New year, new leaf? What to watch in Turkey in 2016

The Turkey of a decade ago was at a very different crossroads. That Turkey had met the European Union’s “Copenhagen political criteria,” a set of democracy- and governance-related requirements that EU candidates had to meet, and had started accession negotiations. That Turkey’s economy was just beginning to take off. For the first time in its history, the institutions associated with liberal democracy—a free and dynamic press, active civil society, improved minority rights, and a more peaceful co-existence between Islam and secularism—were blossoming. That Turkey was seen as a linchpin of stability, peace, and prosperity in its neighborhood.

Today, Turkey looks dramatically different. Its democratic gains are pretty much gone. Now often called an “illiberal democracy,” today’s Turkey increasingly resembles authoritarian Russia. While Turkey still holds free elections, their fairness is in doubt as media freedom—and therefore the electorate’s ability to hear different points of view—is curtailed. In scenes that eerily resemble Iraq and Syria, Turkish security forces battle youth from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Kurdish towns in the southeast, showing very little regard for civilian lives and property. It is no wonder that the Turkish economy has lost its former shine—now barely limping along, its growth rates are a third of what they were only a few years ago.

Somewhat more than zero problems

Undoubtedly, these developments are partly influenced by the turmoil raging in Turkey’s neighborhood. With their country torn by violence and destruction, more than two million refugees have fled Syria and sought protection in Turkey, not an easy challenge to manage. The involvement of international powers like Russia in the Syrian conflict has now drawn Turkey into the quagmire. 

But the government in Ankara also bears some responsibility for the chaos’s spillover into Turkey. Breaking with longstanding principle—by which Turkey avoided involvement in the domestic affairs of its neighbors—the government has tried to influence facts on the ground in Syria and Iraq. This has not only left Turkey at odds with an anxious domestic public, but with its Western allies (busy fighting ISIS and other extremist groups) and Russia. The break with Russia, in particular, was the nail in the coffin of Turkey’s once highly coveted “zero problems with neighbors” policy.

The Russia card

It is actually the deterioration of relations with Russia that may bring Turkey to a new crossroads, reinvigorating its relations with the EU and the United States. Russia’s aggressions towards Georgia and then Ukraine didn’t lead Turkey to reconsider its close economic and political relations with its northern neighbor. Instead, Ankara steadfastly tried to compartmentalize its relations with Russia, separating economic ties from the fact that the Russians were on the “wrong” side of the Syrian war. About a year ago, Russian and Turkish leaders were promising to boost trade from about $30 to $100 billion by 2020, construct a new gas pipeline, and build a nuclear power station that would further increase Turkey’s energy dependence on Russia (already close to 60 percent). At one point, Turkey was even exploring the possibility of joining Russian-led Eurasian regional integration projects in place of hopelessly pursuing EU membership.

After Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet in November, Russia imposed economic and other sanctions on Turkey. Then Russia started to boost its military capacity in Syria and tried to shut Turkey out of Syria, hence turning Turkey’s Syria policy of at least the last four years upside down. 

The break with Russia, in particular, was the nail in the coffin of Turkey’s once highly coveted “zero problems with neighbors” policy.

The pendulum swings west?

This forms the context for new developments in Turkish foreign policy, such as the decision to cancel the Chinese missile deal, explore reconciliation with Israel, improve cooperation with NATO, and work more closely with the United States over Syria and Iraq. Symbolically, the most significant development may actually have been a remark from Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in Brussels, when he said that Turkish people were European and that Turkey’s place is in Europe. This harkens back to a very different time.

So Turkey appears to be at a new crossroads. Tensions with Russia may be propelling Turkey back into Europe’s arms. In some ways, this resembles the 1940s, when Josef Stalin made territorial demands on Turkey that helped push Turkey to abandon its inter-war period policy of neutrality and join the economic, defense, and political institutions associated with the West. It is doubtful that Turkey would have pursued democratization and a liberal market economy without Stalin’s favor. Will Putin’s decision to sanction Turkey have the same effect? 

At this stage, the chaos around Turkey—on top of economic and political challenges at home—may prove to be a confluence of forces that pushes Turkey back into the transatlantic fold. Will we see closer EU-Turkey relations in 2016? Will the accession process truly be revived? Will there be progress on Cyprus? Will Turkey and the EU be able to give life to their deal on Syrian refugees? Will the customs union between Turkey and the EU be upgraded? Will there be more U.S.-Turkey cooperation over Syria and Iraq? Finally, and possibly most importantly, will closer relations between Turkey and the transatlantic community translate into improvements in Turkey’s domestic governance?

These are the main questions for Turkey-watchers in 2016. My own prediction is that the relationship between Turkey and Western powers will be driven by transactional interests, rather than shared common values. In the long run, those transactional relations could translate into shared common values—such as the rule of law, transparency, accountability, and liberal democracy—that are essential for securing Turkey’s economic growth. That could bring Turkey back to the crossroads at which it sat a decade ago, which would be a win-win for Turkey and the Middle East, as well as for the West. (And why not? Maybe for Russia too, in the long run.) Turkey could again contribute to international order and stability, rather than further fuel chaos.