Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Turkey struggles to direct its historical opening

Turkey has been slowly embracing old ideological connections in the Arab world and Central Asia but, after ten years of fairly steady economic growth, the nation could have hit a significant obstacle on its long road back to being a robust regional power as unrest spreads in the country.  

At this point, almost everyone listening to even a modicum of international news would have heard about the anti-government protests occurring throughout Turkey. Aside from the regional implications, these demonstrations offer a chance to discuss the rising centrality of Turkey in today’s world, but also the many hurdles it faces in its search for reinvigorated clout.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan - Reuters

Despite the economic success Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan built in Turkey since 2002, the protests will weaken his government somewhat and could delay some of his more ambitious reforms to bring Turkey more in line with European economic ideals. The demonstrations could threaten the Turkish economy at a crucial time when emerging market economies are facing serious difficulties.

The mostly young, demonstrating Turks congregating in Istanbul’s Taksim Square waving banners and calling for Prime Minister Erdogan’s resignation know there is a balance to be found between their country’s European ambitions, and as a geographic link to the Asian landmass which brings a colourful historic baggage and responsibilities.  

The demonstrations also point out that while Mr Erdogan has established pro-Western and reformist policies - factors which have deeply impressed Western governments - his government still leans toward an unsavoury Islamic authoritarianism that could spook investors. These deep but clashing ideological connections to the Middle East and Central Asia reflect the natural geographic reality of Turkey and the historic tension between the West and Asia which has framed the Turkish nation for thousands of years.

It is as the connection between Europe and Asia that places Turkey in the bind it finds itself in today. Not only does it straddle two continents, Turkey juggles two major, but very different, worldviews and systems of government. The underlying tension of these two worlds has frustrated the cosmopolitan and media-savvy populace and caused a backlash from those wanting a more secular government and more freedom.

This central message of the activists ironically reflects long-standing Turkish policies of aspiring to European-style liberalism and free living. While Turkey’s government reached perhaps too far with some recent conservative policies, the protests in Turkey shout to the world not that Turkey is backward and oppressive, as some other Asian and Middle Eastern powers have been, but that Turkey is a sophisticated country with a clear desire to embrace their historic role in the region.

A thread underlying the troubles in the Middle East and Central Asia over the past decade or so can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire. Once the Turkish domain fell apart after the disastrous close of World War I, the people it previously governed were suddenly without a central authority.

The world the Ottomans created was certainly artificial, but it was more structured and stable than the states conjured by the Europeans. The constant bubbling of unrest in the Middle East and Central Asia since that time are manifestations of the same unresolved problem: no one really figured out what to do with the Ottoman Empire when it collapsed.

Turkish forefather Mustafa Kemal Ataturk attempted to fix this problem from the Turkish point of view, but he needed to start at home on the Anatolian Peninsula first. The core of his policies was to bring Turkey together under a single flag to avoid the harms of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire.

Today, Prime Minister Erdogan is transforming this core tenant to recognise the different groups inside Turkey and plans to change the political system radically. But Mr Erdogan’s vision for a redefined Turkey is clearly ruffling feathers. Turkey is a bridge, not an island, and the Turks understand their central role in the region and wish to embrace it.

Although Turkey has consciously conducted its foreign affairs in a strict non-interventionist and even placating manner, its rising power and growing regional presence is forcing Ankara to reconsider how it deals with its neighbours as well. This is because Turkey, despite their ambitions in Europe, remains an extremely important power for the Middle East and Asia.

Interestingly, during the Arab Spring of 2011, Turkey’s government structure was raised as an adoptable example of a properly healthy mix of Islam and secular liberalism for those Arab countries emerging from the rubble of revolution. Seeing the thousands of young Turks protest throughout the country must be sending a vastly different message to international observers, and especially foreign investors.

However, the world is also seeing a real, solid display of connection and inclusion by a large group of Turks for the direction they want their country to travel. The demonstrators have their reasons for acting now, but the truth is that Turkey is today a strong nation and getting stronger. It has risen from the doldrums of an economy with zero growth back in 2002 - when Mr Erdogan’s government came into power - through a steady growth of between 4.5 and 8.2 percent a year.

This has been a remarkable turnaround for the once-mournful country. Mr Erdogan’s moderate Islamic government has transformed Turkey from the unwelcome, but still crushingly accurate, appellation as the “sick man of Europe” into a dynamo. Turkey has struggled in the past century to integrate into the European Union, but reforms are slowly renovating Turkey into an economic powerhouse that is capturing the attention of European leaders.

But Turkey is still a shadow of its former Ottoman self and has a long way to go. Culturally, if the sultans of old could return, they probably wouldn’t recognise the people living on the Anatolian peninsula anymore.

Mr Erdogan’s firebrand personality which had him standing up to the United States and Israel, along with his strong-arm economic reforms reinvigorating the Turkish economy, are beginning to tire some Turks. If Mr Erdogan deals with the protests astutely, Turkey could yet be a shining example of a healthy mix of Islam and Western democracy. And a more modern Turkey could emerge from this unrest as the country reawakens to embrace its geographic and historical opportunities.

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