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Turkey: Ankara Pressing Ahead with Diplomatic Make-Over

Autumn has been a busy -- if not dizzying -- period for Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Turkey is attempting a drastic diplomatic make-over, one that would transform Ankara into a regional power broker.

On October 10, Davutoglu was in Switzerland, putting his signature on a historic deal that paves the way for restoring diplomatic ties with Armenia and for the two countries to take a look at their mutually contested history. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Four days later, the Turkish foreign minister was in Syria, signing yet another important deal, this one abolishing visa requirements between the two countries, who only a decade ago were on the verge of war after Ankara accused Damascus of supporting to the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
The two milestones are not unrelated. Over the last few years, Turkey's government, led by the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), has forcefully realigned the country's foreign policy, seeking a greater engagement with the surrounding region and to establish itself as a neighborhood soft power broker and mediator.

But observers say that Ankara's foreign policy ambitions are tied up in first resolving the historic and, until recently, taboo issues -- particularly the Armenian, Kurdish and Cyprus problems -- that have cast a heavy shadow over Turkey's domestic politics for the last few decades.

"Turkey wants to play internationally, and to play internationally it has to put their house in order," says Henri Barkey, an expert on Turkey at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.

"With their strong military and economy they have the hard power, but what they are trying to do now is build up their soft power. Turkey is lecturing other countries, like Israel and the Chinese, about human rights issues and here you have a country where the Kurdish language is illegal. That is absurd," Barkey said. "They have to do something. There is a discrepancy between domestic Turkey and the image it is trying to project abroad."

Ankara has certainly been making moves on these issues. On October 14 Turkey hosted Armenian president Serge Sarkizian for another round of what is being called the two countries' "football diplomacy" - a World Cup qualifying match between the Turkish and Armenian national teams. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Although the Cyprus issue remains stalled, Turkey has given its support to the reunification talks being held between the divided island's Greek and Turkish governments. Along with the deal made with Armenia, Turkish leaders have made clear their intention to introduce a broad democratization initiative to deal with the Kurdish issue soon. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

"We have the intention to take determined, patient and courageous steps," Turkish Interior Minister Besir Atalay said in a nationally televised July news conference. "This can be seen as a new stage."
The government's moves are being enabled, on the one hand, by a gradual change in Turkish society and political life that has made it easier to talk about these issues.

"Until very recently, the public had been conditioned to accept things from the perspective of statism, nationalism and chauvinism," says Dogu Ergil, a professor of political science at Ankara University. "But the dominance of the state over issues and making them taboo and undebatable is fading."

But Ankara also appears to be driven by a realization that these taboos were ultimately hurting Turkey's ability to make an impact abroad. "That position was limiting in the foreign policy arena. Until recently, Turkish foreign policy was mostly reactive, it didn't take any initiatives, and it didn't do things beyond its own borders," said Barkey.

Analysts say, however, that moving ahead on restoring ties with Armenia makes strategic and political sense for Turkey, a European Union candidate country, and its regional ambitions.

"[The agreement with Armenia] will do a lot to counter prejudices in Europe about what kind of country Turkey is -- that it's not just a strategic asset but also a country that can deal with its history and its own past. That will have a lot of impact in Europe," said Hugh Pope, Turkey analyst for the International Crisis Group, a policy and advocacy organization based in Brussels.

Still, making such an abrupt shift on what had been previously untouchable issues is going to be difficult. After decades of being told that there is no such thing as Kurdish identity, or that there was no room for discussion on the Armenian genocide issue, Turks are now being asked to think differently.
"We are going through exceedingly difficult times, because you are talking about a public that has been indoctrinated for decades on these issues. Now we are talking about preparing the public psychologically for dealing with these problems in a different way," said Lale Kemal, a political analyst based in Ankara and a columnist for the English-language newspaper Today's Zaman.

"More important than any legal change is to prepare the public to accept that we should normalize our relations with Armenia, and deal with the Kurdish problem because these are in Turkey's interest," Kemal added.

Ankara University's Ergil pointed out that for modern Turkey, a secular nation founded in 1923 upon the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, dramatic change is nothing new. "This country shifted into a republic from a dynastic empire in a matter of a few years. The alphabet was shifted in a matter of a year from using an Arabic script to using Latin script. People had to accept it," he says. "That was more radical than this."

Yigal Schleifer is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.

Turkey: Ankara Pressing Ahead with Diplomatic Make-Over

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