April 16 aftermath
Ongoing tensions in Turkey cast doubt on relations with major nations
Turkey emerges from a referendum whose result left neither side particularly happy, which may now lead to a new period of political tensions, at home and abroad. Ilter Turan, professor emeritus at Bilgi University, speaks with Dunya Executive about how the referendum will affect foreign policy.
How will the referendum result impact relations with the European Union?
Relations with the EU have been problematic for some time. Because of Turkey’s unwillingness to fulfill obligations it made under its agreement with the EU on stopping irregular migration, it has seen a lack of progress on winning visa-free travel in the EU for Turks. This could become a topic of debate again. Another of the many issues that is undermining ties is Cyprus. Hope for a resolution there is not strong. European public opinion is not very supportive of a stronger union with Turkey. When we consider these, we need to accept that EU ties will move in a limited way.
A review of Turkey’s customs union with the EU is approaching. Turkey wants to see significant changes to the agreement: namely, expanding the scope of the agreement and the inclusion of Turkey in third-party agreements. Meanwhile, the issue of the EU in Turkey’s internal politics is complicating matters. Should Turkey veer off a democratic path, it is clear that this would not be a political development that the EU would not accept. For its part, Turkey has said, sometimes justifiably, it will not respond to the EU’s demands. And now we are faced with the situation in which Turkey could reinstate capital punishment.
How will the renewed discussion of the death penalty affect relations?
Some of the issues that are problematic in Turkey’s EU relations can be debated, but when you are talking about the death penalty, you are talking about a violation of an indispensable legal rule. At that point, it becomes impossible to continue ties that are based on eventual membership. I have not observed a widespread desire for this in the government, despite the president’s insistence. If there is an opinion on imposing this penalty on those who have committed grave crimes, it’s not possible to retroactively apply it. That means the punishment lacks the power of sanction, but is being used symbolically against the EU. As you know, reinstating the death penalty will require a constitutional change. Announcing that Turkey needs to hold another referendum so soon subjects it to unnecessary debate, agitation and an atmosphere of polarization. I don’t think that this is something the public wants. To avoid a referendum, two-thirds of lawmakers in the 550-seat parliament must approve the constitutional referendum, which does not appear likely.
This debate may remain rhetorical. If it becomes a real possibility, it would amount to the end of EU accession talks, which are already under great strain. This would be a sharp rupture with the community with which Turkey has seen its future. Please note that I am talking about membership talks. The EU has relations to varying degree with some of the world’s most totalitarian states. I am unable to see what benefits this rupture will bring to our country.
Where do relations with the United States stand?
After Donald Trump was elected president, he did not appear to be in a hurry to speak with Turkish leaders. I don’t think the only reason behind this was the thenupcoming referendum in Turkey. Underlying the lack of urgency in the U.S. administration was that it was unable to reach consensus about how to approach Turkey. The key here is determining what path U.S. policy will follow on Syria.
The United States is trying to achieve its aims in Syria as much as it can without deploying its own troops. The armed forces of the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) and Democratic Union Party (PYD) eases this for the United States, which is, in turn, compelled to provide them with some amenities and opportunities. Turkey is anxious about U.S. actions, afraid that this step is part of a larger plan. In the United States, one group within the military and foreign affairs thinks it is critical not to abandon the relationship with Turkey for the PYD, while another group maintains that some changes in the stance will not pose problems.
Trump is conflicted and indecisive. Even if he is paying some attention to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he’s more focused on North Korea. His attention is not on Turkey. It would be better to explain the delay in a meeting between Trump and Erdogan this way. Now, since a date for a meeting has been announced, it raises the likelihood that the United States has made some decisions.
Could Turkey pursue better relations with Russia to boost its economy?
Our interests are not all aligned with Russia. When you consider this, you have to accept that there will always be problems. Russia is a country that does not distinguish between its economic and political relations, that acts in a centralized, singular way. In the face of political differences, it can ban tomatoes and oranges.
If I am not mistaken, our president is acting on the notion that bilateral relations can be improved by developing a personal friendship with Putin. Putin is a strong leader, but the Russian Federation has strong political institutions with roots in the Soviet period. Putin is not in a position to make pledges, take decisions and implement them on his own. He has extensive political experience and successfully analyzes matters from the perspective of national interests. Therefore, personal relations are limited in their contribution to bilateral ties.