Do what the Turks say, not what they do

Do what the Turks say, not what they do

Özgül Erdemli Mutlu is currently the director of corporate communications and environment policies at the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion, for Reforestation and the Protection of Natural Habitats (TEMA). Founded in 1992, TEMA is one of Turkey’s most prominent and influential environmental NGOs.

Özgül, who studied at the London School of Economics, was a recipient of a Chevening Scholarship, funded among others by the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. When we recently met as a group of Chevening alumnae from five neighboring countries - Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Ukraine - at a mountain resort near Tbilisi for two days of brainstorming, we were asked to talk about personal efforts through which we contributed to change.

Özgül told me with pride how TEMA had played an instrumental role in 2012 stopping a British company from nickel mining at the Gediz plane in the Aegean, one of Turkey’s most fertile planes. “Had it gone ahead, it would have been the third biggest British investment in Turkey,” she said. 

The members of the British committee to select Özgül Erdemli Mutlu for the Chevening Scholarship were certainly right in their estimation that she would become a change-maker in the future. But I doubt they would have imagined there would come a day when she would play an important role in obstructing a particular British investment. 

Nevertheless, her track record did not stop her from being invited to a meeting paid for by British taxpayers, where as representatives of civil society we came together for an exchange of views. That certainly is a clear sign of the tolerance, maturity and self-confidence of the U.K. – all attributes that countries in the region still have a long way to go in order to fully endorse and internalize. Current uncertainties are not making their work any easier.

As can be expected, Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidency dominated the talks. Trump’s presidency in the U.S. has send shivers all over the world, and his early days in office have given enough reason to be highly anxious for the days ahead. The Caucasus republics who gained their independence in the 1990s have additional reason to be worried as their region appears nowhere in Trump’s relatively narrow radar. That is bad news even for Armenia, which among all has the best relationship with Russia, stemming from the fact that it is in a sort of semi-surrender to its powerful neighbor, whose soldiers watch over its borders. An America totally disinterested in the Caucasus does not really suit the interests of Azerbaijan either. Baku has so far succeeded in remaining equidistant from both the West and Russia, keeping its relations with the Western world at a safe distance in order to not antagonize the Russians. But Baku would not like any further Russian advances if a bigger vacuum is left by the U.S. 

A Trump presidency looks to be bad news for both Georgia and Ukraine, which both have hostile relations with Russia. 

Of all, Georgia is by far the most enthusiastic to join the EU and NATO. The Georgian administration is trying hard to reach Western standards, though that is naturally a painful process. This is why nowadays some in Georgian society are questioning whether it is worth the effort. Trump can hardly be called a democracy lover, and many even in the EU are showing distinct signs of one-man rule. “If cooperation with authoritarian regimes is going to be the new normal, why should we carry on with the reform process?” many are asking.
Georgia is one of the few neighboring countries with which Turkey enjoys excellent relations. Georgia looks up to Turkey as one of the regional countries that can counterbalance Russia. I am confident that Turkish officials must be saying Georgia should stay on track in its EU membership goal, but I’m not so sure how credible they look. In view of recent developments in Turkey and its stalled accession process, telling others to stick to European democracy reform must be a difficult message to put across. “Do what I say, not what I do” is what the Turks are saying in between the lines.