The once mighty Ottoman Empire “gave away” a lot of territory and population when it withdrew from its dominions. But the last soldier had to defend the waterway, formally considered the border between Europe and Asia. And now, whatever Turkey’s policies, strategic goals and achievements, the country’s most important place is here, on the Bosphorus.
This is where the state’s character is seen, where the real Europe or non-Europe is located, if necessary, and where, in the opinion of some authoritative geopoliticians, an essential new centre of regional power must emerge. We still lack the imagination to envisage Turkey as a great power or as “the newest Ottomans”, but…
What does Turkey need, and what can it do?
It was predicted 100 years ago that the Turkish republic would be an insignificant post-Ottoman province, but it has become important because of its geography. It is needed for the geopolitics of the great powers because processes are going on around it that Turkey can influence, and because of many other circumstances, even natural cataclysms. The words ‘before’ and ‘after’ characterise the evolution of Turkish politics in recent decades. Before and after Erdogan’s victory, before and after the failed coup, before and after the earthquake… Turkey has been playing a very clever geopolitical game for the second decade now, and it does have strategic autonomy – it has a special voice in NATO and has to be reckoned with. “There is no ‘classic’ textbook politics here. “Classical” ideologies (socialism, liberalism, etc.) may be a cover or a front, but the core of politics is the national idea. All Western ideologies are perceived as varieties of liberalism, alien to what matters most – Turkishness.
Turkishness is not Erdogan’s personal fantasy, it is a political state that is as sympathetic to many as Russianness is to Russians, but Erdogan and his AK Party (still?) have a kind of monopoly on ‘Turkishness’. Erdogan has successfully created an image of himself as a symbol of the father of the nation. Even those who do not love the current head of state find it difficult to accuse him of a lack of patriotism. The image that is being created is that without Erdogan, Turkey will no longer be Turkey.
Even the war in Ukraine is going on in such a way that all the ‘ends’ and possible grand bargains and interim agreements are coming to Turkey. It can make more and more decisions not only without the knowledge of the US or the EU but also without the knowledge of Russia, and Russia has to accept this. Turkey aims to become geopolitically at least “of the same weight” as Russia and then more important. Crimea is better for Ukraine (ideally for Turkey, but not today). It is certainly worth supporting Ukraine rather than Russia. It does not need a powerful Ukraine, but it does not require an assertive Russia.
Even if Ukraine loses, it will be better to support Ukraine than Russia. Some call this the ‘Bayraktar policy’. Most psychologically incredible of all, Turkey is emerging as an exporter of high military technology, not the other way around. Everybody is looking for a favourable agreement with Turkey; nobody is in a position to punish Turkey in any way, and they realise that it is better to come to an agreement. Many politicians in the European Union still think that Turkey wants to go to the EU very much and has no alternative, but the agenda for relations with the EU is increasingly being driven not by the EU but by Turkey’s wishes and that Turkey knows that it is being dealt with irrespective of what the country’s human rights record is, or what its views are on gender equality. Even we depend on Turkey for many of our decisions, not Turkey on us: Ukrainian grain, migration, NATO enlargement. The Middle East, Cyprus… the list is long. It seems that this country has perhaps never been so powerful.
One could go on for a long time, and quite reasonably, explaining that the country’s economy is deteriorating, that Turkishness is not economics, and that quality of life indicators are certainly not the most important component of Turkish politics. What is more important is what is happening in the neighbourhood and how to get it going in the ‘right direction’.
Azerbaijan has been waiting for two long decades for the day when Armenia would no longer be able to rely on ‘all-powerful’ Russia. And it has arrived – Turkey has shown that Russia is no longer omnipotent and that Azerbaijan can realise its own geopolitical ambition. Turkey does not paint relations with Azerbaijan as colonialism or as a “little brother” but rather as a kind of “republic of both peoples”. Armenia – Turkey needs Armenia to be so independent of Russia but to “know its place” because of its smallness and weakness.
Syria – there will be order! Greece, Cyprus, Libya? It is high time to show that no one will dictate there to Turkey; it can only negotiate. It is a little more challenging with Iran. It is a formal competitor and even an adversary; Turkey does not yet have the key to a solution. It is not entirely clear whether it will be all right for the Islamic republic to collapse in the here and now… on those protests. We do not know what will happen afterwards, and the unknown is dangerous.
But it is not all fine and dandy. Terrorism is a much bigger pain for Turks than we think, and they remember everything that has been said (maybe even irresponsibly) or organised anti-Turkishly. The issue of Nordic countries joining NATO is not a mere Turkish whim or a desire to make some political money – it is seen domestically as a noble cause. The fight against terrorism is (at least publicly) a higher priority than the aforementioned economy, human rights and even the sovereignty of neighbours. There will be a Kurdish party if it is needed by the strongest today. Kurds can be Kurds as long as it does not weaken Turkey’s power, “the right Kurd is the one who defends Turkey’s unity”…
Even the opposition, leading in the ratings, is not sure this will be reflected in the vote. The opposition needs to take back Erdogan’s monopoly of Turkishness, which is not easy, even without loving him. The opposition, if the elections were really democratic and if it won, does not seem to dare to give up its ‘Bayraktar policy’ or its view of the Greeks and Russians.
And finally, Turkey after the ‘black swan’, after that earthquake, the long-term consequences of which will be seen for years to come. The biggest catastrophe in the century of the Turkish republic… It is becoming clear that it is not the terrorists who are destroying Turkey most of all, but the natural cataclysms with which the house-builders have entered into ‘secret agreements’, destroying confidence in Turkey’s power… That famous building boom and all the progress of the 21st century is just a house of cards…
And what to do now? You can take advantage of the earthquake and punish those supposedly responsible for the fact that every second residential building in the country does not meet safety standards. You can, as after the failed coup, once again settle scores with your political opponents, you can say to the world: thank you, no need for your fake tears, we will manage… We will change the directors of construction companies but not the heads of state.
But there is another way. It is possible (and even necessary) to recognise that even the most pragmatic policy cannot become simply self-serving because when the black swan appears, selfless help is needed. A new neighbourhood policy can be launched, and this chance must be seized. Turkey needs regional solidarity, not exceptionalism. We need a fresh idea of Turkishness, which will consolidate power, not for the benefit of the President, but for the country’s use. For the country’s sake, we need to show that Turkey wants to be an example of solidarity, not self-interest. And Sweden is not, after all, such a soulless state sponsor of terrorism and an opponent of Turkey. It needs to be (and can be) dealt with sincerely, not punished and retaliated against using its legal rights.
I confess that I have met more than one person at the Bosphorus who is happy that the strait is a geopolitical gift to Turkey. And a lucrative business instrument. I do not like that. I would like the Bosphorus to be such a geopolitical good for the whole region. Then Turkey’s prosperity will be better served. As a new hope, not a new threat…