Buoyed by its increasing engagement with Central Asia and the Arab world, Turkish officials have begun to discuss institutionalizing what they regard as Turkey’s growing regional influence.
When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, he explicitly set Europe as the new state’s benchmark; importing not only legal codes and institutions but also the trappings of European culture, such as opera houses. He firmly repudiated late Ottoman dreams of a Turkic empire in Central Asia and also turned the country’s back on the empire’s former Arab provinces, not least because he regarded the latter as being dominated by an obscurantist interpretation of Islam. Over the next 65 years, Turkish diplomats and academics focused almost exclusively on studying the West. As a result, Turkey is still suffering from a paucity of Arabic-language speakers.
However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 revived nationalist Turks’ hopes of a belt of Turkish influence stretching from the Adriatic to China and led to the establishment of a number of mechanisms for increased cooperation, almost always with Turkey in the lead role, such as the General Assembly of the Turkic World, which brings together representatives of countries regarded as being primarily populated by ethnic Turks. The election of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in November 2002 led to a concerted effort to strengthen Turkey’s ties with other Muslim countries in the region. In recent weeks, leading AKP officials have openly discussed ways of institutionalizing Turkey’s relations with both the countries of Central Asia and the independent states that grew out of the former Ottoman provinces.
On November 15, speaking at the 11th General Assembly of the Turkic World in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacked the EU for what he terms its “insincerity” and called for greater cooperation among “Turkic peoples.”
“Turks are each other’s natural partners,” he said. “Solidarity will provide the opportunity to realize great opportunities. The way to success is full cooperation and solidarity. What will happen if we don’t cooperate? They will completely crush us” (Milliyet, November 16).
Erdogan did not specify who the “they” were, although his listeners will have had little doubt that he was at least referring to the West and perhaps Russia, too.
On the same day, Huseyin Celik, the AKP education minister, called for the establishment of an Ottoman Commonwealth under Turkish leadership. “Britain has its commonwealth. So do Russia, France, and Spain. So where is our commonwealth?” he asked. “We are a nation that has created great states. We are not just another state on the earth’s surface. But unfortunately most of us are not even aware of Turkey’s mission. If the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans are not our hinterland, then our claim to be a great state will remain just words” (Radikal, November 16).
On November 23, Yusuf Halacoglu, the head of the state-run Turkish History Society, which is responsible for formulating official Turkish history, called for Turkey to be prepared to annex the Iraqi provinces of Mosul and Kirkuk in the event of the country’s disintegration.
“If there is a division, then Turkey’s international rights will come onto the agenda and Turkey must use them,” he said. “If we ignore the possibility of division and do not take the necessary precautions, then we will be unable to assert our rights in Mosul and Kirkuk” (CNNTurk, November 23).
Such recidivism is nothing new. In a book published in October, former Turkish Chief of Staff Kenan Evren, who also served as the country’s president from 1982 to 1989, relates how in the run-up to the 1991 he was approached by the then-president Turgut Ozal and asked his opinion on the possible Turkish annexation of Mosul and Kirkuk (Fikret Bila, Komutanlar Cephesi, Detay Yayincilik, Istanbul, 2007).
However, not only is there no indication that the former Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire would welcome the establishment of an Ottoman Commonwealth, but there continue to be signs of ethnic tensions within the Turkish Republic’s modern borders. Yesterday (November 25) a mass rally in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir organized by the Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) resulted in clashes between police and demonstrators, many of whom chanted slogans and carried placards supporting imprisoned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan (Hurriyet, Sabah, Milliyet, Vatan, November 26). Perhaps more worryingly, there were also some minor ethnic clashes on the streets of Istanbul. Supporters of the PKK stoned homes and offices that had the Turkish flag draped from their windows, while a group of Turkish ultranationalists trashed a coffeehouse frequented by ethnic Kurds (Radikal, November 26).