Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Turkey's Foreign Policy Shifts

Istanbul, October 21-

At a conference in Istanbul, Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan spoke on Monday about the lead role he envisions Turkey taking in the Middle East.

“It is imperative to establish a new global order,” Erdogan said at the istanbul forum, a 2 day conference which brought policy makers and analysts from both the Middle East and the West to discuss regional issues.

“Turkey has a major role to play in the region,” said Erdogan. His soaring rhetoric, which vacillated between that of peacemaker and populist, appeared to place Turkey at the head of a new global power structure as “a shining star of this world.”

Responding to coverage of the diplomatic fraying between his country and Israel in recent months, Erdogan parried that “not everyone" in the region "has to feel trust for us.” This contrasts with his government's stated goal of acting as honest broker and once again hosting talks between Israel and Syria. Earlier talks broke down with the start of the 2008 Israel-Gaza War.

Relations between Turkey and Israel, which had always been strong, have begun to deteriorate. In the wake of the 2008 assault on Gaza, Turkey became an outspoken critic of Israel, particularly over the high number of civilian casualties which occurred during the conflict. In January, Erdogan walked out of a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland after a dispute with Israeli President Shimon Peres over the Gaza War. Tensions have risen in recent days following the cancellation of a joint NATO military operation, where Turkey reportedly had chosen to exclude Israel, prompting the U.S and other NATO members to withdraw. Despite official statements from all sides that the cancellation was due to technical problems, both Prime Minister Erdogan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have suggested in subsequent press conferences that the cancellation was in response to disagreements over the 2008 Gaza assault.

Congressman Robert Wexler, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Europe and an outspoken supporter of Israel, responded directly to the Prime Minister’s foreign policy program in a panel discussion at the istanbul forum.

“Why is it that warmer relations with Syria, why is it the new relationship with Iran, why is it that a more prominent Turkey has to, it seems, come at the expense of Turkey’s relationship with Israel?” said Wexler.

Ibrahim Kalin, foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Erdogan, countered Wexler in the panel and claimed that there was no black and white alignment into which Turkish foreign policy must fall. He went on to say that “you cannot have security of Israel at the expense of the security of Palestinians.”

Tension at the forum seemed to crescendo when Jamal Zahalka, an Arab member of the Knesset, viciously attacked President Obama’s approach to Middle East Peace, stating that “the main obstacle for any settlement in the Middle East is the American Policy,” citing Obama’s commitment to “unbreakable” relations between America and Israel, regardless of changes in Israeli policy.

The conference was sponsored by the German Marshall Fund, Stratim, and SETA (The Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research) whose contributors often include members of Turkey's governing AK party.

Today, the American and Israeli militaries began joint exercises of the annual Juniper Cobra. This year, it is reported that the exercises will simulate possible missile attacks on Israel, presumably as a response to fears of Iranian nuclear ambitions. Turkey currently enjoys warm relations with Iran.

Friday, October 9, 2009

New Greek Prime Minister Arrives in Turkey

The newly elected Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou of the Greek Socialist party (PASOK), arrived in Turkey today on his first foreign visit. Mr. Papandreou also has the role of Foreign Minister and was greeted by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at the airport. He is scheduled to meet with his other counterpart, Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan, later in the day.

"This is a very significant visit" said Davutoglu. "It shows the significance that [Mr. Papandreou] attributes to relations with Turkey."

Mr. Davutoglu said that Mr. Papandreou reiterated his support for Turkey's EU accession and that he is hopeful that there will be progress towards finding a solution to the Cyprus issue. He notes that the visit reinforces that this is a "period of peace" for Turkey. However, he hinted at possible conflict with his Greek counterpart when he noted that despite Turkey's commitment to finding a solution for the divided island, "we do not see the same commitment on the Greek side."

The Ministers attended a nearly three hour long meeting of the South East European Cooperation Process (SEECP), of which Turkey currently holds the chair. The SEECP seeks to improve regional integration, particularly on energy, infrastructure, trade liberalization and the promotion of investments.

Both the Turkish Foreign Minister and the next-in-line chair of the SEECP, Milan Rocen, stressed that regional cooperation was, in the words of Rocen, "the fastest way to European and Atlantic integration."

While Turkey is set to sign a set of protocol with Armenia tomorrow that will attempt to normalize relations between the two countries, Mr. Davutoglu gave no new comments on the matter. He said rather, that he will focusing on the Balkans next week after he returns from trips to Damascus and Baghdad.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Post IMF protests

October 6-

Mass protests against the IMF and Worldbank took place this morning in Taksim Square. In the afternoon, there are still occasional skirmishes. Tear gas lingers in the air, red paint trickles down the trolley tracks after police had thrown it on protestors in order to identify them. The policeman pictured to the left, holding a tear gas gun in his left hand and wearing his gas mask on his head, is walking back to a temporary police rally point after a scuffle not far from the Mosque on Istiklal Caddesi.

Several shopwindows are smashed and graffiti is tagged on the main street saying "IMF DEFOL", or "IMF Go Away." Police are still posted at key points around the city in case of additional violence. Throughout the afternoon helicopters make sorties over the area, and different tributary streets of Istiklal are infrequently plagued by tear gas and protesting.

A police barricade set up in Elmadag, halfway between Taksim Square and the site of the IMF meetings less than half a mile away.

Police standing next to one of the armored vehicles used to spray high powered water on protestors.

Police set up a barricade around Taksim Square behind which they keep a fleet of patrol cars and armored vehicles.

At the mosque on Istiklal police remain ready for further confrontations.

A green armored car quickly paves its way through the busy street.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Istanbul Sketch

Istanbul, Oct-3:

On Saturday, several small press conferences were held at the annual IMF/Worldbank meetings. Three separate conferences targeted specific regions, Europe, Central Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, and consisted of IMF officials prescribing economic medicine to reporters from their home countries.

A press conference for the G-24, an organization of developing countries that predates the G-7 failed to attract more than a dozen journalists and two unmanned cameras. Two of its very own panelists failed to turn up for the conference, despite the moderator’s insistence that they would show up soon.

The only exciting moment came when, failing to draw more than two questions from the reporters gathered, the Brazilian representative, Rogerio Studart, took it upon himself to add some commentary. Much his speech was international economic cooperation pablum. However, at the end, he seemed to suggest that the G-20 accept a representative from the G-24. Pushed by a reporter if he meant to call for the creation of a G-21, the Brazilian backed off. However, his counterpart Amar Bhattacharya piped up and said that it was an “efficient way to make the G-20 inclusive”

All this G-confusion led the U.S Secretary of Treasury, Timothy Giethner to announce at his press conference at night “no G-innovations,” and “no more!” G-questions after repeated queries from reporters.

Geithner’s press conference was by far the most frustrating for the gathered reporters. He was the first speaker of the day to use the podium, refusing to sit down. He was the first to appear on stage by himself. He was the first, and probably the only one at the meetings, to speak in the absence of translators. With his knuckles clenching the sides of his podium turning white, sweat glistening on his upper lip, Secretary Geithner marched through his prepared statement, adding the occasional flourish to the text to appear more down to earth, more like the common man, someone you can relate to.

Journalists didn’t bother to introduce themselves before asking questions. Dutifully, the gathered press posed questions and received no answers. Some questions highlighted contradictions in the Administration’s rhetoric, for example the desire to simultaneously keep a strong dollar and for trade balances to come together. Geithner obliged those gathered in weaving the rhetoric together without any apparent contradiction, or synthesis for that matter.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Preliminary IMF/Worldbank Meetings

Preliminary meetings were held yesterday in Istanbul on the eve of the IMF and World Bank annual meetings. Expectations are high for these leading international financial organizations bodies in the wake of the Pittsburgh G-20 summit and the continuing global economic downturn.

Global Economic Outlook

One day ahead of their annual meetings, the heads of the IMF and the World Bank said that despite positive developments in the global economy, their aim is to reinforce activist, stimulatory economic policies in the hopes that they will continue.

“We’ve broken the fall of the financial crisis,” said Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, in a morning press conference. Dominique Strauss Kahn, Managing Director of the IMF echoed Zoellick’s comments saying “The global economy has turned a corner.” However, both men acknowledged the long-term ramifications of the global recession. “Unemployment is going to continue going up, and it’s going to take a while to come down,” warned Zoellick.

The “long shadow” of unemployment, and the risk posed by a “premature withdrawal from the stimulus”, according to Kahn, require that countries maintain their current level of economic cooperation and work towards improving financial stability through better regulation.

Kahn sees the economic crisis as a mandate for greater IMF power, noting that “this annual meeting may be the start of a new IMF,” one that plays a lead role in this “defining moment in global governance.” In contrast, Zoellick believes that the legacy of this crisis will be “changed economic power relations,” a multi-polar economy that “will be more stable.”

IMF loan to Turkey

Turkey is hosting the meetings for a second time since the annual meetings began, a first for any country outside the United States. Looming over the conference is a potential IMF loan to Turkey, which has become a highly politicized issue.

Although the GDP is down, the public debt has risen sharply along with unemployment in Turkey since the financial crisis took hold. On September 26, Prime Minister Erdogan reinforced previous messages from his government to the IMF, reiterating that there should be no political conditions attached to a loan to Turkey. Economy Minister Ali Babacan, who unveiled Turkey’s medium-range economic plan on September 16, has been arguing that the Turkish economy is doing well without any IMF assistance.

“The Turkish banking system is sound,” Babacan reiterated today in his own press conference shortly after Kahn made his remarks.

Babacan argued that the global downturn has not deeply affected Turkey, and that Turkey was not in a “crisis psychology” because it “did not have any uncertainty in its financial structure”.

The Turkish minister refused to comment on a possible IMF loan, stating that negotiations have been suspended for the duration of the meetings.

Kahn also avoided the issue by saying “The Turkish economy is doing rather well. I’m happy with what’s going on in this country.” According to Kahn, the IMF is “not looking for customers” but was ready to help Turkey if it showed a need for economic assistance.

Istanbul Financial Center Project

Babacan used his press conference to promote a plan that the government is calling the “Istanbul Financial Center Project.” The move aims to capitalize on what Babacan sees as the shift of economic power from west to east. Accordingly, he sees Istanbul as an alternative financial center in the post-crisis climate.

A comprehensive report on the project is being produced by the Turkish Union of Banks. The plan, interestingly, calls for the expanded use of financial derivatives in Turkish markets at a time when many governments are calling for stricter regulations and oversight of complex financial products. Babacan justified the move by saying that this would allow Istanbul to “compete with other global financial centers.”

Five big Turkish unions rejected invitations to attend the IMF meetings to protest IMF political intervention.