While much of the attention in the wake of the crackdown on the Gezi Park protests in Turkey has focused on its impact on domestic politics, experts are warning that recent events could have a deleterious effect on the country’s foreign policy.
From the start of the protests over the government’s plan to demolish a park in the heart of Istanbul – and in particular after the June 15 violent eviction of protestors occupying it – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and officials from his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have talked about supposed conspiracies involving foreigners, especially Westerners. In several speeches, Erdoğan blamed the foreign media – singling out CCN, BBC and Reuters – for being part of an effort to tarnish Turkey’s image. He also referred to “global financial interests,” which he claimed were hoping to benefit from the country’s instability.
Several Turkish ministers echoed Erdogan’s words. “We know the national and international players in this plot,” Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s Minister for European Union Affairs, said in a statement released earlier this week. Meanwhile, Yeni Safak, a newspaper considered close to the government, ran a story alleging that recent developments in Turkey were part of a conspiracy cooked up in Washington by George W. Bush-era neo-conservatives affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute.
The combination of disturbing images coming out of Istanbul and the mystifying language emanating from Ankara have put foreign observers of Turkey – a significant member of NATO – on notice, said Ian Lesser, a veteran Turkey analyst with the Washington, DC-based German Marshall Fund (GMF).
“The recent events are very significant in many ways, especially in terms of how Turkey’s western partners will look at Turkey from now on. It’s going to be hard for things to go on as business as usual,” Lesser said, speaking at a GMF event that took place last week, before Gezi Park was cleared out.
“It’s not going to be so much a shift in the geopolitics, but a shift in the atmospherics. The style and the rhetoric that was on display affect what can be done with Turkey on the margins,” Lesser added.
The atmospherics have certainly shifted in Europe, where Ankara’s rhetoric and the Turkish police’s actions since the start of the crisis have provided many skeptics of Turkey’s EU membership the opportunity to further sink it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), for example, has hardened in the last few weeks its position against Turkey joining the EU.
And while the administration of American President Barack Obama – who hosted Erdoğan in the White House in May – has so far adopted a relatively mild stance on the Gezi Park crisis, Ankara’s rhetoric has not gone unnoticed and could complicate Washington’s policies, particularly regarding Syria, observers said.
“This kneejerk anti-Westernism will make people think twice the intentions and the reliability of Turkey,” said Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and an expert on Turkish affairs.
“The new Syria policy that Washington recently announced heavily depends on Jordan and Turkey and my guess [is] that people in Washington are somewhat upset at the rhetoric that’s coming from Erdoğan, his officials and the press that’s close to him, that’s blaming foreigners, especially the West, for what’s happening,” added Barkey. “That’s not exactly the behavior of a mature, seasoned politician. That’s problematic for the United States.”
But it’s not all about foreign perceptions of Turkey. The possibility of continuing domestic strife fueled by Erdogan and the AKP’s rhetoric, combined with the ongoing regional instability in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, could also undercut Ankara’s ability to conduct a coherent foreign policy, some warn.
“The government is now getting more and more introverted and because of that we are missing a lot of important developments. Quite frankly, I don’t know what this government can now do about a lot [of] things that are happening regionally,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul Kadir Has University and a columnist for Haberturk, a Turkish daily. “The Iranian elections, for example, may actually be a game changer, and if Turkey doesn’t respond to these developments wisely, it may be on the sidelines.”
Also problematic for Ankara is how its rhetoric and handling of the protests in Istanbul and other cities could impact Turkey’s attractiveness for foreign direct investment, which last year was a relatively low $8.5 billion but had started to show signs that it was on the upswing. Erdogan’s handling of the recent crisis, though, has “created doubts about the ‘Turkey success story’ that foreign capital has been buying into,” said Christian Keller, a researcher covering Turkey with Barclays Bank in London.
“There was always a question of why Turkey does not attract more foreign direct investment,” Keller continued. “There was always this idea that there was an issue with the reliability of institutions and rule of law that was standing in the way. Frankly, recent events have not helped.”
Prior to the outbreak of unrest in early June, Turkey seemed to be turning a corner in the eyes of investors, Keller maintained. Private equity firms were eyeing potential opportunities and Japanese firms and banks were showing a willingness to finance Japanese project in the country. “Turkey was just building up its reputation,” Keller said. “Now I think this may have put some of this into question.”
The AKP has announced that in the coming weeks Erdoğan would be leading several more pro-government rallies like the one held in Istanbul on June 16, when the PM delivered a fiery speech denouncing the foreign plots against Turkey. Such rhetoric may help him shore up his electoral base, but the prospect of Erdogan continuing with this sort of stump speech does not seem to bode well for Turkey’s external relations.
“Somehow it seems to me that we are deliberately squeezing our room to maneuver,” said Ozel. “We’ve taken on the world. Is it worth it?”
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance reporter focusing on Turkey. He is the author of Eurasianet's Turko-file and Kebabistan blogs.