the Nabucco project, the pipeline that will carry Central Asian natural gas to Europe via Turkey. Last month there was information that Turkey had eased the terms by which gas will transit its territory. Tough disagreement on tax issues remained to be the last problem; hopes were high that it will be solved quickly in order to have the intergovernmental agreement laying the legal framework among the transit countries ready to be signed by late June.

 

We are at the last quarter of June, and it looks like it will take a miracle to have a signing ceremony in the remaining days of the month.

 

In contrast to the expectations, it was not possible to reach an agreement on taxing issue. But this is not the only reason why there is a delay on getting the intergovernmental agreement ready.

 

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Future of Iran, ramifications for global politics

At its 20th anniversary, this year’s Halki International Seminar, which provides brainstorming exercises for officials, academics and journalists amid a not so stormy, on the contrary pleasant, atmosphere of a small island in the Aegean, took place shortly after the elections in Iran. As the participants arrived at the Halki Seminary, the storm in Iran had not ceased completely, hence the discussion on the future of this country as well as the ramifications for regional and international politics was one of the hottest topics on the agenda at the three-day seminar. To start with, the statement of a European official who said the West did not know much about Iran was not contested at all. As one observer put it, until now the threat perception of Iran has been driven by the inability to read Iran. The difficulty of reading Iran to this day constitutes a major challenge to understanding the country and devise strategies accordingly. Operating from this fact, experts on the panel about Iran could only speculate about possible scenarios and were unable to offer a clear indication of which one would be the likely outcome.

The worse scenario, according to scholars, is the Tiananmen Square scenario, whereby protests are suppressed by violence and the regime becomes more aggressive with a defensive reflex. This would postpone reconciliation between Iran and the United States, since even if US president Obama would like to continue its engagement policy; he would be stopped by Congress. In fact Obama has currently become under fire by the Republicans for being not outspoken enough on the tension in Iran.

One possible scenario is the gradual frustration of the supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, whereas another one is the exact opposite; what an American scholar called the beginning of a clean revolution. According to that scenario, repression will breed more opposition, leading to regime change.

A healthy guess for what to expect next obviously requires an understanding of what exactly happened during and after the elections. But no clear-cut answers were provided on why the regime panicked against Mousavi and his allies given the fact that they themselves were the product of the same system.

One observer said the advent of Mousavi to power would have inevitably bring more pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program, whereas in the eyes of a journalist from the region who is an expert on Middle Eastern issues, the current situation testifies to a deeper problem. Velayet-e faqih, the theological underpinning of the Iranian revolution introduced by Khomeini is being challenged. In other words, the theocracy wherein senior Islamic jurists exercise authority is contested. In concrete terms it is the power, authority, rule and in fact legitimacy of the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, questioned. And if the "the principle of the supremacy of the jurisprudent is challenged seriously, than this will be felt in almost every corner of the Middle East," according to the journalist with close ties to Iran.

Obviously will all the uncertainties and lack of healthy information about the current developments in Iran it becomes quiet difficult to foresee what will happen to Obama’s engagement policy with Iran. According to an American scholar, Obama genuinely wants dialogue with Iran, but the current developments have put a pause. Obama’s administration will have to endorse a wait and see policy, and its future steps towards this country will basically depend on how the situation will evolve.

Yet whether Khamanei and Ahmadinejad maintain their power or loose it gradually, two challenges will remain the same on the path for reconciling with Iran. The first one is the nuclear program. There is a general consensus among Iranians and even among dissidents that the country’s nuclear program should continue. Although this view was challenged during the discussion with the argument that there is however a debate among Iranians on what cost to pay to go ahead with the program, the fact remains that it will be simply to na?ve to expect any government even if headed by moderates to give up nuclear activities.

The other challenge, voiced by another expert would be Iran’s request to be recognized as a regional power. But this is what exactly worries the states in the Gulf. The nightmare scenario for them is a grand bargain between America and Iran at their expense. Hence as long as US will feel obliged to maintain its security guaranties to the Gulf states and its quarter and a million soldiers in an area from Oman to Afghanistan, Iran’s request to be recognized as a regional power will prove to be a difficult one to accommodate.
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Pakistan and the lack of soft power in Turkish foreign policy

It would be fair to say that for the past 10 or so years, Pakistan has not really been on Turkey’s radar screen. But those who are familiar with both countries know that there is a special bond between them. Turkey and Pakistan enjoy a particular relationship based on the mutual affection of the two nations toward each other. Public-opinion polls in Turkey always indicate that Pakistan ranks at the top of the list for Turks when they are asked about which nation they like the most.

Third parties can also testify to the positive sentiments of Pakistani people towards Turks. Pakistani people take pride in Turkey’s accomplishments and you can hear Pakistani officials say that they use Turkey as an example.

But when we look at Pakistan today, one cannot help but be puzzled by the irony of the situation. Pakistan, a country that Turkey says is its closest friend, is about to fall from the precipice. Can Turkey take pride in a country that it calls its brother? Can Turkey say proudly that it served as a model to Pakistan?

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was in Pakistan this week, where he proudly told the journalists accompanying him that Turkey is in touch with all the factions in Pakistan, be they secular, religious or tribal. Davutoğlu also went to Pakistan with a $10 million check and a cargo plane full of humanitarian aid.

I have no doubt that Turkey holds tremendous respect among different factions in Pakistan. I am sure that there has been plenty of humanitarian assistance provided to Pakistan. But apparently that has not sufficed to keep Pakistan from potentially earning the status of a failed state. Turkey obviously failed to amplify its prominent and influential position within the political, military and economic elites to the country’s overall society.

The problem stems from the absence of a very important element in Turkish foreign policy: soft power. One of the best examples of the use of soft power is the European Union. The 27-nation bloc uses its soft power over its neighbors to create a region of stability and welfare. Individual European countries also use their soft power on different countries.

For years, Turkish opinion-makers have lamented why Turkey does not have foundations and associations similar to Great Britain’s British Council, Germany’s Goethe Institute or France’s Institute Français. Political foundations affiliated with different parties in Germany are active all over the world, including Turkey. Can you imagine a foundation affiliated with the Republican People’s Party, or the CHP, being active in the Middle East? Looking at the miserable performance of the CHP as the opposition party, the question becomes rather irrelevant. While I was discussing the role of soft power with a Turkish official, he first reminded me of a famous English saying: "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." He then continued: "Soft power is about others willing to be like you. It is about provoking others to be like you. But for that, you need to be in a situation where everyone should be envious of you.

Look at Turkey. Can we say that we are a country that others will aspire to be like? A country where the political class is filled with short-sighted people, where wealth is not equally distributed, a country that has not succeeded to reconcile with its Kurdish population?"

It is impossible not to share this pessimism. Turkey needs to solve its internal problems before trying to become a regional or an international player.

Turkey really does have the potential of assuming a leadership role and being a role model to the countries in its region.

However, if, like in Pakistan, we go around bragging that Turkey is in dialogue with all the factions in the society, then someone might come up and say "so what?"
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Action expected from Bağış

What is expected from Turkey’s chief negotiator Egemen Bağış is to give impetus to European Union accession talks, not to spend his energy making statements that are not contributing to the technical process. He was picked for this job in order to force the bureaucracy to act more quickly and to eliminate obstacles in the reform process. 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.
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Aliyev will have to play his cards carefully

Only few of the elements of the road map to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia have been leaked to the press, with the two sides refraining from disclosing its contents. This is obviously due to the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. Either the two sides could not reach an understanding on the wording, or else they decided to keep it secret, fearing Azerbaijan’s reaction. 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.
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Nabucco taken hostage by the Nagorno-Karabakh problem

It looks like the storm in Azerbaijani-Turkish relations has lost its intensity. It is, however, not possible to say the same for the confidence crisis that has erupted in Baku vis a vis Ankara. The confidence based on the motto "one nation two states" seems to have received a big blow due to the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation talks. 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.
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Foreign Ministry is also to blame for NATO embarrassment

What happened in NATO was a real embarrassment for Turkish foreign policy. Leave aside the consequences on national interests; Turkey’s respectability was compromised because of pure clumsiness. 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.
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Obama visit should be read properly

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to come to Turkey at such an early stage in his administration has surprised many in Turkey. Apparently even those pundits who are watching both countries in Washington D.C. were also taken by surprise. In fact many thought that it was too much of a reward for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, especially after he has stormed out of the Davos panel following a harsh exchange of words with Israel’s President Shimon Peres. 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.
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NATO summit poses dilemmas for Turkey

As the NATO summit to be held on April 3 approaches, two issues pit Turkey against its allies within the alliance: France’s reentry into NATO’s military structure and the group’s future secretary general. 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.
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Anxiety in Baku as Turkey Armenia nears reconciliation

Both Ankara and Yerevan have been successful so far to avoid any leakage on the negotiations to normalize relations that has gained speed following the visit of President Abdullah Gül to Armenia last September.

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.

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Obama's visit a push for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation

Yes it will sound like a cliche. But a bit of knowledge of Obama’s foreign policy priorities and looking to the map, it should not come as a surprise to see the new President holding one of his earlier visits to Turkey. 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.
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G-20, EU & Hamas messages from the UK

Turkish President Abdullah Gül was recently on a state visit to Tanzania. During official talks, his host, the president of Tanzania reminded him that Turkey will be participating to the G-20 summit that will take place in London next month. "We see Turkey as our representative. Be our voice in the summit," he told Gül.

Busy touring Turkey for local elections, I wonder whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who claims to be the "voice of the quiet masses," is aware of the fact that he is scheduled to leave for London in couple of weeks. A newspaper has recently run a photograph showing him looking at the ceiling during the G-20 summit last November, together with a comment complaining of his indifference to the economic crisis and a note that he went to the Washington summit unprepared.

Maybe one should not be so unfair to the prime minister. Apparently most of the participants went to the summit unprepared as the first meeting after the first wave of global economic meltdown, gathering the leaders of the world’s most developed 20 countries has ended without concrete results.

In order to avoid the same outcome the British Government has been pushing the participating countries to come prepared this time.

As far as Turkey is concerned, it looks like the British are concerned that, preoccupied with the local elections, the Turkish government might not grasp the importance of the summit. Turkish Treasury officials have been actively participating in the working groups that have been formed following the Washington summit. But at the end of the day the governments are decisive on the outcomes.

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Waiting for the decision of the ICC on al - Bashir

The International Criminal Court, or ICC, is expected to announce today whether it will issue a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes in Darfur. Turkey’s Western allies will be watching what the government will do, since the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has not shied away from hosting a leader accused of war crimes.

Turkish government tries to explain its policy on al-Bashir in terms of real politics. First of all there is a belief that what lies behind the prosecution of al-Bashir is partly some of the western countries desire to see Sudan dismantled so that they can better exploit the riches of that country. For those who are not familiar with the issue let’s remind at this stage that the Christian south is rich with oil whereas the north, where the central government is located, is predominantly Muslim. The Turkish government is for the territorial unity of Sudan. It looks like the government is of the view that the presence of al-Bashir is indispensable to keep Sudan’s territorial integrity. Once he is gone, the Turkish side believes that Sudan will slide into civil war and the dismemberment will be inevitable. The Turkish side also reminds of the reaction of the 53-nation African Union, which said earlier this month it would lobby for a one year suspension of the case, which it argued could threaten the peace process in Sudan. The Turkish side claims that even the south does not want to see al-Bashir gone. The atrocities in Darfur have been raised with al-Bashir’s government, according to Turkish officials. But they are not a reason to suspend relations with al-Bashir. Actually there is a need for influential actors and if one wants to remain an influential actor, then it’s better to maintain good relations.

According to the critics of this policy, it is wrong to "invest" in al-Bashir. Although AKP opponents also share the view that some Western countries would like to see Sudan divided, they do not share the argument that al-Bashir is indispensable to keeping the territorial unity of the country. "al-Bashir keeps the country by killing, terrorizing people and spreading fear. It is inevitable that he will be toppled from the government at one stage," says one critic familiar with Turkish policy in Africa. According to critics, there are two driving forces behind the AKP’s policies: business deals of some businessmen close to the AKP and religious affinity. Meanwhile AKP opponents are also pointing to the fact that while Abdullah Gül followed a more cautious policy on Sudan while he was foreign minister, it has been Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s position that has been decisive on the policies for Sudan. The requests from al-Bashir to send envoys to Turkey were turned down while Gül was foreign minister. The sale of small arms and ammunition was suspended during the same period, despite objections from some AKP parliamentarians. The ruling of the ICC might be decisive on Turkey’s future policy on Sudan. Although Turkey is not a signatory to the ICC’s founding Rome Statute, it will be extremely difficult to defend having a working relationship with al-Bashir, if the Court in The Hague, issues an arrest warrant.

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Babacan confesses to cronyism

The Foreign Ministry is, due to its structural nature, not open to cronyism. Foreign Ministry officials are career diplomats. It is very seldom that a person outside of the ministry’s bureaucracy is assigned to a diplomatic mission. It seems however that the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, under criticism for cronyism, is set to gets its grips on the last stronghold of the bureaucracy, which has so far remained more or less immune to politics.

I had previously mentioned the fact that top positions in some departments in the ministry, like the Caucasus, have been left unfilled for at least more than a year. Foreign Minister Ali Babacan had not offered any explanation for holding the appointments for such a long time but most believed that instead of relying on the ministry’s internal merit system, he was rather in search of "names he could trust," diplomats who he can say is, "one of us."

I raised the issue with Minister Babacan during the luncheon held Wednesday by the Foreign Economic Relations Council. This is the answer I got: "I am coming from the business world. Businessmen would understand this. The important thing is to do business, to have results. It is only natural for any government to work with a team it can trust, a team that works. Sometimes a person does the work of 10 people. Sometimes 10 people cannot do the job of one person."

Referring to the fact that I gave the example of the Caucasus department where two top posts have been waiting to be filled for more than a year, Babacan added, "The success of our policies on the Caucasus issue is appreciated by everybody. This is teamwork."

Now, one could see this answer from a positive angle and congratulate the handful of diplomats in the Caucasus department for their miraculous work worth the performance of a bigger team.

But there is the other side of the coin. While the minister praises a handful of diplomats for their outstanding work, he in a way, insults the rest of the ministry by confessing that he could not find two diplomats that could fill the top two positions in a political department. Where will he find those "talented," or should I say "pious" enough personalities to fill these positions? From outside of the ministry?

By openly saying that he is looking for people he can trust and that if he cannot find them, he will leave these positions vacant, Babacan confesses, without having any feeling of shame, to cronyism. He might as well let us know what his criteria for "trust" are.

There have been rumors in the capital that some diplomats have gotten in to the habit of refraining from taking alcohol under the presence of politicians from the AKP. The number of those going to Friday prayer from among diplomats has even increased some say.

We will see in the future what kind of a contribution the pious or those who pretend to be pious diplomats will bring to Turkish foreign policy.

As to the present foreign policy situation, Babacan’s answers to questions on current issues carried two important clues. The first was on the question of U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. Although the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson denied any request from Washington to use Turkish territory for the troop withdrawal, Babacan made it clear that the government is willing to offer its assistance. It is unimaginable for the United States to not raise the issue with Ankara. There are unofficial talks, a source close to the ministry told me. Apparently, Washington refrains from raising the issue officially with fear that it can share the same faith with the Bush administration when the latter asked to open a front from Turkey. Concerned that Turkey can come up with a list of requests or a bill with lots of zeros, Obama administration is said to have kept the discussions low profile.

Another clue given by Babacan is the fact that Ankara is waiting for the French and the Americans to knock on its door for the return of France to NATO’s military structure. Although it remains an open secret that France will get two top military positions within the Alliance, in return for its come back, he said that the modalities of the French decision to rejoin NATO’s military wing is not yet clear. "There will be a give and take between France and NATO. And we are ready for the talks," he said.

Personally my reading of his message is that although the government might not go as far as creating obstacles to the modalities when it will be officially raised within NATO, it is nevertheless expecting some kind of negotiation to take place between Ankara, Paris and Washington.
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Ankara looks to Washington for NATO contention

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on the weekend he was convinced France would improve relations with NATO but stopped short of announcing a return to command structures his country quite four decades ago. It is, however, an open secret that France intends to announce its decision to rejoin the Alliance’s military structures at an April summit in Strasbourg to mark the 60th anniversary of the Western military pact. Why is Sarkozy being so discreet? Could it be because France’s return to the military wing is a deal struck behind the scenes between Paris and Washington under the benevolent consent of both London and Berlin?

It seems that United States and France has struck a deal whereby Washington agreed that two top NATO posts will be given to French generals. None of the members of the Alliance seem to object to that deal. Except Turkey.

France would like to rejoin the military structures of NATO by a simple statement. "France withdrew from the Alliance’s military wing by a simple statement. So all it takes to return is a simple statement," say the French. "It is not that simple," say the Turks. Legally, Turkey’s objection seems a bit questionable. According to a Reuters story, Alliance officials say any decision to rejoin the structures is a decision "for France rather than one requiring a consensus vote by the 26 NATO members." "Nothing prevents a French official to come and sit at a meeting of the military officials," a diplomat familiar with NATO structures told me. But top NATO posts are certainly not distributed by the U.S. and it certainly requires the consent of Alliance members."This is not a legal issue. This is a political issue," said a Turkish official. Apparently, the Turkish government feels a bit na?ve sitting peacefully at a NATO table and being acquiescent to French re-entry, while the latter is so openly obstructing Turkish entry to the European Union.

Basically, the Turks want a gesture from the French. The expectation is for the French to have a more favorable attitude on opening new chapters at accession talks. Ankara also expects a better understanding of Turkish positions on the contentious issues of European Security and Defense Policy. The fact that Turkey is perceived by the EU countries as obstructing cooperation between the EU and NATO, irks Ankara which believes that the problem actually stems from the fact that the EU has not remained loyal to previously agreed arrangements.

Apparently, the French has not taken up this issue with Turkey on bilateral basis. They have asked for intervention from the Americans. And now the Turks are expecting Washington to mediate. The Turkish bureaucracy is hoping that Washington would rather try to convince the French for some kind of a gesture instead of bluntly telling the Turkish side not to raise a dissenting voice.

The issue will first of all prove to be a test case for the ability of the new US administration to mediate. We will see to what degree the Obama administration would be willing to spend efforts to make a case for the Turks. Because let’s face it; if Washington is not sympathetic to the Turkish case, it will be highly difficult for Turkey to stand up and openly obstruct French re-entry. At least the Turkish administration seems to be unfavorable to a brinkmanship approach.

The issue will also prove to be a test case for the AKP government’s or Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s style of diplomacy. Will the Prime Minister continue his Kasımpaşa style and call for "eye for an eye" approach or will he endorse a more sophisticated course of action. We’ll stay tuned.
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