Turkey At 90

Today, October 29, 2013, marks the 90th anniversary of the establishment of Turkey as a republic. Rather than reflect on the past, we will consider the country's future.

The future of Turkey is of tremendous importance to the world, because Turkey is a geopolitically pivotal state. Turkey lies at the intersection of several 'worlds', namely Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union. Turkey has a large population, armed forces, and economy. It has many of the hallmarks of a future 'great power'.

For decades, Turkey has been a member of NATO and has aspired to join the EU. However, ever since the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 and Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, Turkey has been slowly but surely diversifying its political and economic relationships away from the West. This is natural, given the opportunities available in the 'East', and, more recently, the diminishing allure of joining the EU, due to the eurozone's systemic woes. Nonetheless, Turkey's ascent will not necessarily be smooth.

Turkey's economic emergence in the 2000s has fuelled its geopolitical ambitions, and to this end, the territories of the former Ottoman Empire represent a potential Turkish sphere of influence. Yet, the civil war in Syria has exposed the limits of Ankara's geopolitical power. Prior to the Syrian civil war, Turkey proudly proclaimed a foreign policy of 'zero problems with neighbours'. Unfortunately, Turkey has now found itself increasingly at loggerheads with most of its neighbours or nearby countries, namely with Israel over the Palestinian issue and Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon resources, with Iran over the future of Syria, with Iraq over the future of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and with the Syrian regime itself over its continued existence. Furthermore, Turkey could conceivably get sucked into a proxy war with Russia, if the frozen Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh were ever to erupt again. (Turkey has a security pact with Azerbaijan, and Russia has such a pact with Armenia.)

For its part, Turkey is very reluctant to act alone militarily against the Syrian regime, which has proved far more resilient than many (including BMI) expected. By comparison, back in 1998, the Syrian government took the threat of a Turkish invasion seriously enough for Damascus to expel Kurdish PKK separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan from its territory.

Given that Syria's civil war looks set to continue for some years to come, Turkey is unlikely to see its regional security environment improve any time soon.

Domestically, Erdogan has arguably been Turkey's most successful and transformative leader since its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Erdogan has been repeatedly re-elected, with stronger majorities. Yet, the mass unrest in Turkey in the early summer of 2013 suggests that Erdogan may have overreached himself. It is thus unclear if Erdogan will succeed in manoeuvring himself into a hypothetically empowered presidency in 2014, which is what he is thought to favour. It is also unclear who will eventually succeed Erdogan, and in what direction that individual will steer Turkey. Furthermore, if the current peace process with the separatist PKK falls apart, then political risks from this quarter will rise again.

Overall, Turkey has made considerable economic progress over the past decade, and while the country appears unlikely to face disaster, its geopolitical risks are considerable.