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An Ominous Optimism

Will Turkey Join Sick Men of Europe?

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Are the Turks seeing the Ottoman Empire reborn or are they going to be the next victims of economic chaos in Europe and political turmoil in the Middle East? Is Turkey about to pay a price for the overconfidence bred by a decade that brought it triumphant success while its neighbors suffered decline or disaster?

The mood is buoyant. Turkey’s successes are recent and quite real. In a country used to covert or open military tutelage since its foundation, a democratically elected government is at last dominant; its economy has surged spectacularly, making it the 15th largest economic power in the world; it is lauded worldwide as a moderate Islamic state which ought to be the role model for Arab Spring countries.

Turkish optimism has ominous parallels with the self-regarding opinions once heard in Ireland and Greece. As with Turkey, both these countries had histories of poverty and emigration which made them psychologically receptive to the idea that they had at last attained the prosperity so long and so unfairly denied them. Excessive belief in their own booms produced disastrous economic bubbles.

Will Turkey be similarly damaged by myths about its own recent success? Some experts there fear so. Atilla Yesilada, an economic consultant at Istanbul Analytics, part of Globalsource, says: “It is as if the entire nation is hypnotized and drugged into believing we are unique and we have created our own successful economic model.” He suspects that Turkey is about to be hit by a devastating credit crunch. “Our belief in our own invulnerability means that the ultimate crash will be all the worse when it comes,” he says.

The Turkish economic miracle depended on the inflow of foreign capital, and this may soon stop. European banks are beset by problems of their own and Turkey may not look such a rosy prospect to them as it once did. Sumru Altug, a professor of economics at Koc University in Istanbul, says that everybody accepts that Turkey is going to have a much lower level of economic growth this year. She warns: “Turkey is playing a risky game.”

In foreign policy Turkey may likewise have seen the high tide and the turn. Twenty years ago it was ringed by hostile countries, but by 2009 these had largely become friends. Turkey was becoming an important influence in Iraq and Syria and other parts of the Middle East. It was a close ally of Bashar al-Assad of Syria and friendly with Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Trade followed the flag. “Turkish companies are even collecting the garbage in Baghdad and Basra,” an Iraqi friend said last year.

The sort of moderately Islamic democracy the Arab Spring protesters were demanding sounded very like what Turkey had already achieved. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, received an ecstatic reception in Egypt where he astonished many Turks – and dismayed Egyptian Islamists – by praising the virtues of the secular state even for committed Muslims such as himself.

Erdogan’s government likes to bet on winners. Turkey adeptly if cynically broke ties with Gaddafi and adopted the rebel cause. Soon Turkish hospital ships were sent to succor the besieged Libyan insurgents in Misrata and Libyan state money deposited in Turkey was channelled to the rebel government in Benghazi.

With Syria, Turkey has been much less successful. Indeed, Soli Ozel, a lecturer in international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, says flatly that “Turkey’s Syria policy is an abject failure”. He argues that it has ended up with having no leverage in Damascus and took excessive offence over being misled by the Syrian government over the latter’s willingness to compromise. “Not to have a decent dialogue with the regime puts you at a disadvantage,” he says.

As with the economy, overconfidence led to serious mistakes. At first, Turkey wrongly imagined it had enough influence in Damascus to get President Assad to implement serious reforms, share power with his opponents, or even step down. It then became clear that the Syrian leadership had no intention of doing this and was simply muddying the waters and stringing the Turks along.

In Iraq, Turkey has a significant but still limited presence. It has, rather remarkably given their past hostility, good relations with the Iraqi Kurdish leaders, more fearful these days of Baghdad than of Ankara. But in Iraq as a whole, Turkey has expended a lot diplomatic energy without getting great benefits. Its main success has been commercial: Iraq is its biggest export market after Germany.

Turkey helped to set up the opposition party to the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, during the last parliamentary election. Not surprisingly he was not pleased and criticized Turkey for meddling. “What have the Turks gained in Iraq for all their efforts?” a senior Iraqi official asked me last year. “They have a few politicians in their pocket, but nothing else.”

Not all the news is bad. Turkey has truly become a regional power. Its idea of its own strength may be exaggerated, but states that once had some strength – Egypt, Syria, Iraq and even Libya – are today divided and unstable. Iran is less powerful than it once was and Greece will take years to recover. Turkey also benefits from good relations with the US, which needs Turkey as a reliable ally.

Could Turkey’s moment as a coming power be passing at the very moment when it is still being lauded as one of the world’s few success stories? Expectations that it would enter the European Union gave momentum to reform in Turkey, ending the predominant role of the military. EU accession talks gave confidence to investors and underscored Turkey’s development into a liberal democracy. The failure of these talks with the EU to get anywhere has undercut legal reform, the dismantling of the security state, the search for a settlement of the Kurdish insurgency and progress towards a deal over Cyprus.

The EU’s relationship with Turkey remains crucial. It is by far Turkey’s largest trading partner and the main source of its foreign investment. Turkish options in the Middle East are deceptively alluring, but not necessarily very rewarding.Turkey still has a self-confident feel, but it is at the heart of an unstable region. In speaking of the economy – though it might also be true of Turkey’s future – Mr Yesilada says: “We may see the ‘Turkish miracle’ turn into the ‘Turkish disappointment’.”

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq