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Protests in Turkey could spur new US ties

By George N. Tzogopoulos Source:Global Times Published: 2013-6-17 0:43:01

Turkey is currently at the eye of cyclone, and the initial occupation of Gezi Park near Taksim Square in Istanbul and the subsequent intense, sometimes violent response by police have generated waves of criticism against the country's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Demonstrations, however, are not similar to the ones in northern Arab countries from December 2010 and southern Europe since the outbreak of the financial crisis. That is because the frame of limited or nonexistent political participation of people and that of social calamity is largely absent.

Specifically, Erdogan does not lack democratic legitimacy. He was elected in 2002, 2007 and 2011, with a larger voter-percentage in following elections.

Parallel to this, the country is not suffering serious economic problems. By contrast, its economy enjoys a growth of approximately 3 percent, while unemployment only vacillates between 9 percent and 11 percent.

A lot has been already said and written in explaining ongoing tensions in Turkey. The common denominator is the alleged authoritarianism of Erdogan and his dogmatic insistence on pushing for changes that critics consider part of his "Islamic agenda."

The limitation of alcohol sales constitutes the most recent example which has frustrated parts of the population, especially the young generation.

Taking into account that the political scene in Turkey is highly dominated by only one figure - the current prime minister - this seems to be a fair argument. In the final account, protests are of significance, but should be carefully assessed as they do not replace election procedures.

The polarization of Turkish society and the usage of violence are not new elements in the country's history, and thus, cannot lead Erdogan to cancel his plans. The most important of them is concerned with his goal to transform the parliamentary system into a presidential one next year and stay for a much longer period in power.

Well-aware of the substantial support base for his Justice and Development Party, Erdogan is likely to concentrate on his domestic agenda by attempting to distract attention from foreign policy fronts.

In that regard, he is personally investing in a potential resolution of the Kurdish question. But his main priority cannot remain the civil war in Syria.

Ankara faces challenges in its attempt to play the role of a regional superpower in the Middle East. As the democratic model theory has almost collapsed in the aftermath of the protests in Istanbul, Erdogan desperately needs to overcome the crisis stemming from Syria.

To do so, Ankara appears to have no other tangible solution but to seek stronger cooperation with Washington.

Within this framework, the provided military assistance by NATO is critical, albeit not sufficient. Without further support from the US, Turkey will not be able to deal with challenges in the Middle East, which also include the Iranian nuclear program.

Anti-Americanism in Turkey is certainly an issue of consideration for Ankara. According to a recent Pew Research poll only 15 percent of Turkish people rated the United States favorably.

Nonetheless, a pragmatic analysis requires a shift in Erdogan's approach even if he will possibly downplay this at the communication level.

As Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish political scientist, recently argued in Foreign Affairs, Ankara depends on Washington to the same extent that Tokyo also does.

All in all, the ongoing protests in Turkey may not have heavily damaged the profile of its prime minister domestically, but they may require a few immediate changes on his part to avoid a dramatic setback in his personal political career.

If Erdogan is determined to stick with his current domestic agenda, which is approved by a significant part of the country's population, he must concentrate on following the path of realism in international affairs and abandoning utopian objectives. This could possibly signal the beginning of a new phase in Turkish-US relations.

The author is a research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: Asian Beat, Viewpoint