Turkey's strategic outlook is making a gradual shift away from the West, driven by Ankara's growing concern about the potential for instability on the country's southern and eastern flanks. Turkish leaders are now seeing eye-to-eye with Russia on several important geopolitical issues.
Turkey continues to publicly cast itself as a country with an unshakable Western orientation, serving as a long-time NATO member and a strategic partner of the United States, as well as and aspiring to European Union membership. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But behind the official rhetoric, geopolitical developments in recent years, especially the Iraq imbroglio, have shaken the faith of many in Ankara about the country's Western orientation.
The major factor prompting Turkish leaders to reevaluate their geopolitical views is Iraq. Turkish policymakers and pundits are extremely worried that their southern neighbor is ready to implode. At a March 3 briefing in Istanbul with a group of leading foreign-policy columnists, officials warned that the escalation of civil and sectarian strife in Iraq could turn the country into a "new Lebanon." Under Ankara's nightmare scenario, an Iraqi civil war would give birth to an independent Kurdistan a possible development with dire potential consequences for Turkey's own territorial integrity.
Bush administration bumbling is responsible for much of what has gone wrong in Iraq, many Turks believe. "If Iraq disintegrates and a Kurdish state is created in the north, the Turkish people will take this as something of US making," the former Turkish president Suleiman Demirel said in a recent interview published by the Turkish Daily News. Such a development will inevitably seriously exacerbate the already existing tension in relations between Ankara and Washington, the veteran politician added.
Turkish wariness of US political designs extends beyond Iraq, covering the greater Middle East. Few in Ankara approve of Washington's tough line against Iran and Syria, for example. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the two countries do not see eye-to-eye on these regional issues," notes Semih Idiz, the Milliyet daily's foreign-policy analyst.
Instead of following the US push to isolate Iran and Syria, Turkish leaders favor engagement. At the same time, Ankara is firmly opposed to any attempted use of force with the aim of promoting regime change in the Middle East. In its advocacy of engagement, Turkey has found common ground with Russia, which is championing the continuation of the talks with Tehran to resolve the crisis over its nuclear program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Though sharing the same aims, the motives of the two countries are divergent: Ankara's stance is mainly driven by the fear of destabilization in its geopolitical backyard, while Russia is more interested in keeping the United States out of what has traditionally been Moscow's sphere of influence.
Policy-makers in Turkey see Moscow's stance as a useful counterbalance to what the Turks perceive as potentially harmful US policies. "In the final analysis, Turkey's views are different from the West and closer to Russia," argues the influential political analyst Sami Kohen in a commentary published in the Milliyet newspaper.
Both Ankara and Moscow also appear to perceive US policies in the South Caucasus as being destabilizing. The two countries have been keen to preserve the status quo in the region, in sharp contrast to the United States, which has been a staunch backer of Georgia's Rose Revolution led by President Mikheil Saakashvili. When it comes to democratization, both Turkey and Russia favor an incremental approach that does nothing to upset a delicate economic equilibrium. "Democratization is a process, and it should be expected to proceed at a different pace in different countries," said Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul in a written statement released on March 5.
In addition, while advocating the peaceful resolution of the so-called "frozen conflicts" in the South Caucasus involving the territories of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh Ankara, like Moscow, fears that efforts to hurry political settlements could end up disrupting the economic order.
Turkey's changing internal political dynamics are also working to alter the country's international outlook. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) an entity with roots in political Islam has introduced a pronounced religious dimension into Turkish political life, given that the party's core constituency consists of pious Muslims. As a result, a significant number of Turks are viewing geopolitical developments through a religious prism. Recent public opinion research helps support this view. For instance, in its annual survey, Transatlantic Trends 2005, the German Marshall Fund reported that 42 percent of Turks think that Turkey does not belong to the EU because it is predominantly Muslim. Overall, the percentage of Turks who believe EU membership would be beneficial for Turkey dropped from 73 percent in 2004 to 63 percent in 2005.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.