Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media in front of a portrait of Kemal Ataturk in Ankara, Oct. 20, 2011, as a ground offensive against Kurdish rebels in SE Turkey and across the Iraqi border was underway.
"A Model in Others' Eyes, Turkey Sees Itself Anew"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
November 14, 2011
Author: Juliette Kayyem, Lecturer in Public Policy
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Another earthquake roiled southeastern Turkey Wednesday night. It occurred just two weeks after a major tremor killed 600 people and on the eve of events marking the 73d anniversary of the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
This sad coincidence of the natural disaster and the celebration of Ataturk, who founded the modern Turkish republic, seemed symbolic; a nation that has emerged as a regional superstar as prodemocracy movements swept the Middle East still can't quite rest easy. Forces outside its control continue to shake its status, defined by Ataturk himself, as the crucial link between East and West.
To its neighbors to the east, Turkey has long been a financial and political partner; to the west, Turkey was a democratic model in the Muslim lands. The changes all around Turkey have now flipped that image: For the East, Turkey is a democratic model; for the West, it's a rising economic power.
Leaders here flinch at the phrase "moderate Islamic country," preferring to be known as a secular country with a predominantly Muslim population. Nonetheless, Turkey now finds itself a model for democratic reform, when its leaders' priority for years has been more economic. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's simple foreign policy toward surrounding countries "zero troubles with neighbors" was calculated to promote economic ties and open up their markets, not to endorse their governments. When those neighbors include Iran, Iraq and Syria, the sentiment is understandable.
This economics-first approach has at times confounded Western observers. While Erdogan supported reform movements in Tunisia and Egypt, he long refused to embrace the movement in Libya, where Turkey has strong business ties.
Yet inevitably, as democratic movements spread across the Middle East, Turkey became a model for people who were resisting authoritarian rule. Today, this "moderate Islamic country" is the future that many Tunisians and Libyans dream of. In Tunisia, Rachid Ghannouchi's Islamist Ennahda party, which won recent elections there, is seeking to quell internal concerns by linking his policies to that of Erdogan. The leader of Libya's rising Islamist movement, Ali al-Sallabi, in turn vows to pursue democratic policies like those in Turkey and Tunisia. His party is now named the National Gathering for Freedom, Justice and Development a compliment to Erdogan's Justice and Development party.
The irony is that the political order here isn't entirely settled, either; Turkey is about to embark on constitutional revisions that will limit military influence and strengthen Erdogan's hand. Still, Turkey remains the best example to the new democracies forming around it
Turkey has adjusted its policies and its outlook accordingly, holding its democratic system out as a model for others in the Middle East, rather than merely as an argument for acceptance by Western governments. Turkey is hosting the armed opposition groups who are trying to topple President Bahar al-Assad in Syria. By most accounts here, the rebels are even orchestrating attacks across the border, a risky move for Turkey given Syria's support for the separatist Kurds in Turkey who are responsible for recent attacks.
Turkey is, like any country recalibrating its image, proceeding delicately. While its western allies are pushing for greater economic sanctions against Syria, Erdogan has balanced his embrace of the Syrian opposition with the recognition that Turkish economic investments in Syria are deep and extensive. He also knows that chaos in Syria will hurt Turkey's economy at the same time when the West is looking less like a financial lifeline.
For years, Turkey has sought to join the European Union and has promoted internal democratic reforms to convince Western democracies it was one of them. But Turkey's closest European neighbor Greece has now installed [a] technocrat to save itself from economic ruin. The EU is teetering. Turkey's economy is more sound than those of many EU nations, making future membership a questionable prize.
Ataturk had long dreamed that Turkey's geographic position would make it a player on the international stage. It has won that status at a time that stage is shifting dramatically, in ways that change how Turkey is seen by its neighbors on every side - and how Turkey sees itself.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
Full text of this publication is available at:
For Academic Citation: