Wednesday, 31 January 2018

A "Eurasian Turn" in Turkish Foreign Policy? Not Likely

Published in Articles

By Toni Alaranta

January 31,  2018

No substantial “Eurasian turn” of Turkish foreign policy is likely – or at any rate likely to be lasting. However, the deterioration of the Turkish-Western relations has nonetheless helped bring about an unholy alliance of various “anti-Westernists,” secularist-nationalists and Islamists, which is anything but insignificant in terms of domestic politics. The regime has been bolstered, as it can now count on being supported by at least some secularist nationalists in the name of “anti-imperialism.” 



BACKGROUND: Increasingly, the foreign policy of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) seems to be tilting from the West to Eurasia, toward a closer relation with in particular Russia. Indeed, the cadres of the AKP now exhibit a reading of Turkey’s role in the post-Cold War international system that is similar to the neo-nationalist and Kemalist constituencies that the Islamists had sought to neutralize in an earlier phase of their rule.

A prominent figure in what, to appearances seems to be, an empowered “Eurasian” camp is Doğu Perinçek, the leader of the left-wing nationalist Fatherland Party (Vatan Partisi). Perinçek was imprisoned in 2008, when the AKP and the Gülenist-led police and judiciary began to purge alleged coup makers within, or with ties to, the state establishment. The infamous Ergenekon investigation led to a wide array of prominent secularist writers, officials and generals being sentenced to lengthy prison sentences, all of which were subsequently overturned when the AKP-Gülenist alliance broke up,

The Fatherland Party – which until 2015 rather misleadingly, was called The Workers’ Party – is one of the formal organizations of Turkey’s neo-nationalist constituency. The party is electorally insignificant, but it is home to several former generals who occupy leading positions in it. Neo-nationalism – ulusalcılık in Turkish – is a left-wing, more radical variant of traditional Turkish secular nationalism, and it is benefiting from the downturn in Turkey’s relations with the Western powers. As “Eurasian” ideas seem to be gaining traction in AKP circles, the question is whether the AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have come under the influence of Doğu Perinçek and other neo-nationalists.

In fact, the attempts to explore alternative foreign policy options for Turkey’s traditional Western-orientation are not new. The constituency that historically and in terms of ideology has been the most stable supporter of Turkey’s close affinity with the West – the Kemalist tradition – started to tilt toward a Eurasian strategic vision already during the 1990s. This was prompted by the U.S. support for Kurdish aspirations in the Middle East, which led some of the traditionally pro-American Turkish nationalists to see the United States as a hostile power. The term “Eurasianism” has been attached to many different groupings in contemporary Turkey, many of which have produced nothing more than catchy headlines rather than any serious political visions and programs.      

Although there are many variants of Eurasian thinking in Turkey, three common characteristics can nonetheless be identified: one is the conviction that the end of the Cold War bipolar system crucially changed Turkey’s position in world politics. Second, the assertion that the “Anglo-Saxon civilization” is in deep crisis; and finally the claim that Turkey’s traditional Western-orientation has become dysfunctional and that “Eurasia” offers a meaningful strategic alternative.

IMPLICATIONS: The neo-nationalist thinking has reduced the Kemalist tradition to uncompromising anti-imperialism and anti-Westernism, and slogans like “a totally independent Turkey” form the rhetorical core of the Fatherland Party’s agenda. Arguably, the advocates of this version of the left-wing Kemalist tradition have made a caricature out of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, turning him into what almost amounts to a secular version of Osama bin Laden – waging a holy war against imperialist West.

Accordingly, the ultra-nationalism espoused by the Fatherland Party (VP) perceives Turkey to be under constant threat of being engulfed by hostile forces that allegedly use the Kurds, in particular, in order to partition Turkey. This form of thinking has led the VP to advocate the establishment of a strong national military-industrial complex that is independent of the United States and other Western powers. The assertion has been made that Doğu Perinçek and the Fatherland Party function as a Russian lobby in Turkey. Perinçek’s views on Russo-Turkish strategic cooperation are certainly outspoken. However, in the party’s official program, Turkey is called to form a regional alliance with neighboring countries – Syria, Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. When it comes to Eurasianism proper, the party program states that Turkey ought to increase its cooperation with Russia, China, India and Pakistan. Further, Turkey’s cooperation with these states and closer participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is framed as the route to counter-balance the dominance of the West. These are views that in recent years have found a receptive audience in Islamist, pro-government circles.

İbrahim Karagül, the editor-in-chief of the pro-government daily Yeni Şafak argues strongly in favor of a strategic partnership with Russia, maintaining that Turkey and Russia are returning to their “traditional geopolitical calculations” in their own neighborhood – a reference to Ottoman and Russian imperial legacy – and he notes that this has upset the Western powers. Thus, even though the secularist left-wing nationalist Perinçek and the Islamist Karagül start from different premises, they end up with a very similar call to detach Turkey from the Western world. What unites Islamist and Kemalist Eurasianists is geopolitics; culture and economics, meanwhile, divide them. Left-wing Kemalists are, traditionally, Westernizers in the cultural sense, but they reject the Western-led global, liberal economic order; secularism pulls them to the West, while anti-imperialism pulls them to the East. However, it should be noted that not all Kemalist Eurasianists subscribe to the militantly anti-Western stance of the VP. A representative of this “softer” version is Erol Manisalı, an academic who writes in the daily Cumhuriyet; he speaks for a broad section of Turkish society when he argues that Turkey’s increasing cooperation with the “East” (Russia, China, and India), should not mean severing the ties with the West. This is a view that is representative of a significant portion of Turkey’s secular nationalist constituency that does not call the Western orientation into question, but wants an end to what they view as the domination of Turkey by the United States. In fact, many of these traditionally pro-Western secular nationalists became anti-Western as a reaction against the American support to the Islamic-conservative AKP; they were incensed that the Americans were once instrumental in helping to bring the “moderate Islamist” AKP to power.  

As for the Islamists, they reject the culture of the West, but embrace its capitalist economic order. The neoliberal trade regime is seen by the Islamic-conservative movement as the necessary requirement for Turkey’s exports and capital accumulation. Indeed, to a significant degree, the emergence of the Turkish Islamic movement went hand in hand with Turkey’s economic liberalization and its deepening integration with the capitalist world economy.

The Islamists very much agree with the first two assertions that characterize the Eurasian current – namely, that the end of the Cold War has radically altered Turkey’s international role and that Western civilization is in crisis.  The discourse that is reproduced on a daily basis by AKP representatives, as well as pro-government media and think tanks, emphasizes that the international system is in transformation, that this allows Turkey to become a powerful regional actor, and that “Western civilization” cannot be taken as a model for the Islamic-conservative “New Turkey.” The think tanks of the AKP repeatedly argue that before the AKP era, the possible negative aspects of Turkey’s pro-Western foreign policy orientation (including NATO membership) were never publicly debated. This, they emphasize, is now over and the point is made that the “New Turkey” critically evaluates all its institutional attachments. Whereas starting in the 1990s, voices were raised within the military that questioned the wisdom of holding on to Turkey’s Western orientation and NATO membership, such views are now widely espoused in pro-government circles.  

However, these “Eurasian” visions – the notion of a break with the West – are little more than slogans that lack real, material and cultural-ideological foundations. On the contrary, for the Islamists, they collide with their economic orientation – pro-Western capitalism – while for the secularists it would challenge their bicentennial legacy of Westernization. There are thus limits to how far Islamist and secularist nationalists, respectively, would be prepared to push ahead with their Eurasianist “anti-imperialism.” Yet while no substantial “Eurasian turn” of Turkish foreign policy is likely – or at any rate likely to be lasting – the deterioration of Turkish-Western relations has nonetheless helped bring about an unholy alliance of various “anti-Westernists” which is anything but insignificant in terms of domestic politics. The consequence is not so much a sudden Eurasian turn of the Turkish foreign policy, but that the regime has been bolstered, as it can now count on being supported by at least some secularist nationalists in the name of “anti-imperialism.” 

CONCLUSIONS: It is not that Doğu Perinçek and his Fatherland Party and other secularist nationalists have come to wield any influence over policy; President Erdoğan is known to jealously safeguard his power prerogatives.  It is therefore misleading to assert that Perinçek and the “Eurasians” have now become part of the governing block. Rather, like the liberals once did before them, they service the regime.

This, however, does not exclude the possibility that the increasing tendency to formulate a more determined Eurasianist approach could result in a real revision of the fundamentals of Turkish foreign policy in the future. Nevertheless, if this is the case, it will be the result of the AKP’s constantly evolving new foreign policy approach, and not imposed by Perinçek and other secularist nationalist Eurasians whose supposed ascendancy and “power” is an illusion.


Toni Alaranta is a Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Picture credit: By Ulusal06 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons accessed on January 31, 2018 

Read 15815 times Last modified on Wednesday, 31 January 2018

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