Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Last Word on Turkey

Accession of Turkey to the European UnionImage via Wikipedia
In the not so distant past, Turkey was impoverished, inward-looking nation, mistrustful – if not actively hostile – to its neighbors who were seen as either enemies of the state at worst or backstabbing traitors at best.  Not.Any.Longer.

Turkey’s foreign policy has changed as rapidly as its internal politics – transforming from a closed, totalitarian system to a reasonably open and relatively liberal political environment while viewing its neighbors and Europe as opportunities and allies.  It is closer to European norms of democracy than the Kemalist military and bureaucratic omnipresence.
Turkey does not view the EU as indispensable and the status quo in the relationship will not spell the end of civilization as far as Ankara is concerned.  Turkey intends to continue policies of economic and diplomatic outreach with its neighbors as part of its expanding influence and commercial interests. Although not particularly concerned about the stalled EU accession process because the EU is still the largest trading partner, the atmospherics could be poisoned by the continuing deadlock resulting in an antagonistic attitude.
With the recent elections resulting in extending the 9 year rule of the AKP, concerns have been amplified regarding the direction of Turkey to the extent that France has even become more opposed to any accession talk.  These are misplaced concerns although the Putinization of the political structure remains a fear as the AKP and the PM in particular react adversely to any sort of criticism.  However, of the several scenarios for Turkish development, I think that the fear of a shift toward authoritarian rule – Islamist, or militant secularist/ Kemalist – is unlikely. I believe that Turkey will continue its path toward pluralism and liberal democracy.
We have seen that modern Turkey was founded through a top-down approach.  It was secular and authoritarian.  Between 1945 and the early 1980s a form of managed democracy took the place of the authoritarian regimes.  But, this managed democracy was run by the military.  It may have been multi-party but it was tightly controlled by the army and hand selected bureaucrats with an occasional coup thrown in. Then the evil empire vanished and with it the Cold War.  The most recent transition had begun to form a liberal, pluralistic society from the bottom-up which is still evolving, sometimes painfully.  The business class that grew from this transition came from the center of Turkey - conservative and Muslim; but, it believed in liberal economics and true democratic rule, not the elitism of the Istanbul business interests.
The economic change and the demographics of its source led to the founding of the AKP led by Erdo─čan and his friends in 2001. The new party supported EU accession, and a European market styled democracy. It has been in power for a decade, many a huge number of mistakes and certainly has its flaws.  Critics have been unwelcome – and critics abound. But, it’s hard to argue with success - economic stability, an average of 6-7 percent annual growth rate, and a tripling of per capita income from little above $3,000 in 2002 to about $10,000 in 2010. Broad freedoms, economic success and a vibrant democracy are popular.  Try and change it and the AKP will fall.
In foreign policy, Turkey has reversed its previous attitudes toward its neighbors. Rather than viewing them with mistrust, they have been drawn closer.  Unlike the short sighted Europeans, no visas are required for travel between Georgia, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Russia and Syria.  The cost of visas for others is minimal and visas are, unlike those for a closed EU, easy to obtain.  This is called soft-power.
Much of the reforms and democratic trends over the past decade have been helped by the EU’s support.  Then political and economic changes in Europe modified the dynamics.  Despite the confirmation of Turkish EU eligibility by Brussels five times, the latest coming in 2002, the French simply decided to ignore EU rules and promises and actively opposed Turkey. No one in Europe pointed out to France that its opposition was improper.  The ossified EU system is making a mistake of huge proportions.
Turkey is discovering new methods of using its soft power, both cultural and economic, to expand its influence despite the snubs of the EU. They no longer perceive Russia or even Greece and Armenia as enemies. Its view of its neighbors reinforces Turkish self-confidence as a growing regional hegemon that does not need the approval of Europe or the US.  Turkish foreign policy continues to develop dynamically and proactively.  It looks ahead, not to the past but still remembers its history and civilization. Its neighbors should take notice because Turks do and it governs how they perceive the region and their role in it.  Geo-politically it occupies a unique position and has the economic, cultural and military depth to make itself a force.
This is why the EU’s antagonistic attitude is so astoundingly stupid.  Turkish foreign policy mantra of peace in the neighborhood is exactly that of the EU stated policy. It is already an extension of the policy established by Brussels and supports that policy.  Rather than show any sort of appreciation, Europe seems to think that this is some sort of competition. Another mistake and typical of European arrogance.  What is it that Europe doesn’t get?  Turkey is not Serbia or, frankly, Slovakia or Romania – just other applicant states. It is a strategic player and key to stability in the Middle East.
Europe, and to some extent the US, appear to think that Turkish involvement economically and socially with  Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, not to mention its strong desire to prevent a conflagration in the Middle East, are somehow signals of a change in direction away from the West.  This is not a zero sum game and this line of reasoning in Europe and the US borders on the absurd, playing only to the uninformed and for the benefit of the talking heads. 
Turkey has made some foreign policy mistakes but appears to be a quick learner. If Ankara is guilty of anything, it is one of tone.  The PM in this regard does not do himself any favours.  Ridiculous tirades against Israel, statements that genocide is prohibited by the Koran and therefore the government of Sudan could not have committed the crime, and walking out of meetings may play well in the Turkish media, but are intemperate and need to be avoided.
Turkey is a well on its way to becoming a regional, indispensible power – one that the EU and the US need to engage more effectively.  Turkey is charting a foreign policy path that protects and extends its interests.  The Cold War and the old blocs are gone.
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Busy, busy, busy

Some have noted to me by email that my last, short post was almost a month ago.  That's the fault of my day job. With a few days free during Eid I hope to post a little more.  I am also leaving the sandbox as it is called in the US and will be going back to my old area of the former Soviet Union in Central Asia.  By September 12 I will be landing in Dushanbe, having said farewell to Qatar. I last worked in Tajikistan in 2008 - what seems like a century ago. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Standard & Poors - Lobby Group

Standard & Poors needs to be investigated and it's offices sealed and documents seized to see who is paying them to arrive at their conclusions which are aimed at influencing political decisions.  Just like they are doing in Italy.
A history of their political interference to protect banks and financial institutions is well documented.  Consumers were harmed in 2000 in the US State of Georgia to benefit predatory mortgage lenders. Lehman Brothers was given a clean AAA rating shortly before it vaporized.

Everyone should remember that they, like the other rating agencies, are private sector and decidedly biased.  They were key in making the situation worse in Greece and apparently are doing the same in Italy.
Who is paying them for this?  Follow the money.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Leadership Vacuum

The piecemeal approach to address the continuing and worsening financial and growth crises has exposed the biggest missing element – leadership.  There is none and it is an international problem.  The Swiss are in panic mode and need to prevent any further strengthening of their currency;  the ECB is floundering  trying one solution after another – the most recent is the purchase of Italian and Spanish bonds; the US is doing little to nothing when it needs revenues and its tax rates are the lowest in history because its political structure is in a state of collapse – and S&P placed the blame at the feet of the Republicans and their moronic  tea party core; European tax payers – and more to the point German taxpayers – are being asked to absorb Euro debt of the peripheral Eurozone members when the problem is structural economic imbalance.  The political will to do anything, apparently anywhere, is zero.  As I write this, the Dow dropped 200 points in 2 minutes.

If Europe keeps using band aids rather than addressing its structural problems, then the Euro is in deep trouble and, with nationalism on the rise, so is the EU.  If the tea party and Republicans are not removed from the table, then the US moves closer still to banana republic status.
Trouble is no longer on the horizon – it’s in full view.
Economic problems are structural and long-term coordinated plans are required.  There is no magic bullet and everything short-term has been tried. In the US, raising taxes and spending on infrastructure and science are required – in other words, spending.  In Europe, a little introspection and planning regarding the economic imbalances between the core and the rest must be undertaken. What is missing is leadership. Leadership would inspire confidence, also in short supply. But, in Europe and particularly in the US, waiting for leadership is like waiting for Godot.
By the way, for those involved in donor oriented development programs, watch the money dry up.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Don't Park Illegally in Vilnius

OK.  This is priceless.  The photo shows the mayor of Vilnius, Arturas Zuokas, crushing an illegally parked car (in a bike lane). Apparently he lost his patience and a ticket and tow was simply not going to cut it.

Crescent Rising - Part 2

Mehmed II, Entering to ConstantinopleImage via Wikipedia
From its very beginning with the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire became European or at least, non-Asian – only more far more enlightened compared to its contemporary competition further west in Spain, England and France.  This was not a matter of choice, but practicality.  Everyone it conquered to the west of Constantinople was not Turkish and non-Muslim.  To make the empire functional, these people were needed (with enthusiasm), so the practical Ottomans simply made them part of a rich, open society and, aside from requiring these regional governments to pay taxes to Istanbul and defer on all issues of foreign and military policy, they were pretty much left on their own.  It worked remarkably well for 300 years. And it was not until the mid-18th century, when the long, 200 year retreat from Europe began, that the cosmopolitan and European attitudes began to erode, ending completely in 1918. 
Almost a century later, the Turks are again learning how to be internationalists, Europeans and powerful.  They’ve gotten a little rusty at it.  The major difference is that now, Islam, a political religion pushed aside since 1922 with the founding of the modern Turkish state, must be taken into consideration by any government in Ankara.  This is something Europe has conveniently forgotten and, in the great Casablanca tradition are “shocked, shocked” that there are Muslims in Turkey.  To be fair, many Turks are also surprised and shocked and despite Western fears, the secularists in Turkey are not an inconsiderable force so all the talk about the AKP turning Turkey into a fundamentalist Islamic state (like the Wests great ally, Saudi Arabia), is absurd.  There are no Wahhabists in Ankara – the AKP want to rule, not get run out of town.
The view from Ankara, as promulgated by the current party in power, is – to use its own term – 360 degrees.  Turkey’s strategy is its “zero conflict with neighbors” policy - to be friends with everyone and enemies of none. Turkey is playing a game now that it has not played in over 100 years.  It wants to normalize relations with Armenia, except the government in Baku (Muslim and a Turkic culture) wants its support over Nagorno-Karabakh.  Syria wants its support in Lebanon.  Iran wants its support against the US. Even the Saudi’s want Turkish support against Iran and the US wants Turkey back in a subservient mode. The neighbourhood is, to put it mildly, a rough one and because all these countries have different, if not competing interests, the zero conflict with neighbours’ policy is not sustainable.  Sooner or later, Turkey will have to choose sides on some issues and make someone very, very unhappy.  Ankara seems to understand this ultimate fact and has been exercising its rediscovered power carefully.  For example, if the AKP government had rejected the NATO anti-missile bases directed at Iran the damage in the EU, US and NATO would have been terminal; realpolitik kicked in and they accepted the missiles rather than break with the West over Iran – a regional competitor in any event.  Tehran was, as expected, less than pleased.  I suspect the attitude in Ankara toward Iran on this matter was “get over it”.
Turkish views of their sudden international problems are kept close and rarely discussed openly – despite the Prime Minister’s unfortunate predilection for less than diplomatic comments.  Turkey has deep economic interests in the Muslim world – which delayed its denunciation of Qaddafi, for example – as well as very significant interests in Syria and Iran.  It is not going to jettison these for the benefit of Washington or Israel or Berlin for that matter. Turkey wants a stable Syria and no air attacks on Iran.  It also understands the need not to confront Russia for the same reason Germany has become Moscow’s foot pad – energy.  Despite the increasingly tepid support by Ankara for EU membership, even this is likely a charade as Germany and France increasingly pursue a policy of exclusion.  On the other hand, given the problems in the EU which are not simply monetary, perhaps Ankara is following the old Groucho Marx dictum of never joining a club that would have him as a member.
Turkey knows it has the most robust and capable military force in the region.  The economy has continued to grow at a startling rate of over 8% - something not seen in Europe in a very long time. Although this growth will moderate, and is now showing signs of strain, the fact is that the Turks are beginning to punch their weight, economically and culturally in the region and have recently taken the lead in representing Islam and democracy – something many in the West feel is impossible.  They tread carefully, however, because there is increasing talk of the Ottomanization of the state and the memory of empire for both Turkey and in the capitals of its former holdings in the region has not vanished.  Whatever government sits in Ankara, this memory will influence future actions.
Finally, Turkey’s relationship with the US and Israel has suffered recently.  But, from Ankara s point of view, the relationships are now on a more equal footing regionally.  The US needs Turkey as it leaves Iraq and for the influence it holds in the Caucuses and Central Asia.  Israel, despite the Gaza flotilla incident and a general souring of relations with Turkey under the Netanyahu regime, remains on economic and military speaking terms. Israel cannot afford to make Turkey an enemy. Ankara also knows – and the US knows it knows (we all know) - that Israel has no capability to achieve any sort of political movement in Syria, Lebanon or Iran of the type that Turkey can achieve.  Turkey, in other words, has options.
As a rising regional power, Turkey can no longer play with neat little academic concepts.  Culturally, they may not want to deal with regional problems by choosing sides or playing realpolitik – but these are consequences of their re-emergence.  Turkey is a player in the new old order and they will grow into the role, as they must.
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