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Turkey: when ambitions are not based on abilities: interview with Cengiz Aktar

Today, Turkey is going through some crucial internal political transformations. Recently, it witnessed the resignation of its Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. According to Turkish political scientist Cengiz Aktar, his country is falling into the hands of “hard-nosed authoritarianism” and is “playing on the edge” in its foreign policy. No surprise that its regional policy is becoming increasingly harsh and unpredictable. It was the only country that welcomed Azerbaijan’s attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh in early April. Russia and the United States were very critical, but recently, the newly appointed Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim appeared with new threats against Armenia. At a press conference in Baku, he said: “It is time to stop Armenia that occupied 20 percent of the Azerbaijani territory.”

On the other frontline, Turkey is involved in harsh political haggling with the European Union and is having serious disputes with the Americans concerning their contacts with Kurds in Syria and Iraq. “Turkey has quarreled with almost everybody in the world because of its highly emotional and short-sighted policy. It has problems with the United States, Russia, the European Union, Syria and Iraq. Its only ally now is Saudi Arabia, but the only thing that connects the allies is their attitudes towards Syria,” says Cengiz Aktar, well-known Turkish journalist, professor of political science at Istanbul University.

In his interview to EADaily, Aktar presented his vision of Turkey’s political future, its geo-political appetites and real abilities.

Mr. Aktar, today, Turkey is facing interesting internal political processes. At first, the Turkish MPs voted for having no more immunity and then, Davutoglu was replaced by an advocate of presidential rule in Turkey. What is going on in Turkey now? And how will these transformations affect its regional policy?

Davutoglu’s resignation was an alarming signal that Turkey is turning into an extremely authoritarian state, a state with no system of checks and balances. Very soon, this situation will be legalized by constitutional reforms. In presidential Turkey all decisions will be made by the president. By voting for no more own immunity, the Turkish MPs have killed themselves while their rival force, the presidential administration, is quickly growing. The president already has hundreds of advisors who will soon become the key decision-makers in Turkey. It will be a new Turkey, with lots of interesting things yet to come. The new regime will begin with tightening the screws inside the country and revising relations with the EU. Just one example - no matter how many times they spoke of friendly relations with Turkey and Angela Merkel being Turkey's best friend, recently, Germany recognized the Armenian Genocide. I am not saying that Turkey will burn all of its bridges with the EU, but the sides will certainly be at variance concerning Syrian refugees and Turkey’s integration into Europe.

We often hear Turkish leaders making quite tough statements on regional problems. What is Turkey’s policy on the region and its problems? And how much in line are its regional ambitions with its abilities?

Turkey is trying to become more active in the region. It seeks to be active on Crimea, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh. It seeks to be a rival to post-sanctions Iran, to be rougher in its relations with Europe and to be friends with Saudi Arabia. But all this is just wishes. The reality is that Turkey has no resources for realizing its plans.

While Turkish leaders are announcing their wish to be more active in the Middle East and the South Caucasus, Turkish academicians are appearing with just a dozen of treatises on those regions a year. The resources of the Turkish Foreign Ministry are even more “impressive”: only 5 of 1,500 Turkish diplomats speak Arab, as many diplomats speak Russian, no single Turkish diplomat speaks Armenian. I know only one person in the Turkish Embassy in London, who is starting to learn Armenian. This proves that the Turks have no “institutional memory” and so, they have no real picture of the situation in those regions. Some Turkish diplomats know better what wines they can buy in Paris than what is going on in Damascus now. Many of them, including the Turkish foreign minister, are not aware where Nagorno-Karabakh is on the map and often call it Karadag, which has more relation to Crimea and Montenegro than to Nagorno-Karabakh. This proves that they have no realistic, conceptual vision of the region. As a result, the Turks have gone from “zero problems with neighbors” to “zero friends.” Their only friend today is Saudi Arabia, who has a similar policy on Syria and Iraq, but with partners like the United States, the European Union and Russia, they are at odds.

You have said the Turks have no institutional memory concerning the Middle East and the South Caucasus. But once those regions were part of their Ottoman Empire. So, how come they have forgotten them? Are they not studying their own history?

You are right, there was the Ottoman Empire but it has gone into archives and has been forgotten. When the Turkish alphabet was changed (in 1928), the history of the Ottoman Empire was left in archives. Only specialists can study it, the others simply can’t read the old alphabet. When the Turks had problems with the Serbs, they didn’t know how to talk, to come to terms with them. It was then that they began studying their archives just to understand how they co-existed with Serbs in the Ottoman Empire. Today, Turkey’s policy on its neighbors is based on emotions and instincts rather than on realism and competence. It was out of ideology only that the Turks welcomed refugees from Syria but now they don’t know what to do with them. The Turkish authorities have no clear immigrant policy. As a result, they are facing growing anti-immigrant moods. One more example – the Turks are acting as protectors of Turkmens. But Turkmens are different: those living in Iraq hate Turks because they killed them in the past, while Syrian Turkmens were deeply integrated into Syrian society and even had high offices in the Syrian government. So, things are not very simple here.

How are the relations with Iran? I mean with the post-sanctions Iran.

Here there are more questions than answers. It is clear that just like Russia, Iran remains Turkey’s rival in the region. Before the sanctions were lifted there was a certain status quo. Now things can’t stay they were, especially as Iran is very active in the region. Turkey and Iran have quite opposite interests here. So, in near future the status quo may be changed. As far as Russia is concerned, despite growing trade and economic contacts, Turkish-Russian relations have always been based on geopolitics. Turkey and Russia have always been rivals in this region and are such today. Some mass media presented the Su-24 case as a sensation, as Turkey stabbing Russia in the back. But, in fact, it was a moment of truth. The Turks and the Russians are rivals in the Balkans, in the South Caucasus and the Middle East. Simply, the Turks overrate their role in the region. In reality, they are not as strong as the Russians are.

In the South Caucasus there is a country Turkey has no diplomatic relations with. I mean Armenia, whom Turkey is blockading out of solidarity with Azerbaijan. The attempt to normalize Turkish-Armenian relations has failed. What is Turkey’s position on Armenia now and is there any chance for rapprochement?

Turkey’s relations depend more on Azerbaijan than on Armenia. It was Azerbaijan’s pressure that prevented Turkey from normalizing its relations with Armenia in 2009-2010. And this influence is growing. I mean emotional and economic influence. Azerbaijani SOCAR is one of the key sponsors of the Turkish economy, with as much as $20 billion invested so far. The sides also have big transport and energy projects. So, Turkey is heavily dependent on Azerbaijan. This is why it was the only country that welcomed Azerbaijan’s actions in Nagorno-Karabakh in early April. Just one example – Turkey is on bad terms with Russia now. Russia is the key gas supplier to Turkey. Should Turkey express wish to improve its relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan may stop its gas supplies. So, we can say that now Turkey’s foreign policy is focused on Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Armenia has no place here and will hardly have in future. And there is one more tendency in Turkish-Azerbaijani relations: the sides are beginning to synchronize their steps to deny the Armenian Genocide and to publicize the events in Xocali.

And what about the military contacts between Turkey and Azerbaijan? Many experts say that the sides are very active here. Even more, Azerbaijani special troops are said to be trained in Turkey?

I am not a military expert but I can say that Turkey is showing a mostly emotional attitude towards the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. Turkish mass media were not very active in covering the April war. Only Agos (an Istanbul-based Armenian weekly – EADaily) appeared with good reports. The other Turkish mass media just quoted Azerbaijani sources, which is not serious. There is no specific information about Turkish-Azerbaijan military contacts. The only thing I know is that before 2008 Turkish military instructors kept visiting Azerbaijan. But since then this field has been close for mass media.

Interviewed by Arshaluys Mgdesyan, EADaily’s correspondent in Yerevan

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