Author: Zurab Batiashvili – Expert of Oriental Studies, Doctor of Historical Sciences
Turkey is a neighbor and a friend to Georgia. It is the only NATO member in our immediate neighborhood, also being the top trade partner for Georgia over the years. Besides the fact that thousands of Georgian citizens work in Turkey, the two countries are also connected by myriad of transport or energy projects. Turkey also serves as a bridge to Europe for Georgia. Among our neighbors Turkey is the only candidate country to the membership of the European Union. Hence, the events unfolding in and around Turkey are of vital importance to Georgia.
Domestic Political Situation
Turkey has not had a leader as charismatic as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which has been governing the country for the past 15 years, since Ataturk. The institutional changes initiated by him are also very important for Turkey.
In terms of fundamental changes, 16 April 2017 can definitely be considered to be the most important date in the history of Turkey after the declaration of the Turkish Republic in 1923. According to the results of the referendum held on the aforementioned date, Article 18 of the Turkish constitution is being amended, part of the changes already having entered into power whilst the remaining part will be enacted in 2019. About 51.4% of the Turkish voters supported the constitutional amendment package, which envisages a sharp increase in the powers of the President, including the abolition of the position of Prime Minister. In addition, the results of this referendum once again showed the weakness and lack of organization of the opposition parties in Turkey.
According to the statements of the representatives of the Turkish government, these changes were unavoidable in order to resolve the security problems and challenges presently facing the country.
Of late, Ankara has definitely had to fight on several different fronts:
About 248 civilians died and 2,200 were injured in a single night on 15 July 2016, during the attempt of a coup d’état in Turkey. Despite the fact that government managed to eradicate this attempt rather quickly, with the help of the people coming out in the streets, healing the wounds and fully addressing the dangers turned out to be a difficult task.
The Turkish government has accused the former ally of the governing AKP (Justice and Development Party) and Muslim spiritual leader currently living in the United States, Fethullah Gülen and his supporters, of inciting the coup d’état. However, Gülen’s supporters have denied their involvement in the coup and even condemned the attempt; however, the Turkish law enforcement agencies have still commenced the proceedings and officially charged them.
After 15 July 2016 the Turkish government instituted a state of emergency, which has been in effect ever since. Parallel to this, tens of thousands of Turkish citizens have been accused of and jailed for participating in the attempted coup and being the member of FETÖ (Fethullah Gülen Terror Organization). In terms of the state of emergency, the country is being governed through special decrees which are equivalent to laws by their power. According to these decrees, various media organizations (TV channels, journals, newspapers and radios), commercial entities belonging to FETÖ have been closed down, properties confiscated and tens of thousands of public servants have been sacked. It is highly likely that these “purges” will continue in the future as well.
Domestic problems have been further exacerbated by the renewed clashes between the Turkish security services and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is a recognized terrorist organization) in Eastern and South-Eastern Turkey in summer 2015, followed by considerable number of deaths. The PKK and its close affiliate TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Hawks) have, from time to time, organized attacks on major Turkish cities through bombings, which have taken the lives of both civilians, as well as Turkish military servicemen.
Daesh (or ISIS), consisting of Turkish citizens among others, has also been organizing terrorist attacks in various Turkish cities. Usually, the main targets of their attacks are radical left-wing organizations, pro-Kurdish powers and tourists.
In addition to all this, Turkey is also struggling to deal with 3.5 million refugees (most of them from Syria) and the associated problems – Ankara is tasked with providing them with healthcare, accommodation, food and education.
This is also compounded with the challenges to the Turkish economy: part of the Western investors have been leaving the country, in April 2017 the inflation grew by 11.9% as compared to the same period of the previous year, the trade deficit has increased by 15.8%, the unemployment rate has reached 13% whilst the Turkish national currency is depreciating.
As in many other countries, the issues of domestic and foreign policy are closely connected in Turkey as well.
For the past several years, the greatest foreign policy problem facing Ankara has been the events unfolding in Syria. Turkey considers the formation of a Kurdish state entity in the northern part of Syria as a major challenge to its own security and does its best to go against such an endeavor. To this end, it does not shy away from using either diplomatic or direct military means. In addition, it should be noted that the territories in northern Syria which were controlled by Daesh have been bordering Turkey for years and have been creating a myriad of problems for the country. Parallel to this, Ankara considers the YPG (pro-Kurdish People’s Protection Units) to be the continuation of the PKK. In order to remove Daesh from the Turkish borders, as well as to prevent the unification of the cantons controlled by the YPG, on 24 August 2016 Ankara started a military operation with the name of Euphrates Shield together with the FSA (Free Syrian Army), a military player supported by Turkey. The operation managed to reclaim over 2,000 square kilometers of land. It was finished in seven months and generally managed to fulfill its mission.
It should be noted, that after Turkey bombed the YPG positions in northern Syria on 25 April, Russian forces showed up in the Afrin province to protect the YPG whilst the US military appeared on the Qamishli-Kobani line. It would appear that both Moscow and Washington are overtly trying to limit the area of operation for Ankara.
There are two major issues in the relations of Turkey and the United States, which will probably decide the future of mutual cooperation between the two countries. Ankara still demands of Washington to extradite Fethullah Gülen, currently residing in Pennsylvania, and to stop providing support to the YPG. In case the relations between Turkey and the US sour, it is not unlikely that the issue of the functioning of the only US military base in Turkey (Incirlik Air Base) will be under question. Despite this, the role of Turkey in regional security is so great that no one in the West questions Turkey’s membership in NATO.
Ankara and Moscow still retain differing views about the issues of regional security, causing an array of problems from time to time. It is hard to imagine these issues being resolved in the nearest future. This is exactly why Moscow is in no hurry to lift all of the sanctions placed on Turkey after the downing of its fighter jet. At this point, Turkish citizens still need visa to enter Russia. There are also certain restrictions as regards the import of certain types of agricultural goods produced in Turkey.
Relations with Europe remain among the thorniest issues in Turkish foreign policy. European countries as well as European institutions have been severely criticizing Ankara on the issues such as human rights, democracy, as well as freedom of press and minority rights. Because of all this, the negotiations about Turkey’s accession to the European Union, which started years ago, are practically frozen. The issue of Cyprus remains unresolved as well. As a response to this Ankara has been accusing Europe of being biased, saying that the Turkish people express their will during the elections and referenda which are sure signs of a democracy. As for the so-called purges, Ankara explains that they were necessary given the security situation of the country.
The relations between Turkey and Europe worsened even further after the OSCE observing mission assessed the 16 April referendum in Turkey to be incompatible with European norms and standards. Parallel to this, PACE (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) instituted monitoring on the events unfolding in Turkey.
As a response, President Erdogan has been talking about the possibility of another referendum, which will ask the voters whether or not they want the reestablishment of a death penalty in Turkey and whether they still support integration in the European Union. It is highly likely that such a referendum will distance Ankara even further from Europe.
As we have seen, Turkey is facing a multitude of problems and challenges as regards its security. Both the future of Turkey, as well as the security of its neighborhood largely depends on how Ankara manages to tackle these challenges.
Any kind of difficulties or instabilities near the Georgian borders will have negative influence on the security of our country, as well as its foreign policy and economy. Hence, it is in Georgian interests to have a stable, democratic and successful Turkey in its neighborhood.