Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Caspian in 2012 - Turkey

From now until the end of the year, I will be running a series of posts offering some (guarded) predictions for 2012.

2011 was, on balance, a good year for Turkey. Despite the challenges posed by the Arab Spring, and the demise of the ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy, Turkey has made huge strides in building itself as a regional power. At home the economy has been solid; the AKP won a resounding third term, solidifying political stability; and the army has been confined to barracks. 2012 is not likely to be so successful.

In 2012 the biggest foreign-policy challenges will remain Syria and Iran. A total collapse into chaos in Syria, or direct clashes on the border, could prompt Ankara into mounting a limited military intervention (under humanitarian auspices, probably).

Relations with Tehran will remain a mix of cordiality and competition. The relationship has soured somewhat recently: expect it to get worse if there is a new diplomatic crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme. In this scenario Ankara will try to compromise, vocally denouncing Western pressure against Iran whilst criticising Iranian intransigence. In any case, booming commercial and energy ties will continue to underpin the relationship and prevent a breakdown in ties.

Some significant geopolitical shifts will mean that the Kurdish issue will increasingly be a source of tension between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The US withdrawal from Iraq will deepen divisions between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, making the KRG less willing to pressure to transnational Kurdish militants – why antagonise potential allies against the Iraqi Arabs?

An isolated, hostile KRG will provide more opportunities for Tehran, Damascus and Ankara to support favoured Kurdish proxies against each other if their relationships deteriorate. Although Turkey and Iran have been cooperating against rebels, and Turkey has warned Damascus not to support the PKK, there is insufficient trust to create a united front against the rebels; supporting proxy forces may seem preferable.

In Turkey itself, the number of PKK deaths and a decline in attacks on Turkish security forces suggests that the rebels are on the back foot, at least temporarily. As the state presses home its advantage, expect more cross-border raids into Iraq by the Turkish military, as well as more arrests of those linked – or allegedly linked – to the Kurdish nationalist umbrella group KCK.

The widespread scope of the arrests, and already tense relations between the ruling party and the pro-Kurdish BDP, will widen the gulf between the government and Turkey’s Kurds and raise the potential for more militancy in the future.

The sudden collapse of relations with France over Paris’s Armenian genocide bill is dramatic. Its significance should not be underestimated. Ankara has gone on an all-out diplomatic offensive against Paris, reflecting the genuine fury which the Turkish political elite feels on this issue. This, like the fallout with Israel, is much more about visceral emotion than about policy, or even populism (French legislation is not a burning issue on the street unless politicians bring attention to it).

This will have major repercussions for Turkey’s entire relationship with Europe. It may mark the beginning of the end of Turkey’s EU application process: France was already a cynic about Turkish membership, and the poisonous atmosphere on both sides now makes it even less likely that the momentum will be maintained, even if France’s Senate vetoes the bill.

France’s influence in Europe means that a breakdown in ties will have an impact on a range of policy issues, notably Syria. Another is the Caucasus. France is the European co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group tasked with resolving the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The current crisis, over an issue so closely entwined with the Karabakh conflict, will seriously damage France’s effectiveness as a mediator. Time, perhaps, to switch to an EU seat for the Minsk Group?

The situation is too fluid to predict with accuracy, but the breakdown between Turkey and France seems serious and difficult to reverse. It could have pronounced and unpredictable effects.

Aside from this recent diplomatic earthquake, Turkey’s policy towards the Caspian is unlikely to change too much. Burgeoning trade and cultural ties to Central Asia (and assistance towards Kyrgyzstan’s shaky democratisation) will remain the cornerstones of Turkish policy. Russia under Putin (again) will continue to be a stable if difficult friend and source of energy imports. Energy ties to Azerbaijan will deepen; the stalled rapprochement with Armenia will almost certainly be buried for the foreseeable future in the wake of the French vote.

At home, the AKP is running a fairly tight ship, with the opposition CHP yet to seriously damage it after June’s election landslide. Three issues are likely to dominate 2012.

The first is the future of the political landscape itself. The CHP is reportedly close to fracturing over Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s mediocre leadership. Meanwhile the AKP is going in the other direction, apparently centralising itself around Prime Minister Erdoğan. Questions are now being asked about whether he will switch to the presidency when Abdullah Gül steps down. Gül has been under pressure recently as questions mount over the legal date of his term’s expiry. Although nothing will happen for some time, next year Erdoğan could make the first moves towards preparing for a presidential run.

Secondly is the drive for a new constitution. The process is due to finish by the end of next year, but Ankara’s tendency to launch from crisis to crisis has raised questions over that deadline. The government has sought to make the process inclusive but it will undoubtedly provoke a raft of crises in the year ahead, between and within parties.

Thirdly is the economy. Turkish politicians have repeatedly sounded bullish on the economy, but international economists and institutions are less sure. Some of Turkey’s main trading partners – the eurozone and the Middle East – are in crisis. The world financial outlook looks bleak. Oil prices may spike next year, which would rock Turkey’s import-dependent economy. The picture now may be rosy but things could rapidly unravel, with major political implications.

In sum: foreign policy will enter increasingly choppy waters. The Kurds in Iraq, the Syrian crisis, and Iran would always have been the serious issues, but the crisis with France raises questions about the future of Turkey’s relationship with Europe. At home, political infighting will be a persistent concern but may well be overshadowed by an overheating economy.

Turkey may be able to ride out the year unscathed, but it will require clear vision and a firm hand on the tiller. That hand is, more than ever, that of the canny, mercurial Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

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