AKP closure case, Russian-Georgian conflict, and proposal on “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform”

Turkey’s political agenda in the second half 2008 was dominated by a combination of internal and external issues. The AKP[1] closure case, Russian-Georgian conflict and the proposal on “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform” were some of the topics that dominated the agenda together with other issues such as the US elections, global crisis, and the upcoming local elections.

The AKP closure case

The final decision by the constitutional court on the AKP closure case was given on 30 July 2008. The court ruled against closure but imposed financial penalties and announced that this was a serious warning to the AKP. Politicians from mainly the AKP stated that the decision was a landmark victory for democracy. The opposition, on the other hand, argued that this was actually identification of the fact that the AKP is a focal point of anti-secular activity but the court was not able to deal with the crisis. However, expectations that this may lead to a change in the political parties law and the election law did not materialise.[2]

Russian-Georgian conflict

The Russian-Georgian conflict had external and internal implications for Turkey. Turkey immediately reacted to the attack by the Georgian forces in South Ossetia and the escalation of events with the Russian inclusion. From the very first day onwards, Turkish experts argued that Turkey as a regional power with friendly relations with both parties should assume an active role and mediate between the parties.[3] Both Georgia and Russia are considered as strategically important for Turkey. Georgia is considered important as Turkey’s gate to Azerbaijan and Central Asia – given problems with Armenia – and crucial in the transfer of oil from the East to the West. On the other hand, similar to the EU, Turkey is dependent on Russian natural gas. In addition, the commercial relations between Russia and Turkey have increased considerably since 1990 making Russia an important market for Turkish exports, for construction services and Turkish tourism sector.[4] Moreover, the crisis was coupled with a trade dispute between Turkey and Russia complicating Turkey’s foreign policy further. The two issues were later decoupled by arguments that the main reason for the trade dispute was the process of restructuring that Russia was going through.

Turkey, indeed, followed an active foreign policy to mediate between the two sides being one of the few states which managed to meet both Russia and Georgia during the conflict. While doing so, Turkish leaders followed a cautious and a balanced approach emphasising dialogue and peaceful means for the resolution of the crisis.[5] The events were perceived by the elites and the public in general as a development tilting the status quo in the Black Sea region. As such Turkish leaders expressed their concern over the preservation of territorial integrity and political unity of Georgia in an aim to emphasise the status quo, an issue that was reiterated by Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, Prime Minister Erdoğan, and President Abdullah Gül.[6] Another interpretation of the events was that the Russian move was a message at the global level, following on Kosovo independence, the missile shield row etc., from her back yard. The claims by the Russian side concerning the sale of arms and training of Georgian soldiers by Turkey, along with other NATO member states, and preparing it for a war were perceived as a way to put pressure on Turkey and others in order to force them to retreat in the Black Sea region.

Another important development in this respect was the US decision to send humanitarian aid to Georgia which brought to the fore the use of Turkish Straits. This created concerns, especially for Russia, over the implementation of the regime of passage through the Turkish Straits which is governed by the Montreux Convention of 1936 regulating the size of ships and requiring declaration of passage. Russian warnings found coverage in the Turkish press emphasising the fact that Russia will hold Turkey responsible for any non-compliance as the convention determines the time that non-littoral ships may stay in the Black Sea. The warnings were also accompanied by reports claiming that Russia considers Turkey as important and would like to see the Turkish position closer to the Russian position. Turkey paid due attention to compliance with the regime on the Straits as it is important for her as well.

An important aspect of the internal dimension is presence of a large Caucasian diaspora in Turkey. The “Federation of Caucasian Associations” was critical of the Georgian military offensive, claiming that the Georgian authorities were pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing in the region and demanding the Turkish recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.[7] The Northern Caucasian diaspora, peacefully protested against the Georgian operation in front of the Georgian representations in Ankara and İstanbul[8] demanding from the Turkish government to step in, mediate and stop the Georgian attacks that are being carried out with the weaponry provided by Turkey itself.[9] The federation also sent a letter to Russian President Medvedev, asking Russia to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia.[10] Indeed, Turkish official circles have been silent on these issues.

The proposal on “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform”

The Turkish proposal on “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform” was interconnected with the Russian-Georgian conflict. The proposal that the Turkish leaders coined on 11 August 2008[11] was a reiteration of the Caucasus pact that was put forward by the then President of Turkey, Süleyman Demirel, in 2000. At the time, the proposal was supported by the EU, however, rejected by the Russians perceived as a plan that intended to isolate Russia in the Caucasus. The recent proposal was presented to the leaders of the region first during when Prime Minister Erdoğan met with Russian President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin on 13 August 2008 and Georgian President Saakashvili on 14 August 2008. The proposal which seems to have been welcomed by the countries of the region aims to facilitate peace, security and stability in the Caucasus. However, the opposition parties in Turkey, categorically not against the proposal, put forward criticisms concerning, especially the timing, of the proposal arguing that it is proposed at a time when Russia did a show of prowess in the region. Yet, for the AKP government, while one of the aims was to remind Russia of Turkey’s interests in the region the other was to give way to dialogue with Armenia, with whom Turkey does not have any diplomatic relations. This move gave way to ‘football diplomacy’ between the Turkish and the Armenian President and was followed by a series of meetings between Turkish and Armenian officials including Azeri leaders in an indirect manner.

Other issues

The 2008 Presidential elections in the US were probably the most closely followed US elections by the press, officials and thus, the public in general in Turkey. The election of Barack Obama was deemed important because of the legacy of George W. Bush and with the hope that he would be able to change things for the better. Even people from a small village, Çavuştepe in the Van region, sacrificed 44 sheep (as he is the 44th President of the US) to show their love for Obama. This is well interconnected with the hope that Obama would be the best choice to deal with the deepening global crisis at a global level. Perhaps most of the criticisms on the consequences of global crisis in Turkey were related to Prime Minsiter Erdoğan’s optimism. Erdoğan claimed that Turkey would be the country “least affected” by the global crisis, that “Turkey would overcome the crisis with minimum loss” and it was rather psychological than real.[12] He was severely criticised by the opposition for downplaying and undermining the real effects of the crisis in the midst of increasing unemployment, declining GDP and exports. The business circles were also critical of the government and their inability to take any measures, although the government argued they do so. Indeed, this is partly related to the upcoming local elections where the debate as the elections approach seems to be toughening and marginalising parties.

 

 

 

[1] Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – Justice and Development Party.
[2] For details on the decision and the reactions see Radikal, 31 July 2008; Today’s Zaman, 31 July 2008.
[3] Fatma Demirelli: ‘Crisis calls for urgent Turkish mediation in Caucasus’, Today’s Zaman, 9 August 2008.
[4] The total value of Turkey’s exports to Russia amounted to more than 6 billion US Dollar in 2008, projects undertaken by Turkish contractors in Russia surpassed 30 billion US Dollar (22 percent of all projects undertaken by Turkish contractors), making Russia by far the most important market for Turkish construction services. Turkish direct investments in Russia are estimated at 5.6 billion US Dollar. All values are taken from Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey, available at: http://www.mfa.gov.tr/ (last access: 25 January 2009), and Turkish Statistical Institute, available at: http://www.turkstat.gov.tr (last access: 25 January 2009).
[5]Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey: Press Release Regarding the Armed Clashes in South Ossetia, No. 141, 8 August 2008, available at: http://www.mfa.gov.tr/no_141—08-august-2008_-press-release-regarding-the-armed-clashes-between-georgia-and-south-ossetia.en.mfa (last access: 25 January 2009).
[6] Radikal, 9 August 2008; After Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Russia the press reflected different viewpoints of Turkey and Russia on territorial integrity of Georgia. See: Radikal, 15 August 2008.
[7] Radikal, 10 August 2008; Today’s Zaman, 11 August 2008.
[8] ANKA News Agency, 13 August 2008.
[9] Taraf, 10 August 2008.
[10] Sabah, 21 August 2008.
[11] Emine Kart: ‘Stuck in a tight spot, Ankara calls for Caucasus pact’, Today’s Zaman, 12 August 2008.
[12] Milliyet, 18 October 2008; Today’s Zaman, 3 October 2008, 28 October 2008, 25 December 2008.