Archive for category EU
Working on Ukraine is similar to watching a soap opera — a cast of colorful characters in dramatic story lines, with Kiev moving from one crisis-ridden moment to another. Indeed, Ukraine’s politicians are experts at keeping us on the edge of our seats. From an analyst’s point of view, this is fascinating. As for ordinary Ukrainians, they simply long for a boring, uneventful, stable state.
However, despite the endless political and economic turmoil, Ukraine remains an important country — Europe’s seventh most-populous country and a key gas transit state, it has wonderfully fertile soil and significant economic potential. It is a regional “backbone,” as the largest country between the EU and Russia, thus it is key for regional cohesion and stability. Ukraine’s strategic location and proximity to Russia’s breadbasket and economic heartland in the Volga region make the country key to Russia’s geopolitical strength. Russia allied with Ukraine gives Moscow confidence and strength, while a Russia without Ukraine is much weaker.
Ukraine is now in the midst of a particularly dramatic episode: whether or not to sign its Association Agreement, including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), with the European Union at the forthcoming Vilnius Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit on Nov. 28-29. Despite the fact that Ukraine’s political elites have consistently stated that European integration is their top foreign policy goal, the decision still hangs in the balance.
Ukraine has not fully met the EU’s criteria as spelled out in December 2012. Important reforms that could have been made earlier were not made because of a lack of political will, a failure of political parties to reach a consensus and the age-old problem of “vested interests.” Only since early summer has Ukraine accelerated its efforts, and this was principally a consequence of Russian attempts to derail the deal. Important legislation related to the prosecutor general, electoral law and the imprisoned former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko (which the EU has labeled selective justice), expected to pass through the Ukrainian parliament last week, did not. The process was postponed until Nov. 19. Because Ukraine is crucial to the success of the EaP, the EU has continued to move these deadlines. It now seems certain the decision will be last minute, possibly on the eve of the summit.
The EU — for right or wrong — has made Tymoshenko the make-or-break issue. However, the chances of Tymoshenko being out of prison by the time of Vilnius seem non-existent. The best we can hope for is that an agreement between Ukraine’s political elites and the EU will be reached in order to begin the process of a transfer to Germany for medical treatment, although again this hangs in the balance. The EU decision will be based on the recommendation of the European Parliament’s two special envoys on Ukraine, Aleksander Kwasniewski and Pat Cox.
The second problem is Russia. Ukraine needs and wants good relations with Russia, yet Moscow has been crystal clear that Ukraine will pay economically for going ahead with the EU deal. Moscow is using every type of carrot and stick, although so far not to a successful end. Generally Russian carrots tend to have bitter centers. However, meetings (even secret ones) continue to take place between the two leaderships. Russia wants Ukraine to join its Eurasian Customs Union, but ultimately will settle for Ukraine ditching the DCFTA with the EU. Yanukovych, in whose hands everything rests, is becoming increasingly unpredictable and at this point it is not clear which may he may ultimately jump. While this is far from the perfect situation for the EU, for Ukraine’s small neighbour Moldova, it also represents a considerable headache. Moldova needs a strong and stable Ukraine, closely engaged with the EU in order resist Russian pressure and pursue its own EU path most effectively. If Ukraine does not sign it puts Moldova into a very difficult situation included related to the Transnistria conflict where Russia has many levers to pull.
In the medium-to-long term there is no doubt the EU agreement will be beneficial for Ukraine, as its implementation will help modernize and democratize the country, including cleaning up the rampant corruption and making Ukraine a safer place to invest. Yet this won’t happen overnight, and in the short term the situation is going to be tough. Economically, Ukraine is in bad shape. The IMF recently refused Ukraine a much-needed loan again because of Kiev’s failure to meet certain criteria. Combine this with trade losses relating to Russia, which will increase after Ukraine’s signature, and we are looking at a very difficult short-term financial situation.
This situation has also fuelled a fight between Europe and Russia the likes of which has not been seen since the Cold War. The EU does not want such a confrontation with Moscow, but unfortunately Russia’s zero-sum imperialistic approach has put the two on such a collision course. How this story is going to turn out is still anybody’s guess, yet ultimately the road that Ukraine chooses to follow is going to have an impact far beyond its own borders.
The new democratization package, labeled by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a “historic moment for Turkey,” has created quite a stir, further dividing Turkey’s already-polarized society.
While the package hardly represents a democratization revolution, at the same time there are some positive elements. With 28 separate legal reforms, it throws a lot into the pot, which is not that surprising in the face of the forthcoming local and presidential elections. No doubt the package is also aimed at cleaning up Erdoğan’s image, particularly in terms of his respect for fundamental rights and freedoms and authoritarian tendencies, which took a bashing following the Gezi Park protests during the summer.
First the positive news. Turkey will have hate crime legislation for the first time, although precisely which crimes this will apply to is not known yet. It also seems that lesbians and gays (LGBT) have been omitted, which is a shame as they are frequently the target of hate crime. Ending discrimination against women wearing the veil in public institutions (although it will remain for police, judiciary and military) is excellent news, as is the decision to lower the election threshold, which should allow for much broader political representation in Parliament. The return of confiscated land of the historic Mor Gabriel Monastery in Mardin province is positive and should reassure Turkey’s Syriacs. While the establishment of a Roma language and cultural institute was pleasant news, as was the new housing that the prime minister said would be built for the Roma, I would hope some EU states may learn from Turkey’s positive approach towards the Roma.
Now for the weaknesses. Turkey’s Kurds had been eagerly waiting this package to see whether its content would be enough to keep the government’s cease-fire deal with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on track. I would say it only just manages that being a “better than nothing effort,” and certainly does not go far enough. The package seems more aimed at creating a feel-good factor for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rather than the Kurds. Sure there are some positive points — Kurds will no longer be fined for writing the three letters, Q, W and X, which have been banned since the 1920s, and Turkified towns and villages will be renamed. Clearly, the decision to abolish the pledge of allegiance to Turkey and to being a Turk, which schoolchildren are obliged to chant every morning, will be welcomed, although it has created an uproar in some circles.
Erdoğan may have bought himself some time with the Kurds, but they want and deserve much more. According to some Kurds I spoke to, the package only scratches the surface. First, the fact that limiting mother tongue education to private schools is a big flaw. Public schools should also have been included. Moreover, the wide-ranging definitions of “terror” and “organization membership” that are the cause of the detentions of many Kurdish politicians and activists will remain the same, with legal provisions that enable mass detentions also staying unchanged.
The package also fails to address measures regarding the rights and freedoms of Alevis. Naming one university after their spiritual leader — Hacı Bektaş-ı Veli — is totally inadequate. The failure to grant cemevis the status of a place of worship is a significant shortcoming and sends a very negative signal about the AKP’s approach. Erdoğan has in the past infuriated the Alevi community by stating that cemevis are places of cultural activity, not worship. Apparently a separate package will be launched for the Alevis, although no exact timeframe has been fixed yet. They must do this as a matter of urgency. Meanwhile, the Halki Seminary issue is also left untouched, which is disappointing. The government should learn that one of the keys to a safe, secure and stable state is to pamper your minorities.
This package is clearly a half-full glass. I want to see this glass topped up. Yet, despite the shortcomings it should be welcomed. I would like to see quick and full implementation of all the measures it addresses — although unfortunately the government does not have a good track record in this respect — as well as rapid moves to address its inadequacies.
(This article first appeared in Sunday’s Zaman)
Last week during a visit to Moscow Armenian President, Serzh Sargsyan, announced that Armenia would be joining the Russian led Customs Union (CU). The price tag for membership, is ditching a trade agreement that Yerevan had been planning to initial with the EU in November in Vilnius as the two tariff systems are not compatible.
While Sargsyan is reported as stating it was a “rational decision based on Armenia’s national interests,” nobody really believes this was a free choice but rather a consequence of the significant leverage that Russia has over Armenia which clearly includes deciding Yerevan’s foreign policy. If this were not the case then why did Yerevan spend so much time negotiating with the EU, given these same national interests existed when talks kicked off? While Armenia may have talked about having a balanced foreign policy, the reality now seems very different. Not surprisingly, many Armenians reacted with outrage, with protests outside the presidential palace declaring Sargsyan betrayal to the nation, which led to several arrests.
Armenia spent more than three years enthusiastically negotiating an Association Agreement (AA) which included a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU. The DCFTA would allow Armenia to diversify its export opportunities as well as improve the regulatory and legal standards of the country by aligning with the EU. However, as Yerevan inched towards completing the talks (negotiations were finalized in July), Moscow turned up the heat even though such an agreement with the EU would in no-way have jeopardized Russia’s dominant role in the country. Russia had been squeezing Yerevan for months including related to gas prices and threats of restricting Armenian labour migration to Russia. A high profile visit of Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to Azerbaijan in early summer, with a large arms deal also signed with Baku were also clearly aimed at riling Armenia.
Unfortunately it seems that Armenia is reaping what it has sown. Its deep-rooted security and economic reliance of Russia has resulted in Armenia’s sovereignty being increasing eroded. Armenia is entirely dependent on Russia for security. Yerevan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia maintains a military base in Armenia and Moscow is the key force in Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh with the power to leave Armenia high and dry if it so wishes. Furthermore, while Armenia may export more to the EU than it does to Russia, Moscow has a significant stake in the country’s economy. This includes in the transport sector with Russian railways running the Armenian railway and related to the energy sector with Russia having a significant stake in the electricity and nuclear market as well as Gazprom being majority owner of Armenia’s pipeline system. As well-known Caucasus expert, Thomas de Waal recently stated, “both the administration of Sarkisian, and Robert Kocharyan before them, embraced a Russian take-over of the economy, which left them political control and did not expose them to European-style competition”. While Armenia is small, Russia’s presence there is important for Moscow in terms of having an outpost between Turkey & Azerbaijan including from the south of Georgia.
The CU agreement still needs to signed as well as ratified by the Armenian Parliament. Questions have also be raised over whether it is legal with some analysts, such as David Shahnazaryan, saying Armenia’s Constitution does not allow full-membership of the CU; then there is the issue that the two countries have no common customs territory.
Armenia has indicated that it would still like to initial its AA at Vilnius, thereby separating the political components from economic. However, this is not straight forward. When Armenia started negotiations it was agreed that the DCFTA would be an integral part of the broader AA, therefore trade is woven into several parts of the AA. This means that the entire document would need to be picked apart with all trade references eradicated. This would be a lengthy job and almost certainly not possible to do before Vilnius. Moreover, without the DCFTA, the AA would seem rather a light-weight, more symbolic than anything else. Unfortunately Armenia’s boundaries seem to have been set. This was made quite clear during a meeting between European Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner, Stefan Füle, and Armenian Foreign Minister, Edward Nalbandian on 5 September, when Nalbandian stressed Armenia’s readiness to continue broad cooperation with the EU as long as it would not contradict Armenia’s membership of the CU. Still the EU needs to find a way to “accommodate” Armenia the best way it can, not least as a way to demonstrate its support to Armenian society, a large chunk of which strongly backs stronger ties with the EU.
The EU is clearly disappointed and frustrated. It represents a blow to the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy which still misses success stories; its ability to succeed when faced with serious challenges in its neighbourhood and a knock-back to its influence and ability to play a key role in the South Caucasus. The Russian approach has been condemned by many EU political elites and ministers and, at an informal meeting of EU Foreign Ministers on 7 September, discussions apparently took place over how to deal with Russia’s increasingly strong approach. Unfortunately the EU once again finds itself looking for a strategy and a solution when “the horse has already bolted”. It was no secret that Russia had been pressing Armenia for months and not only Armenia.
Furthermore, the game is not yet over. Three “prey” remain: Moldova, Georgia and, the top prize, Ukraine. We can be sure that between now and Vilnius and beyond (signature with Georgia and Moldova is not due till the end of 2014) Moscow will be pulling out the stops using carrots and sticks to keep these states in its “sphere of influence” and have them, as Armenia, ditch their DCFTA’s. The EU needs a robust and convincing response.
(This article was origially published (in a shorter version) in Todays Zaman)
Ukrainian-Russian relations are rarely short of drama. As has been widely reported, in mid-August Russia accelerated efforts to “persuade” Kyiv to rethink its decision to further integrate with the EU by imposing arduous extra customs controls on Ukrainian imports. Ukraine hopes to sign an Association Agreement (AA) including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU at the Eastern Partnership (EAP) Vilnius Summit in November. Russia is far from pleased about this. Sergei Glazyev, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Chief Economic Adviser, could not have been clearer or blunter when he warned Kyiv that signature would be “suicidal”.
Russia wants Ukraine to join its Eurasian Customs Union (CU), an integration project aimed at the countries of the former Soviet space, instead. To this end Russia has used a vast range of soft power tools to try and achieve this including language policy, shared cultural and historical legacies and, probably the most well-known, gas-prices. So far Ukraine has not cracked, although as a consequence of the drive, a considerable chunk of the Ukrainian population seems to support the idea of CU membership. In fact the AA does not prevent Ukraine from developing a constructive relationship with the CU as long as this is based on the respect of WTO rules and does not contradict the DCFTA. The agreement, which will be beneficial to both the EU and Ukraine, should not be at the expense of Ukraine’s relations with Russia or other neighbours. Unfortunately, Russia does not see the picture this way. For Russia, maintaining influence over Ukraine is more than a foreign policy priority, rather it is an existential imperative.
Kyiv has repeatedly stated it does not want to join the CU, preferring to settle for observer status. Indeed Russia is finding it difficult to sell the project beyond its present membership, which is limited to Kazakhstan Belarus and Russia itself, to any country. Rather like trying to sell sand in the desert, nobody is buying. While all the targeted states want to have good and productive relations with their big neighbour, further integration with the EU is viewed as more beneficial, while Russia’s integration project seems to be viewed more as a tool to increase Russia’s economic and political influence.
According to the Federation of Employers of Ukraine (FRU), since 14 August, all Ukrainian exports are on a “high risk” list meaning they undergo special scrutiny. Given that 25% of Ukraine’s exports go to Russia, if Russia were to maintain this policy or further tighten it, Kyiv will find itself in an increasingly vulnerable position. This action came following a ban on confectionery giant Roshen back in July while also cutting the duty-free import of pipes for the remainder of this year. Such actions are not new as, among other examples, back in 2011 Russian berated Kyiv over cheese imports. Moscow probably hopes this “taster” of what could be on the cards long-term will “break the camel’s back” as a pro-longed dispute with Moscow, which is clearly politically motivated, could potentially be extremely costly for Ukraine.
It is not the first time Russia has taken such measure. In the past Moscow has banned goods and placed sanctions on a number of other countries including Georgia, Moldova, and Poland as well as taking measures to prevent the Baltic countries from joining NATO and the EU. In virtually all cases the states stood their ground, withstood the hardship, and Russia’s approach failed. Ukraine needs to do the same although this will be a bitter pill particularly as its economy is already in dire straits. While Ukraine desires good relations with Russia, this relationship should be one of mutual respect which is not the case presently.
Russia’s actions simply underline that Moscow cannot be trusted and that entering into the CU, would make Kyiv increasingly dependent on Moscow, placing Ukraine in a more perilous and vulnerable situation. Russia also risks becoming increasingly unpopular with ordinary Ukrainians if this situation further affects their already poor standard of life. The fact that it was reported that some 400 people were expected to made unemployed as a result of Russia’s policy towards Roshen, will hardly make Russia flavour of the month in those households.
The signing of the AA should take place as rapidly as possible. While the signing of the AA may not end Russia’s browbeating it would send a clear message to Moscow and would at least put an end to the monotonous debate and discourse over signature. However, at this point there still remains a question mark over whether the AA will be signed at Vilnius because, as I have previously written, the EU has made signature conditional on Ukraine meeting a number of criteria, in particular the situation regarding former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko which it finds itself increasingly bound to. Therefore, while the EU has labeled Russia’s behavior “unacceptable”, there has been no sign that the EU is ready to change this approach as regards Ukraine meeting the 11 benchmarks laid down, despite the increased pressure from Moscow.
The drama seems set to continue. At the end of September Ukraine’s efforts to meet EU demands will be evaluated which will lead to the key decision over whether or not signature can take place or not. Leaving the agreement unsigned is risky and would represent a serious blow for relations between the two partners and a severe knock-back for the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy. Relations will probably be left in an increasingly precarious situation, with both partners focus being elsewhere. Ukraine’s political elites will be totally fixed on the 2015 Presidential elections and the battle for the throne which has already kicked–off. Meanwhile the EU will enter a period of upheaval with European Parliament elections and a new European Commission. For the Russians, leaving the AA unsigned will be a gift.
The EU’s Eastern Partnership aims to promote closers ties between the EU and the countries in its eastern neighborhood with the goal of creating a more democratic, secure and prosperous neighborhood: a group of countries that adhere to EU values.
This policy could be compared to a fitness regime, with the objective of improving the economic and political health of those countries that partake in it. In return for following the “EaP workout,” participants receive closer political and economic cooperation with the EU, known as the “more for more approach.”
When the EaP was inaugurated in 2009, none of the participants (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) were particularly healthy, although some were fitter than others. Still the group shared a lot of common ailments, including rampant corruption, weak rule of law, limited freedoms and ineffective institutions. There is not one single prescription for better health; rather, each country was prescribed a “workout program”: a list of targets and criteria that needed to be met in order to get in better shape. In return, the EU put on the table Association Agreements, Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA) and visa liberalization. Once signed, these agreements more firmly anchor partners to the EU, further promoting good health and reform.
In 2009 Ukraine was the fittest participant, making Kiev a center to follow. A regional lynch-pin Kiev had the closest and deepest relationship with the EU. Ukraine was the only country to have held free and fair elections, to have an active and vibrant civil society and a free media. Regularly citing its European choice and its desire to be an EU member, the expectation was that Kiev would be the first one to cross the EaP finishing line and have its Association Agreement and DCFTA signed, sealed and delivered — proving the success of the EaP.
Unfortunately, this has not happened because Ukraine has proven to be a “yo-yo” dieter and the country’s health has both politically and economically worsened. Kiev has been unable to stick to the EU fitness program, finding it very difficult to break bad habits, even though these bad habits are increasingly damaging the country’s health and ignore the wishes of Ukrainian society, which wants (and deserves) a fitter country.
In December 2012 the EU gave Ukraine a list of criteria that needed to be met if Ukraine was to sign its Association Agreement and DCFTA at the November Vilnius EaP Summit. This included re-launching a “meaningful” reform process and putting an end to selective justice, including the case of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Recognizing Ukraine’s importance, many EU heads of state and senior officials engaged in cajoling Kiev into action, including the European Parliament’s Special Envoys, who have been trying to help Ukraine find a way to resolve the Tymoshenko issue. Ukrainian civil society and academia have also played a key role in monitoring the government’s efforts. To say that Ukraine has done nothing would be unfair. It has taken some steps, but not enough. The level of commitment in terms of result remains insufficient.
Other countries, particularly Moldova, Georgia and Armenia, have had a more determined approach, even though this has frequently been far from easy and they, like Ukraine, have also come under pressure from Russia, to join Moscow’s Eurasian Union instead. As these countries get fitter and fitter, they are starting to demand more from the EU, including a membership perspective, which the EU will find it increasingly difficult to deny them as their health continues to improve. Meanwhile, Ukraine is left treading water.
Ukraine has all the potential to be a winner and a regional champion, but its current trajectory is unfortunately making it a regional loser. Ukraine needs to end this “yo-yo” behavior and step onto the reform “treadmill.” Kiev still has a chance, but time is running out. Kiev must stop dithering and do what needs to be done. Ultimately this means allowing Tymoshenko to leave the country for medical treatment without preconditions regarding her political future. For once, let us see Ukraine’s political elites put the health and future of their country before themselves.
(This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman on 7 August)
Russia and Cyprus have close ties both economically and politically. In a recent interview by the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, Cypriot Parliament Speaker Yiannakis Omirou expressed his gratitude to the Russian government for its solidarity with Cyprus over the past five decades, particularly “the support that Russia has been giving within the framework of the UN Security Council in the light of threats on the part of Turkey.”
Meanwhile, Cyprus has stood by Russia even on sensitive issues — for example, during the recent annual vote on the UN Resolution regarding the status of refugees and internally displaced people from Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region. The main elements of this resolution include: the recognition of the right of all refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes, respect of the property rights of those persons, the prohibition of forced demographic changes, etc. These elements match Greek Cypriot demands vis-à-vis its own refugee/internally displaced persons (IDP) issue in the context of the decades-old Cyprus problem, yet Cyprus abstained — pure realpolitik!
Since returning to the presidency, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stressed the importance of a strong military, including Russia seeking a greater presence in the Mediterranean. Russia has been strengthening its presence, establishing a floating Mediterranean naval flotilla — consisting of some 16 warships — for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In June Putin stated, “This is a strategically important region, and we have tasks to carry out there to provide for the national security of the Russian Federation.” It is speculated this deployment is partially meant to deter any NATO move towards Syria.
With the future of Russia’s Tartus naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coastline looking uncertain (Moscow recently evacuated all personnel), Russia is looking for other opportunities to maintain and strengthen its foothold in the Middle East. Therefore, increased speculation over a possible military presence on Cyprus is not surprising.
According Russia’s ambassador to Cyprus, Moscow has not raised the issue of a permanent base on Cyprus. This is just as well because even with the cozy ties it would be highly controversial and unlikely to happen. Not least, it would upset a number of parties including the EU, the US and Turkey, creating further waves in all these relationships. It could stop Cyprus from joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program. Cyprus is currently the only EU member not part of this program, although President Nikos Anastadiades had indicated an interest.
What is being discussed is an agreement that would allow Russia to use Limassol port for its navy (comparable to the agreement that Germany has that allows Berlin to dock warships and carry out land exercises) and Andreas Papandreou Air Base at Paphos for its military aircraft (presently only France has such permission). Foreign and defense ministers have met to discuss details.
Russia has been docking on and off at Limassol for a while and not only at Limassol. Russian warships have docked in Malta, Greece and for the first time ever (in May), in Israel. However, regarding Cyprus, the current system means that Russia has to ask permission in advance. With an official agreement this would no longer be necessary. Still, this deal would set a precedent as currently no EU member state allows Russia to use its military bases or ports for logistical or other reasons.
No doubt the fees Cyprus would receive would come in useful, and it may make the Greek Cypriots feel more secure, particularly related to Turkey in terms of its massive military presence in the north (around 40,000 soldiers) and Ankara’s negative rhetoric and naval maneuvers related to Greek Cypriot oil and gas exploration projects.
While a deal may still create some concern in the West, it seems set to go through; the precise details of the agreement will be crucial because as the saying goes the “devil is in the detail.” It will need to be extremely tight and clear concerning what Russia can or cannot do. Cyprus definitely will not want to find itself in a position where Russia has used it to launch any type of threatening military activity.
(This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman on 21 July)
The Arab Awakening has animated a regional jockeying for power. Turkey has seen it as a window of opportunity to increase its own influence, trying to have the pieces of the Middle East chessboard rearranged in a way favorable to Ankara. Unfortunately, as the sands of the region continue to shift, Ankara is finding itself in a difficult situation with many of its neighbors, and sectarian tendencies are increasingly visible.
Since the moment the coup in Egypt took place, Turkey has had the strongest voice condemning it, criticizing the West and ticking off the Gulf States for the financial aid they subsequently sent to Cairo. Ankara is engaging itself increasingly deeply in Egyptian affairs and perhaps this was not that surprising given the close ties Turkey has with the Muslim Brotherhood. As former Turkish Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış recently stated: “They have a similar worldview; therefore it is only natural that they stay side-by-side.” Yet as days pass, Turkey seems to sound increasingly like a spokesperson for ousted President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey should not repeat the mistakes it made with Syria, which had a terrible backlash effect and damaged Turkey both externally and internally.
While it is one thing to criticize the actions of the Egyptian army, more so given Turkey’s similar experience with military coups and the “deep state,” adopting a policy of openly supporting and helping the Muslim Brotherhood with their future plans is another. While Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dismisses claims that Turkey is positioning itself at the side of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, when he talks about the Egyptian people and the support he is giving to them he is only talking about those that support Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood, not the other chunk of society that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood alienated. In fact, Erdoğan has been silent on this side of things.
Moreover, I wonder what Turkey’s leadership is planning to do if efforts to have Morsi reinstated fail. Turkey simply cannot afford to be on bad terms with the most important state in the Arab world, either politically or economically. One only has to look at economic ties between Turkey and Egypt. Some 250 Turkish companies have invested some $2 billion in Egypt, for example in the cotton sector. Moreover, Egypt is one of only a handful of countries with which Turkey has no foreign trade deficit. Turkey’s leadership needs to be pragmatic and protect Turkey’s interests, or risk ending up with an irreparable situation as in Syria, with other regional leaders becoming increasing “deaf” to Turkey’s voice.
I believe that Morsi’s fate should have been decided at the ballot box, yet while he may have been democratically elected, his first year in office seemed to show he was neither a democrat nor a reformer. His vision for Egypt was not one that united the country, but rather divided it. With half of Egypt’s 83 million population under the age of 24, 90 percent of the country’s unemployed under 24 years of age and significant poverty, fixing the economy and taking steps to deal with inequality should have been a priority. Without economic change, democracy does not stand a chance. Therefore, no matter how much cash the Gulf States pour into Egypt, as long as there is no serious economic reform, it will be money into a black hole.
The Arab Awakening released long-simmering frustrations over political repression and economic stagnation, ripping the Middle East apart at the seams. The balance of power has shifted and nobody knows where it may end. Sectarianism is on the rise and I believe that to a large degree it will be where this sectarianism ends that will ultimately define the future of this region. Egypt needs a peaceful and orderly transition to the next chapter. Indeed, Arab democracy will be won or lost in Egypt. Turkey could play a key role in this, remaining a comparative island of stability in this volatile region. Yet to achieve this and strengthen its regional role, Ankara needs to adjust its approach, adopting a more conciliatory and pragmatic one.
(This article originally appeared in Today’s Zaman on 16 July)
Never an easy relationship, today Turkey and the EU find themselves in troubled waters again. Unless Germany has a change of heart, it seems Berlin is moving to block the opening of Chapter 22 (regional policy) which was scheduled to take place later this week. After three years without a chapter being opened, Chapter 22 has become very symbolic. EU Ambassadors, and possibly Foreign Ministers (if Ambassadors cannot talk Germany around) are due to meet today to decide the fate of “number 22”, after EU ambassadors failed to convince Berlin last Friday.
This latest crisis started as a consequence of police brutality towards protestors at Taksim’s Gezi Park. While the EU urged Turkey to respect the rights of its citizens to demonstrate peacefully, this advice was not particularly welcomed. The situation deteriorated with the European Parliament Resolution a few days later which expressed deep concern over the “disproportionate and excessive use of force by the Turkish police in its response to the peaceful and legitimate protest in Istanbul’s Gezi Park.” Ankara reacted with fury, declaring it biased, null and void. While perhaps the report could also have referred to those demonstrators that were not so peaceful, overall it was spot on and the disproportionate, aggressive reaction from a number of Turkish Ministers, as well as Prime Minister Erdogan, was uncalled for. Thereafter, a war of words kicked-off, Ankara cancelled a number of visits to Brussels, and the visit of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) to Turkey did not take place.
The apparent intention of Germany to block chapter 22 added oil to the fire. While this decision is apparently a consequence of the Turkish government’s tough response to the protesters, which Mrs Merkel said she was “appalled” by, it has been widely reported that the real reason is more to do with the forthcoming German elections slated for September. It is extremely disappointing that Merkel has gone down this path. First because she is contradicting statements she made during her visit to Turkey earlier this year when she declared Turkey’s EU membership process should not be unnecessarily disrupted; that it must be “kept on track”, even in light of the fact that her party does not support Turkey’s membership. And second because it could turn out that those brave and courageous street protesters may be used as a scapegoat by some circles in Turkey for the derailing of the process. Indeed up until one week ago there was never any talk of Germany blocking.
While it is clear recent events in Turkey are extremely worrying, and have illustrated the fact that Turkey continues to have a many problems related to democracy, fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the media, the rule of law and human rights, placing a new bomb under this already beleaguered relationship, is not going to help those that have spent days in the streets calling for change.
Mrs Merkel is also going against the advice and opinion of many senior EU officials and her 27 EU Member States colleagues. As Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt tweeted yesterday, “it would be a huge mistake to try to block Turkey’s EU progress right at this time. Needed more than ever. Key support for reformers”. Bildt is exactly right; Turkey requires greater not lesser EU engagement.
Unfortunately, if Germany goes ahead, it will not help to strengthen pro-democracy supporters and movements in Turkey, rather it will have the opposite effect because it will strengthen those in the government – and outside –who are anti-EU and further weaken demands for democracy in the country.
While Turkey has now declared it may suspend accession talks if Germany goes ahead, this will not be an easy decision because once such a decision is made it may prove difficult to reverse if one day in the future Turkey’s decides to change its mind. There is no precedent for a candidate country officially suspending accession negotiations. Therefore this would be totally new ground for the EU, yet clearly there would be a number of Member States that would be quite satisfied with such a result. There would be implications for both sides.
The EU would be left with an angry country with which it still has to cooperate in numerous different areas including related to energy security, foreign policy, trade, migration, etc. It is likely that Turkey will become increasingly unpredictable and inward-looking; that democracy will further stagnate. Furthermore, economic and financial instability is also very likely. Given a substantial amount of foreign money flowing into Turkey is “portfolio money”, this makes the market very sensitive. In the event of Ankara suddenly announcing a suspension of ties with the EU, one can imagine the market will take a heavy hit and money may fly out.
Such a rupturing of this important relationship is not in either partner’s benefit. Turkey has entered a critical stage in its fight for freedoms, rights and democracy, to block chapter 22 would be shortsighted and counterproductive with the possible long-term repercussions both for Turkey and the EU being more difficult that the last three years of stalemate. While clearly some Turkish politicians need to attend anger management classes, let chapter 22 be opened; let the EU demonstrate that it is standing side-by side, supporting democratic-actors and movements in Turkey. Let common sense prevail.
Syria is an increasingly complex theater and playground for powers and their proxies. Hope for a solution is now pinned on the planned US-Russian led international conference, dubbed Geneva II.
If a way out of this quagmire is ever going to be found all key regional actors need to sit around the table. After being frozen out of international efforts Tehran is now being brought in from the cold. A year ago the US was opposed, along with France, not wanting to allow Iran an opportunity to “play” and manipulate western powers. However, according to Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, during talks with both US Secretary of State John Kerry and French Foreign Minister Lauran Fabio he persuaded them to change their mind.
While including Iran does not guarantee success, excluding Iran, which has close ties to Bashar al-Assad, because of Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program, never made sense either. This has been clear for a long time, but the international community chose to ignore it which turned out to be a big mistake. It is a pity that this decision did not happen one year ago because then the Assad regime and his supporters, including Iran, were in a far weaker position.
Rather the international community decided to ignore Iran, believing Assad was on his way out. This decision cost thousands of lives with no calculation being made of a possible “comeback.” Now Iran finds itself in quite a strong regional position while at the same time having strengthened its ties with Moscow which is likely to deepen further in this region. Tehran receiving an official invitation to Geneva II would represent recognition of their importance and influence in the region.
Because the Assad regime and its backers have strengthened their positions and have the upper hand in many areas, it means that Iran will be much cockier going into the conference than it would have been a year or so ago. It is very likely Iran has come to an agreement with Moscow about what their approach will be given that Moscow has led the charge on having Iran present at the meeting and the two have similar objectives. While for Iran the optimal would have been to keep Assad in power, this is clear not going to happen, and Iran probably won’t overreach on this point. However, they will probably insist that their needs to be some elements of the Assad regime in any transition government and that some of their key interests, along with Russia’s, are taken into account. We may not like this, but frankly we are running out of options.
In regards to Hezbollah’s activities, we can hope but cannot assume that one phone call from Tehran and they will lay down their arms and leave Syria. This would be naïve; Hezbollah exists and survives these days not simply because of Iran but because it is organically embedded in Lebanese society, backed by Lebanon’s shiite population. Yet for any ceasefire and political transition to hold with the support of Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime will be necessary.
However, today the bigger problem remains the position of the Syrian opposition. Can they come up with one single front and come to the table with something realistic that has no preconditions attached. If they cannot then it would indicate that they seem happy for further lives to be lost, in the absence of failing to achieve their maximalist goal.
If these talks fail there seems to be no plan “B” and this nightmare will become even worse, possibly going on for years. The idea of a “no fly zone” and arming the rebels are still being floated but are not attractive. It also still seems that the chances of military intervention remain highly unlikely, rather what the US has defined as a policy of “containment” will continue. But lets face it, with every day that passes this conflict is spreading and containing it will become increasingly difficult if not impossible and clearly some would have no trouble with that as long as the guns and the money keep flowing, which for the time being seems very likely.
* This article was first published by Sunday’s Zaman on 9th June
They say that too much power intoxicates and Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stands accused of becoming increasingly drunk on power as his premiership has progressed. The prime minister’s authoritarian attitude and his arbitrary policies, which have deepened the polarization the exists in Turkish society, are the key source of frustration today.
Over the last few days, protests have engulfed Turkey with people from more than 50 provinces taking to the streets. The spark that “lite the fuse” was the government’s decision to demolish the last green area in Istanbul’s Taksim district – Gezi Park – and replace it with a replica Ottoman-era barracks housing a shopping mall and apartments. With Istanbul now having more shopping malls than any other European or Eurasian capital, was it really necessary to build yet another?
The quiet protest was broken up in a particularly heavy handed manner with the police using water-cannons, tear gas and pepper spray on the crowds which led to scuffles injuring hundreds of people. Anti-government demonstrations spread to other Turkish cities, including Ankara, Izmir, Mugla and Antalya in the south with calls for Erdogan to resign, with both protestors and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu labeling him a dictator. Denying having dictatorial tendencies, Erdogan declared the government would not yield to a few “looters” coming to provoke and misinform people.
Turkey’s leadership always projects itself as promoting values and democracy yet the actions we have seen at Gezi Park, and many other decisions taken by the government in recent times, would suggest a different story: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and the right to have peaceful protests are fundamentals of a democracy.
In fact Gezi Park has been the event that “broke the camel’s back” and is more than a fight over urban spaces. Rather it is fight over Turkish identity and civil liberties, what it stands for and the government’s ability to take into consideration all the many facets of this identity and rule the country in an “inclusive” way, something the government is increasingly failing to do. Therefore to say it is simply an issue of Islam versus secularism would be incorrect.
For some time now the government has been taking advantage of its dominant position in Turkish politics, pushing through policies and laws as well as undertaking large development projects without any consultation whatsoever. After more than ten years in power Erdogan seems to increasingly view himself and his party as the sole, indisputable power in Turkey; exerting control over the entire state apparatus.
The intensity of the reaction to the Gezi Park project is a clear signal that people are fed up and want an end to the almost “L’état c’est moi” approach. What is interesting about these protests is that they were not only affiliated with the main opposition party but coming from many other segments of society too.
In the last few months alone the government has stormed ahead on several projects that are far from popular with many in the country including demolishing numerous historical buildings in Istanbul, plans to build the world’s biggest airport at the cost of half a million trees, plans to demolish the famous landmark Galata Bridge in favour of a new modern one designed by a close ally of the Prime Minister, the new alcohol law and the planned third Bosporus bridge named after a contentious Ottoman Sultan who was accused of killing Alevi Muslims, which represent a large minority in Turkey. The fire has also been stoked by the bomb-attacks at Reyhanli which many in the country have viewed as a direct consequence of the government’s Syria policy.
The AKP’s rule did not start out this way and there can be no doubt the party has achieved many positive things, including bringing the military under civilian control and more recently the opening towards the Kurds. However, the last five years have been marred by a slackening-off of the democratic reform process and in some cases a clear backtracking. For example in areas related to fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the media, and the rule of law with much of the media becoming intimidated and docile. The government has been helped by the fact that Turkey fails to have a strong opposition; therefore there is no threat from this quarter. This has allowed Erdogan to believe he can do exactly what he wants and nobody can stop him.
While Erdogan acknowledged the use of tear and pepper gas may have been excessive he has remained rather defiant. While yesterday he declared the shopping mall development would no longer take place which could be seen as a success for the protestors as it is the first time during Erdogan’s rule that he has had to quit on a project, at the same time the fact that he declared a new mosque – another sensitive issue – will be built instead would indicate he is not ready to capitulate. Does Taksim really need another mosque? Why to just to leave a green space for all to enjoy.
The actions of the last few days have already brought heavy criticism from the international community including the EU and US, damaging the government’s image, particularly that of Erdogan. However, at the same, given the weak opposition in the country, it unlikely that the demonstrations will have shaken Erdogan’ s crown that much, particularly in terms of the forthcoming municipal elections although for the 2014 Presidential elections and 2015 parliamentary elections it may be a slightly different story.
Yet, while Erdogan still remains popular with a large chunk of the population this does not mean he should trample over the concerns and sensitivities of those that do not support him and shape the country in an image that suits him. Democracy is not just about elections, not is it about the majority imposing its will on the rest without respect for alternative views.
I hope the Gezi Park incident will represent a turning point and the government will change its approach; that these protests will act as a wake-up call to Erdoğan, sending the message that he is under surveillance and simply cannot do whatever he wants. Unfortunately the signs are not that positive. Earlier today, (Monday) before departing on a trip to Tunisia he declared “this is a protest organized by extremist elements”. He also blamed the protests on “internal and external” groups set on harming Turkey, and said the country’s intelligence service was working on identifying them.
What happens next is very important. There are two roads that the Prime Minister can go down: He can take on board the events of the last few days and change his approach. This means respecting the sensitivities of Turkish society including putting an end to presenting “fait accompli” policies or he can go down the other very scary path of becoming increasing repressive and autocratic, which will no doubt create further turmoil in the country as well as undermine the real achievements of the AKP over the past decade.