On the future of the Turkish Republic
The Republic of Turkey marked its 94th anniversary on Oct. 29, at a time when it is experiencing major problems in its strategic choices in foreign relations.
Going through serious problems with its major political ally the United States and major economic partner the European Union, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) led by President Tayyip Erdoğan has been searching for closer cooperation with Turkey’s historic competitors in the region: Russia and Iran. It has also been having trouble with a number of Arab countries, despite relying on Islamic conservative votes in domestic politics. The threat of Kurdish nationalism is also being fed by all these antagonisms.
Turkey has two main strategic assets, which are closely related. The first one is geostrategic, the Turkish straits: The Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. The narrow passages between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea – and thus key for Russia’s access to the southern seas as well as Western naval access to Russia from the south - these straits have been the stage of many conflicts over the centuries.
The second asset is political and economic: Being part of the Western system. History shows that parliament decided to migrate to Ankara from Istanbul in 1920 to support the national liberation movement there, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This move came after the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits - and Istanbul as the capital of the failing Turkish empire led by the Ottoman dynasty – were occupied by British, French and Greek forces after the end of the First World War. Despite the fact that the War of Independence was fought against the Western occupation powers and received help from the new Soviet rulers of Russia, as soon as the war was over Atatürk was keen to establish good relations with France, the U.K., Greece, Italy and the new rising power the U.S.
For the Turkish state system, the 1936 Montreux Convention on the status of the straits has almost equal importance as the 1923 Lausanne Treaty that recognized the new Turkey, with a republic replacing the sultanate.
When the Second World War was over (in which Turkey remained neutral) the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin demanded territory from Turkey and sovereign rights over the Turkish straits. That prompted Harry Truman’s administration in the U.S. to declare a new policy considering Turkey and Greece part of the Western system in 1947. Turkey then sent soldiers to the Korean War in 1950, shifted to a multiparty political system, and became a member of NATO in 1952. Meanwhile, Ankara also became part of the Council of Europe and the OECD, enthusiastic about integrating with the European Economic Community, which ended up evolving into the EU.
Turkey was late in adopting the market economy and liberalizing its democracy, suffering from the obstructive influence of three military coups during the Cold War.
Later in 1998, Haydar Aliyev, then President of Azerbaijan, told a group of visitors from Turkey that during the years he spent as a member of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party Politburo they were worried that Turkey was about to be “lost” when Ankara decided to send troops to Korea. They lost all hope when Turkey decided to shift to a market economy as a sign of integration with the Western economic system, he added.
Control over the straits and being part of the Western political and economic system are two strategic assets of the Republic of Turkey that should not be lost.
Turkey’s importance for the West is also important. Otherwise neither the U.S. nor European powers would have tried so hard to bring Turkey in in the 1950s, and nowadays they would not be trying so hard to not cut ties despite serious problems.
This perspective must not be lost: Current problems widening the gap between Turkey and the West actually benefit neither side.