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Turkey: Foreign Relations Good With Two Of Eight Neighbors

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 13 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Turkey maintains genuinely good relations with only two of the eight countries with which it shares common land borders: these are Georgia and Bulgaria.

The recent turmoil in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Iraq have adversely affected Turkey's foreign and economic policies. International embargoes have forced costly rerouting of overland cargo through the Balkans, the shutdown of the oil pipeline from Iraq to the Ceyhan terminal near the Mediterranean coast and a sharp reduction in overland transit traffic across Turkey.

But with Bulgaria, Turkish foreign policy analysts say, relations could hardly be better. They note that Bulgarian Turks are playing a key role in Turkish economic expansion into the Balkans by assisting mid-sized Anatolian firms that lack personnel with suitable foreign language capabilities. The only blemish in bilateral relations is a territorial water dispute on the Black Sea shelf. This is a major turnaround from the situation of nine years ago, when relations with then communist Bulgaria were openly hostile. Bulgaria practiced in the 1980s forced assimilation policy toward its large ethnic Turkish minority that culminated in a decision in June 1989 by the late Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov to force most ethnic Turks out of the country. As a result, some 320,000 ethnic Turks fled before Turkey, unable to cope with the influx, shut the frontier.

Turkey's relations with the neighboring Caucasian countries are mixed. Turkish saying has it: "The Azeris are cousins one is born with; the Armenians are neighbors one does not get along with; but the Georgians are friends as well as neighbors."

Western diplomats in Ankara say Turkey's friendship with Georgia, largely reflecting Ankara's support for Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze, is mutually beneficial. Trade is booming, with Turkish consumer goods heading to Georgia and tankfull loads of cheap oil and gasoline clogging roads at the Georgian-Turkish frontier. The two countries are also involved in joint civil engineering projects such as the Kars to Tbilisi railroad, a hydropower project on the Coruh river, the modernization of Batumi's airport and the planned Baku-Ceyhan pipeline which would transit Georgia.

Turkey shares a common border less than 20 kilometers in length and a single border crossing with Azerbaijan's Nakhichevan enclave, a tenuous link that belies Baku's remarkably strong influence on Turkish foreign policy. There are three main reasons for this influence:

First, a belief among most Azeris and Turks that Armenia is their common enemy. Turkey has closed its border with Armenia for the last five years in response to the ongoing occupation by ethnic Armenian forces of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani territory.

Second, a shared perception that Turkey and Azerbaijan are fraternal countries with highly similar languages.

Third, Caspian Sea oil and the prospects of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline.

Critics say Ankara has become a veritable hostage of Baku in the expectation of a decision by Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev on whether to build the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. The decision could be made public in October. The pipeline, in addition to bringing Turkey considerable income from oil transit fees, could reduce the environmental threat caused by ever larger oil tanker traffic through the Turkish straits.

Professor of international relations at Istanbul's Marmara University Nilufer Narli insists however that Turkey is the master of its foreign policy, however weak it may be:

"Turkey's foreign policy is not very well defined or strategically oriented. It is very short-term oriented. It is more reactive. But foreign policy is made in Ankara not Baku. However, you need to be sensitive to your friends and allies and give priority to some friends and ignore others, so it is not easy."

Deputy Chief of Turkey's General Staff General Cevik Bir has said recently that "Turkey is one of the rare countries the importance of which increased after the Cold War" because, as he put it, Turkey is "both European and Asian." Bir said Turkey is perfectly placed to undertake a "leadership mission" in Central Asia owing to its historical and cultural links to the region.

Earlier efforts to take over from Russia the leading role in Central Asia that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union foundered on miscalculations and misperceptions. For example, Turkey quickly established satellite TV and newswire links with Central Asia only to find out that few Central Asians could understand Turkish. Investment has proven difficult owing to the lack of infrastructure in the area, the lasting imprint of Soviet ways on labor productivity and mentality, inadequate transportation links with Turkey and the high cost of investing so far afield under difficult conditions.

Narli says Turkey is now trying to have a multi-dimensional foreign policy, a marked change from what she terms its "two-dimensional" policy in the past.

"It is a de facto (reactive) foreign policy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rejection by Europe, Turkey has now found that it can have a close relationship with Turkic speaking countries without Russian pressure."

But Narli also says Russian pressure is still present in the region and Turkey is trying to have a very balanced relationship with Russia. Turkey's southeastern neighbors, Syria and Iraq, at times have perceived Turkey as dominated by the West and a potential threat, in part owing to Ankara's military cooperation with Israel and its role as a forward staging area for allied forces in the 1991 Gulf War. Ankara in turn has accused Syria and Iraq of backing Kurdish separatists of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in southeastern Turkey

Since the Gulf War, Turkey has repeatedly staged military incursions into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq in a bid to wipe out PKK supply lines. Relations with Syria have also been marked by a dispute over water resources -- Turkey's damming up of the Euphrates (Efrat) river for irrigation and power, before it flows into Syria. Relations with Iran are marked by tension and concern in Turkish government and military circles over perceived Iranian influence on Turkey's growing Islamist movement. But recently Ankara and Tehran have begun cooperating in battling the PKK.

Narli notes that when Islamist Necmettin Erbakan was Prime Minister until mid-1997, Ankara developed new projects for aiding several Muslim countries, including Nigeria, which is partly Muslim. She says the Turkish foreign ministry continues to implement these aid projects.

In an interview last week on Turkish TV, the Secretary General of the Arab League Ismat Abd-al-Majid described Turkey as "a friendly, fraternal, and neighborly country....the only European country that has such warm feelings for the Arab people."

But he criticized recent joint Israeli-Turkish military exercises and a military cooperation agreement Turkey signed with Israel. In his words, "the situation constitutes a threat against the brotherly Arab country, Syria... These relations with Israel cannot be likened to routine political, cultural, economic, or communal relations with a second country. On the contrary, these are military relations.... If Turkey cooperates in the military field with Israel and then claims that this is not directed against Syria or any other country, then this claim is contradictory to what is being practiced."

There has been no response to these criticisms from the Turkish side.

(This is the second of two articles on Turkey's foreign policy.)