THE TURKISH SAFE BET
by Vadim Dubnov
Jan 15 2010
There is little hope that Russia will succeed in driving its
traditional opponents out of the Caucasus with Turkey’s help.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk probably would be quite surprised to learn
the ideological prospects created by the little prefix "neo." The
"neo-Kemalism" everyone talks about in today’s Turkey, in the same
way that everyone talked about "neo-conservatism" in America when Bush
was in office, might seem at first to personify the elasticity making
any doctrine sound right even when the content has changed completely.
Friendship with Russia is not against Ataturk’s doctrine, however,
and the chronology of this friendship, which has been developing at
unprecedented speed in the last few years, is exceptionally educative
as an illustration of the safe bet in geopolitics.
This is how our new unity with Ankara is commonly viewed, especially
after it acquired such public and special scope following the August
war in Georgia. The earlier resentments in connection with the
Baku-Ceyhan pipeline somehow suddenly were laid to rest.
We watched the start of the reapportionment of the entire region
commonly called the Caucasus, which suddenly became the Greater Near
East, with corresponding goals and views of strategic success.
Moscow fearlessly and quickly became part of this process. As soon
as the gunfire died down in South Ossetia, Ankara announced its
plans for a historic reconciliation with Yerevan. Who could have
imagined that Russia would be so enthusiastic in its support of this
seemingly inconvenient move? In fact, convergence with Turkey in the
situation in which Moscow found itself after August 2008 looked like
the triumph of pragmatism rather than something spontaneous. Georgia
had been lost, Azerbaijan defiantly avoided friendship, and Armenia,
a strategic ally, could no longer offer any kind of assistance. An
agreement with the West was out of the question.
Of all the states making a bid for leadership in those areas, Turkey
was the only logical partner.
The plan seemed to be foolproof: After Russia had been forced
to give up part of the Caucasus, the only objective was to keep
confirmed enemies out of that area. Friendship with Turkey was the
perfect solution: sharing influence in the Caucasus as a couple,
becoming the main players in those locations, and then selling this
influence as a couple to all prospective buyers, who would form a long
line. In general, there was no chance of losing: The successful sale
of illusions could always be portrayed as a strategic victory, and
no one would notice a defeat because these were illusions after all.
In Turkey, meanwhile, all of the talk about sinister forces threatening
the leader’s ideological legacy cannot obscure the fact that most of
this legacy is of no concern to anyone. The completely Westernized
bourgeoisie is seriously disturbed by the Islamist inclinations of
the government. This government is consistently leading Turkey towards
Europe, however, so the bourgeoisie is willing to ignore some things.
This is already the common point of view in Turkey: If only a secular
government could be as pragmatic as the Turkish Islamists.
Neo-Kemalism does have its nuances, however.
In fact, Ataturk might not be that surprised by what is being
sanctified by his name with the prefix "neo." "Peace in the country,
peace in the world" – that was one of Ataturk’s ideas when he decided
to lead the medieval country into a world that was not expecting
it, referred to it as the "sick man of Europe" in Bismarck’s words,
and had just given up its hope of dismembering the previous Ottoman
monster. The imperial nostalgia of those who had recently called
themselves Ottomans and referred contemptuously to poorly dressed
provincials as Turks was gone. There were no Ottomans: As Ataturk
also used to say, "What luck to be born a Turk!"
Turning the outdated empire into a modern state entailed the gigantic
project of converting imperial thinking into precisely formulated
nationalism. In September 1955, an angry mob in Istanbul reacted to
rumours that someone had set fire to Ataturk’s home in Saloniki, the
birthplace of the "father of the Turks," by destroying Greek homes
and stores, after which there were almost no Greeks in Istanbul. In a
speech at a forum of his Justice and Development Party just over half
a century later, Prime Minister Erdogan would call this a "fascist"
act and would cut off the applause.
In spite of the contradictions, neo-Kemalism is an organic extension of
Kemalism. Turning the empire into a relatively compact country actually
was a means of surviving, and the country did survive. It was offered
NATO membership without any embarrassment a few decades later, and
there was an attempt to make Turkey part of Europe a short time later.
The country shrank for the sake of progress, as the leader had
predicted. It made progress and the government continued to amass
strength for more purposes than mere imperial revenge: It proposed a
programme of reconciliation with all of its neighbours, even problem
neighbours, such as Iran, Armenia, and Greece.
The West expects it to do this, and Turkey wants to be part of the
West. It is also something Turkey expects of itself, so that it can
be a leader in the East, where it has always felt that it belongs. It
seemed to have one mission, but it actually had two.
People in Turkey, which sociologists justifiably regard as one of
the most anti-American countries in the world, call their government
officials "America’s slaves," but they continue to vote for them. This
is not the first year that attentive observers have discovered gradual
changes in neo-Kemalism: Nostalgic memoirs of the empire are growing
increasingly popular. Turkey is still determined to be European, but
it has shown dogged persistence in seeking convergence with states
the West regards as odious. Its willingness to give up a cordial
relationship with Israel for the sake of solidarity with Iran is
In addition, parliamentary elections will be held a year from now.
The simultaneous attainment of two objectives is taking the form of
a new strategic niche and a new project. Convergence with Russia fits
organically into this niche. There have been complaints that virtually
repeat the idea of the "Washington obkom" verbatim when translated
into Russian, but even Washington was quick to realize that Turkey’s
rapid entry into the South Caucasus, which just recently had seemed
to have only two players in a tug-of-war, was a sign of Turkey’s
updated strategic line and would have to be accepted.
In this context, the old saying dating back to the tsarist era,
suggesting that it is possible to defeat a Turk on the battlefield,
but Turkish diplomacy can never be conquered, takes on a new meaning:
The need to conquer it seems incomprehensible. There is little
hope of success in driving traditional potential enemies out of the
Caucasus with Turkey’s help. Turkey’s reconciliation with Armenia,
which will take more than a year, of course, nevertheless has begun
and probably is not reversible. And after saying yes to this once,
simply because there was no longer any reason to say no, Moscow now
will have to make the arrangements for occasional ceremonial meetings
with the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia, followed by equally
ceremonial but completely meaningless declarations with regard to
their upcoming reconciliation.
It might provide some consolation to remember that everything was
moving in approximately the same direction even before Turkey suddenly
turned out to be our strategic ally, but there appears to be no need
for consolation. Everything is occurring in the proper sequence,
and this has no strategic requirements.
It is impossible to lose in geopolitics, especially in a game without
an opponent, and especially when geopolitics is reduced to another
gas pipe on the sea bed, a gas distribution system in Istanbul,
and perhaps half of an oil pipeline from Samsun in the Black Sea to
Ceyhan in the Mediterranean.
The Turks are promising to be generous, but this certainly does not
mean they will be. They are experiencing more difficulty than we are,
after all. They have two objectives, combined in a single project,
which will torment more than one political generation. We have only one
objective, and ours is right here and, quite indicatively, right now.