Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Malcolm Cooper


  1.  Turkey occupies a singular position in the international arena. On the home front, it is one of the few reasonably well-developed economies to fail to break free from the growth/inflation spiral. Although democracy is fairly well-established, four governments were removed in the second half of the 20th century by various forms of military action, with at least the implicit support of most of the electorate. On the international front, it is one of the few democracies in the world still involved in a genuinely antagonistic confrontation with a neighbouring democracy (Greece). It appears to switch erratically from the pursuit of European integration to attempts to become a regional Asian power. Finally, it is the only Muslim country to initiate something resembling a military understanding with Israel, and it is the only Muslim country that has actively sought a role in the Western military response to the current Islamic challenge.

  2.  Any foreign policy approach to Turkey must be based on an understanding of these apparent paradoxes. To achieve this it is necessary first to grasp the key elements of Turkey's geographical and ethnic/religious position. It is then important to comprehend the historical context in which the modern Turkish republic was created and the manner in which the past still conditions politics and society. Following on from this, one can then address the key issues likely to affect relations with the country or to colour public opinion of Turkey within Britain itself.

  3.  Geographically, Turkey is very much a frontier state, with the bulk of its territory in Asia, but a large part of its population on the eastern edge of Europe and in increasingly close contact with the West. Although there has been a large migration towards the cities of western Turkey, a large part of the population is ethnically and culturally Asian. European Turkey is directly engaged with the West, which provides not only the most important trading partners, but also the workplace for a large expatriate Turkish labour force and the competitors, customers and corporate allies for Turkish industry. Agriculture still accounts for some 45 per cent of employment, but the population of the greater Istanbul urban area is now greater than that of all of neighbouring Greece.

  4.  Historically, the two most important features of the Turkish state are that it is still relatively new, and that it represents an explicit national identity in which "Turkishness" is defined through the nature of the state and enshrined in the constitution. The modern Turkish Republic was only created in the 1920s and 30s. Parliamentary democracy only really began to function after the Second World War, and the removal of no fewer than four governments by the army in the following half century has interfered with the consolidation of political systems. As a result, the republic still manifests some of the insecurities that might be expected of a fairly new state, both in the pursuit of foreign policy objectives and in the response to perceived threats to domestic stability.

  5.  Equally important, the constitutional nature of the country is built around the concept of the secular republic, and the "indivisible unity of the Turkish state" (the quote is from the preamble to the constitution). Most of the major institutions of the state, particularly the army and the judiciary, were created to defend secularism and unity, and continue to perceive their role in these terms. With proportional representation tending to produce a series of weak and unstable coalition governments, the non-elected arms of the state have tended to assume greater importance and wider-ranging powers than is common in the West. The vital realisation to make here is that they tend to do so with the implicit support of a larger part of the population. Turkish popular politics are inherently defensive and nationalistic. There is still a fairly widespread consensus that the army in particular is the legitimate guardian of the secular state. The fact that the army has intervened so frequently in politics while maintaining its status as the most popular institution in the country is evidence of the common belief that it has a mandate to act in defence of secularism and unity.

  6.  The foreign policy picture regarding Turkey can best be broken down into two broad fields: Turkey's own international objectives and aspirations; and the international response to Turkey's pursuit of its own domestic political agenda. As both the foreign policies of individual western countries, and the constitutions of supra-national bodies like the EU are conditioned by views on such issues as human rights and competition, there is a clear overlap between these two fields. This tends to be a particularly source of difficulty with Turkey, as Turkey's defence of domestic unity has often set it against foreign views of what is right in the human rights area.

  7.  Turkey's slightly precarious position on the edge of the European and Asian worlds has produced a need for security and recognition, and a basically defensive stance on foreign policy. It is important to realise that Turkey's most aggressive actions over the past three decades, the invasion of northern Cyprus in the 1970s and limited military incursions in the southeast in the 1990s, were undertaken because of perceived threats to Turkish domestic security. The continued Turkish presence in northern Cyprus and the sometimes fraught relationship with Greece are both rooted in concerns over the security of the nation and have no real expansionist overtones.

  8.  Turkey's continued reaffirmation of its active participation in NATO originates from a need to underline its position as an independent and responsible member of the international community. On a regional level, there is a genuine polarization of policy that reflects the European/Asian dichotomy in Turkish identity. In practice, Turkey's courtship with the European Union and the expansion of Turkish influence over its Asian neighbours represent opposing views of the country's trans-regional alignment, and prioritization of one is often the product of lack of progress with the other. The relationship with the EU is of paramount importance from an economic point of view. Western Europe represents a far more significant market for Turkish goods and a far more important source of imports than either the Asian or the Arab worlds. With the EU accounting for just over 50 per cent of trade in both directions, Turkey really cannot afford exclusion, and it is has already gone a long way towards opening its internal markets to competition. Turkish-EU relations, however, have been be-devilled by the intrusion of human rights issues into the discussion. While Turkey's huge economic imbalances and rampant inflation continue to represent the most tangible barrier to entry, the western perception of Turkey as domestically repressive of human rights looms just as large in policy formation.

  9.  The Turkish human rights issue revolves around Turkey's own view of itself as a state. As mentioned above, the Turkish constitution and the institutions created to protect it are committed to a view of a single unified Turkish national entity. Historically, there have been three main threats to the cultural and political integrity of the state: communism, Islam and the country's sizeable Kurdish minority. The first of these is no longer an issue, but the other two are still potentially worrying to Kemalist legislators, judges and soldiers. Both are highly emotive issues, the first because it strikes at the secularism that is central to the whole idea of the Turkish state, and the second because it threatens the ideal that there is only one Turkish identity. Both are perceived as domestic security issues, with the result that the Turkish government tends to see Western criticism of its response to the threats as dangerous and completely unjustified interference in its maintenance of national unity.

  10.  Turkey has shown itself willing to respond to western sensitivities on the human rights front. While, for example, Turkey still has the death penalty, it has effectively suspended its use, most importantly in its treatment of the captured PKK leader Ocalan. Turkey really cannot afford to be excluded from the expanding European political and economic union. It will continue to be willing to bring its human rights policy closer in line with western norms as long as western pressure is not seen to be aiding forces that threaten the integrity of the state itself. Thus foreign attempts to influence Turkish domestic policy should be conditioned by a better understanding of the two key issues that continue to concern Turkish policy makers.

  11.  On the religious front, it is vital to realise that Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim, and government policy towards Islam is not anti-religious per-se. During the Cold War, the Turkish Army was even prepared to support religious education as an antidote to communism. Official opposition is entirely centred against religion as a political force threatening the secular state, and has little or nothing to do with persecuting individuals for their beliefs.

  12.  On the Kurdish front, it is equally important to understand that government hostility is only directed against individuals or organizations supporting the creation of some form of separate Kurdish entity as an alternative to Turkish nationality. A large part of the ethnic Kurdish population is now integrated in the better developed western half of the country, and the Turkish government can and will argue that ongoing economic development programmes in the east are aimed at the some objective. To argue (as was done in some of the British press late last year in connection with UK support for a major dam project) that there is no real difference between Turkish and Iraqi policy towards the Kurds is wrong-headed and potentially counter-productive.

Malcolm Cooper

January 2002

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