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Country’s image and influence abroad have been tarnished 7 mai 2014

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, Turkey-EU / Turquie-UE, USA / Etats-Unis.
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Financial Times (UK) Wednesday, May 7 2014, p. 3
FT Special Report: Turkey

By David Gardner

Turkey still offers an example of progress for the Arab world, says David Gardner. The story of Turkey in the decade after Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in 2002 was not just of serial electoral triumph by neo- Islamists in an ostensibly vibrant democracy – alongside a dynamic economy growing at near Chinese rates – but of the re-emergence of a confident and admired regional power.

But Turkey’s reputation was so bound up with Mr Erdogan that, just as he has been tarnished by charges of authoritarian behaviour, so have the country’s image and influence.

Turkey’s place in the world – as a member of Nato, a candidate member of the EU, and a compass for Arab neighbours undergoing the upheavals of the last three years – is not as assured as it seemed.

EU accession negotiations, which drove reform and gave Turkey cachet abroad, have long been at a standstill.

Initially, that was because states such as Germany and France insisted a large, developing, Muslim country did not meet accession criteria. They could then hide behind the impasse over reunifying Cyprus, divided between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

Shortly after entry talks ground to a halt six years ago, an inward-looking Europe, absorbed by the euro crisis, started colliding with an increasingly introverted Turkey, angry at being spurned by the EU but also grappling with the increasingly overbearing AKP government.

Last summer’s crackdown on the explosion of anger across urban and coastal areas shredded the prime minister’s reformist credentials. The government roundly blamed foreign conspirators for the situation in xenophobic language.

In the heat of the crisis, Egemen Bagis, then minister for the EU, now defenestrated by December’s corruption scandal, said: « The EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU ». An aide to Mr Erdogan later called for a break with the EU, Turkey’s main market and foreign investor.

As the AKP struggles with former Islamist allies who began the corruption probes, even level-headed friends of the premier believe outsiders are trying to do down a Turkey reaching for greatness.

« I am not one for conspiracy theories », says Yalcin Akdogan, a close adviser to the prime minister, « but we know some people and some countries are uncomfortable with the AKP and Tayyip Erdogan ».

In Brussels, meanwhile, officials who supported Turkey have started folding their tents. « We are the last of the Mohicans », says one.

Little of this seemed to matter while Mr Erdogan appeared to have become a political rock star to young Arabs revolting against autocracies in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere.

He acquired leverage because Europe and the US needed Turkey to help deal with the tumult of the Arab uprising and the challenge of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As a member of Nato, Turkey and its army, the biggest in the alliance after the US, once stood guard against the Soviet bloc. That sentinel role was devalued by the end of the cold war.

Now, it seemed, Turkey was again a bulwark of the western system, especially since the example of AKP success could help mould a new Arab order that placed Islamist movements at or near the new centre of Arab political gravity. President Barack Obama came to rely on Mr Erdogan as a US point man in the region.

But as Mr Erdogan, under pressure at home because of his perceived authoritarianism, lashed out abroad, the calls with Mr Obama became rarer.

Ankara’s decision – now in question – to buy a Chinese missile defence package, incompatible with those of Turkey’s incredulous Nato partners, was one reason. Its unilateral rekindling of ties with Tehran was another. Its alliance of convenience with Sunni jihadis in the civil war in Syria is one more.

Turkey not only became an organising hub for the rebellion against the Syrian regime, it allowed itself to be used as a pipeline for foreign jihadi volunteers who are now of greater concern to Turkey’s allies than ousting Bashar al-Assad.

The military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, after it all but self-destructed, was another setback for Mr Erdogan, denting the idea he could influence change positively in the region.

Turkey is hardly to blame for the fiasco in Syria, given US and European reluctance to arm mainstream rebels. These Friends of Syria subcontracted support for the rebellion to the Gulf – a key reason jihadi influence on the battlefield has grown – whereas the Friends of the Assads, Russia, Iran and its allies such as Hizbollah, the Lebanese paramilitary movement, delivered a clear and simple strategy of support.

The rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has spread into Syria, where Turkey now appears allied with Qatar, also a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet, while Mr Erdogan’s star has fallen, polls show Turkey engages Arab public opinion in a way Saudi Arabia and Iran do not. Domestic tumult and foreign misfires have coincided with the Arab uprising.

Warts and all, Turkey remains much more attractive than these two regional theocracies.

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