In recent years, there has been a conviction in the business and policy-making communities that Turkey’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) economic performance and political authority would ensure the country remained an island of stability in a critical but turbulent region. Given well-documented shortcomings in Turkey’s democratic performance, this approach meant a trade-off between stability and liberal democracy. Recent, widespread protests steeped in demands for inclusion by increasingly alienated segments of Turkey’s public suggest the government must choose between stability via mounting authoritarianism or via consolidating its democracy. Turkish society is ripe for the latter. By choosing full democratisation, Ankara can reap benefits not only at home but also externally, confirming Turkey’s position as a political and economic powerhouse as well as an energy hub in the wider region.
Growing protests against the Turkish government and its harsh reaction have caught many by surprise. The country has been seen widely as an anchor in the stormy seas of North Africa and the Middle East. Its economy has been booming with impressive development in infrastructure and standard of living, and its regional and global clout has been growing. Yet recent unrest in Istanbul and dozens of other Turkish cities testifies to the complexity of the country’s political and social fabric. Rather than reveal a simple cleavage between beleaguered “secularists” and ascendant “Islamists”, the protestors profiles’ – which include Turks from all walks of life, young and old, right and left, religious and secular, as well as Kurds and Alevis – attest to the diversity and vibrancy of the country’s civil society and its insistence on being heard.
While there are some parallels to the Arab Spring, especially in the enabling role of social media, Turkey’s protests are unique because they are not about regime change but about regime upgrade. No one disputes the solid and legitimate majority commanded by the government. What is contested is its governing style and the dismissal of multiple minorities. These include key stakeholders in Turkey’s Kurdish peace process and the emerging Sunni-Shia cleavage in the broader Middle East. Prolonged upheaval and failure to address these groups’ grievances could prevent Ankara from capitalising on a unique set of regional circumstances that would reinforce its security and political influence and lessen its vulnerability on the energy supplies so vital to its economic development.
After all, energy is both Turkey’s Achilles-heel and its potential golden goose. And successful positioning as an energy hub requires both domestic stability and inclusive attitudes towards international partners so that Turkey can diversify its supply away from expensive Russian and Iranian gas - the bulk of its mounting current account deficit. If it succeeds, Turkey stands to become a pivotal country for Europe’s energy security as a key transit state of the Southern Gas Corridor, the planned fourth natural gas “superhighway” to bring gas to a Europe increasingly dependent on imports. Diversification and access to cheaper resources from the Caspian, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and offshore Israel/Cyprus fields are of paramount importance to both Turkey and Europe. The Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP), running from the Georgian-Turkish border to the borders of the EU, will be the lifeline of that Corridor. Both gas from the KRI and the Eastern Mediterranean could one day be fed into TANAP, should the tangled web of inter-regional problems steeped in zero-sum attitudes be overcome.
Today, there is unprecedented alignment of interests between historic nemeses, Turkey and Greek Cyprus, as the former needs the gas the latter can supply in abundance. The island’s dire financial situation should prompt its government to look for ways to quickly monetise its energy bounty. Turkey, as the closest and fastest growing natural gas market is Europe is the best option.
Israeli offshore gas could also make its way to Turkey, reinforcing the recent, still rather brittle rapprochement between the two countries after the tense years since the Mavi Marmara incident. But all these will require democratic stability, an inclusive and pragmatic approach in Turkey and firm political support on all sides to engage in a positive dialogue while resisting populist and nationalist siren calls.
Relations between Ankara and the KRI capital, Erbil, as well as with the federal government of Iraq, constitute another key piece of the regional energy puzzle. The Erdogan government in Turkey wisely has engaged in a rapprochement with the Kurdistan government that shall bring KRI gas and facilitate its bold pursuit of a peace process with Turkey’s own restive Kurds.
This fortuitous but fragile alignment is already threatened by growing rifts and spreading violence in Iraq, much of its spilling over from a Syria torn by ethno-sectarian conflict. In such a context, the last thing Turkey needs is a fallout with its own Kurds and Alevis on one hand, and its US and European allies over democracy and human rights abuses on the other.
Turkey’s future political course will have a huge impact on regional and European security and energy developments. Of late, its stability was taken for granted. Turkey’s “Awakening” serves as a sobering wake-up call. Turkey cannot act alone and needs equally constructive partners in the region abetted by focused US and European diplomatic assistance and pressure. Democratic as opposed to autocratic stability could unleash the full potential of Turkey as a commercial and energy hub, and help reap the dividends of peace both inside and outside the country.
Nora Fisher Onar is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Bahcesehir University, Istanbul, Turkey; David Koranyi is the Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and an ECFR Council Member
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