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“Shining example for the entire Islamic world”

The prime minister’s wife sets the standard with regard to head scarves: Emine and Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a sporting event in 2010 AFP

For Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, joining the European Union is no longer a priority. Instead he is pursuing a course of industrialisation and Islamisation, says strategic expert Kurt R. Spillmann of the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

This change of direction is fuelled in part by the strength of the Turkish economy. A decade ago, Turkey was almost bankrupt. Today it belongs to the world’s top 15 economic powers. asked Spillmann how the Turkish economy was affecting its foreign policy as well as Erdogan’s leadership. How sustainable is Turkey’s enormous boom?

Kurt R. Spillmann: The boom is sustainable, but it depends on a variety of factors, such as the course of the worldwide economic market, because Turkey is increasingly an exporter of goods. The large trade deficit is also a factor contributing to the uncertainty. 

However, Turkey has created a very open climate for investors and thus is very attractive for direct foreign investments. That will remain so, at least for the time being. How does Ankara use its economic potential to increase its geopolitical sphere of influence?

K.R.S.: Here there has been a major shift. As recently as 2008, in his infamous speech in Cologne, Prime Minister Erdogan said that for Turkey there was only one option: full membership in the EU.

That has completely changed. Ankara is trying to gain geopolitical importance.  

In the west Turkey regards itself as an important player in the Mediterranean region, on the one hand as a member of Nato, on the other as a protector of the northern region of Cyprus. In the northeast of Turkey, in the direction of the Central Asian states such as Turkmenistan, Turkey has taken on the role of an energy hub.

In the south and southeast, Turkey hopes to provide the entire Islamic world with a shining example of the successful synthesis of industrialisation and Islamic culture, as presented by Erdogan in Cairo and Tunisia. Already on his visit to Cairo in September 2011, Erdogan was hailed as a “hero” and “leader of the entire Arab world”. The “never-ending” discussion over EU membership has been muted by the debt crisis. Does it even make sense at this point for Turkey to join the EU?

K.R.S.: From the Turkish viewpoint the discussion of membership hasn’t just been muted—it’s been beaten down. In commenting on the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the EU the Turkish Economic Minister Zafer Caglayan called the EU the “most hypocritical union of all time”,  keeping Turkey waiting at the gate for 50 years. Actually, he said the EU should have earned a prize for deceitfulness and  hypocrisy.

There is similar rhetoric coming from the immediate vicinity of Prime Minister Erdogan. At the moment Turkey is too self-confident to strive for full membership. The negotiations drag along as they have for several years, but without any show of commitment. How do things look from the viewpoint of Brussels? In terms of debt and the Euro crisis, wouldn’t a powerful new member be welcome?

K.R.S.: Turkey still has its supporters in Brussels. But within the EU, as before, there are very contradictory trends. The Nobel Peace Prize, which should lead to a strengthening of the Union, won’t do anything to speed up Turkey’s entry. As before, the dominant thought is that Turkey’s membership could lead to a tremendous amount of dissonance in the EU. Turkey is also the focus of attention due to the civil war in neighbouring Syria. Can the country, as a sort of frontline state against Russian interests in the Near East, strategically extend its position, say, through Nato?

K.R.S.: With regard to Syria, Turkey is very disappointed with Nato, particularly with reference to the conduct of the US. That’s due to the fact that Washington and Ankara have completely different visions of the situation in Syria after Assad. In Turkey Erdogan introduced a policy of re-Islamisation based on a strict  Sunni, even fundamental, basis. In the same spirit, Turkey – in cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Qatar – aims at creating a Muslim state in Syria.

By contrast, the US wants to set up a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state and an open society in place of the Assad dictatorship. In terms of Nato, I don’t see the hope of any improvement in the situation; if anything, I think it will get worse. In the situation with Russia, Turkey will try to avoid creating any ill feeling, also because of the close business ties. Turkey is known as a mediator between east and west. Is this just a cliché in view of Ankara’s new power strategy? Where is Erdogan positioning the country?

K.R.S.: Turkey is increasingly being positioned in the camp of the strictly religious Sunni nations. The internal tensions in Turkey between the Kemalist, non-religious trends and the now dominant Islamic tendencies are also visible on the streets of Istanbul, for example in the clothing that women wear. Meanwhile, Erdogan has become a true autocrat, totally dominating the country, which can also be seen in the increasing pressure on the freedom of the press.

The forces of modernisation, put into place by Turkey’s founder Kemal Atatürk and represented by the army up until now, have been drastically reduced by Erdogan.

Recently, a representative of the business community in Istanbul told me that contractors are no longer being given state contracts if they fail to conform religiously and if their wives don’t wear headscarves. That’s a small but significant signal of a cultural reorientation, of a move away from the position as a bridge between east and west and away from an open society.

Kurt R. Spillmann was a Full Professor of Security Studies and Conflict Research at the ETH Zurich and was given the title of Professor of Modern History, especially American History, at the University of Zurich. He retired on October 1, 2002.

Prof. Spillmann was born in 1937 in Zurich. He studied history in Zurich, Rome, New Haven (Yale University) and qualified as lecturer at the University of Zurich in 1978. He has been a research fellow at Yale University, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Washington D.C.) at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University (Washington D.C.) and at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.

In 1986 he became a full professor at the ETH Zurich, at which time he founded the Center for Security Studies and Conflict Research. In 1997 he founded the Center for International Studies (CIS). From 1987-1995 he was chairman of the Department of Military Sciences.

1923: The Lausanne peace treaty is regarded as the birth of the Turkish Republic.

1925: Turkey and Switzerland sign a Friendship Treaty.

1926: Turkey’s founder, Kemal Atatürk, adapts Switzerland’s progressive civil code almost without modification in reforming Turkish civil and matrimonial law.

1980s/1990s: Turkish-Kurdish conflict becomes visible in Switzerland as the country takes in large numbers of Kurdish refugees.

1993: A Kurdish demonstrator is shot and seven other people injured in front of the Turkish embassy in Bern. The alleged marksman was a member of the embassy personnel.

2003-2005: Relations hit a low point as a result of the Kurdish issue and discussions of the 1915 Armenian genocide.

2003: Canton Vaud’s parliament recognises the killing of more than 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as genocide. As a result, Ankara cancels a planned trip to Turkey by Micheline Calmy-Rey, who was serving as Swiss Foreign Minister at the time.

2007: A court in Lausanne convicts the Turkish leftist nationalist Dogu Perinçek of  violating the criminal standard on racism. Perinçek had described the Armenian genocide as an “international lie” during speaking engagements in Switzerland. Three more Turkish nationalists are convicted of the same thing.

In 2006 the climate began to brighten, and in 2008 four of the seven federal cabinet members paid official visits to Turkey.

(Translated from German by Jeannie Wurz)

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