The new Turkey and the old Middle East: the limits of ambition, By Hugh Pope
Talking TR is a monthly series of talks and discussions from leading analysts and academics on key issues for Turkey and the region, filmed in front of a live audience. Each month Talking TR addresses a different topic. This essay is a modified transcript of the talk presented by Hugh Pope, International Crisis Group’s director of communications and outreach, at the March Talking TR event in İstanbul, ‘Turkey’s MENA Manners’ The first time I came to Turkey was actually from Syria, in 1980. I remember very clearly what it was like. We were very scared of coming to Turkey, partly because of the political violence in those days, but mainly because we knew would find nothing to buy there -we took good flat bread, coffee, tea and cigarettes along with us. And in 1980, it was true. Turkey was a needy country; you really had to hunt to find those things, as if it was a poor relative of the Middle East.
I studied Persian and Iranian studies initially, and I’ll always remember how confident Iran was in comparison to Turkey. Indeed, in 1980 Iran had an economy that was double the size. Now, 30 years later, Turkey has an economy that is double the size of Iran’s, and the country has become a byword in the Middle East for quality manufacture, attractive television shows and great tourist resorts. Even if Turkey is always a bit of a slowcoach compared to others in the region, I feel that these two images of how things have changed should always be remembered when we think of how Turkey is facing problems today in the Middle East.
I remember another thing that was, perhaps, one of the highlights of my time in Turkey, and one which really distinguishes Turkey from the Middle East. It was that moment in December 1999 when Turkey was accepted as a candidate for membership of the European Union. There was an almost delirious feeling on the streets of İstanbul. I remember how the newspapers were full of the faces of politicians beaming with happiness that Turkey had finally been accepted as a potential full member of the EU. It was an incredibly important moment that I think triggered more reactions amongst the Turkish people than anything I’ve ever seen in relation to Turkey’s Middle East policies.
I was a journalist for a long time, and it seemed that things often moved in cycles. There were times when Turkey was seen as the good country, when Turkey was the model, and Turkey showed the Middle East how it could develop and how progress could be made. There was an idea that somehow Turkey was going to be a multiplier of Western values and market economics in the region.
And then, almost inexplicably, there would be