Thursday, November 11, 2010

EU Progress Report Reflects on Country Rather Than Government, says Minister

Turkish Minister for EU affairs and chief negotiator Egemen Bağış, at a press conference held for Istanbul's foreign press Tuesday night, reiterated his positive reading of the EU's annual progress report on Turkey and deflected both the criticisms found within the report and those registered by the audience of journalists who attended the press meeting.

"When I read the report, and analyze it, and compare it with the previous 12 reports, the way I interpret it, we don't have to wait for another 13 years or 13 reports for full membership. Membership is now a much more achievable goal for Turkey than it ever was," said Bagış.

The report, which covers the period from early October 2009-October 2010, notes that "progress is measured on the basis of decisions taken, legislation adopted, and measures implemented."

"Of course this is Turkey's progress report. It's not the government's progress report, it's not the media's progress report, it's not the opposition's progress report, it's not the NGO's progress report, but this is an overall progress report for everyone in Turkey, so everyone should assume their responsibility vis a vis the report," said Bağış. "We all have to do our share to make sure Turkey's picture is depicted in a positive and balanced way."

Apart from an in depth assessment of Turkey's progress on each of the 33 chapters of EU accession, the report looks at Turkey's implementation of the Copenhagen criteria with regards to democracy, rule of law, human rights, and the protection of minorities.

This year's report identifies the dominant changes in Turkey's domestic political agenda this past year as having been the constitutional reform package, the government's democratic opening to address the Kurdish issue, and the "widening investigations into alleged coup plans." The report characterizes how Turkey addressed these issues as one in which "a confrontational political climate prevailed, marked by the lack of dialogue and spirit of compromise between the main political parties and the government and strained relations between key political institutions."

Bagış responded to this, agreeing that there has not been enough cooperation between parties and blaming opposition parties for not engaging the governing AKP in tackling the challenges that Turkey faces.

The report also offered some strong criticism on the state of freedom of the press in Turkey, citing the "high number of cases initiated against journalists who have reported on the Ergenekon case" and the prosecutions they face. This, the report warns, "could result in self-censorship." The report went on to criticize undue "pressure on newspapers" and "political attacks against the press." Citing the court case on the tax fine ordered in 2009 against the Doğan Media Group, the report notes that the "press exercises self-restraint when reporting following the initiation of this case."

"Lots of the criticism regarding the media is about judicial procedures...On one side, you want the judicial branch to be independent of the executive branch, and on the other side, blaming the executive branch for not interfering with the processes of the judicial branch is a contradiction," said Bağış. "I want to underline here that we respect the media's role to be a mirror showing us the insufficiencies or problems. We even welcome their criticism. But we do not welcome being insulted or being cursed at."

Several journalists at Tuesday's event questioned Bağış on the state of freedom of the press in Turkey. One journalist asked Bagış what the government was planning to do about Kurdish journalists in jail and other journalists who are in jail due to alleged connections with the Ergenekon investigations.

"Things may not be as good as they should be, but things today are much better than they used to be, and things will be better in the near future than they are today," said Bağış, noting that Turkey has changed since "the bad old days." Regarding “politicians and journalists who have been imprisoned for their ideals and articles, not because of direct allegations with attempts to have coups or topple democratically elected governments through undemocratic means, but just by the mere fact that they have written an article or they have recited a poem, things are better today,” said Bağış.

Of the court cases currently facing journalists, Bagış said that “only 11 of them have to do with political issues. The rest are either terrorism related, or attempts to topple a democratically elected government.”

Bagış went on to highlight the some of the positive developments that have taken place in the last decade. He believes that the rights of ethnic and religious minorities have improved, noting that ten years ago, Kurds used to fear admitting that they were Kurds. He also noted that Turkey has allowed some services at historical Greek and Armenian churches that would have been met with hostility in the past. While there was criticism in the report regarding these issues, he pointed out that at least some progress was made this year on each of the 33 EU accession chapters and he remains positive that Turkey will eventually become a member of the European Union.

“Europe needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe,” said Bagış. “The cost of keeping Turkey out is higher than having Turkey in.”

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bomb Explodes In Downtown Istanbul

A bomb exploded this morning in Istanbul's Taksim square at about 10:30 this morning, according to Turkish media reports. Current reports place the injured at 22, of which 10 are police and 12 are civilians. The attack appears to have targeted a police outpost.

Istanbul's security director, Hüseyin Çapkin, was quoted as saying that the attack was likely carried out by a male, suicide bomber. He also said that another unexploded bomb was found beside the attacker's body.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Turkey: The View From Israel

Three leading Israeli commentators frankly criticized Turkey’s current foreign policy in Istanbul on Friday. The speakers said that Turkey is now like Iran, and seen in Israel as part of an axis hostile to Israel, the United States, and Europe. The Turkish hosts of the conference, Boğaziçi University’s TÜSİAD Foreign Policy Forum, debated some of the assertions made by their Israeli guests, leading to a lively discussion about which country’s government, people, or policy is to blame for the current malaise in Turkish-Israeli relations. However, as the hosts themselves said, the purpose of the debate was to have “frank words among ourselves,” and all participants agreed that they were “very interested in finding a solution.”

The Israeli participants at Friday’s events were Amikam Nachmani, professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science and former Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Aluf Benn, editor-at large a Haaretz Newspaper.

“This is the first time since the early 1990’s in the strategic Turkish-Israeli relations, that a clear non-threatening Turkish act is deliberately, openly launched against Israel with the Turkish intent of embarrassing Israel,” said Nachmani, speaking about the Gaza flotilla crisis that occurred on May 31 of this year when a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, attempted to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza and distribute humanitarian aid. Eight Turks and one Turkish-American were killed by Israeli soldiers, who boarded the ship before it could reach Gaza.

“Ask Turks how they would feel if other countries arranged an aid convoy akin to the Gaza flotilla for their own Turkish minority. Or how about supporting the Armenian demand for genocide recognition, or inviting heads of the PKK for a visit, the same way that Prime Minister Erdoğan hosted Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas. You will be met with silent stares” said Nachmani, quoting some of the hostile rhetoric coming from the Israeli media against Turkey.

“You wanted to know what is the public opinion in Israel, and I gave you the gist of it. And I’ll continue,” said Nachmani, categorically describing a narrative of Turkey’s foreign policy in stark contrast to what many of the Turkish intellectuals countered in their rebuttals.

Professor Avineri added another layer of criticism to Turkey’s foreign policy. In his presentation, Avineri said that Turkey’s recent foreign policy has been seen as hostile not only to Israel, but to America as well.

“No NATO country has ever voted against the United States in the Security Council. Turkey did it,” aid Avineri, referring to Turkey’s “no” vote at the United Nations’ Security Council in June to a draft resolution imposing more sanctions on Iran. “This was saying ‘no’ to Obama, not Bush, and Obama represents a different kind of foreign policy.”

Many Turkish officials have defended their vote at the Security Council, noting that the nuclear swap deal they had signed with Iran shortly before the vote was a more effective diplomatic step towards preventing a nuclear-weaponized Iran, a goal Turkey shares with the West.

However, Avineri believes that the vote also created a negative perception of Turkey in Europe, and not only in the United States and Israel.

“Turkey being friendly to Iran hurt it in the eyes of Europe,” said Avineri.

Aluf Benn spoke of the stereotypes that have developed within Israel of Turkey since the flotilla incident.

“The initial reaction of friends and family members when they heard that I was going to Istanbul was ‘Isn’t it dangerous? It’s a really dangerous time, are you sure about that?’” said Benn. “No Israeli had any trouble in Turkey, neither in Istanbul nor anywhere else, not before the flotilla not after the flotilla… there was no story about anyone who was even over-questioned at the airport. Nothing. But still, ‘Are you crazy? What are you going to do there?’ And this is by people who consider themselves in their own eyes to be the elites of Israel, people with degrees, people who believe that they are better informed about the world than just watching TV news or reading the press, but still that was the impression.”

Benn went on to speak of the historically close relationship between Turkey and Israel, describing Turkey as one of the first countries to have an open military relationship with Israel. He said that France had, in the 1950’s, helped Israel militarily to an extent that no other nation had or would, including helping with the development of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. While France has since become a critic of Israel, Benn noted that France would never be considered an enemy. Although saddened by the recent fallout between Israel and Turkey, Benn hopes that Turkey can at some point criticize Israel in a similar way while maintaining a working relationship. Part of the blame, he said, lies in the fact that Israelis have an image of Turkey as “exotic,” in times of both friendship and disagreement.

The panel chair at Friday’s event, Gün Kut, a professor of political science at Boğaziçi University, responded to his Israeli guest’s criticism of Turkey. He said that the recent tensions between the two countries occurred when “for the first time, Turkey and Israel, at the official level, stopped talking to one another as two European Western states and started to talk to one another as two Middle Eastern states.”

Kut described Turkey as the first country in the region to have pro-Palestinian sentiments without being anti-Israeli. He also refuted the assertion that Turkey was part of Iran’s “axis,” saying that it is in Turkey’s interest to have peace and stability in the region, while it is in Iran’s interest to maintain instability in the region. He was critical of the current foreign policy espoused by Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, of “zero problems with neighbors,” saying that this only works if you are the source of all problems in the region. Instead, countries have to manage and mitigate problems.

Kut criticized the current populist foreign policy trend of the current government, which some commentators explain as an attempt by the Turkish government to appeal to the “Arab street.”

“You conduct foreign policy from government to government, not from government to street,” said Kut, noting that praise for Turkey’s policy from the Arab media was flattering, but hardly the basis for shaping foreign policy.

One possible reason for the current drift in relations between Turkey and Israel is the proliferation of democracy in Turkey, according to some of the speakers at the conference.

“It is clear, at least to some Israelis, the more democratic Turkey becomes, the more you see the rise of Muslim forces, and the less the military can influence the country’s policies. Similarly, as the country became more and more democratic, hence more open about its cooperation with Israel, internal opposition to it has risen,” said Nachmani.

Public opinion’s effect on foreign policy can be seen to some extent in the flotilla crisis. According to a poll by Turkish polling group Metropoll after the crisis, over 60% of Turks felt that Turkey’s reaction to Israel after the crisis was not strong enough, as opposed to 33% who felt that Turkey’s response was strong enough.

“If you have Muslim solidarity between Turkey and Hamas, I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but there is more criticism of Israel,” as a result, Nachmani said.

As for solving the problem, Friday’s event was billed as an attempt by respected intellectuals of Turkey and Israel to discuss ways forward.

“What should be our role? First and foremost, at least to describe to our readers the other face of Turkey, not only the inflammatory speeches of the Prime Minister, or the demonstrations after the flotilla…or the exotic stereotypes of the past. But also, to expose them to another face of Turkey, that we know very little about. I was very excited by the invitation because I knew that this was a great opportunity to interact with that kind of Turkey,” said Benn. “Here I see the big way forward to develop the relationship, even at times of strong political differences and arguments,” he said in closing, which drew applause from those gathered.

(A portion of this piece appeared in the Hurriyet Daily News)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Global investors eyeing Turkey's fiscal discipline, report says

Turkey is recovering from the global financial crisis strongly, with its economy ranked as one of the most stable performers in the region, according to a recent report from real-estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield.

“Recent growth has been even faster than expected, aided by strong employment growth, and low interest rates,” the report said, adding that Turkey has experienced one of the “quickest stabilizations” and “strongest recoveries” in Europe, citing rising employment and strong growth across numerous sectors.

Yet while David Hutchings, head of Cushman & Wakefield’s European Research Group, said there has been strong corporate investment in Turkey over the last year, he warned of an overall “double dip in sectors that rely on demand.”

Hutchings said declining demand from Germany and France for Turkish imports may yet have a negative impact on the Turkish economy.

The research group head told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review that investors will be watching Turkey to see if “the government maintains fiscal and monetary discipline,” and whether it will fall into the trap of spending large amounts of money in the run-up to the June 2011 general elections.

The Cushman & Wakefield report said that in the real estate market, rental growth was down 7.7 percent in the industrial sector, but up 4.7 percent in the retail sector and 2.5 percent in the office sector. This, according to Alan Robertson, managing director of global real-estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle, is directly correlated to Turkey’s economic outlook.

“When the economy is not good for the industrial sector, industrial rents go down,” said Robertson. “There is a direct correlation.”

Office market rents fell by roughly 25 percent following the peak of the global financial crisis in early 2008. However, since the third quarter of 2009, they have stopped falling. Office real-estate has been recovering nicely, but Robertson believes “the industrial sector is a little behind the office sector, and will recover next year.”

“When you have gross domestic product growth like Turkey’s, you have to expect a correlation in the real-estate market,” he said.

Facing austerity measures

According to the Cushman & Wakefield report, this year Europe experienced its strongest second-quarter growth in a decade. The report noted that the recovery is being driven primarily by exports from core countries, particularly Germany.

However, because of falling global demand for exports and the application of expected austerity measures, the second quarter may represent the “high point for this phase of the cycle,” the report said.

It also said there was a great economic “disparity, country by country” which is expected to persist. The economic troubles hitting Greece and, to a lesser extent, Portugal, Ireland and Spain, are in stark contrast to the recovery of other countries such as Germany.

Employment is back on the upswing in the finance and business sectors, up 1.8 percent overall since the third quarter of last year. Meanwhile, employment in manufacturing continues to fall, although the rate has recently slowed. Such a trend is partially reflected in the real estate market, with positive growth being experienced in office real estate, compared to negative growth in industrial and retail markets.

While exports are leading the recovery, job creation in the industry has slowed. Hutchings told the Daily News that while there was no increase in hiring in the industrial and manufacturing sectors, many industries are capitalizing on spare capacity to fuel growth.

(Report Originally appeared in Hurriyet Daily News)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Energy Forum to Seek Regional Dialogue on Sensitive Issues

The second annual Black Sea Energy and Economic Forum, organized by the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Energy Center, is to take place in Istanbul on September 29th. Ambassador Ross Wilson, who recently joined the Atlantic Council as Director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, is one of many experts who follow the region closely and will be attending the conference. Wilson, who has served as U.S Ambassador in both Azerbaijan and Turkey, spoke to the Hurriyet Daily News about the purpose of the conference and some of the issues that are to be discussed.

After its inaugural convention in Bucharest last year, the Black Sea Energy and Economic Forum, or BSEEF, hopes to build a dialogue within the Eurasian region between economic players and policy makers. According to Ambassador Ross Wilson, the Atlantic Council is organizing the forum in Istanbul this year in order to highlight the economic and cultural commonalities between states in the region and stimulate discussions about common problems. The Atlantic Council is a Washington based think-tank that “promotes constructive U.S. leadership and engagement in international affairs” according to its website.

“We want, at the forum, to stimulate a conversation among political, business and other leaders of the region about the region’s problems,” Wilson told the Hurriyet Daily News in an interview last week. “In other words, it’s not so much Washington, the Washington think-tank world talking about the problems, it’s the region’s own leaders talking about their problems. We want to facilitate that, that is why we’re doing it there.”

Energy Issues: Seeking Alternative Supplies Cooperatively

One of the main issues in the region that affects trade, economic development and politics is that of energy. Some in the region either have energy resources that they export, like Russia, or are transit countries, like Turkey. However, other countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, are heavily dependent on energy imports. Debate in recent years has focused primarily on Europe’s overdependence on Russian energy supplies, with some accusing Russia of translating its energy exports into “soft power.”

“I think that the countries of Central and Western Europe and Eastern Europe should be concerned, as any country anywhere, about being overly dependent on one source of supply for a critical component of their national economy,” said Wilson.

However, Wilson believes that the problem is not just about Russia, but about nations being able to “stand on their own feet,” and maintain economic and political independence. For countries looking to diversify their energy supplies, Wilson believes that there are several alternatives to Russian energy. Wilson himself was ambassador to Azerbaijan when construction began on the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan, or BTC, pipeline. BTC is a crude oil pipeline that transports oil supplies from Azeri oil fields in the Caspian Sea through Georgia to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

“For me it’s not so much a Russia-specific issue, it’s just being dependent on one source of supply for a critical component [of their national economy] is not a sound strategy,” said Wilson. “I think in part for that reason I supported [and] the US Government has strongly supported the development of Caspian Basin energy resources as an additional supply to what will always be large-scale purchases from Russia. Augment those with supplies that come from Kazakhstan, from Azerbaijan, maybe from Iraq at some point in the future and, if their politics change, maybe from Iran at some point as well.”

Energy issues also have a large impact on politics and foreign relations in the region. Attempts to promote new energy supply routes must take into account Russian concerns and Wilson sees ways around any potential conflicts.

“As you look now at the future of gas pipeline developments, you sort of have the same thing being played out, whether and how Russia is going to be accomodated, whether and how Russian resources might actually help to make gas pipelines more viable, financable, and exactly what the routes of large-scale, new gas pipelines might be,” said Wilson. Speaking in reference to the countries that he believes can be major energy suppliers to the Eurasian region, specifically Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Wilson believes that “these are integral issues for these countries’ foreign policies.”

Turkey’s “Central Role”

The choice of Turkey for this year’s forum “reflects the central role, the central position of Turkey... as a major player throughout the Eurasian region,” according to Wilson. He sees Turkey, along with Russia and increasingly China, as one of the big economic players in Eurasia with its vast investments and trade in the region.

“Broadly speaking, I think the decision reflected an appreciation of this absolutely crucial role that Turkey plays,” said Wilson.

Wilson dismisses concerns that Turkey’s developing economic ties with Russia and Iran, particularly in the energy sector, could negatively impact Turkey’s integration with Europe or its relations with the United States. On the contrary, he believes Turkey’s role as an energy transit country can be of great benefit to Europe.

“Turkey’s central role in energy issues, as one of the main transit routes, if not the main transit route for Caspian Basin, Central Asian oil and natural gas to access international markets puts it in a uniquely suitable position to demonstrate its importance to Europe, to European economic development,” said Wilson. “Turkey’s got a central role to play as Europeans, European consumers seek to diversify their source of supply away from over reliance on one set of suppliers. Turkey has a unique international role to play because of that energy issue and I dont think that Turkish relations with Russia or with Iran, either of those relationships, negatively impair this role.”

Ambassador Wilson believes that Turkey’s economic ties with Iran will not negatively impact its relationship with the U.S so long as Turkey stands by the committments made by Turkish officals that it will cooperate with U.N security council sanctions on Iran. Gas purchase agreements between Turkey and Iran, signed in 1996, currently provide roughly 13-14% of Turkey’s imported natural gas annually according to Wilson. However, gas trade between the countries does not constitute an investment in Iran, a development which would put Turkey in danger of violating sanctions.

“My personal perspective is that Turkey’s relationship with Iran is more correct rather than a particularly warm relationship. Trade has been dominated by these gas purchases which have been highly unreliable for Turkey and there has been some growth in other areas as Turkish firms have found opportunities. I am sure that it will continue to be the expectation of the US administration as well as governments pretty much around the rest of the world that Turkey will, as it has said it will, meet its committments pursuant to the U.N. Security Council resolutions that have been passed and that is a pretty good standard,” said Wilson.

(A version of this piece appeared first in the Hurriyet Daily News)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

“Cooler Heads Have Prevailed” in Turkish-Israel Relations

Deteriorating ties between Turkey and Israel have been the subject of much analysis and some criticism from Washington following the Gaza flotilla incident in which eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish American were killed after attempting to break Israel’s blockade on Gaza.

In the wake of the incident, two letters were sent to President Obama from Congress supporting Israel in its actions. The Senate letter called on the administration to consider placing the Turkish group that organized the flotilla the IHH, or the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Last week State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at a press briefing that they were “looking at IHH, but it’s a long process to designate something – an organization a Foreign Terrorist Organization.”

According to one senior Turkish source in Washington, if the IHH were to be designated a terrorist organization, it could have negative effects on Turkish-U.S relations. There would be pressure on the Turkish government to label the organizations similarly, and there would be greater scrutiny of the group’s ties within Turkey.

The difference of opinion between the U.S administration and the Turkish government over the IHH stems from a difference in opinion over whether Hamas is in fact a terrorist organization or not, said one House staffer. Turkey does not consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and therefore does not see the alleged financial links between the IHH and Hamas as a reason to label the group as a terrorist organization. This potential fissure in Turkish-U.S relations came up as a result of the hostile encounter between Turkey and Israel. The staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the steps taken by Congress should be seen as a warning shot to Turkey that it should repair its relationship with Israel.

It seems that the Turkish government has indeed taken the message. Former Congressman Robert Wexler, who co-chaired the Congressional study group on Turkey in the House of Representatives and who is currently the president of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, in a phone interview said that he believes that Turkish-Israeli relations have taken a turn for the better recently.

“In the last two weeks, cooler heads have prevailed on both sides, and I’m grateful for that,” said Wexler. “Now they can look towards what can be done constructively.”

Turkish-Israeli relations are important for the U.S foreign policy initiatives in the region, Wexler stressed, particularly in bringing together the divided Palestinian leadership of Fatah and Hamas in the pursuit of lasting peace in the region.

“Turkey has always played a unique role because of its ability to play the role of a bridge between East and West and between Israel and certain areas of the Arab world,” said Wexler. “If Turkey’s relationship with Israel is significantly compromised, Turkey’s role as a bridge will be diminished.

By agreeing to a meeting with Israel’s Industry, Trade and Labor minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezar in Brussels at the end of last month, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu showed signs that his government was willing to make steps towards repairing ties with Israel. However, only days after this inconclusive meeting, Davutoğlu went on to state that “Israel should both apologize and pay compensation unilaterally. If those two conditions do not materialize, the diplomatic relations with Israel will be cut off.”

So far there has been virtually no daylight between the Israeli and American position on the matter, and the likelihood of any pressure from Washington on Israel to make the concessions that Turkey has demanded appears to be even less after the apparently successful meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington last week.

(Published in the Hürriyet Daily News)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Erdogan Defends "No" Vote in Security Council on Further Iran Sanctions

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday defended Turkey's "no" vote at Wednesday’s UN Security Council meeting that produced an agreement for the implementation of further sanctions on Iran. Erdogan said that during his country’s negotiations alongside Brazil for the Tehran agreement, which stipulated a transfer of enriched uranium from Iran to Turkey in exchange for uranium fuel rods for medical purposes, Turkey was in constant contact and coordination with the permanent members of the Security Council.

“When we were making strides towards the Tehran agreement we were in contact with the U.N permanent Security Council members,” said Erdogan at the Turkish Arab Economic Forum on Thursday. “Since the beginning we have always advocated a diplomatic solution to the problem. The U.N Security Council said that negotiations could still continue, and Turkey and Brazil will continue to negotiate.”

Erdogan attacked the Security Council’s decision to ratchet up sanctions, accusing certain permanent members of the council of dismissing a diplomatic solution, favoring instead a more hostile approach that Erdogan paralleled to the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“With embargoes there is no way out of the problem. We learned this before. There are hundreds of widows and orphans in Iraq. Who is responsible for this?” said Erdogan, attacking “those people who have turned this region into a region of conflict.”

Erdogan explained that Turkey needed to vote against an additional embargo on Iran because of the fuel-swap agreement that his country had signed. He said that only if Iran proved that it was not standing by the words of its agreement could the international community reject the diplomatic progress that has so far been pioneered by Turkey and Brazil.

“Now that we signed [the agreement with Iran], we have to stand behind these signatures…This is why we said ‘no’ yesterday. If we want to advocate diplomacy, we had to say ‘no’,” said Erdogan. “Iran is behind its words.”

“Ill-Intentioned Propaganda”

Erdogan had some harsh words for critics, both domestic and international, who are concerned that Turkey is shifting away from the west and moving towards the east.

“Those who claim that Turkey is detaching from the west are part of ill-intentioned propaganda,” said Erdogan.

Erdogan reiterated his support for EU accession and said that, despite hindrances coming from some Europeans towards Turkey’s membership bid, Turkey is still committed to meeting the requirements for EU accession.

“Within the European union there are countries that try to slow down negotiations and raise barriers. We are not discouraged. We are still committed,” said Erdogan.

The Turkish Arab Economic Forum at which Erdogan was speaking was formed three years ago after a strong push from Prime Minister Erdogan’s government to strengthen ties with the Arab world. Since then, visa requirements to Turkey for people coming from Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Libya have been dropped. The trade volume between Turkey and Arab countries went from $7 billion in 2002 to roughly $30 billion today. According to figures cited by the Prime Minister, between 2002 and 2009, $6.2 billion in FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) came into Turkey from Arab countries.

“Each brother or sister who wants to invest in Turkey should know that our doors are wide open to him or her,” said Erdogan.

The developing ties between Turkey and the Arab world stretches beyond economic ties, according to the leaders who were gathered at the forum Thursday. Several, including Turkish Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek, recalled the common history, culture, and religion shared between Turkey and Arab countries

“The Muslim world, led by Turks, led by Arabs, has built great civilizations in the past. The Muslim world was the source for innovation and enlightenment during the 9th and 17th centuries. There is no reason why we cannot go back to our roots,” said Simsek.

Erdogan also waxed poetic about the relationship between Turks and Arabs, quoting Turkish poet Mehmet Akif Ersoy who said that “the Arab is both the left eye and the left hand of the Turk,” which received thundering applause from the audience.

Harsh Words for Israel

Leaders from Turkey and the Arab world spoke at the forum on Wednesday about the need for political cooperation as well, particularly in providing a unified front against Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. All visiting leaders expressed their condolences and support to Turkey and the Turks who were killed by Israeli soldiers in international waters last week as they were attempting to transport humanitarian supplies to Gaza.

“Turkey’s martyrs are our martyrs as well,” said Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, about those killed by Israel on the flotilla. “We welcome the role Turkey plays” regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict and the pursuit of peace in the region.

Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon, also expressed thanks to Turkey for the role it is playing in the region.

“I express my condolences to the people of Turkey for the murder of martyrs,” said Hariri.

No word was spared in the condemnations of Israel at the forum. “Our region has undergone such suffering under the criminal, barbaric actions of Israel,” said Hariri.

“At the moment, Israel is the reason for the black hole in the region,” said Amr Moussa.

Erdogan said that Turkey was standing up to state terrorism. He praised those who were on the boat going to Gaza with supplies, lamenting the fate of those who were killed or injured in last week’s attack by Israel.

“We are raising our voice against unfairness…we are against all forms of terror, including state terror,” said Erdogan. “I have seen with my own eyes that in different parts of their bodies there were bullet holes… doesn’t it mean we are keeping our eyes wide shut to state terrorism and piracy on the high seas?”

“While Gaza is under the blockade, we will never sacrifice the principles we believe,” said Erdogan, pledging further support for Gaza.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Following in Poland's EU footsteps raises problems for Turkey


There is one story that Poles always tell visiting Turkish delegations. When Poland lost its sovereignty in the late 18th century to Austria, Prussia and Russia, Ottoman officials continued to include the Polish ambassador in its roll call at international diplomatic gatherings. The symbolic gesture was largely a sleight towards Russia, with whom the Ottoman Empire had uneasy relations; nonetheless, Poles today are still taught this in history class, and it serves as the historical bedrock from which Poles today support Turkey’s European Union Accession process.

There are many things in common between Turkey and Poland that might serve to shed some light on Turkey’s EU accession process. Poland, like Turkey, has a large population of roughly 38 million. Like Turkey, Poland’s eastern provinces are very underdeveloped compared to the rest of the country. Unemployment runs high in both countries. Migrants from the east, from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia come to Poland to work as seasonal laborers.

Given the many demographic similarities, it is unclear to many in Poland why Turkey has not managed to progress on its EU accession progress. Some of the deputy editors of Gazete Wyborca, Poland’s prestigious domestic paper with the highest circulation amongst non-tabloid newspapers, told a visiting delegation of Turkish journalists this week that they supported EU enlargement in general. They also believe that Turkey will join the European Union.

Grzegorz Cydejko, who works for Forbes Poland and is the head of the Warsaw Chapter of the Polish Journalists Association, sees Turkey’s human rights issues and developing democratic institutions as the main barriers to Turkey’s accession.

However, Adam Balcer, Senior Fellow at demosEUROPA and Project Leader of the EU Enlargement and Neighborhood Project, believes that given the similarities between Turkey and Poland, the reason that Turkey has yet to progress very far in its accession process is due to religious differences.

“The thing that separates these two countries [Turkey and Poland] is religion,” said Balcer. “Whatever Turkey does, a group of people will always say no to Turkey.”

Poland’s Path to the EU

How has Poland overcome issues that are problematic for EU regulations on security, economic stability, and immigration?

Poland is currently the largest recipient of EU aid for member states, from member states. For the period from 2007-2013, Poland will receive over 67 billion Euros for development. EU project banners can be seen everywhere in Poland, signaling some new development or restoration project. These developments stand out particularly in Poland’s poorest voivodships, or provinces, Podlaskie, Lubelskie, and Podkarpackie.

In Podlaski, EU funds have done a great deal to help develop the infrastructure, according to Andrezej Kurpiewski, secretary of the Podlaskie Voivodship.

“Infrastructure has completely changed,” said Kurpiewski. “We used to have to go to Warsaw to do shopping. Now people from Warsaw are coming to do shopping here.”

Apart from road infrastructure, EU funds are helping the region to develop universities, technoparks, research institutions, and foster tourism to what is a verdant region with four national parks. However, EU membership has also had some negative effects on Podlaskie. Poland effectively joined the Schengen Area, an area of 25 countries that operate virtually under a single border, in December 2007. This required stricter border controls that have taken their toll on tourism to Poland’s eastern provinces from Belarussian, Russian and Ukrainian nationals.

Turkey shares borders with five countries that are not members of the European Union and has no visa requirements for visitors coming from neighboring Syria and Iraq. This raises the question of whether EU membership may have negative impacts on Turkey’s business ties with its other neighbors. Future attempts to comply with EU border and security requirements may also force a recalibration of Turkey’s foreign policy.

At the Polish-Belarus Border

The Polish-Belarussian border crossing at Kuznicy is “the most modern, most contemporary border in Poland,” according to Major Anatol Kalinowski, deputy head of the Kuznicy border crossing. A total of 43 million Euros went into developing the state of the art border crossing point and the monitored area went from covering 2 hectares to 19 after Poland joined the EU.

“Before that we just had a couple of fences,” said Maciej Czarnecki, spokesman of the Regional Customs Office in Bialystok.

However, problems still arise when bordering poorer, less developed nations. Smuggling, especially of cigarettes, is a huge issue.

“In 2009, Poland seized 29 million cigarettes from the [Belarussian] border,” said Maciej. “10 thousand people were detained…for example, recently they [the border police] seized 5 million cigarettes hidden in a cake.”

Human trafficking is also a huge issue. Every truck that goes across the border is X-rayed, and some are randomly subjected to a machine that tests if there is a heartbeat on board.

“At the border, they put people like ants into the corners of the trucks,” said Maciej.

The mind boggles at what logistical challenges would await Turkey were it to have the responsibility of patrolling the EU’s border with Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

EU Creates Global Vagabonds

Poland has an even larger problem with its own population emigrating out of the country to countries in Western Europe. Many Polish laborers, mostly unskilled, work in Germany, the UK, and Ireland among others. According to Izabela Grabowska-Lusinka, head of the research unit of the Center of Migration Research, many people left Poland with good degrees thinking that there was no opportunity for them in Poland. Others left because they did not have good enough English to operate in their field. What happened was that they started working as unskilled labor in the west and could not return to the sector they were trained in when they returned to Poland.

However, Grabowska-Lusinka also thinks that the problem of emigration after EU accession was exaggerated in the Polish media.

“What happened in the Polish public discourse, in the Polish media, the media started exaggerating, just after accession, the number of people who left Poland,” said Grabowska-Lusinka. “There was a lot of scare-mongering scenarios that Poland would experience a kind of brain-drain.”

Many Poles who were working abroad in the UK and Ireland came back to Poland after the global economic crisis severely affected those countries’ economies. However, most Polish workers now travel freely back and forth, with no set plan, and move depending on their economic opportunities. These people, who take advantage of the EU system, have become an entirely new category of workers that have been deemed “global vagabonds.”

“There is not that much planning, recruiting, organizing, all these things that were in the pre-accession period. Migration is more spontaneous,” said Grabowska-Lusinka. “Free movement of labor brought this.”

(A similar version of this article first appeared in the Hürriyet Daily News)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

U.S-Turkish Business Ties Relatively Unaffected by Diplomatic Setbacks

Foreign Direct Investment, or FDI, in Turkey coming from the U.S. will fully recover to pre-global financial crisis levels, according to the chairwoman of the American Business Forum in Turkey, or ABFT.

“Recovery started in 2009, but in 2010 it’s going to be much, much better. We will reach the 2007 figures in 2011,” Rahşan Cebe, chairwoman of the board at ABFT, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in a Tuesday interview.

After a steady increase in both FDI and the number of American businesses operating in Turkey over the past decade, numbers fell drastically in 2008. Cebe said she believes this was almost completely due to the global financial crisis, discounting the idea that recent diplomatic problems between the two countries had affected business ties.

“Misunderstandings can occasionally occur between all countries, but business is business. These misunderstandings haven’t been catastrophic,” said Cebe.

The bilateral diplomatic relationship has suffered in recent months as U.S. officials have voiced concern over Turkey’s deteriorating relationship with Israel.

In early March 2010, the Turkish government recalled its ambassador to the U.S. for consultations after a resolution passed a U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee calling on President Barack Obama to recognize the killings of Armenians in the collapsing Ottoman Empire in 1915 as “genocide.”

Cebe said the business relationship is susceptible to diplomatic setbacks, but said these were not major issues. “They were small misunderstandings between countries that have been sorted out,” she told the Daily News.

The U.S. exports a great deal of defense equipment and technology to Turkey. Some in the U.S., however, have been warning of Turkey’s “shifting” geopolitical role as one that is moving closer to the “East,” particularly as Turkey is no longer a bulwark against the Soviet Union.

Turkey refused to let the U.S. open a second front from the north against Iraq in 2003; now, many point to its deteriorating military relationship with Israel. However, Cebe does not believe that Turkey is turning its back on the West and is confident that trade, including in the defense sector, will continue to prosper between the U.S. and Turkey.

“I don’t think that Turkey is moving away from the West. It’s just opening up to the East. We’re still as close as we’ve been to the West and now we’re opening up to the East as well,” said Cebe.

Bureaucratic, but progressing

“This government is quite good. But it can be better,” said Cebe, speaking of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government. “I personally think the Turkish government needs to be less bureaucratic. They made one good thing, by forming Investment Support and Promotion Agency in Turkey, or ISPAT, which reports directly to the prime minister.”

ISPAT works with foreign businesses and investors who need help entering the Turkish market. Led by Alparslan Korkmaz, it offers investment advice, as well as legal and bureaucratic assistance.

“They’re doing a fantastic job,” said Cebe. “Now if they could have something like that for companies that have already invested in Turkey and have less bureaucracy, that would be fantastic.”

One thing that such FDI-friendly policy can help with is attracting small and medium-sized businesses to Turkey from the U.S.

“One of the negative things I see is that American businesses don’t know Turkey very well. I mean medium-sized businesses. I think there is a huge potential for medium-sized businesses to do trade with Turkey. It would be fantastic if we could promote that,” said Cebe. “We’ve got the American conglomerates in Turkey but not the smaller, medium-sized businesses.”

Overall, Cebe said she is pleased with the progress being made by the current government to encourage investment and value business relationships with countries like the U.S. as priorities.

“They’ve now started to be more active. After Obama’s visit, they formed working groups to increase trade between Turkey and America, so all that is very good,” said Cebe.

(This article was first published in the Hürriyet Daily News)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Erdogan Reaches out to Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot Media

Turkey would be willing to reduce its troops on the divided island of Cyprus if a settlement is reached between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, the Turkish Prime Minister said in his first statement to Greek Cypriot journalists.
Turkey is still committed to facilitating a solution between the two sides, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Saturday, speaking to a gathering of Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot journalists about the long-standing Cyprus dispute at the Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul.
"I'm very happy," said Aysu Basri, a journalist who works for Turkish Cypriot paper Yeni Düzen and who attended the meeting. She believes that Erdoğan is showing "sincere behavior" in addressing the Greek Cypriots.
"Erdoğan's statements were not new, but this meeting with Greek Cypriots was important because it means that the Turkish side is having direct contact with the Greek side," said Basri. "It was very exciting because it was the first time the prime minister tried to make a statement to the Greek Cypriots. On the Greek side, there is no direct contact and they get their news from translations. Sometimes those translations can be manipulated."
Cenk Mutluyakalı, editor in chief of Yeni Düzen, feels similarly about Erdoğan's outreach.
"This was a well thought out gesture on the part of Turkey," Mutluyakalı said. "The Greek Cypriot press has been portraying Ankara as the one stalling the peace process. Yet, by talking to the Greek Cypriot press, the prime minister talked about Turkey's vision for a lasting peace on the island. The Greek press is now full of the prime minister's statements about his views on peace."
Stefanos Evripidou, who attended Saturday's meeting, wrote for the Greek Cypriot paper the Cyprus Mail that, "an hour and a half after the meeting began, 30 minutes over schedule, Erdoğan looked visibly more relaxed among his Cypriot audience." He also quoted Erdoğan as saying at the end of the meeting: "We'll do it together, thank you very much."
Clear message
Turkish Cypriot President Mehmet Ali Talat and his Greek Cypriot counterpart Dimitris Christofias have held reunification talks since September 2008 but have agreed on little beyond their mutual will to reach an agreement. An upcoming presidential election in Turkish Cyprus and a recent resolution adopted by the Greek Cypriot parliament refusing any guarantors or rights of intervention by outsidershave been casting shadows on peace talks.
"The clear message was that any deal that Talat and his associates reach will have Turkey's full blessing as long as it is based on political equality," Egemen Bağış, state minister and chief negotiator for EU talks who also attended the meeting, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
A statement from Talat's office welcomed Erdoğan's efforts to reach out to the Greek Cypriot side. "The messages of Erdoğan in his statement at the weekend and especially his effort to convey them to the Greek Cypriot people through Greek Cypriot intellectuals is the most recent and clearest expression of the Turkish side's decisiveness about a settlement," read the statement from the president's office.
According to journalists who were present at the meeting, the prime minister confirmed once again that the number of Turkish troops in Cyprus could be reduced if a settlement is reached - a move that had previously been tied to the U.N. backed "Annan plan." The Annan plan, a proposal to settle the dispute by creating a federal system of governance, was accepted by Turkish Cypriots but failed due to a rejection by Greek Cypriots in a referendum held in 2004.
Bağış made it clear that Turkey is not the only country that has troops on the island. "Other countries should consider withdrawing their troops from the island," he said.
(This article appeared in Hurriyet Daily News on March 2)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Optimistic ‘Social-Democratic’ Political Movement Presents Policy

Members of the Turkish Degisim Hareket (TDH), or Turkish Change Movement led by Sisli Mayor Mustafa Sarigul, put forward their vision on a wide range of policies in a press conference today.

Foreign Policy

Responding to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s vision for ‘zero problems with neighbors, members of the movement reacted strongly, calling for a prioritization of Turkey’s “firm anchorage in the Euro-Atlantic community”

“When we look at the ‘zero problems’ with neighbors policy what has been the result of it? Actually we have created problems with our friends, be it Azerbaijan, be it Israel,“ said Zeynep Dereli, a founding member and vice president of the party.

While members of the TDH say they appreciate some of the steps the current government has made in foreign affairs, they believe that their approach has been flawed. Despite the recent dropping of visa requirements for travel between Syria and Turkey, Faruk Logulu, former ambassador to the United States and member of the TDH, noted that “none of the problems Turkey has with Syria have been solved,” among them border claims and water rights.

Asked how they would vote were the question of fresh sanctions on Iran to come before a vote in the UN Security Council, in which Turkey is a non-permanent member, Ms. Dereli responded that “we should vote with the Euro-Atlantic region.”

The TDH has been making a concerted effort to talk to foreign countries, visiting embassies in Ankara and European capitals. Mr. Logolu also expressed his intention of visiting Washington, while Ms. Dereli criticized the current Justice and Development Party, AKP, of letting Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union go by the wayside.

Dividing the Left?

The TDH movement intends to become a political party prior to the next elections and expects to win, according to Mr. Logulu, at least 13% of the vote. Mr. Logulu denies that the movement, which defines itself as social democratic and whose leader is an ex-member of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), will further divide the left wing constituency in Turkey.

“CHP does not seem to have the drive, the attraction, the arguments to come to power. They have not been able to succeed in significantly increasing their percentage of votes,” said Logulu.

The TDH hopes to appeal to constituents from across the political spectrum, “from left to right…nationalists and even ultranationalists,” according to Logulu. The question remains as to which political party stands to lose out most from the entrance of the TDH into the political realm- the current governing AKP or opposition parties.

“Where does this movement get its support from? The movement will get less votes from the CHP than from everybody else. In fact the movement gets more votes from the AKP than the CHP,” said Logulu. He did, however, admit that some of these numbers came from surveys conducted by pollsters close to the TDH movement.

(A portion of this article was published in Hurriyet Daily News)