European Forum Alpbach

European Forum Alpbach

I just spent a week in the Austrian town Alpbach, participating in a panel discussion and then as co-chair of the seminar on Turkey. My co-chair was Dr. Cengiz Gunay, whose contribution and cooperation was a gift. 

It was my second time at the European Forum Alpbach. My first time last year was just after the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, when the audience was certainly confused about what was going on in Turkey. This year I was pleasantly surprised by the balanced views on Turkey. Although Ankara has become over-skeptical about Europe and the West, amid the rise in criticism from the West about Turkey, one does not feel any extreme views in sensible circles of the European Union. That was also the case at the Alpbach Forum. There was only a rise in concern about Turkey, as the title of our penal and seminar suggested: “Turkey at the crossroads.” 

There are plenty of reasons to question Turkey’s political direction, amid the slide in the country’s politics toward authoritarianism, the shift in its regional policy on the future of the Middle East, and its disenchantment with the EU and the West in general. Inevitably, all this creates many concerns on behalf of Ankara’s Western allies. 

On the issue of authoritarianism, it is not only a matter of democratic principles and so-called “European values,” it is also a matter of an allied country’s political sustainability and stability. The perceived democracy deficit in Turkey fosters concerns among its allies in terms of stability and future prosperity.

After all, authoritarian politics not only fails in terms of the universal principles of human rights and freedoms, it also damages social peace and political stability. 

As for Turkey’s relations with the West, even if international relations are more often based on interests than principles, Ankara’s growing skepticism about Western motives is illogical, considering that its Western allies have a bigger stake in the country’s stability and prosperity than the opposite. There is an urgent need to acknowledge this truth in order to restore Turkey’s relations with its traditional allies.
As for Ankara’s regional politics, it is ultimately the Kurdish issue that defines the terms. Turkey’s concerns about the future of its borders and beyond may be legitimate, but the Kurdish issue is more an aspect of the country’s domestic politics than its regional concerns. The prospect of a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish issue (or the lack of it) will work either as leverage (or a liability) for Turkey’s future in regional affairs; it will work either as a matter of stability or as a factor of instability in domestic affairs. That is why Turkey needs to behave soberly, rather than letting reactions and historic skepticism shape its Kurdish policies.

The questions and comments coming from the audience in Alpbach confirmed these views for me. After all, it is not just about Turkey; the new trend of authoritarian politics elsewhere also creates concern for all sensible minds. At the forum we have enough room to even discuss the authoritarian ways of new French President Emmanuel Macron within this context. 

Around 50 students came to the event from different countries and backgrounds. At one point a Greek Cypriot student referred to Turkey’s “legitimate disappointment” on the Cyprus issue, as Ankara supported the Annan Plan in 2004 but it did not work. At another point, an Armenian student sounded eager for a peaceful resolution of the Turkey-Armenia rift. 

I personally benefited from all the discussions and want to thank all those who organized this year’s European Forum Alpbach. 

PS. In response to students who asked me to recommend a recent book on Turkey, I suggested “The New Turkey and Its Discontents,” written by Simon A. Waldman and Emre Calıskan and published by Hurst. The book is a critical but balanced view on recent politics, different from those with sensational titles and contents.