Erdogan Considers Domestic Impact of U.S.-Turkish Relations

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 173

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will travel this week to the U.S. to attend the 64th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York and the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. During his visit to the U.S., Erdogan will hold a number of bilateral meetings, including talks with the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the heads of state and government of 20 countries.

Despite the fact that there is no single issue that Turkey is planning to present at the U.N. or to discuss with international players at the G20 summit, the timing of the meeting will fuel domestic debates that have continued over the past few months. One of the issues that he will discuss with world leaders is the Turkish government’s Kurdish initiative. Erdogan stated: "We will explain what we have achieved on the democratization initiative, if this is raised. It will be constructive to share with our allies the positive results of our initiative" (Sabah, September 22).

Erdogan will explain to world leaders three separate issues, for example the Kurdish and the Alevi minorities as well as the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement initiatives, all of which have contributed to fractious domestic political debates, under the overarching umbrella of the "democratization initiative" (Zaman, September 21). Indeed, these issues have proven to be the main sources of tension between the government and the opposition parties. The opposition accused Erdogan of implementing policies that are dictated by the United States and the European Union. Chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli is the foremost advocate of the allegation that the Erdogan government is simply implementing initiatives planned in Washington and aimed at dividing the country (EDM, August, 21, September 10). The Chairman of the Republican Peoples Party (CHP), Deniz Baykal rejects Erdogan’s policies surrounding the Kurdish initiative and the re-opening of the Turkish-Armenian border.

Erdogan’s trip to the U.S. also provides an opportunity for the opposition parties to stir up domestic political issues by linking Erdogan to U.S. plans and interests in the region. Devlet Bahceli argues that Erdogan traveled to the United States to seek approval for his Kurdish initiative, and that he will return with an approved plan (Hurriyet, September 22). Meanwhile, Deniz Baykal criticized Erdogan using similar rhetoric to accuse him of trying to divide the country (Milliyet, September 22). Erdogan responded: "We will not abandon our initiative. Those who wish to help the democratization process are welcome; those who present obstacles to the initiative should know that we will eliminate such obstacles and pursue our plans alone" (Milliyet, September 22).

Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to Ankara, Jim Jeffrey, joined the debate and supported the government’s initiative. Jeffrey stated that "any step that would help to remove the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) terrorism would be a good step and we would support it." Jeffrey further suggested that the "Turkish government is taking courageous steps to implement its democratization initiative. This is good and I am optimistic about the process" (Aksam, September 21).

Moving the focus of the debate from Ankara to Washington might damage the Kurdish initiative because the majority of the Turkish public remains skeptical toward U.S. foreign policy. Turkish nationalist dailies have already actively linked the Kurdish initiative with the West, in order to deepen the level of public skepticism over the policy. For instance, the nationalist daily Yenicag ran a headline underlining this theme: "Before explaining to Bahceli and Baykal, Erdogan will explain the Kurdish initiative to his allies," implying that Erdogan is implementing a plan orchestrated by international actors (Yenicag, September 21).

Erdogan has taken the rather surprising step of revealing that Turkey will open a consulate general in Arbil if necessary. "Turkey will improve its relations with the northern Iraqi administration in a very different way," Erdogan said as he explained that Syria and Iraq were jointly supporting the "democratic move" (Turkish Daily News, September 18). Such statements might provide additional "evidence" for nationalist skeptics to promulgate the view that the Kurdish initiative is geared toward establishing a "Kurdish national state in northern Iraq."

However, Erdogan’s trip to the U.S. might have no significant impact on Turkish foreign policy initiatives, yet it could potentially change the direction of the domestic debate. This may have a negative impact on the Kurdish initiative, because the Turkish public remains skeptical toward the U.S. and the E.U. It is imperative that Erdogan bridge this gap in order to stimulate domestic support for his agenda.