This year, Nevruz, the Kurdish New Year celebrated on March 21, brought new hopes that the Kurdish insurgency would end peacefully and that the discussions started a few months ago between the Turkish state and the jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan would result in a comprehensive peace agreement. The following day, an unexpected breakthrough in Turkish-Israeli relations took place under U.S. leadership, hopefully signaling Turkey’s return to a more influential place and the clearing up of the fog surrounding Turkey’s recent foreign policy.

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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These two challenges constitute a very tall order at a time when the confluence of several domestic and international events creates a great opportunity for Turkey. Is such a virtuous spiral sustainable, and what is the price to be paid? Is the leadership in Ankara ready to take the steps necessary to seize it?

Peace at Home?

With some 40,000–45,000 people killed in the nearly thirty-year-long conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurds, the “Kurdish issue” has left almost no family untouched in Turkey. People sound exhausted by this seemingly never-ending conflict. Today, promises and gestures made on both sides—the state and the PKK leadership—during the last three months have opened a new path toward peace, albeit in an immensely difficult context.

All things being political, this hopeful cycle hinges on two major ambitions. The first is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s determination to transform the Turkish political framework into a strong presidential system. Currently, Turkey’s presidency is largely ceremonial. Erdoğan seeks enhanced presidential powers in the context of the new constitution under discussion. If parliament passes this reform, Erdoğan would likely seek to be elected for two five-year terms, in July 2014 and July 2019. As the first directly elected president, he would then be in office for the one hundredth anniversary of the proclamation of the Turkish Republic in 2023, a truly mythical date for Turks.

The second ambition is that of Abdullah Öcalan to transform his PKK insurgency into a political success by attaining recognition of the cultural and political rights of the Kurds in Turkey. In particular, he is seeking strengthened local governance through the election of twenty “super-governors” in as many super-regions, a few of them predominantly Kurdish. The PKK’s initial goals of independence and autonomy have been dropped.

At this point, it is far from clear that either of these two objectives can be reached in a short time frame. Each is extremely ambitious and is met with strong objections, and the objectives are intertwined, which in itself raises further difficulties.

Creating a strong presidential system is certainly the declared objective of the current Turkish prime minister, but it is far from accepted by the citizens and by his own party. Recently, several rounds of consultations conducted in Turkish cities (the “Constitution Platform” exercise) and opinion polls have shown that a majority of citizens want to see checks and balances, not a “hyper-president.” In addition, opinion polls have also shown that current President Abdullah Gül is ahead of Prime Minister Erdoğan as the preferred candidate in the July 2014 election.

The debate is intense. And some high-ranking officials of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are now saying that more time is needed to transform the constitution and that, after all, Erdoğan could be elected under the current, relatively limited set of presidential powers.

The special constitutional committee set up by the parliamentary speaker, Cemil Çiçek, aims to wrap up its deliberations by the end of April 2013. It needs more time to reach a consensus on, inter alia, the difficult issues of the definition of citizenship, mother-tongue education, and local government.

It is remarkable that this inclusive committee, in which each of the four political parties represented in parliament has an equal number of deputies, is still holding together. The reason is probably that none of these parties wants to bear the blame of quitting. In addition, a separate discussion with the “leader of a terrorist organization” (as Abdullah Öcalan is still referred to) can hardly be a substitute for the parliamentary work on a new constitution.

At the same time, submitting a compromise constitution to a referendum, although technically possible if the Kurds obtain what they want on decentralization and lend their support to a strong presidential system as Öcalan recently mentioned, would be a risky proposition. The objective of reaching some form of decentralization to the benefit of the Kurdish citizens of Turkey—still a key demand of the PKK—is far from being easily attainable in the short time frame that confronts the country.

It is worth recalling that in Turkey the mere notions of “local government,” “devolution,” or “decentralization” were complete political taboos until recently, and a proposal to implement them was far from discussion. The memory of the dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire, albeit distant, is still very much alive. Conversely, the notion of a “unitary state” is central to Turkish politics, not just for the nationalists. Indeed, a foreign analyst discussing the European “examples” of Spain or Italy with Turkish politicians inevitably draws ironic remarks from most of his interlocutors.

The window of opportunity is extremely narrow considering the political deadlines ahead. In 2014, municipal elections will be held in March and presidential elections in July. Legislative elections will be held in 2015. For all practical purposes, the country has until next December to achieve a major breakthrough—a very tall order indeed.

On the sidelines of this major constitutional debate, the fourth judicial reform package—recently adopted by the cabinet and sent to parliament—will, if it passes parliament, represent some progress, although not to the level of international expectations. In the draft legislation, a welcome distinction is introduced between the current, broad notion of propaganda for a terrorist organization and the more precise concept of using violence as a means of propaganda. Instead of targeting “those who print or publish leaflets and declarations for terrorist organizations,” the new text would qualify those “terror organizations which justify or praise or encourage methods which contain violence, force or threat.” Such an evolution would remove some, but alas not all, ground for unduly restricting public liberties, especially freedom of expression. The heated debate on the Kurdish issue (and the ensuing uncertainties) can be seen as one of the reasons for not proposing a more daring reform of the judiciary at this stage.

The immensely complex dossier encompassing the Kurdish issue, the presidential system, and judiciary reform—all of which have direct relevance for the new constitution—is today’s Gordian knot of Turkish politics. Success will take courage, vision, and a huge leap of faith.

The opposite—a complete deadlock—is possible if not probable. The prime minister’s fallback position would then be to go to elections under the current definition of the presidential powers and count on his charisma and personal authority to make the presidency into the ultrapowerful instrument he has in mind. Even in such a situation, it is not clear that a vast majority of citizens would show enthusiasm or that the AKP in its present form would survive such a transformative process (the prime minister would, under the current rules, have to step down as its chairman). In addition, legislative elections are looming in 2015.

Harmony in the World?

All of this is playing out domestically as Turkey tries to find its place in a tough neighborhood. The country is surrounded by a turbulent region (the Middle East, Iran, and further afield, Afghanistan and Pakistan). It has a number of contentious issues on its hands—comprehensive talks in Cyprus, a stalled reconciliation process with Armenia, almost-frozen diplomatic relations with Israel before March 22—with all the repercussions these discussions have for relations with its European and American allies.

Despite the strong ambitions stated since 2009, in particular with respect to the Balkans and the Middle East, Turkey has so far achieved little aside from building a strong and dynamic relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, a somewhat ironic result in itself. Among Arab countries, Turkey is perceived as a member of NATO and not as a natural leader in the region. The same goes, in the final analysis, for Russia, China, and Iran, which are all keeping a prudent distance from Ankara.

As far as Washington is concerned, the absence, until now, of a normalized relationship between Turkey and Israel had long cast a shadow on the U.S. relationship with Turkey. Tensions heated up after an angry January 2009 exchange between Erdoğan and Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos and the May 2010 Israeli raid of the ship Mavi Marmara. The most recent incident related to the concept of “Zionism.” In a speech in Vienna, Erdoğan called Zionism a “crime against humanity” and equated it with anti-Semitism, creating further alarm in Washington. What is the consistency between, on the one hand, promoting peace at home, being one of the two initial proponents of the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations, or aspiring to a second term at the UN Security Council and, on the other hand, shocking the world with a new definition of Zionism? Coupled with Turkey’s frequent anti-Western remarks, these incidents created considerable puzzlement for Turkey’s allies.

As for the European Union, the Turkish government’s populist rhetoric runs against any strong political embrace, although all economic, scientific, and educational indicators illustrate an irreplaceable relationship—at least in the short- and medium-term—that is largely to Turkey’s ultimate benefit.

True, Turkey’s immediate environment makes the crafting and running of its foreign policy immensely complicated. But, all in all, Turkey’s bold and brisk moves on the international stage have up until this point largely played against its own international stature. Few in Washington, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, or Berlin would today describe Ankara as an undisputed driver of harmony in the world’s troubled relations.

A Knack for Sudden Transformation

During the past three years, Turkey has moved in two different directions that, in the eyes of its traditional Western allies, are making its domestic and foreign policy orientations more difficult to “read.” Policy decisions have not always appeared to be consistent.

Domestically, the forthcoming adoption of the fourth judicial reform package, albeit a disappointing one, will constitute progress in the direction of a clearer distinction between describing the activities of a terrorist organization and supporting it with violent acts. This is certainly not enough, but it is a first step in the right direction.

Similarly, a comprehensive settlement of the Kurdish issue would inevitably have to include a more ambitious reform of the Turkish Criminal Code, the Anti-Terror Law, and the Media Law. It would also prompt an agreement on a new constitution. Assuming all these challenges are met in a reasonable time frame and in a democratic fashion, they would represent a momentous achievement and give Turkey a different position internationally.

However, at the very time such multifaceted progress is under way, Turkey shows signs of regression, at least in the eyes of its traditional allies. Press freedom is backsliding, and direct interference from the top political echelons in the daily management of media results in shocking dismissals and forced resignations. How can a country with such major ambitions on the international stage so hopelessly dive into such a negative spiral in terms of fundamental liberties?

Internationally, by the beginning of 2013, Turkey had become a complex partner in international relations, often putting forward unexpected policy options such as a new axis with Egypt (September 2011), moving away from the EU toward the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (January 2013), and rapprochement with Assad’s Syria in the period prior to the revolution of 2011. Against this backdrop, Turkey ran the risk of being isolated on the international stage despite all ambitions to the contrary. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s reaffirmation of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy on March 21, 2013, can be seen as an attempt to clarify some of these misunderstandings.

March 22, 2013, will undoubtedly mark a partial reversal of this trend. Turkey accepted the Israeli prime minister’s apology and offer of compensation for the Mavi Marmara incident, and there was some limited movement on humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. The Turkish prime minister thus initiated a comeback of his country on the world stage. No doubt that, for both Israel and Turkey, the deterioration of the situation in Syria and, above all, the intense pressure employed by U.S. President Barack Obama— himself the “catalyst” of the now-historic phone call—have prompted both countries to make such a move.

Another catalyst of a further advance in Turkish foreign policy might well be Cyprus’s financial crisis. As a matter of fact, one of the few solid pillars of the Cypriot economy in the future will be its underwater gas resources. By agreement of both communities in Cyprus, these resources belong to the entire island—both the Greek and Turkish Cypriots—not just to the Republic of Cyprus, which is the only internationally recognized Cypriot state. A comprehensive settlement on the island, which requires the political acquiescence of Turkey, would imply that the reunified state could count on major financial resources based on available gas reserves.

In addition, the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation, if fully completed in a short time frame and combined with a comprehensive settlement on the island of Cyprus, would mean that Israel could export its own gas through a short and economical underwater pipeline crossing into Cyprus and onward to Turkey and the European Union. But, to some analysts, such a rosy scenario remains wishful thinking.

Defining Times

Turkey is now confronted with a potentially critical alignment of stars. A recent announcement by Öcalan indicates the possibility of a resolution of the Kurdish crisis that has seen the PKK fighting for greater Kurdish rights. Turkish lawmakers are drafting a new constitution that may well include further legislative reforms of the judiciary and the press. Relations with Israel seem to be normalizing. There is even the possibility of a resolution of Turkey’s long standoff in Cyprus that would create an energy bridge with Western Europe totally free from Russian interference.

If all these prospects materialize within a reasonable time frame—and this is a big “if”— Turkey may be fully back on the international stage in a spectacular manner, and its main political leaders may acquire a new stature.

If Turkey overcomes all of these challenges in the short time it has and returns to the international stage with vigor, its new stature would also include a new responsibility for its leadership: being a reliable and predictable ally of the Western world. A country’s place on the international stage is defined by history, geography, alliances, and also by a consistent and constant set of policy choices.

Similarly, the European Union and the United States will have to react in a substantial way to such moves, if they indeed materialize. The EU in particular has a clear responsibility in terms of rekindling the accession negotiations and refocusing some of its preaccession funding to projects in support of political reforms. More than ever, the EU-Turkey relationship is an anchor for progress and modern democracy in Turkey.

An immense opportunity lies ahead for Turkey. Seizing it will require shedding the brisk, and at times unpredictable, conduct of its foreign policy and becoming a reliable ally of the West while maintaining its specific traits and unique history. It will also require a constant and supporting presence of its Western allies.