Table of Contents

Turkey’s geography at the junction of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East puts the country at the fault line of various geopolitical tensions: to the south, the Syrian war, nuclear negotiations in Iran, and the ongoing turmoil in Libya; to the north, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; and to the east, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. These neighboring geopolitical tensions now involve actors beyond the traditional domain of foreign and security policy, with civil society increasingly caught up in broader political trends.

In Turkey, two forms of civil society geopolitics can be observed. First, the government is using civil society for its own geopolitical and economic ends. Ankara mobilizes its own civic organizations while pairing with like-minded interest groups, charities, and humanitarian organizations to expand its influence. Second, various civil society actors are repositioning themselves according to the shifting geopolitical landscape. Organizations that focus on humanitarian issues and refugees stretch to respond to existing and new needs. The complex factor in Turkey’s civil society geopolitics is the way in which these developments relate to domestic politics, which continue to influence Turkish civic activism.

Working Alongside the Government in Africa and Beyond

Civil society has become an important feature of the Turkish government’s efforts to advance its geopolitical and economic goals in Turkey’s neighborhood and beyond. An illustrative example of this trend is Africa. With its rich natural resources and free markets, Africa—Libya and East African countries in particular—has become a battleground for geopolitical rivalry.

As Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asserted in 2018, “partnership with the [African] continent is strategic for Turkey.”1 The country has had a place in this geopolitical struggle for some time, with an ambitious agenda. Over the past two decades, Erdoğan visited twenty-eight African countries, increased the number of Turkish embassies from twelve to forty-two, and enabled the operation of flights by the partly state-owned company Turkish Airlines to sixty destinations on the continent. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) has expanded its presence through its twenty-three offices and funded various development projects in Africa.2

Government Collaboration With Civil Society

Civil society has come to the fore to complement these governmental efforts. In this context, there are at least two ways in which the Turkish government employs nongovernmental actors. First, in various countries, government agencies and civil society act together. This collaboration occurs, for example, with business organizations and interest groups. Ankara has a growing presence in Africa with government-friendly business groups, such as the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEİK) and the Independent Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (MÜSİAD). DEİK establishes partnerships through bilateral business councils with local counterpart organizations to strengthen trade and economic ties. Some firms affiliated with DEİK also provide aid to the African countries in which they operate.

DEİK, together with the Turkish Ministry of Trade, also organizes the Turkey-Africa Economic and Business Forum. Held three times since 2016, the forum serves as a platform to bring together public- and private-sector actors from Turkey and across Africa to enhance cooperation and develop new partnerships.3 MÜSİAD concurred with Erdoğan on Africa’s importance to Turkey because of the continent’s economy, population, and strategic location. The association declared 2018 the Year of Africa and opened several new branches to strengthen economic ties with the continent.4 These organizations and some of their members also accompany the president on his visits to Africa.

Özge Zihnioğlu
Özge Zihnioğlu is a senior lecturer (associate professor) of politics at the University of Liverpool.

Humanitarian organizations and charities comprise another group of civic actors that complement the government’s efforts to advance its geopolitical goals. Islamic organizations, in particular, have been active in the Muslim world and in the Global South more broadly over the past two decades. Most commonly, these organizations mobilize humanitarian aid. In addition, they provide relief aid in response to natural disasters. Some also carry out cultural and educational activities. Larger organizations, such as the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), additionally provide development aid and build schools, orphanages, hospitals, and health centers.

While these organizations may be carrying out their own projects, they work in close coordination with government agencies. For example, the Red Crescent and the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency provide immediate relief and work with TİKA to supply development aid. At the same time, there are limited civil society linkages, as some Turkish civil society organizations work with civic groups in other countries. The government also makes sporadic connections with these local civic actors. For instance, the first lady meets local civic organizations that work mainly on women’s and children’s issues during the president’s Africa visits.5 However, these are one-off meetings.

Government-Led Civic Actors

The second way in which Ankara employs nongovernmental actors is by relying increasingly on its own civic actors—government-organized nongovernmental organizations (GONGOs)—to expand its geopolitical influence. For instance, in June 2016, the government established the Turkish Maarif Foundation to conduct educational activities and provide opportunities such as scholarships and accommodation in Turkey and abroad.6 After the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the foundation started taking over Gülenist educational institutions across the world, which had been established at primary, secondary, and high-school levels and had become a central way to extend the Gülen movement’s influence abroad. As of April 2022, the foundation provided education in nearly 430 institutions in forty-nine countries.7

Another organization, the Turkish Religious Foundation, was established in 1975 to provide aid and conducts educational, social, and charitable activities to support religious services in Turkey and abroad. The foundation has distributed aid and food parcels during the month of Ramadan. More recently, the foundation has been making plans to expand its activities in Libya, where it has started laying the groundwork for opening a branch in Tripoli and has been working with the Turkish authorities to renovate schools and mosques.8 The government also spearheaded the establishment of the Yunus Emre Foundation and its affiliated institutes in 2007, mainly to run Turkish-language courses and organize cultural activities. These institutes have expanded their operations with over sixty cultural centers abroad.9

Turkey’s openings in Africa have yielded important geopolitical and economic gains. For instance, in 2019, Ankara signed a maritime deal with Libya to establish an exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean. The deal strengthened Turkey’s claim in the Eastern Mediterranean in view of the developing energy crisis. In Somalia, Turkey not only has a military base but was also invited to carry out oil exploration at sea. At the same time, African countries are increasingly interested in Turkish unmanned combat aerial vehicles, with Ethiopia, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia having already purchased these.

In its use of civil society actors, Turkey pursues more diffuse forms of influence through business relations and educational, cultural, and humanitarian efforts. In that sense, civic organizations may not have a direct impact in this geopolitical struggle. That said, their work has been important in gaining societal trust. Local aid and development projects have been important in particular in Libya and Somalia, where state building is a major objective.

Civil Society’s Positioning in Recent Geopolitical Tensions

Russia’s assault on Ukraine that began in late February 2022 produced divergent reactions in the Turkish civic sphere. Immediately after the invasion, various civic groups, in particular human rights organizations, condemned Russia.10 Some organizations swiftly made statements denouncing Russia and drawing attention to potential human rights atrocities of the war.11 Others used social media to share news from Russia and Ukraine. Amnesty International Turkey verified human rights abuses and ran a petition campaign calling for an end to the attacks.12 These reactions soon spread to a large sector of civil society. Business groups, humanitarian organizations, professional organizations, and trade unions also made statements denouncing Russia’s attack on Ukraine. They urged both countries to cease the ongoing conflict and called on international actors to help reinstate peace.13

Meanwhile, neo-Eurasianists—those who believe Turkey’s interests lie in developing closer links with Eurasian countries, including Russia—have a very different perspective of the war. They see the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as common threats to both Turkey and Russia. Neo-Eurasianists argue both that the United States has been encircling Russia through NATO’s eastern enlargement and now by arming Ukraine and that the alliance cannot protect Turkey. As such, they urge Turkey to review its place in NATO. Kemalist civil society groups, such as the Atatürkist Thought Association, have also been critical of the United States and NATO, underlining what they perceive as the West’s provocation of Russia. Unlike the neo-Eurasianists, though, the Kemalists advocate a policy of active neutrality.

The Russian invasion has led to a major humanitarian crisis in the region as millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes in search of peace and safety. While most of these refugees have been absorbed by Ukraine’s neighbors to the west and southwest, a fraction of them—20,000 as of early March 2022—have gone to Turkey.14 Humanitarian groups, refugee organizations, and charities responded swiftly to Ukrainian refugees going not only to Turkey but also to other countries, such as Moldova, where national capacities were strained. These organizations have been among the most active since the onset of the war, providing immediate humanitarian relief to alleviate the scale of the suffering. At the same time, the Russian invasion caused tens of thousands of Russians—including activists, journalists, artists, and ordinary citizens who oppose the war or are worried about conscription—to flee to Turkey.15 These people may not necessarily need humanitarian support when they arrive. However, Turkish civic activists have not yet mobilized in solidarity with this growing Russian exile community, either.

Domestic Drivers of Geopoliticized Civil Society

Civic groups’ positioning vis-à-vis the geopolitical competition in the region is not independent of Turkey’s domestic politics and developments. For instance, conservative and nationalist groups that initially condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine soon started calling for strategic neutrality. They argued that the war should not damage Turkey’s trade and economic relations with Russia. This stance mirrors the Turkish government’s position and discourse on the war, as Ankara seeks a delicate balance between Moscow and Kyiv.

The reflection of the government’s foreign policy in conservative and nationalist groups’ reactions to international issues, in particular, is also visible elsewhere. One very good example of this is China’s human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims. Various Islamic humanitarian groups and nationalist organizations have raised this issue on social media and led solidarity campaigns with the Uighur people. Several Islamic women’s organizations held a march on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2022, to draw attention to the plight of the Uighurs.16 However, in comparison with the strong civic responses of the late 2000s, reactions in recent years have been sporadic, unsystematic, and more muted. This trend reflects the change in the Turkish government’s position: Erdoğan, who called the Chinese repression of the Uighurs a “genocide” in 2009, has gradually scaled down the language and tone of his criticisms as Turkey has grown more economically dependent on China.17

Business organizations also reflect the government’s balanced reactions to the Russia-Ukraine war. However, what shapes these reactions are the economic implications of the war in view of Turkey’s deteriorating economy in recent years and the country’s strong economic ties with both Russia and Ukraine. For instance, in calling for an end to the war, MÜSİAD, which represents conservative Anatolian businesses, has highlighted Turkey’s $40 billion foreign trade volume with the two countries and Turkey’s role in the Russian and Ukrainian construction industries.18 In a similar way, the pro-Western Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD) stresses Turkey’s use of diplomacy and mediation efforts in pointing to the war’s economic and financial consequences for Turkey, such as on foreign trade, tourism, and the rise in international prices.19

In recent years, some of the Turkish government’s geopolitical actions have been controversial to those with conservative and nationalist sensitivities. Still, conservative and nationalist civil society groups have been careful not to directly challenge the government. For instance, during solidarity campaigns with the Uighur people, Turkish civil society organizations limited their criticisms to China. When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Turkey in 2021, Beijing alone was the target of the protests. The demonstrating civic organizations fell short of urging the Turkish government to respond to China or criticizing Ankara’s inaction.20

Turkey’s conservative and nationalist civil society organizations are reluctant to criticize the government’s international geopolitical behavior even when it contradicts their positions on key issues. This is revealed most clearly in these organizations’ reactions to Ankara’s normalization efforts with Israel. Before and during Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Turkey in March 2022, various civil society groups, in particular Islamic organizations, reacted by holding small-scale protests and press conferences in cities across the country.21 Broadly speaking, these efforts focused on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Ahead of Herzog’s visit, some civil society organizations called on the government to cancel the visit and change course. They also noted that they found it hard to understand the political rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. However, they did not go further and criticize the government or Erdoğan.

The reactions of Turkish civil society to the Russian invasion of Ukraine have remained sporadic and limited mainly because human rights organizations are caught up in a whirlwind of issues that require their attention. Groups have their hands full with individual and collective human rights abuses as well as violations of the freedoms of association and assembly in Turkey. Larger organizations, such as Amnesty International, are also busy trying to draw people’s attention to other human rights abuses, from Myanmar to Syria, which inevitably limits their focus on the Russian war.

Likewise, humanitarian and refugee organizations were already tied up with the nearly 4 million refugees, mainly from Syria, in Turkey before the Russian invasion.22 These groups are unlikely to be able to absorb many new refugees from the north—either Russians or Ukrainians—as international aid and international nongovernmental organizations continue to withdraw from Turkey. Therefore, these groups, while sending relief aid to Ukrainian refugees in neighboring countries, also use the current situation as an opportunity to draw attention to Syrian refugees at home.

Conclusion

Geopolitical rivalry in the region has a varying impact on Turkish civil society. On the one hand, the government employs civil society actors to advance its strategic goals. It establishes its own civic groups and uses government-friendly actors to build up its presence in several countries. These civic organizations work in coordination with government agencies and have a growing presence in the surrounding region. In its use of civil society actors, the Turkish government seeks influence mainly through business relations and educational, cultural, and humanitarian efforts. In that sense, Ankara’s use of civil society is indirectly geopolitical. Some Turkish civic organizations also work with local civic groups in other countries. Although these civil society links are rather operational and their relation to geopolitical dynamics diffuse, Turkey’s geopolitical action in the region has yielded results. While civil society geopolitics has been indirect and not far-reaching, it has nonetheless been important in gaining societal trust.

On the other hand, various civic groups and organizations have taken a stance in neighboring geopolitical tensions, most recently after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That said, it is too early to conclude that civil society is repositioning itself in the face of geopolitical struggles. Turkish domestic politics and developments continue to affect civil society’s views and criticisms of the government’s international actions. In instances where conservative and nationalist civic groups found that Ankara’s international activity clashed with their agendas, such as in the rapprochement with Israel, they toned down their criticism of the government rather than shift their agendas. In short, geopolitical competition in Turkey plays out in the country’s civic sphere and does so through the prism of domestic politics.

Özge Zihnioğlu is a senior lecturer (associate professor) of politics at the University of Liverpool.

The Carnegie Endowment thanks the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Ford Foundation for generous support that helps make the work of the Civic Research Network work possible. The views expressed in this publication are the responsibility of the authors alone.

Notes

1 “Erdoğan’ın ziyareti Fransa’yı kudurttu! “Türkiye tam güç politikası sergiliyor”” [Erdoğan’s Visit Angered France! “Turkey Exhibits Full Power Policy”], Yeni Akit, October 18, 2021, https://www.yeniakit.com.tr/haber/erdoganin-ziyareti-fransayi-kudurttu-turkiye-tam-guc-politikasi-sergiliyor-1586100.html.

2 Gökhan Kavak, ““Neden Afrika’dayız”dan “Afrika’da Olmalıyız”a Türkiye’nin Afrika Siyaseti” [Turkey’s African Politics From “Why We Are in Africa” to “We Should Be in Africa”], Kriter 5, no. 56 (2021), https://kriterdergi.com/dis-politika/neden-afrikadayizdan-afrikada-olmaliyiza-turkiyenin-afrika-siyaseti.

3 “A Unique Platform: Promoting Africa and Turkey Investments and Trade Relations Since 2016: ‘Create Long-Lasting Business Cooperation’” Turkey-Africa Economic and Business Forum, http://turkeyafricaforum.org/about-overview.html.

4 “MÜSİAD, Afrika ağını genişletiyor” [MÜSİAD Expands Its African Network], Milliyet, November 7, 2018, https://uzmanpara.milliyet.com.tr/haber-detay/gundem2/musiad--afrika-agini-genisletiyor/87000/87862.

5 Fırat Fıstık, “Kuyruklara bir yenisi daha eklendi: Hayaldi gerçek oldu” [A New One Has Been Added to the Queues: It Was a Dream Come True], Sözcü, April 2, 2022, https://www.sozcu.com.tr/2022/ekonomi/kuyruklara-bir-yenisi-daha-eklendi-hayaldi-gercek-oldu-7050408/?utm_source=dahafazla_haber&utm_medium=free&utm_campaign=dahafazlahaber.

6 “Türkiye Maarif Vakfı Kanunu” [Turkish Maarif Foundation Law], Turkish Maarif Foundation, June 17, 2016, https://turkiyemaarif.org/page/525-TMF-Law-11.

7 “Dünyada Türkiye Maarif Vakfı” [Turkish Maarif Foundation in the World], Turkish Maarif Foundation, August 10, 2022, https://turkiyemaarif.org/page/2018-DUNYADA-MAARIF-16.

8 Uğır Yıldırım, “Libya’dan Türkiye’ye Ramazan mesajı: Türkiye bizi yalnız bırakmadı! “Teşekkürler Türkiye”” [Ramadan Message From Libya to Turkey: Turkey Did Not Leave Us Alone! “Thank You Turkey”], Sabah, April 27, 2021, https://www.sabah.com.tr/dunya/libyadan-turkiyeye-ramazan-mesaji-turkiye-bizi-yalniz-birakmadi-tesekkurler-turkiye-5480546.

9 “Yunus Emre Institute,” Yunus Emre Institute, https://www.yee.org.tr/en/corporate/yunus-emre-institute.

10 “Rusya, Ukrayna işgaline derhal son vermelidir! ‘Yaşamı Ateşe Vermeyin!’” [Russia Must Immediately End Its Occupation of Ukraine! “Don’t Set Life on Fire!”], Human Rights Association, February 25, 2022, https://www.ihd.org.tr/rusya-ukrayna-isgaline-derhal-son-vermelidir-yasami-atese-vermeyin.

11 “TİHV ve İHD: Rusya, Ukrayna işgaline derhal son vermeli” [TİHV and İHD: Russia Must Immediately End Its Occupation of Ukraine], Gazete Duvar, February 25, 2022, https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/tihv-ve-ihd-rusya-ukrayna-isgaline-derhal-son-vermeli-haber-1554549.

12 “Rusya, Ukrayna’da saldırılara son ver ve sivilleri koru!” [Russia, Stop the Attacks and Protect the Civilians in Ukraine!], Amnesty International, 2022, https://www.amnesty.org.tr/icerik/rusya-ukraynada-saldirilara-son-ver-ve-sivilleri-koru.

13 “TBB’den Ukrayna-Rusya krizine ilişkin açıklama” [Statement From the TBB on the Ukraine-Russia Crisis], BirGün, February 24, 2022, https://www.birgun.net/haber/tbb-den-ukrayna-rusya-krizine-iliskin-aciklama-378410.

14 “Rusya’nın işgali sonrası Türkiye’ye gelen Ukraynalı sayısı 20 bini geçti” [Number of Ukrainians Coming to Turkey After Russia’s Invasion Has Passed 20,000], Euronews, March, 7, 2022,https://tr.euronews.com/2022/03/07/rusya-n-n-isgali-sonras-turkiye-ye-gelen-ukraynal-say-s-20-bini-gecti.

15 Burcu Karakaş, “Savaş karşıtı Ruslar neden İstanbul’a sığındılar?” [Why Did the Antiwar Russians Take Refuge in Istanbul?], Deutsche Welle, March 21, 2022, https://www.dw.com/tr/sava%C5%9F-kar%C5%9F%C4%B1t%C4%B1-ruslar-neden-i%CC%87stanbula-s%C4%B1%C4%9F%C4%B1nd%C4%B1lar/video-61180087; and Anton Troianovski and Patrick Kingsley, “‘Things Will Only Get Worse.’ Putin’s War Sends Russians Into Exile,” New York Times, March 13, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/13/world/europe/russia-exiles-putin-ukraine-war.html.

16 “Kadınlar, Doğu Türkistan için yürüdü” [Women Marched for East Turkestan], Humanitarian Relief Foundation, March 8, 2022, https://ihh.org.tr/haber/kadinlar-dogu-turkistan-icin-yurudu.

17 Kuzzat Altay, “Why Erdogan Has Abandoned the Uyghurs,” Foreign Policy, March 2, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/02/why-erdogan-has-abandoned-the-uyghurs.

18 “MÜSİAD Başkanı Asmalı Rusya-Ukrayna sıkıntısına karşı uyardı: Alternatif pazarlara yönelin” [MÜSİAD President Asmalı Warns Against Russia-Ukraine Trouble: Turn to Alternative Markets], Yeni Şafak, February 26, 2022, https://www.yenisafak.com/ekonomi/musiad-baskani-asmali-rusya-ukrayna-sikintisina-karsi-uyardi-alternatif-pazarlara-yonelin-3756829.

19 Simone Kaslowski, “Rusya-Ukrayna Savaşının Tetiklediği Dönüşümle” [Transformations Triggered by the Russia-Ukraine War], Yetkin Report, March 14, 2022, https://yetkinreport.com/2022/03/14/rusya-ukrayna-savasinin-tetikledigi-donusumler.

20 “Uygur dernekleri, Çin Dışişleri Bakanı’nın Türkiye ziyaretini protesto etti” [Uighur Associations Protest the Visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister to Turkey], Independent, March 25, 2021, https://www.independentturkish.com/node/335461/haber/uygur-dernekleri-%C3%A7in-d%C4%B1%C5%9Fi%C5%9Fleri-bakan%C4%B1%E2%80%99n%C4%B1n-t%C3%BCrkiye-ziyaretini-protesto-etti.

21 “Siyonist elebaşının Türkiye ziyaretine protesto: Katil Herzog, Türkiye’den defol!” [Protest Against the Zionist Ringleader’s Visit to Turkey: Killer Herzog, Get Out of Turkey!], Yeni Akit, March 9, 2022, https://www.yeniakit.com.tr/haber/siyonist-elebasinin-turkiye-ziyaretine-protesto-katil-herzog-turkiyeden-defol-1635311.html; and “Herzog’un ziyaretine tepki” [Reaction to Herzog’s Visit], Yeni Asya, March 10, 2022, https://www.yeniasya.com.tr/gundem/herzog-un-ziyaretine-tepki_560130.

22 “Türkiye,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2022, https://reporting.unhcr.org/turkey#toc-populations.