Erdogan Considers Domestic Impact Of U.S.-Turkish Relations

By: Emrullah Uslu

Jamestown Foundation
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Sept 22 2009

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will travel this week to
the U.S. to attend the 64th Session of the General Assembly of the
United Nations in New York and the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. During his
visit to the U.S., Erdogan will hold a number of bilateral meetings,
including talks with the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the
heads of state and government of 20 countries.

Despite the fact that there is no single issue that Turkey is planning
to present at the U.N. or to discuss with international players at the
G20 summit, the timing of the meeting will fuel domestic debates that
have continued over the past few months. One of the issues that he
will discuss with world leaders is the Turkish government’s Kurdish
initiative. Erdogan stated: "We will explain what we have achieved
on the democratization initiative, if this is raised. It will be
constructive to share with our allies the positive results of our
initiative" (Sabah, September 22).

Erdogan will explain to world leaders three separate issues,
for example the Kurdish and the Alevi minorities as well as
the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement initiatives, all of which
have contributed to fractious domestic political debates, under
the overarching umbrella of the "democratization initiative"
(Zaman, September 21). Indeed, these issues have proven to be the
main sources of tension between the government and the opposition
parties. The opposition accused Erdogan of implementing policies that
are dictated by the United States and the European Union. Chairman
of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli is the
foremost advocate of the allegation that the Erdogan government is
simply implementing initiatives planned in Washington and aimed at
dividing the country (EDM, August, 21, September 10). The Chairman of
the Republican Peoples Party (CHP), Deniz Baykal rejects Erdogan’s
policies surrounding the Kurdish initiative and the re-opening of
the Turkish-Armenian border.

Erdogan’s trip to the U.S. also provides an opportunity for the
opposition parties to stir up domestic political issues by linking
Erdogan to U.S. plans and interests in the region. Devlet Bahceli
argues that Erdogan traveled to the United States to seek approval for
his Kurdish initiative, and that he will return with an approved plan
(Hurriyet, September 22). Meanwhile, Deniz Baykal criticized Erdogan
using similar rhetoric to accuse him of trying to divide the country
(Milliyet, September 22). Erdogan responded: "We will not abandon our
initiative. Those who wish to help the democratization process are
welcome; those who present obstacles to the initiative should know
that we will eliminate such obstacles and pursue our plans alone"
(Milliyet, September 22).

Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to Ankara, Jim Jeffrey, joined the
debate and supported the government’s initiative. Jeffrey stated
that "any step that would help to remove the Kurdistan Worker’s Party
(PKK) terrorism would be a good step and we would support it." Jeffrey
further suggested that the "Turkish government is taking courageous
steps to implement its democratization initiative. This is good and
I am optimistic about the process" (Aksam, September 21).

Moving the focus of the debate from Ankara to Washington might damage
the Kurdish initiative because the majority of the Turkish public
remains skeptical toward U.S. foreign policy. Turkish nationalist
dailies have already actively linked the Kurdish initiative with
the West, in order to deepen the level of public skepticism over the
policy. For instance, the nationalist daily Yenicag ran a headline
underlining this theme: "Before explaining to Bahceli and Baykal,
Erdogan will explain the Kurdish initiative to his allies," implying
that Erdogan is implementing a plan orchestrated by international
actors (Yenicag, September 21).

Erdogan has taken the rather surprising step of revealing that Turkey
will open a consulate general in Arbil if necessary. "Turkey will
improve its relations with the northern Iraqi administration in a
very different way," Erdogan said as he explained that Syria and Iraq
were jointly supporting the "democratic move" (Turkish Daily News,
September 18). Such statements might provide additional "evidence"
for nationalist skeptics to promulgate the view that the Kurdish
initiative is geared toward establishing a "Kurdish national state
in northern Iraq."

However, Erdogan’s trip to the U.S. might have no significant impact on
Turkish foreign policy initiatives, yet it could potentially change the
direction of the domestic debate. This may have a negative impact on
the Kurdish initiative, because the Turkish public remains skeptical
toward the U.S. and the E.U. It is imperative that Erdogan bridge
this gap in order to stimulate domestic support for his agenda.

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