Turning to Turkey

ImageIndian diplomacy is loud in talk without any fruitful results. Despite having a strong diplomatic personnel, India produces least results. Ministers and diplomats make ritual visits to foreign nations without bringing much substantial results for the benefit of economy or society. Turkey a bridge between the Muslim and non Muslim world, a link between the Asian continent and the European continent is left without much attention from the Indian foreign ministry for a long time. It is high time to grab the powerful Turkey and do business with it for the mutual benefits.


Shasi Tharoor writes in The Deccan Chronicle on 27 April 2012


I’ve just returned to Parliament from a brief visit to Istanbul, Turkey, and I must say I’ve come hugely impressed. Istanbul (the legendary Constantinople) was, in many ways, the centre of the old world, and it’s now thrusting forward again into the new. Istanbul is famously where Europe meets Asia — the only city in the world that has a continental boundary running through it — yet it has little of the feel of our continent, coming across as a bustling, prosperous, clean and orderly European city in almost every respect. But it is the most famous city of a country, Turkey, that has only about three per cent of its landmass in Europe, and whose population is 99 per cent Muslim.

It was with great foresight and idealism that the founder of the modern Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk, declared a Muslim country a secular state, and brought in Western civil codes and institutions. Turkey is remarkably well-oriented towards the West and its culture and values, while retaining the traditional faith of its people. The ascent to power of the avowedly Islamic AK Party under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan momentarily created anxieties for Turkey’s secular credentials, but its nearly 10 years in power have been reassuring: the ruling party is credibly Islamic in orientation without being Islamist in its politics. The AK Party has almost become a Muslim version of the Christian Democratic parties that dominated European politics a few decades ago.

Turkey’s domestic politics are a classic case of the tussle between democratic secularism on the one hand and conservative traditionalism on the other, and so far democratic secularism is doing rather well. The successful blend of Islam and democracy has made Turkey, in the words of the US state department, the “most successful example in the world today of a secular democracy within a Muslim society” which can “inspire reformers in the greater Middle East and beyond”.

Turkey has only recently, in fact, realised the great role it can play in the Middle East and, consequently, in the world. God and geography have placed it in a strategically important location between Europe and the Middle East: it shares borders with eight countries, Greece, Bulgaria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. It has the largest military strength in Europe and the second largest within the Nato, of which it is a member. Turkey is, almost by default, a major player in maintaining stability in its region. In addition, the image of Turkey as a moderate, democratic state has given it a comfortable place in the minds of the West, while its Islamic roots appeal to all those countries the West is less comfortable with. The combination has been remarkably successful: Turkey has the ear of both sides in a host of international disputes and crises.

In recent years, Turkey’s impressive foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has led an activist foreign policy in which Turkey is seen as a moderate influence in an otherwise worrying area and has been acting as mediator in many international situations. Following the Russia-Georgia crisis, it acted as a third-party conciliator; it has been hosting meetings between Israel and the Palestinians (it is the only major Muslim country that maintains full diplomatic relations with Israel); it has facilitated talks between Israel and Syria; and just last week it hosted talks between Iran and the “Permanent Five plus one” (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) on the contentious nuclear issue. It has also been helping promote international understanding on the future of Afghanistan.

Turkey has also benefited from the flourishing of its soft power. Turkish material and cultural goods (especially Turkish soap operas, which are wildly popular throughout the Arab world) are now found throughout the Middle East and much of the investment in the country is being channelled in from the Gulf. The West, for its part, however, is only slowly welcoming Turkey. It applied first to join the European Economic Community in 1959 but has still not succeeded in fully integrating itself with Europe, having knocked on the closed door of the EU for decades.

The reasons that prevent it from securing membership of the EU include European (especially French and German) prejudices against a Muslim population entering Europe, a call for greater internal Western-style reforms at a pace that Turkey does not agree with, and finally contention over its relations with some of its neighbours, particularly Cyprus, where Turkish troops have created a de facto partition since 1974. Despite Europe’s reluctance to admit Turkey into the EU, the West has been largely prepared to listen to Turkey and see it as a model worth promoting, especially in a region vulnerable to Islamic fundamentalism.

Economically too, the country is progressing. The Turkish economy has rebounded ferociously from recession to cross 10 per cent growth in each of the last two fiscal years. Its economy is the 17th largest in the world. Far from the image of the impoverished land from which hundreds of thousands of “guest workers” flocked to Germany, Istanbul today gleams with prosperity. India shares a satisfactory relationship with Turkey but there is considerable scope for improvement, since neither side has reached out to the other fully.

Military regimes in Turkey and Pakistan were close to each other, and secular Ankara made common cause with the supposedly kindred spirits in Islamabad, leading to a certain distance between New Delhi and Ankara. The volume of bilateral trade stands at a meagre $7.6 billion. There has been an FTA deal in the offing for quite some time now, but negotiations have dragged on for a while and are far from nearing completion. High-level visits had not occurred for nearly a decade when President Gul came calling last year; the last time a Turkish PM visited India was in 2003. Turkey is therefore undeniably a land of unexplored potential.

The question that comes to mind, in a month which has shown us the increasing prospects of Brics emerging as a body with an alternative view of the world, is: could Turkey, a Nato member with a mind of its own, join them? There are no signs yet, but no country offers a more natural fit with the incipient new grouping than Turkey. Bricst won’t be easy to pronounce, but the entry of Turkey would fill a hole in the geographical centre and enhance the group’s geopolitical potential. It’s well worth thinking about.