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EU drive weighs over US interests

11 Temmuz 2009
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

2 Temmuz 2009
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

26 Haziran 2009
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

25 Haziran 2009
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

23 Haziran 2009
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

22 Haziran 2009
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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Turkey opts for Ahmadinejad

17 Haziran 2009
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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Pakistan and the lack of soft power in Turkish foreign policy

12 Haziran 2009
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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