The Empire Strikes Back?

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twitterThe first hundred days of Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s presidency proved his claim to be a ‘sweating president’ justified. Not only did he remain at the centre of Turkish political stage – something not so obvious for a presidential post in Turkey – but he was also able to constantly and successfully set Turkish political and social agenda, like when he said that it was Muslims who had discovered America in 1178. Of course, there were some who ridiculed this concept, yet some people did swallow the bait. As one may suppose, most of them were Erdo?an’s supporters who were accompanied by a pro-government press. Meanwhile, the Turkish president didn’t mean to withdraw from his statements. He made his opinions even more Pro-Islamic and Anti-Western by claiming that Muslims lack self-confidence – which is why they forgot about their ancestors’ achievements – and that ‘Western sources should not be believed as if they are sacred texts’. On another occasion, when all attention in Turkey was focused on a debate on possible introduction of compulsory Ottoman-language courses for all high school pupils, he somehow negated certain elements of so-called Westernization process, which had been initiated during the Ottoman times, but gained momentum under Atatürk’s rule. Under these circumstances one seems justified to ask: does it mean that during Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s presidency Turkey is more and more in mood for the Ottoman revival?

The ‘New Turkey’ rhetoric

To better understand Turkish politics one should know that the Turkish president become a ‘sultan’ a long time ago at least as far as discourse terms are concerned. He has been successful in speaking to Turks hearts since he was elected the prime minister for the first time. Most of all, Erdo?an knows very well that Turkish politics is not only about modern people who live in Western parts of the country (so-called White Turks), but also about those from Turkey’s ‘interior’ and those that migrated from less developed regions to bigger cities (by an antonym, so-called Black Turks). And nowadays, this is generally Anatolia that shapes the country’s political stage. Moreover, he has also very skillfully diverted people’s attention from his problems. The statement on Muslim’s discovery of America showed up just in time to diminish the impact of debates on his newly built ‘lavish palace’. The ability to set Turkish political and social agenda has always been an ace up on Erdo?an’s sleeve which not only helped him survive political storms, but also win every elections since 2002.

Given all of that, it is not possible to understand current Turkish politics without context. And the ‘New Turkey’ rhetoric, which was developed by Erdo?an last year, is now in the centre of the public discourse. Although officially the three main pillars of the vision can be described as a deepening democracy, prosperity and Turkey as a ‘leading country’, the reality is much more interesting than documents. Firstly, because the term ‘New Turkey’ alone suggests that there was ‘Old Turkey’ that Turks need to get rid of. Secondly, because the Turkish leaders use it for social engineering (mainly by deepening political and social polarization) which brings them many benefits, but may also be really dangerous for Turkish society in the long run. The best example of that may be a power struggle between current Turkish administration and so-called Gülen movement (Tur. Hizmet or Cemaat) which is accused by the government of trying to stage a coup by initiating a corruption probe. Lately, by arresting some anti-government journalists, the fight got really bitter which damaged Turkey’s image in the Western world. What is even more important, it seems that those arrests have also further deepened polarization in Turkey. The divisions might in turn serve only politicians who under this circumstances could afford much more than in the ‘time of peace’. Of course, current situation is very convenient for the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalk?nma Partisi, AKP), because by polarizing society and making Turks choose sides it helps AKP consolidate its electoral base and gain even more votes.

However, the ‘New Turkey’ rhetoric has other interesting and more significant dimension as well. Thanks to the discourse’s shape and its aforementioned links with current politics, Turkish leaders can play with Turkish identity. After huge 2013 protests the incumbents were somehow forced to do this for the sake of their political survival. To win next elections and realize his dream to become Turkey’s first popularly-elected president Recep Tayyip Erdo?an simply had to mobilize his electorate by using the identity card. This is why he claimed that Gezi Park protests were nothing more than just a foreign plot aimed at Turkey (according to some surveys this strategy turned out to be quite successful). Voicing this kind of statements Erdo?an appealed to Turks’ passion for conspiracy theories (especially so-called Sèvres Syndrome). At the same time, he hit the Islamic tones by saying that protesters were drinking alcohol in a mosque and insulting his ‘headscarf-wearing daughters and sisters’. Later, when a row with the Gülen movement got serious because of a corruption probe, he took up the ‘New Turkey’ narrative which contained many references to the great Ottomans and Islamic elements (one example of that may be his ‘balcony speech’ delivered after winning local elections in March 2014 when he said that Turkish nation gave his evil opponents ‘a full Ottoman slap’. While listening to it many might have already supposed that this was not the last ‘Ottoman slap’ waiting for them). Erdo?an was constantly mobilizing his electorate not only by describing Turkish reality as ‘us vs. them’, but also by emphasizing elements that his constituency finds really precious.

The following events proved Erdo?an’s strategy right in political terms. In August he easily won presidential elections and became the first head of state elected in the public voting. Nevertheless, he kept using the ‘New Turkey’ rhetoric and identity-based politics to further consolidate his electoral base before the June 2015 parliamentary elections. Their results may help him realize his ‘Grand Plan’ and finally change the Turkish Constitution and introduce a presidential system. But then the last aspect of the ‘New Turkey’ discourse became evident. As it was already suggested, games with identity give benefits mostly to politicians. In case of societies it is quite the contrary, as they tend to easily fall in the incumbents’ trap and are simply a subject to this kind of social engineering. They start treating identity debates as something really significant. By doing so, they not only let politicians behave more freely in rhetorical sphere, but also lose common sense in judging their actions and choose sides in a less rational way. Already mentioned vivid discussion on introducing obligatory Ottoman-language classes for high school students may be taken as the most recent example of the phenomenon. On the one hand, arguments of the idea’s supporters seems reasonable, because this solution may undoubtedly help Turks better understand their magnificent history. On the other, however, it is doubtful that they would uphold their optimistic stance on the matter if it were themselves and not their children who would be obliged to master the beauty of the Ottoman alphabet (it is worth mentioning that introducing Latin alphabet in 1928 by Mustafa Kemal was not done on identity ground only, but was somehow rational as well, because of various difficulties bound up with the Ottoman alphabet). One may also wonder what is the purpose of learning a dead language by all high school pupils instead of, for example, foreign languages that would be useful in their daily lives. Anyhow, it seems that the debate on the Ottoman-language classes was not based on rational, but rather identity ground. It showed that by exploiting the ‘New Turkey’ narrative in an excessive way Turks may finally empathize with the role of the Ottoman grandsons too much. Furthermore, this step may leave a profound mark not only on Turks daily-lives, but also on other aspects of the Turkish politics.

Turkey’s 2023 vision

Unsurprisingly, domestic political developments and discourse has an impact on Turkey’s foreign policy. It is because both Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and AKP’s strategies are closely intertwined with Turkey’s image of a leading global actor and because their further political success depends on the Turkey’s economic development. This is why politicians adopted ‘Turkey’s 2023 vision’ (2023 is the centennial of establishment of the Turkish Republic) with such ambitious goals as Turkey’s becoming one of the top 10 global economies. To realize this ‘Turkish dream’ the whole country would need to undergo a gigantic transformation. To make it completely clear – Turkey has to not only take care of so basic things as increasing the volume of foreign trade, but also of boosting innovativeness of the economy so that it would not be so dependent on its partners (e.g. it has to produce its own arms and even sell them to other contractors instead of buying them from its international partners).

This is why recently Turkish leaders have become more and more assertive. True, the Turkish foreign policy has undergone meaningful changes from the very beginning of the Justice and Development Party’s rule. Turkish leaders have tried to have more balanced diplomacy which would help them make sure that Turkish interests would be respected by Turkey’s allies. Nonetheless, this trend intensified thanks to the ‘2023 vision’ and the ‘New Turkey’ discourse. Turkish politicians seemed to distance themselves further from the West and tried to show that Turkey is not a country that would act according to its Western allies’ wishes anymore. Meanwhile, domestic political developments, especially a need to fight with the Gülenist opposition and to play Ottoman and Islamic card, in effect forced Recep Tayyip Erdo?an to strengthen his Anti-Western and Pro-Islamic statements. This synergy of various domestic and international elements put Turkey in a really interesting position.

On the one hand, it seems understandable that Turkish leaders, knowing Turkey’s great potential, play high stakes. They try to make use of Turkey’s geographical, cultural and historical conditions believing that they are highly advantageous and thus predestine their country to be a power that everybody would respect. Also, by emphasizing Ottoman and Islamic elements of Turkish identity, Turkish president not only mobilizes his electorate, but also plays on Turks’ pride. On the other hand, however, one must acknowledge that Turkey’s ‘2023 goals’ are very ambitious and not so easy to accomplish. First of all, it is quite clear that to realize this agenda Turkey could not still be ‘the EU’s doorman’, as Recep Tayyip Erdo?an recently put it. But, as one can imagine, it is not easy to improve relations with the European Union while fighting with the Gülen movement. Although current Turkish cabinet constantly describes relations with the EU as a Turkey’s strategic objective, in its dispute with the opposition it uses tools which somehow contradict so-called European values which does not make the EU quest any easier. This deadlock (intertwined with Turkey’s ambitious goals) simply forces Turkish leaders to look for other solutions. But it is not a piece of cake either. First and foremost, Turkish politicians may be speaking about a need to revise Turkey’s relations with the West, but still it is NATO that defends Turkey against most threats (just think of Patriot missile batteries operating near the Syrian border). Secondly, turning back on the West it is also not so easy in the economic terms. The best example of that may be Turkey’s current relations with Russia. From the very beginning of the Crimean crisis Turkey tried to benefit from the tensions on the Russia-West line. I remember Turkish professors explaining me that Turkey still considers itself as a Western ally, but needs to follow assertive and realistic foreign policy. On the surface it was a definitely praiseworthy approach since (even if the Polish politicians tend to forget about that) it is obvious that each ambitious country should have an interest-based foreign policy and avoid so-called bandwagoning. However, adopting such a policy one need to be not only a good observant, who would see every opportunity and be able to make use of it, but also a great mathematician to assess possible potential gains and losses. Russian example proved this argument right ­– Turkish agricultural sector, which was supposed to benefit the most from the EU-Russia row, currently has a huge problem on account of Russia economic situation. To put it simple, as for now Turkey has not benefited much from its assertive stance and European leaders know that very well. And here we get to Turkey’s leaders biggest nightmare, namely the economic consequences. The Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) which is to remove trade barriers between the EU and the US, therefore breathing life in the Western economies, may be also a huge chance for Turkey’s economy. The problem is that in the current situation Turkey is out of the agreement’s scope. If that does not change, the TTIP will probably cause enormous problems for Turkey’s economy. It seems that Turkish leaders are aware of it and this is why they (at least for now) will not abandon Western course completely. Yet, their biggest headache is that the Western leaders also seem to realize possible benefits of the TTIP to Turkey’s economy and they definitely will not trade it for free. This way Turkey got stuck in quite a dilemma. Finding the way out of this situation may be the biggest challenge of the first Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s presidential cadency.

Nonetheless, one may imagine that if Turkey stays excluded from the TTIP’s scope, its leaders will be forced to look for other solutions. The ‘New Turkey’ narrative, playing with Ottoman and Islamic cards and other domestic developments suggest that Turkey may be turning further to the East. This way, however, also would not be easy for Turkish politicians. Although they still try to show Turkey as a democracy champion and a unique country that pursues a ‘value-based foreign policy’, which brought some advantages during the Arab Spring’s initial stage, it seems that its stance in the Arab world is systematically dropping. Playing a role of the regional leader under these circumstances is like walking a really tight rope.


Erdo?an-Davuto?lu duo has a hard nut to crack. While Turkey definitely has a potential to be a leading global actor, domestic and international situation does not help it to make full use of it. It is understandable that Turkish leaders are looking around for every opportunity to facilitate Turkey’s growth. Yet they should remember that they are not alone on the global chessboard and that their actions may sometimes bring unwanted consequences. Due to the parliamentary elections that would shape Turkey’s political stage for the next 4 years and may facilitate Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s dream to change a constitution, 2015 might be a decisive year for Turkey. Twelve months from now we will surely have more knowledge on the Turkish president’s ‘New Turkey’ shape. Will domestic developments cause it to have more and more ‘neo-Ottoman’ face? Well, all in all, 2015 is ‘The Force Awakens’ year.

 Photo source: Twitter

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Karol Wasilewski

Absolwent studiów pierwszego i drugiego stopnia w Instytucie Stosunków Międzynarodowych Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego (specjalizacja dyplomacja współczesna) oraz studiów pierwszego stopnia na Wydziale Orientalistycznym (kierunek turkologia). Aktualnie student studiów III stopnia na Wydziale Dziennikarstwa i Nauk Politycznych. Autor książki "Turecki sen o Europie - tożsamość zachodnia i jej wpływ na politykę zagraniczną Republiki Turcji".

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