Turkey: A Geographical Description

by Deniz Eröcal

Preliminary draft for comment

April 2019

Readers will find the Table of Contents, Bibliography and individual sections, as they appear, of a geographical essay on the identity of Turkey. All material is in preliminary draft form. They are circulated for comments and suggestions on the content.


Please send any feedback to: deniz.erocal ( at ) free.fr


The painting above is “A Moonlit Night on the Bosphorus” (1894) by Ivan Aivazovsky


Good-bye, Mr Putin


Deniz Eröcal



This essay was started as a short article on Turkey’s geostrategic flirts with Russia and their breakup during periods when the country turned its face back to the West. As it developed, it turned into a more wide-ranging overview of its peregrinations in the geopolitical sphere. In the end it has come back full circle to try to shed a new light on Turkey’s chequered relationship with Russia, which has always been a key factor – perhaps the most important one – behind its quest to become part of the West – at least in the last quarter of a millennium.

Full paper in PDF format (with the Graphics): TR-RUS Full paper April 7


“Je ne sais pas l’art d’être clair pour qui ne veut pas être attentif.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau[1]


Turkish rulers’ flirt with Mr Putin lasted a little longer than an earlier affair with Mr Lenin, but not much longer. In the darkest hour of her National Struggle[2] – the War of liberation fought from 1919 to 1922 by what was left of Ottoman Turkey against her WWI victors Britain and France and their nearby proxies Greeks and Armenians – the new rulers of Ankara had found an ally of convenience in the Marxist-Leninist Soviets, who themselves were engaged in a parallel struggle to wrest the Russian Empire back from the same victors and their local collaborators – the Whites, Ukrainian nationalists, nascent Caucasian states and so on. In the event, the material aid the Kemalist forces received from Soviet Russia (weapons, ammunition, gold to pay officers’ salaries, etc.) helped quicken their victory, which was completed by September 1922 with the expulsion of the invading Greek Army from Anatolia. In return, the resumption of Turkish sovereignty to the Straights in the following months protected the young USSR from further attempts by the Entente powers to fester anti-revolutionary strife in their Black Sea flank. In the state of exhaustion and exasperation that they had reached by then, with growing social tensions, including a separatist uprising in Ireland, and their chief ally America turned isolationist, Britain and France may not have had much appetite for more jingoistic adventures anyway.

The Soviet-Turkish alliance, first formalised in 1921, and confirmed in 1925 for a limited period of ten years – as was customary in military cooperation agreements in those days – was re-conducted for a second decade in 1935, with both countries increasingly weary of the rise of an anti-status quo Hitlerite Germany.

But the Soviet-Turkish affair was never more than an arrangement for practical cooperation vis-à-vis common foes – the arrogant Western democracies making life difficult for the successor states of old Oriental autocracies. As soon as his hold on power was secure – indeed a few days after the end of active war in Anatolia – on 12 September 1922 Mustafa Kemal had the Turkish Communist Party closed down. The Soviets on their side never refrained from persecuting Tatars, Kazakhs or other Turkic subjects of their realm, and Turkey never made a serious international issue out of that.

And the Soviet-Turkish affair did not survive the WWII. As the next deadline of 1945 approached for deciding weather to renew the pact, with Soviet strength growing by day together with their exasperation with what they saw as Turkey’s double game during the war, Stalin made no secret of his desire to “Finlandize” Turkey. A formal demand was made for a Soviet military base inside the Turkish Straights, while the obedient Armenian and Georgian SSRs advanced their territorial demands on adjacent Turkish provinces Ardahan and Kars.

It is under these circumstances that Turkey appeared to be throwing herself back in the arms of the West in the dark winter of 1945-46. Yet, Kemalist Turkey’s reconciliation with Britain had started in the 1930s, epitomised by the visit of King Edward VIII to Turkey in September 1936 and the courtesy call of the Turkish fleet to Malta the following month, much to Mussolini’s irritation. As the winds of war gathered over Europe in the late 1930s, Turkey sought greater military cooperation with Britain. It signed an unambiguous military pact with both Britain and France in October 1939, as Poland was giving her last breath under the Nazi onslaught. This surely was not a sign of friendship in good times only. But the fear of being crushed by the Germans and/or the Soviets – who, remember, were allies between August 1939 and June 1941 through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – and a profound reluctance to inflict war on the still fragile young Republic, made Turkish rulers of the time dither. They have not honoured in time their pledge to go to war alongside their British ally even after the probable Soviet objection to it vanished in June 1941 when Hitler tore apart his pact with the Socialist devil and invaded the Soviet Union.

Turkey declared war against Germany only in April 1945 when it was a militarily useless symbolic gesture made to secure admission as a founding member of the new United Nations. Thus, Stalin’s fury at Turkish cowardice was perhaps not entirely incomprehensible. But, remember that the men ruling Turkey at the time (President İsmet İnönü, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Field Marshall Fevzi Çakmak and many others) had seen war of the most devastating kind and had fought against the same Britain and France from 1914 to 1922. In the end, circumstances helped them bring Turkey back inside the West’s protective umbrella where it had once enjoyed protection, prosperity and even some tentative respect between the Anglo-Ottoman commercial Treaty of 1838 and the start of the – so-far – penultimate Russian-Turkish war in 1876.[3]

The rest is history (of the Cold War), starting again with a symbolic gesture – the appearance of the American battleship USS Missouri in the Istanbul harbour in April 1946, ostensibly to deliver the remains of the late Ambassador Mr Münir Ertegün who had had diplomatic cunning to die while in office in Washington – and continuing with the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine (April 1947) including a pledge to aid Turkey (and Greece), all the way to Turkey’s inclusion in the Marshall Plan for European reconstruction (starting in April 1948) and its successor organisation the OECD in 1961.

So strong was America’s leadership and resolve in those days – flanked by a still imperious Britain – to mobilise an anti-Soviet block that it could run roughshod over the objections of some Europeans, such as the Dutch, to the inclusion of Greece and Turkey in the nascent NATO. The Dutch had even resisted the inclusion of Italy initially, preferring to keep the Alliance literally Atlantic.

A heating up of the Cold War in Korea in 1950, and nine hundred dead Turkish soldiers (fallen in the defence of the Western line) later Turkey became a NATO member in 1952, together with Greece. By 1964 Europeans were willing to go as far engaging Turkey (and Greece) in a formally irrevocable course for accession – in principle by the 1980s – in their nascent Common Market (officially the European Economic Community – EEC).

In the end it was Turkish dithering again, more than anything else, which stopped the post-war momentum for integrating the country firmly in the Euro-Atlantic family of free market democracies. The high – or, rather low – point may have been reached in 1976, when the government led by the instinctively protectionist civil engineer Mr Demirel nonchalantly turned down a sincere proposal by the EEC to accelerate Turkey’s accession. Greece, which accepted a parallel offer, was in by 1981. Having been snubbed by the West in the Cyprus imbroglio that came to head in 1974, and having come under an arms embargo by its principal ally America, Turkey was perhaps in no mood to concede sovereignty, which is what you do when entering the EEC.

The year 1976 was also pretty much the last one when Turkey was not in crisis, economic or political, or rushing from one to the next, until the early years of the 21st century. The years with sharp economic downturns (1977-80, 1988-89, 1991, 1994, 1999-2001) have left scars in the nascent industrial labour force, with industrial relations becoming imprisoned in a protectionist class-struggle mind-set, obstructing the growth of modern sector employment. In parallel, misunderstood and mishandled demands for more political freedom and expression turned into anarchy and terror (albeit in mild forms of it by today’s standards), leading to a military coup in 1980, which subsequently led the institutionalisation of a repressive regime in the 1982 Constitution.

Only the final flare-up of the Cold War between the West and a Soviet regime in its terminal crisis, plus, to a lesser extent, the emergence of an anti-Western revolutionary Iran, helped keep Turkey in the Western camp, militarily speaking. But its economy was now failing to keep pace with the rapid modernisation enjoyed by Greece, Portugal and Spain, and Turkey was less and less seen as part of that group of countries.

While Turkey’s usefulness as a “staunch ally” – a sort of unsophisticated subordinate standing guard, asking no questions – was grudgingly recognised, its oppressive regime became a subject of scorn. Its accession process to what was soon to be renamed the European Community was now frozen. Turkish nationals who could tour Europe visa-free up until the 1970s became unwanted denizens of the Third World. There were already too many of them settled in Germany. They differed too much from the “European”, showed little inclination to “integrate” and become innocuous minorities like the Portuguese or the Yugoslavs, and more of them were now pouring in as political refugees. So little respect did the Turkish state now command that the country’s Kurdish fringe – quiet since the 1940s – flared up in open revolt in 1984.

Meanwhile, deeper forces were at work quietly. At the international level a resurgent form of Islamic piety and communitarianism – soon to be termed Islamism – was propelling the ordinary people of predominantly Muslim societies into a sort of grass-roots rebellion – indeed, a revanche – against their superficially westernised elites. While this was scarcely evident in Turkey in the 1980s, it was going to pose the greatest challenge to the country’s pretention to be part of the West.

The other fundamental shift – of a more benign nature – worked in the socio-economic sphere. Deeply impacted by forced economic liberalisation and outward-orientation from 1980 on, something previously unknown began to emerge in the Turkish landscape.

During the nine hundred years of statehood in Asia Minor/Anatolia and adjacent areas Turks had occupied every function from nomadic conqueror to subsistence farmer, en passant par landed gentry, sword-bearing-horse-riding ruling class, and bureaucrat, but scarcely that of the merchant. Now, a new variety of a Turk appeared, industrial – indeed industrious – and trader. Tens of thousands of industrial enterprises emerged, manned and managed by Turks, plying the trade routes of Europe and the Middle East, delivering manufactured good, copied, assembled, and shipped pell-mell through the country’s inefficient and corrupt transport and customs infrastructures, if necessary by abusing the lax export promotion regime. Starting from the simplest tee-shirts and plastic widgets, entrepreneurs moved on to more complex products, as their unstable markets rose and collapsed in the war-torn Middle East (Iraq, 1990), the Balkans (Yugoslavia, 1991), or in the newly opening USSR (Russia, 1998). In the process they learned to compete in more discerning markets. With relentless resolve and flexibility, from each crisis they emerged more numerous, bigger and more sophisticated. With American MBAs in their pockets, the second generation Turkish entrepreneurs were transforming the sociology of many smaller cities in inner-Anatolia into an industrial one, seeking prosperity on their own feet, independent of the hand-outs from the state or subservience to Istanbul’s old guard of established big industrialists who lived in symbiosis with that state. It was the alliance of these two undercurrents – the Turkish variant of Islamism and the emerging industrial middle class of inner Turkey – that was going to pose the most potent challenge to Western-looking Turks’ grip on power in the country.

The breakup of the Soviet empire between 1989 and 1992 seemed to make all tables spin. The “staunch ally” became less indispensable as the arch-foe disintegrated into chaos and its economic lethargy – already deep during the Brezhnev era stagnation – turned into coma. A string of budding, independent nation-states, strewn from the Baltic to the Adriatic – some newly invented, some reborn – all with impeccable Western credentials – white skin, Christian heritage – now made more valuable partners for NATO and jumped the accession queue to what was by now called the European Union (EU).

In its state of drunken torpor the rump Russian Federation was too happy to let thousands of Turkish entrepreneurs claim a share – as traders, builders or hosts inside Turkey, to a burgeoning number of Russian customers and visitors – of Russia’s mineral wealth, which by then had become the only source of prosperity for (some of) them. What a delightful sight it was to see those Slavonic hordes descend by the million to the resorts of Antalya every year without having had to fight their way through the Balkans, which they would have had to do in the 19th century.

As the East-West rivalry seemed to have disappeared, and Turkey’s attachment to the West became more and more ambiguous, Ankara and Moscow could now indulge in geopolitical hide-and-seek games, here creating a Black Sea Economic Cooperation gizmo – was it an Organisation, a Community, a process… no one knew, and it did not matter –, there luring Turkey into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – the club of the planet’s most powerful autocrats. A chorus of armchair geo-politicians and amateur Great Game strategists lectured ad nauseam about the merits and prospects of oil and gas pipelines that were going to link inner Asia’s fossil fuel riches to the outside word via Turkey. None seemed to have studied the map of abandoned and politically unusable pipelines that litter the landscape of the Middle East.[4]

Gazing into Central Asia, Turkish pan-Turanists – previously considered an eccentric fringe group – now became more numerous, respectable and credible in proposing stronger ties with their Turkic brethren freshly liberated from the Russian yoke. It was going to take them a very long time to realise – and many have not yet fully confessed – that Central Asia is not only Turkic. Many of its old centres of civilisation were in fact more Iranian than anything else. (For example, the word “Tajik” literally designated Muslims of Persian or Iranian persuasion to Sogdian[5] Turks and Tang-era Chinese during the 8th century, when the Arab armies were introducing Islam to Central Asia. And, Tajik has long been the predominant identity of Central Asia’s venerable urban centres such as Bukhara and Samarkand.) Indeed, even the nearby Azeri who can understand Western Anatolian Turkish – even if the latter cannot easily reciprocate the compliment – are predominantly Shi’ite Muslims, and therefore culturally closer to Iranians, when they are not Soviet-educated atheists. Besides, the hold on power by the Soviet-trained leadership in the region proved to be too strong for anyone outside the ruling family circles to be of any significance, economically or otherwise. Central Asia did not open up to international exchanges, remained economically and geopolitically bottled up and could provide no bonanza – not even for Turkey.

As the final years of the twentieth century were approached both Russia and Turkey seemed adrift, an old imperious power increasingly unable to command respect – not even internally, in its Chechen wilderness – and a would-be – to some a re-emerging – great power not quite able to articulate why it ought to count more.

To their West, Europe was increasingly absorbed by its enlargement mechanics, while the capacity of its ancient great powers to play decisive roles in global affairs all but vanished. Europe as a counterpoise to the American hyper-power was not to be. Yet, though America reigned supreme militarily, with its booming New Economy having successfully dealt with an earlier Japanese challenge in economic supremacy, it remained detached and disinterested in steering the geopolitical evolution of any part of the world. This was contrary to what it had consistently done between the 1940s and the 1980s. It did not even have enough focus and stamina to sort out the mess in Afghanistan and Iraq that it had helped worsen.

In the Middle East the field was wide open for Islamism to take over as the standard bearer of contestation against the oppressive regimes there and the Western influence that had pretty much designed the region politically and was still propping up some of those same regimes. But the potency of Islamism – either in its “moderate” variety, or in its terrorist offshoots – was not fully appreciated. The calendar was not yet showing 11 September 2001.

As is often the case in these matters, powerful financial crises focused the minds in Moscow and Ankara, even if each saw a different light in the lightning rods that shone over their skies.

In Russia, the financial seizure of 1998 wiped out not only a great deal of middle class savings that had been painfully stored since the post-Soviet economic collapse, but also marginalised the tenuous fringe of Russians who held some hope in an open society in which economic and political freedoms combine to build prosperity. The devastation caused by the crisis, and the generalised state of lawlessness of the post-Communist order helped rally longing and support, in the good old Russian tradition, for a “good Tsar” who will reign in the abusive bureaucrats and the boyars who lick the people’s blood, defeat internal enemies – starting with the Chechens – and make Russia great again by restoring an aggressive posture against other nations. In the Russian moujik’s[6] mind, outsiders could wish nothing but ill for Russia. The saviour was a little Russian Napoleon, with manners far worse than his Corsican predecessor’s. His first name, and that of his father, promised that he would rule the world.[7]

In Turkey, the sharp economic downturn of 1999, which was followed by an even more painful financial crisis in 2001 – both equally home-made, as the world economy was not in crisis – combined to generate the most perfect storm in the country’s political landscape, resulting in a political tabula rasa. The early parliamentary elections of November 2002 threw out 89 per cent of the MPs of the previous parliament and brought in a new political party (AKP[8]) out of nowhere and into power with an absolute majority – the first since 1987. AKP incarnated precisely the marriage of the two powerful social and economic undercurrents that had been gathering strength in Turkey in the preceding two decades – Islamism and the inner Anatolian industrial middle class. The method that brought it to power – genuinely free elections – was the opposite of what brought Putinism to power in Russia. In those days the AKP was in no position to muzzle the media, which remained largely hostile to it, like much of the rest of the establishment in Turkey. Nor could it deploy the means of the state to reach it ends, unlike nowadays.

More importantly, the conclusions that the Turkish state drew from the crises of 1999 – 2001 could also not have been more different from those the Russians drew from theirs. Turkey had a crisis because, while its economy had industrialised and moved towards competitive markets, its state and economic governance had not been reformed accordingly. Reckless debt and deficit policies by the government crowding out private investment were the chief cause of macroeconomic instability and were bottling up the otherwise powerful economic dynamism of the country. That had to be stopped. This, at least was the conclusion that the new power in Turkey – thankfully – drew.

And, what better way to bolster pro-market forces than opening the country to foreign investment and re-energising the EU accession process that had been dormant since the late 1970s? This was music to the ears of global finance and the international organisations. Aid poured in from the IMF, World Bank and the EU. Turkey rapidly recovered the level of annual output lost between 1999 and 2001 and embarked in one of its strongest bouts of economic expansion (GDP grew by 77 per cent between 2001 and 2008[9]).

Those on the Left and the Kemalists kidded themselves – and many still do – that it was all to the credit of Kemal Derviş (a former World Bank Vice President) who did it all during his brief, comet-like passage as economy minister through Turkish politics[10]. Decency requires to recognise that Turkey’s remarkable recovery and structural transformation in the early 2000s were not thanks to a mere World Bank official overseeing the application of standard “Washington consensus” medicine to Turkey’s ills – there had been many IMF Stand-By Arrangements for Turkey in the past, but none had been coupled with decisive structural reforms. Credit needs to go, instead, to the political stability brought by AKP’s solid majority in the Parliament and its clear-cut orientation – at that time – in favour of pro-market industrial forces in the country.

Post-9/11, and especially post-2003 invasion of Iraq by the bellicose George W. Bush Administration – when Turkey refrained from approving the use of its territory by the American military for attacking Saddam’s Iraq – Turkish-American relations deteriorated rapidly. That stopped only when America itself was struck by crisis in 2008 and a new Administration thereafter began to try to reverse the course chosen in 2001.

Russia managed to avoid confrontation with America until 2008 when it felt strong enough to flex its muscle and show – in the brief war against a feeble Georgia – how it was prepared to deal with incursions into its imperial fringe by an unfocused and half-hearted West. Meanwhile its economy was growing handsomely thanks to what turned out to be one of the strongest commodity booms in history. Even the financial crisis of 2008 – 2009 did not stop that boom, as China and other “emerging” economies filled in for the slack left by slow growth in advanced economies. Yet, there was very little in this for the ordinary Russian.

As the initial euphoria following Barrack Obama’s accession to American presidency faded, and the world waited for him to deliver something other than brilliant speeches, the assertiveness and arrogance of “emerging” powers grew. There was little to restrain them. First the US, then, increasingly, Europe, began to be absorbed by their own affairs. Restoring broken public finances turned out to be a daunting task in a world where there was no longer a generally accepted view of what was good economic policy. This was in stark contrast with the good old days of the 1980s when the Western world had managed to surmount the economic and political turmoil of the late 1970s and had pulled itself back together through a Liberal revolution spearheaded by Thatcherism and Reaganomics. Whether those ideologies had got everything right is beside the point. During the “G7 era” all principal economic powers rowed in the same direction. In the new “G20” world order that arose from the Great Recession, they were spending their time hitting each other’s heads with the oars.

Political systems too showed signs of breakdown. In Europe, anti-establishment and anti-EU parties expanded their following, even among historically cool-headed nations like the Dutch. The growing attractiveness of Islamism as a vehicle for self-expression by Europe’s internal Muslim underclass was a boon for the recruiters of far-Right and other anti-establishment causes. Across the Atlantic, as the post-crisis rebound stuttered in the early 2010s, uncharacteristically for the American economy, “dysfunctional” became a household word used in connection with Washington – also a far cry form the historical image of the American Constitution as an ingenious, self-correcting system of government.

In the “G20” world order the emerging great powers seemed to have less and less reason to take guidance from the established powers. The sclerotic markets of America and, especially, Europe offered little potential for the kind of growth that would entice the industrial class of Turkey that was now coming of age and flexing its competitiveness muscle across products of a wide range of sophistication. The EU’s share in Turkish exports collapsed from 58 per cent to 39 per cent between 2003 and 2013, while total merchandise exports as a percentage of Turkey’s GDP rose from15.6 to 18.4 in the same period.

With healthier public finances now, Turkey was also in a position to exercise its diplomatic muscle, quadrupling the number of its embassies in Africa, hosting an increasing number of conferences involving developing country leaders[11], here promoting a “technology bank” to assist the Least Developing Countries, there expanding a foreign aid budget dwarfing those of many established donors, even if its accounts were never subject to international audit by the donors’ club, the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee – why take counsel from the guardians of the previous world order! Turkey could now secure a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council (2009 – 2010), for the first time since 1961, Chair the OECD Ministerial Council in 2012 and get acceptance to preside the G20 in 2015. Indeed, the Turkish leaders had now become a permanent fixture in top international gatherings, rubbing elbows with world leaders. Who needed EU membership, if you had more chances of meeting Mrs Merkel than the leader of a medium-sized EU member?

It was also more fun to flirt with like-minded autocracies such as Putin’s Russia, go through the motions of purchasing militarily useless rocket systems from China and float the prospect becoming a bona fide member of the Shanghai club of Asian autocrats – why not, if even India, the most populous “democracy” and the proudest of emerging great powers also did it?

Even during the unthreatening torpor of the Yeltsin years Russia was still a continent-size power armed with nuclear warheads and every conceivable weapon system to “deliver” them. Even without a deliberately focused anti-Western belligerence it was capable of festering interminable conflicts in its former imperial periphery, from Transnistria to the Mountainous Karabakh, crippling the ability of many of its former subject peoples to conduct an autonomous foreign policy. Now a more assertive Russian state, filthy rich with oil revenues, had less reason to remain polite and be bound by the rules expected from a well-mannered participant in a European order “from the Atlantic to the Urals”. In reality, that order could only have been either from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or nothing, but few European fans of Russia took this into account.

Having dealt with the Chechen rebellion in the most brutal fashion one could picture – if the “international” Press had covered it properly – i.e., by appointing the most ruthless rebel warlord as the local potentate and ensuring that the world forgot about Chechens as a people, it could now embark on a vigorous military build-up to prepare for more ambitious opportunities.

With NATO’s reckless and half-serious flick with Ukraine and Georgia stopped upon the severe punishment rendered on the latter in 2008, it could now move further to muzzle Ukraine’s hesitant efforts to embrace a pluralist market democracy. Thanks to Ukrainians’ time-honoured ability to divide and be conquered, Russia was able to propel his illiterate protégé Victor Yanukovich to Ukraine’s presidency (February 2010) and go about anchoring Kiev more firmly in Moscow’s sphere of gangster capitalism. As the Donetsk mafia licked the meagre blood left in Ukraine’s veins, the West could do little other than stare. Their disinterest was only exceeded by that of Turkey, too happy to sell goods to the fast growing Russian market. News of punitive Russian embargoes on this or that export product from Moldova, Ukraine or Georgia could only generate jubilant articles in Turkish business newspapers, announcing new moneymaking opportunities.

But the newly flexed Russian power was different in nature from the Turkish one. Turkey now surpassed Russia in exports of manufactured goods in absolute terms for the first time in recorded history (Figure 1 – see charts in a separate attachment). In fact, Turkey had been ahead of Russia in per capita exports of manufactures for some time and increased its lead (Figure 2). Demographically too, though Russia was still bigger, its assertiveness was underpinned by a population in secular decline, increasingly ill and more violent (Figures 3 to 7). It was only going to take the next inevitable dip in raw material prices for Turkey to surpass Russia again in per capita production (Figure 8).[12] By then Turkey had arrived within striking distance of the once mighty Russian giant in the R&D intensity of the economy as well (Figure 9).

Russia was feared. It inspired the dreadful sort of respect, which also suited the temperament of the KGB-trained street fighter who ruled its gang of security thugs who ruled the country from the Moscow Kremlin.

For a brief moment Turkey was somewhat admired for its economic prowess, and there was some tentative respect for its government – there was talk of a “Turkish model” that might be of inspiration for the Arab states that were struggling to give a positive direction to their restive masses in the wake of the Arab Spring. Albeit, beneath the glittering façade of a “rising Turkey”, cracks were difficult to miss. This was still a country fighting a Kurdish insurgency, and had one of the largest populations of journalists in prison, even before Mr Erdoğan’s authoritarianism began to attract international condemnation. Still, some hoped that Turkey was now becoming the type of an economy and society that could only continue to prosper in conjunction with an open, rules-based political order, domestically and internationally. However, the country’s top leadership had a different view.

It is the characteristic of unchecked power to grow more arrogant and seek greater adventures. And in Oriental societies – of which both Russia and Turkey are part, behind their Peterbourgeoise and Kemalist facades – the prevailing political culture nurtures little awareness of the risks associated with unchecked political power.

As they entered the year 2013 no one in Russia or Turkey could anticipate the turmoil that awaited them in international relations, and domestic affairs in the case of Turkey. Prior to his sham re-election the previous year Putin had eliminated what was left in the way of opposition in Russia. There was no more domestic politics in Russia.

In Turkey, Mr Erdoğan sailed from victory to victory, the latest one being in the local elections of March 2013. An aura of invincibility gave credence to his claim that there was no real opposition in the country. He did have a point. What passed as opposition in Turkey had squandered the best part of a decade since AKP’s coming to power in 2002 with efforts to kill that party through unlawful methods, including a shot at a military coup in 2007 – with the armed forces expressing objection to the AKP heavy weight Mr Abdullah Gül’s appointment as President of the Republic. This was followed with attempts to have that party – representing more than 40 per cent of the popular vote – banned in court.

These clumsy and illegitimate moves only made AKP and its ruler Mr Erdoğan more aggressive in their own methods to assert supremacy. An unprecedented judicial process placed a sizable portion of Turkey’s 300-plus flag officers (generals and admirals) under arrest. Again, many who oppose Mr Erdoğan today may fool themselves with the notion that those moves were necessary and that their success would have saved the country from the current descent into autocracy. A more cool-headed view is possible. That Turkey’s superficially westernised but instinctively anti-democratic old guard blew the opportunity to establish a modus vivendi with the challenge the Islamists posed to their privileged position. And by refusing to respect them and the legitimacy of their democratic mandate, they have given the Islamists no option other than seeking the destruction of the westernised segment in Turkey’s power structure. In effect, they coerced their Islamist enemies to effectively take their own place and shape the country’s destiny in the same top-down, authoritarian manner, except perhaps with a different dress code.

With very little effort – a somewhat more modern and effective mass party organisation and a vaguely more charismatic leader – the main opposition party CHP[13] could have posed a far more potent challenge to AKP. But they were never going to try. Seeking a mandate by catering to the needs of the electorate was not their thing.

And where legitimate and effective political opposition is weak – through its own fault in the case of Turkey – discontent finds another channel to express itself. With the Gezi Park events that flared up in Turkey in May 2013, it was precisely into this dead end that part of Turkey’s frustrated and ostensibly westernised youth turned itself. For Mr Erdoğan whose Islamist political upbringing contained no appreciation of political checks and balances – indeed, any limit to absolute power – this was a priceless opportunity to rally his own base around a clear-cut “us vs. them” fight.

Effectively unopposed, Mr Erdoğan soon felt bold enough to take on even one of the principal factions within his own Islamist political family, the Gülenists – a sort of latter-day brotherhood-cum-masonic order à la Turque owing allegiance to a babbling priest in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Within a year, thousands of technocrats, from the police to the judiciary, who were rightly or wrongly associated with Mr Gülen’s confrèrerie, were removed from office or exiled to positions where they could not pose a threat to Mr Erdoğan’s power.

The net effect of the internal political turmoil in Turkey since April 2013 was that, as the going got rough on the international arena from the next year on, the Turkish society found itself utterly divided to the point where no level of external danger would prove sufficient to rally the bulk of the nation around its government.

And the going did get rough in the international arena. Messrs Erdoğan and Putin may have appeared unshakable in their grip on power domestically, and imperturbable on the international stage, with Europe in a desperate struggle to save their currency union while America reeling under self-inflicted fiscal sequester. But beneath this triumphal facade developments beyond any autocrat’s control were going to put both countries through severe trials.

The first trial opened in Kiev, as the ordinary people of Ukraine rose en masse in rebellion against their government – something that the Turkish nation has never been able to do. Kremlin’s political engineers turned out to be as unprepared in 2013 as they had been during the Orange Revolution of 2004. Conspiracy theorists and assorted armchair geo-strategists may relish the thought that the Maidan protests from November 2013, which resulted in the expulsion of Yanukovich government by February 2014, were an American-inspired plot pitting a Europe-leaning Western Ukraine against a Moscow-leaning, Russian-speaking east. More careful observers have every opportunity to realise that there is a “middle Ukraine” of self-respecting patriots (many of whom are Russian-speakers at home) whose sole reason for rebellion was utter disgust for the savage gangsterism of Yanukovich & Co.

This was the sort of grass-roots rebellion that Oriental autocrats are incapable of analysing and deflecting. And Ukraine – which had always been intrinsically a little freer than Russia, with a peasantry a little richer than Russia’s servile masses – did not master the cruelly effective methods of repression that kept autocracy unshakable in Russia. A few gangster bodyguards of Yanukovich were able to murder nearly a hundred protesters in the slopes leading to the Parliament building in Kiev. But the bulk of the Ukrainian police, and even more so the Ukrainian Army, would not fire at its own countrymen – unlike Turkish law enforcement bodies which could always be relied upon by the government to shoot at protesters en masse, as they were happy to confirm during and after the Gezi Park events.

With his protégé Yanukovich booted, and having lost control of Western and central Ukraine, including Kiev (3 million inhabitants), Russia had no means of responding other than lowering the level of the discussion. Outright Anschluss of Crimea and blatant festering of armed rebellion by Russian Army-assisted criminal gangs parading as separatist freedom fighters in the Donbas region were enough to narrow the new Ukrainian government’s room for manoeuvre and delight the credulous Russian masses drugged with Moscow’s propaganda.

But they were also enough to start a process of reassessment in the West’s relations with Russia – timidly at first, as this new crisis in the eastern approaches seemed to Europeans and Americans as the last thing they needed at that moment. Indeed, it was a horror for those in the West – including individuals, companies, football clubs, indeed entire political parties – who had allowed themselves to be entangled in complex business and personal ties with Russia’s kleptocrats and the Kremlin regime intertwined with the business empires of those. This, after all, was an age when a former Chancellor of the Bundesrepublik could sit on the board of a Gazprom subsidiary and be on Mr Putin’s payroll. The West was going to try to kid itself for a long time that it can persuade Russia to change its behaviour in Ukraine through “surgical strikes” – limited sanctions against specific individuals and companies.

But it was enough. Even before these events, from 2009 onwards, during what was still a period of commodity price boom, Russian economic growth was already on a downward path. Increasingly arbitrary meddling with business by the Kremlin was souring the appetite of Western companies for the Russian market and scaring off Russia’s own entrepreneurs. Now, those limited sanctions added to the effects of a sharp decline in oil and other raw material prices. That, in turn, was driven partly by deteriorating confidence in China’s growth prospects – something the Chinese autocrats seemed unable to reverse – and a fracking[14] revolution that promised to turn the US into an oil exporter – something well beyond any autocrat’s control. The result was going to be economic meltdown in Russia from 2014 onwards.

By that time, what had started as a spring of hope in the Arab world back in 2011 had turned into a winter of frustration, and parts of it had become an arena of contest among autocrats, local and adjacent. Convinced of his invincibility – and perhaps infallibility – Mr Erdoğan was well ahead of Mr Putin in throwing his country into this foray. He could claim multiple justifications for his action. First, there was the question of making up for decades-long Kemalist neglect for Turkey’s relations with the nearby Arab brethren. Regardless of the current state of imbroglio in Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, that remains a valid point. Besides, with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees pouring in, to escape the murderous tyrant of Damascus, it was not as if Turkey had the option of not being involved. But obtaining the desired results turned out to be more difficult than getting involved.

What we nowadays call the Near East[15] has not had strong locally based and viable states since around the 10th century AD when much of the region came under the overlordship of Turkic chieftains[16], sometimes ruling as autonomous Atabegs[17], at other times subsumed under predominantly Turkic imperial structures such as the Seljuk or the Memluk, until the whole thing was absorbed as a set of governorates under the Ottoman Empire in the early 16th century. “Modern” states drawn on the map after WWI have never been independent and solid either, except when they were run as ruthless Baathist tyrannies (in Baghdad and Damascus between the 1970s and the 1990s) or governed directly by Europeans themselves (as in the case of Israel).

For instance, it took Lebanon as a theoretically independent nation-state no more than twelve years (from the de facto ending of French rule at the end of 1946) to require its first American military intervention to quell its first bout of civil war in 1958 and prevent it from breakup. The subsequent civil wars and foreign invasions (1967, 1976, 1983) brought little change to the predicament of that geographical expression of Lebanon, drawn on the political map for the sole purpose of having a state with a Christian majority on the Levant coast. It never worked. Nearby Jordan consisted in half of refugees from Palestine – the most educated and economically advanced Arab society in the 1940s – who had to make room for Jewish settlers to whom Europe could not offer enough space and security even after the defeat of Nazism. And the Hashemite State there has been all but an Israeli protectorate since the 1970s. Since also the 1970s, the ossified state of Egypt has been underwritten by the US and oil-rich Gulf Arab states. The latter could not exist for more than 45 minutes without Anglo-American military protection, as Saddam Hussein demonstrated in 1990. The invention of Libya, as a unified state enclosing Tripolitania, Cyrenaic and Fezzan, was a silly Italian idea. Even the Roman Empire had always kept these as separate provinces – so did its Ottoman successor.

The impotence of states in this region was one reason behind the uprising of Arab masses from 2011, in search of jobs, hope and respect, possibly in the reverse order. But the destruction of even those feeble and inept states quickly transformed popular uprisings into inter-locked civil wars.

The net effect of America’s military actions against and within Iraq between the first Gulf War of 1990 and their “retreat” in 2011 has been the destruction of Iraq as a centrally run state. While Iraq’s Kurdish North had been run as a de facto independent state since around 1991, its Shi’ite Arab majority was now perfectly happy to let the Iraqi space come under considerable Iranian influence.

To outsiders, especially those of pious Sunni Muslim persuasion like Mr Erdoğan, it was difficult to banish the thought of an Iran interconnecting the different regions under Shi’ite control across the Fertile Crescent, from southern Iraq to Hizbullah-ruled southern Lebanon. It is doubtful that the Iraqi or Lebanese Shi’ites were interested in anything more than making use of Iran’s resources (and zeal) to advance their local agendas, and probably couldn’t give a fig to the fantasy of resurrecting the old Iranian Empire of older (Achaemenid or Sassanid) days. But, you never know. History – including that of 700 years of Roman-Persian wars[18] – shows that, from a “Mediterranean” point of view, the Persian leadership is not entirely immune to a fanatical pursuit of expansionism.

In the centre-stage of this chequered political terrain now erupted a new civil war in Syria. This squandered years of patient work by Ankara, which since 1999 was deploying every diplomatic and commercial effort within their means to nudge this fanatical pan-Arab Baathist autocracy towards becoming a more normal neighbour with whom one could engage in mutually beneficial commercial and human relations – and with any luck strengthen the prospects for broad-based prosperity. Except that, anything broad-based in Syria would necessitate that considerable economic and political power shifts from the 10 per cent Alawite minority who ruled the country to the 80% Sunni majority who have been suffering quietly under the brutal regime of Al-Assad – less quietly during brief moments such as the quashing of the 1982 Hama rebellion (estimated 10,000 to 40,000 dead), to which no one had paid much attention in the West or in Turkey.

The young al-Assad (Bashar), or those in the Alawite leadership who pulled the strings that made his long limbs move, wouldn’t have any of that. This was now an opportunity for Damascus to reassert control in the country through the time-honoured brutal methods they knew how to apply and deliberately fuel a civil war. Iran was too happy to give them a hand in extinguishing the timid attempt towards a more open society. Other regional mini-autocracies were now moving in (Qataris, Saudis), delighted in the prospect of playing mini-great power games. Money was not a problem. The lives to be lost were enthusiastically provided by the frustrated youth of Syria, who finally found something to do with their otherwise dull existence.

Who was to stop those outsiders from pouring oil on Syria’s fires? A confused and budget-sequestrated America, fed up with Muslim world imbroglios and unwilling to afford new wars in the Middle East? Or Europe’s historic powers (Britain, France) which were not great enough to intervene in Libya on their own without practical help from the US? France was just about great power-enough to police Mali – albeit imperfectly.

A French saying attests that “when the cat isn’t around, the mice dance”. With Europe impotent and America unwilling to get involved, everyone could now play great power in the Near East. It is possible to argue that, with his religious upbringing, Mr Erdoğan had no difficulty to see the conflicts in the region as an emerging titanic struggle between the Sunni and Shi’ite strands of Islam. Besides, all other direct participants did the same. But it is also possible to interpret Turkey’s positioning in purely secular terms, as pursuit of national self-interest in what is primarily a national conflict, i.e., one about influence and control of territory and access to resources and denial of them to others.

The net effect of America’s clumsy interventions, interspersed with benign neglect, were now promising to offer a huge swath of the ancient Fertile Crescent to Iranian control, with the rest risking to be turned into a string of medieval fiefdoms stretching from the Zagros Mountains to the Mediterranean, controlled by various factions of Kurds – who, remember, in the final analysis speak an Iranian tongue.

It was bad enough that life was reduced to rubble for Sunni Arabs who constituted a third of Iraq including the ancient city of Baghdad, which is revered in so many Turkish proverbs.[19] Now the same fate beckoned the four-fifths of Syria’s population that was also Sunni Muslim, including in the venerable city of Halab, so close in character to Turkey’s southeast, and yet kept so far from it since the French intrusion into the area. The French had placed their seat of control in Damascus, which they could reach more easily from their beachhead in Beirut. Yet, Halab had managed to hold its own as the economic capital of the country, to this day.

Everyone on the chessboard of Syria and Iraq could count on some external “friend”. The Alawite regime of Damascus was preferable for Israel principally as “the devil they knew”. The Shi’ite in general (including the Alawites), of course, had their elder brother and protector in Iran. Europe was all-attentive to do what it could to protect the dwindling numbers of Christians in the Near East – especially France, now too happy to dump its pan-Arabist supporter cloak, which it had worn from the 1970s up until the Iraq War of 1990, and revert to its 19th century role as protector and promoter of les Chrétiens d’Orient. Kurds – Syrian or Iraqi – were always held in romantic light by the European intelligentsia and had now become useful allies on the ground – or stepping-stones – for the American military. That the political organisation (PYD) controlling Syria’s Kurdish areas – with Damascus’ consent – was an affiliate of the one (PKK) that was waging war against the Turkish state since 1984 did not matter. Kurds were tactful enough not to harm Westerners directly.

This gave a perfect opportunity for Mr Erdoğan to throw his hand – alongside the Gulf Arab monarchies – as the great protector of Sunni Muslims – the ordinary Joe of Syria. A self-interested move, no doubt. But was it entirely devoid of sincerity and moral high ground?

And, how was one to exercise, in practical terms, support for the ordinary Muslims of Syria – who were doing most of the fighting and dying – if not by backing the most effective rebel groups? Some in America and elsewhere kidded themselves in the early days of the Syrian civil war that an effective challenge to Damascus could be put up by sophisticated Syrian expats returning from comfortable exiles in the West.

Just what does it take to sustain fighting, without air cover, in the face of near-certainty of death under barrel bombs from an enemy that does possess an air force and is free to use it – because the respectable “international community” cannot afford to take on Syria’s dense Russian-built air defence system? It turns out that a religious “fanatic” is better equipped – intellectually-speaking – for this type of combat, which is a suicide mission even when one isn’t trying to be a kamikaze. American security experts to this day engage in semantic contortionism to justify why it might be necessary “to work with” some “extremist” rebel groups which may be just about “moderate” enough. Alas, America’s efforts to pick and chose rebel groups that might deserve its material support in Syria have ended up producing the greatest of fiascos in the history of covert war.

In the end, it was the juxtaposition of religious sensitivities (or perhaps grander designs) by Mr Erdoğan and his close supporters with a totally rational pursuit of national self-interest by the Turkish state that drove Turkey’s dealings in the medieval chessboard of Syria.

But could that also justify apparent collusion – even benign neglect – of Daesh[20], that unholiest of unholy conspiracies that erupted to the centre stage of the Fertile Crescent in 2014? Was Turkey at fault for not placing in the highest category of evil those who murdered in the most modern, internet-assisted, manner, targeting with maximum visual effect the contemporary Western man’s hyper-sensitivity to the image? Should Turks and their government have concluded, like Western nations, that those who cut throats “online” and deliberately destroy ancient ruins should be considered a higher form of evil than Bashar al-Assad, who, behind his impeccably Western attire, oversees a “civilised” aerial massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians and, in fact, deliberately lets Daesh flourish by not attacking it? Probably they should have, but not for the above reasons, but because Daesh’s extreme level of cynicism that rivalled with al-Assad’s – for example in prostituting girls they ostensibly punished for their lack of piety, or in making money by selling antiquities they banish as idolatry, etc., etc. Perhaps above all, for the extreme unpredictability and freedom from principle incarnated by this most curious chimera born out of an intercourse between frustrated Muslims and a bigoted West.

What was behind the cruelly innovative barbarism displayed by Daesh anyway? In what ways was its savagery an emanation from something that might be deeply wrong within Islam on its own? To what extent was its ruthlessness grew out of impurities poured upon the Muslim world – especially the hapless youth of Europe’s Muslim internal proletariat that now indulged in murder games?

A partisan point of view may see truth in one or, alternatively, the other, and it would be waste of time to seek a discussion among partisan points of view on this sort of a subject. A “Toynbeean” point of view of history[21] encourages us to consider that it is perhaps the unfortunate “intercourse” between the West and an Islam-in-exile as underclass within its intellectually and culturally abandoned suburbs that Europe’s Daesh contingent was born.

Many have already noticed the prominent part Muslims brought up within the West play within Daesh. That facet of the phenomenon is even better appreciated when “European” Daesh members are seen as share of the Muslim population within their country of birth or adoption (Figure 10). That said, these numbers only reveal the higher intensity of (or propensity for) extreme Islamism within the West. There is no doubt that, in absolute terms, the bulk of Daesh rank-and-file and its zeal have been manufactured close to where they are operating.

And whether the advent of Daesh is “Islam’s fault” or the West’s, by now the apportioning of the blame scarcely mattered. What counted was who was hurting whom. The moment Daesh began decapitating captured Westerners in cinematographic fashion, Syria’s skies could turn into an Abilene-style shootout, even with the feeble Jordanian Air Force getting a chance for target practice with live ammunition.[22] The day Daesh sympathizers hit deep inside the West with the Charlie Hebdo murders of January 2015, the stakes were raised further. French intellos could now proudly express, with something akin to satisfaction, that Islamic terror was attacking their country “for its way of life and its values” – a conclusion that many of them had greeted with scorn when it had been reached by Americans post-9/11. The day when Daesh appeared to have something to do with the 2015 suicide attacks in Turkey (Suruç, July; Ankara, October), even it began to go through motions of doing something about Daesh.[23]

Nevertheless, these developments were now sufficient to put in motion several processes of repositioning; in Turkey’s involvement in the Near East; in its military relationship with the US – who was now given permission to use bases inside Turkey to attack Daesh – and even in Turkey’s relations with the European Union.

By 2015, it was remarkable how the Near East and Europe seemed intertwined. It became impossible to see a cover page on a major European newspaper or a European TV news bulletin without a top news item on the Europe-Near East interaction – Islamic terror threats, treatment of Islam within the West, the impact of those on the public opinion and elections, Western air strikes in Syria or Iraq, streams of hapless refugees from the Near East’s failed states drowning, swimming or marching they way from Syria to Europe, etc., etc.

It was unthinkable that this intensifying coupling between Europe and the Near East would not also shift Europe’s relationship with Turkey, which, after all, straddled both regions. Naturally, the shift began with tentative and hesitant moves. Still, Turkey’s relations with Iran soured quickly, despite expectations of a bonanza in trading with it in the post-sanctions era. Silly gestures such as going to through the motions of buying weapons systems from China were put aside. And these reinforced earlier signals of rapprochement with the Atlantic powers, such as the establishment of a ballistic missile defence system to face potential threats from the same Iran. But they were not enough to break the ice completely. Visibly, Mr Erdoğan had successfully built up enough antipathy (and perhaps suspicions as to his ultimate attachments) for any Western leader conscious of public opinion to contemplate, much less articulate, closer ties with Turkey.

Shifts in the fundamental determinants of power are necessary to instigate realignments in the diplomatic sphere, but they are not sufficient. Those require action by decisive operators (call them leaders, if you worship the apex of the power structure) willing and able to make bold moves, including ones that might turn out to be stupid. In the present juncture, boldness is a characteristic that is nigh impossible to associate with any democratically elected leader in the Euro-Atlantic sphere. Neither America’s philosopher king Mr Obama, nor the political party apparatchiks whom events propelled to leadership positions in countries like France or Germany have done anything that qualifies for the adjectives decisive or bold. Despite his reputation for recklessness, Mr Erdoğan does not differ much from them and most of his moves in the Near East have been covert and tentative ones.

That left the judo wrestler who reigns from the Moscow Kremlin. The opportunity must have been irresistible for the fighter mind ruling over his actions, and thus, Russia’s. All factors seemed to encourage him in that direction: The chance to annoy the guardians of the (Western) world order; Enjoyment of heightened power derived from supporting the weaker side in the conflict – the Alawite faction, which can only be a minority in a pluralist Syria; The chance to fascinate the growing masses of Right-wing extremists and Christian identitarians within Western electorates. With tremendous surprise effect, Mr Putin could now launch his crusade in Syria, ostensibly to destroy Daesh, yet in reality pummelling the only forces that checked it within that country’s Sunni areas, and with tremendous disdain for human life that is so characteristic of the Muscovite state. Heaven knows what recruitment boost he gave to yet unknown extremist factions whose future horrors we cannot even imagine.

Russian military aircraft were now crowding Syria’s already busy shooting range and openly destroying the West’s pathetic effort to build a non-fanatical coalition against al-Assad. So successful was his media assault as well that, for instance the French Press could be kept busy for days by Mr Putin’s instruction to the Russian Mediterranean squadron to cooperate with the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. The leadership of the Western world was paralysed as ever vis-à-vis this newly assertive Russia.

The view from Ankara, however, was now becoming crystal clear. This was no longer simply a question of containing a fanatical Iran trying to push through a zone of influence through Turkey’s southern fringe. A whole ring of Russian-inspired trouble spots and Russian-controlled military outposts now appeared to surround Turkey, from the Black Sea (Transnistria, Crimea, Donbass, and Abkhazia) through the Caucasus (Southern Ossetia, Armenia proper – where the two Soviet army divisions never left – and Mountainous Karabakh), all the way to the Russian base in Lazkiye (Lattakia) on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. With the sort of international behaviour that was now typical in Mr Putin’s Russia, there would be precious little that can stop it from paralysing Turkey’s patiently built but fragile economic and diplomatic ties from the Black Sea basin to the Near East, or disrupt the flow of energy from Azerbaijan. Conspiracy theorists who until yesterday were busy lamenting America’s imaginary effort to drive a Kurdish-Armenian wedge from the Mediterranean to the Caucasus through Turkey’s southeast were now scrambling to find wider maps to illustrate the thickening Russian ring, three-quarters complete around Turkey.

Except that, with the sort of unpredictable gambler ruling in Moscow, the conspiracy theorists had more of a point. Decidedly, Turkey now appeared increasingly bottled up in all directions, except the West, with which it had allowed its relations to sour. As 2015 drew to a close, Turkey’s opportunistic relationship with Russia suddenly deteriorated. Whether or not the downing of a Russian military aircraft on 24 November 2015 was an accident or a deliberate signal, whether it was a justified response to a specific[24] deliberate violation of Turkish airspace or an overreaction, it scarcely mattered. It was time to say “good bye, Mr Putin”. And the message was given in a language he could understand.

A tyrant cannot afford to look weak even for a day. Mr Putin had no option other than appearing tough and menacing in his response to this daring challenge to the great power that Russia was by a despicable lesser power. By doing so, he only accelerated Turkey’s reassessment of its relations with his country.

A few selective trade sanctions on their own may not have had much effect in Russian-Turkish economic ties in the longer term, other than making the ordinary Russian’s dinner plate – from which American and EU products had already been excluded – even more dull, and his leisure travel options even more limited. Besides, economic sanctions rarely change political behaviour on their own. But the deliberate and arbitrary mistreatment of Turkish businessmen – who have been active in Russia by the thousands for decades – was bound to encourage a reassessment of Russia’s de facto worth as an investment destination even by the battle-hardened Turkish business community, which normally excels in doing business in countries with poor governance. This was happening at a time when Western entrepreneurs still in Russia were also rushing to the gate.

The crumbling of economic ties with Russia could not be anything but painful in the short-term. Yet, a rebalancing of its unhealthy liaison with Russia could also bring benefits to Turkey. Less of that cheep and flashy Russian mass tourism could perhaps be turned into an opportunity for innovation and investment to attract higher quality visitors. A somewhat more serious approach – at least discourse – was evident regarding the diversification of the sources of energy imports and building much needed storage capacity for natural gas. In time, perhaps, the Turkish government would also find the necessary resolve to get out of the deal to have Turkey’s first nuclear power plant built by the heirs of Chernobyl know-how!

And, that now perfectly fitted with the about-turn in the diplomatic sphere that Ankara was bound to carry out. Such about-turns are anything but a rarity in Turkish history, vis-à-vis Russia or, for that matter, vis-à-vis the West.

Some two centuries ago, at a time when Turkey was rapidly descending from great power status, it had taken little more than a generation from 1827, when the combined naval forces of Britain, France and Russia destroyed the Turkish fleet in Navarino – to make Greece independent – to the Crimean War of 1853-1856 when the somewhat reformed Ottoman Turks could now count the same Britain and France as allies in checking Russian expansionism. The Crimean War is seldom depicted in the West as an act of alliance with Turkey, but it marked the high point of Turkey’s 19th century alliance with the West. However, by the time Russia attacked Turkey again in 1877, Turkey could count on no allies, with France freshly defeated by an ascendant Germany and desperately in need to turn Russia into an ally, and Britain sufficiently fed up with trying to prop up a perennially weak Ottoman Empire incapable of carrying out decisive reforms. By the next encounter in 1914, things had turned full circle, with Turkey again battling against Britain, France and Russia as a group.

Relations with Russia saw wide swings too, from the war of 1827 to the cosy partnership of the Treaty of Hünkâr Iskelesi (1833) – when the ruling Ottoman dynasty received military aid from Russia to defend its throne against a hostile takeover bid by Mehmed Ali Pasha, their Viceroy in Egypt, and guaranteed to block the Turkish Straights to foreign warships when Russia asked for it. Relations reverted back to wars (1853-56, 1877-78, 1914-18) and again to cooperation from 1921 onwards – which is where we started our story.

Turkey’s last war with Russia thankfully ended in the winter of 1917-18 as the Tsarist armies disintegrated from exhaustion and their country’s takeover by the Bolsheviks who were in favour of a settlement with Germany. But, contrary to what Europeans may be taught at school, WWI did not end everywhere in 1918. Turkey remained effectively at war with Britain and France up until 1922[25], as the latter waged a proxy war in Anatolia through local allies to impose the terms of the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), which, incidentally, had been ratified neither by Turkey nor by those Western powers – only Greece had ratified it, to no avail. The Lausanne Treaty (1923), which the Kemalist victory in Anatolia forced upon Britain and France, was, however, ratified by everybody, including Greece.

Soon after the following major conflict among great powers was over in 1945, Turkey could once again position itself under the protection of the West, which was now unambiguously led by the US. Notwithstanding short-lived episodes of cozying up with the Soviet Union, such as during the final years of the Menderes government (1950-1960) which was struggling (and failing) to manage the economy’s first bout of opening and the boom and bust that it entailed, or during the late 1960s when Turkey was exceedingly cross with America for siding with Greece on Cyprus conflicts, the “staunch ally” remained by and large anchored in the Western harbour. It is only in the late 1990s and early 2000s that a new type of flirt emerged with Russia– this time primarily in the economic sphere – by the brave new emerging Turkey as a trading nation.

Thus, we can identify no less than five reversals in Turkey’s relationship with Russia, and perhaps as many as four vis-à-vis the West, in the last 175 years (Table 1). Could Turkish foreign policy magicians now pull a new rapprochement with the West out of their hats, complete with accelerated integration in the EU? Or, at least, could there be a somewhat more decent arrangement – call it special relationship if you will – that will confirm that Turkey is coming out of the pale, again?

There is no doubt that Turkish diplomacy is trying it. An unmistakable change in tact and a heightened effort is evident in restoring cooperation with Europe, for instance on the question of circulation of persons and management of frontiers and refugees, issues for which the Turkish government – and perhaps to some extent Europe as well – had shown cynical neglect for years. Issues that have just got more daunting as well.

And, in the process, the prospect of visa-free in the EU by Turkish nationals just got more real. Visa-free travel to the EU by Turkish citizens – the only EU accession candidate that did not have it, though they had enjoyed it decades before some current EU members were invented as states – had been blocked for decades not so much by the EU but by Ankara bureaucrats who always held a disdain for any additional freedom to be enjoyed by the ordinary Turk and thus have not prioritised the necessary reforms to comply with the new EU rules. Some might consider this to be a marginal issue, but it represents much more than a cosmetic one. While this has nothing to do with the free circulation of labour envisaged under EU accession, in some ways it is more significant. If it were to become a reality, it would represent recognition of Turkish nationals as normal opposite numbers – not undesirables.

The recent willingness to accelerate preparations for Turkey’s EU accession, including negotiations on “chapters” previously blocked by France on grounds that these constitute areas where only a country with a “European vocation” should negotiate convergence, represent an even clearer shift in the signal from Europe. De facto, by the force of events, Turkey is falling in line regarding a whole raft of foreign policy positions on how to deal with Moscow, Teheran and Damascus.

Does all this amount to a decisive change of wind in Turkey’s relations with the Western democracies? Not so fast. There is one major snag.

Turkey has never really enjoyed the rule of law in a genuine sense. But he period since 1945, which also corresponds to the last era of rapprochement with the West, had witnessed the accumulation of a number of democratic, pluralist institutions and the observance of unwritten laws that make their functioning possible. For instance, even in the tumultuous 1970s, when the party with the largest number of seats in the Parliament failed to secure absolute majority alone or in coalition with other parties, the task to form the government would be given – by the President of the Republic – to the second largest party. Not anymore. The last several years have seen the triumph of arbitrary rule in Turkey. Mr Erdoğan has scarcely lefty a democratic institution or tradition untarnished. So sharp had the arbitrary turn been that, a previously symbolic neutral presidency could be turned into an all powerful and blatantly partisan authority without a single word changed in the laws or the constitution. From the appointment (or banishment) of judges, prosecutors and police chiefs, to the content of TV programming, every decision under the sun now has to follow presidential writ.

There has never been a free Press in Turkey in the Western sense. But now the President of the Republic could make it his business to make and unmake columnists, newspapers, TV stations and entire conglomerates controlling any of the latter, through the most arbitrary quasi-judicial procedures in the crudest Putinesque style. Owners of uncooperative companies risked facing the full arsenal of regulatory and tax abuse against their businesses.

Can the West now contemplate a serious and meaningful upgrade of its relationship with an Oriental autocracy under such arbitrary rule? This is not the same thing as maintaining arrangements of convenience with the likes of Saudi Arabia which is subject to a perhaps more repulsive form of autocracy. Saudi Arabia entirely depends on America for its military survival. Turkey ultimately does not[26]. And the type of relationship to which Turks have been aspiring with the West – the dominant civilisation since the 19th century – has been one of mutual respect and eventual incorporation in it.

The upgrade – or reset, or pivot, whichever you wish to call it – in relations with the West that some Turks may now be wishing, and the government may be desperate to secure, can only be achieved with a counterpart in Turkey that can be trusted. And can a country be trusted, especially as a key ally, or as a partner in an economic and political union (i.e., the EU), unless it can be trusted to practice rules-based government in its domestic affairs? In sum, can we really expect a tangible improvement in Turkey’s relations with the West, merely because the menace from Moscow is heightened?

Remember that back in the 1940s and the 1950s, the West embraced Turkey as an ally and partner not only because of the Soviet threat, but also because, from 1946 onwards, albeit in a confused manner, Turkey has made tangible improvements in its domestic governance, with the introduction of genuinely free elections, leading to a real change in power through elections (in 1950), coupled with a willingness to open its economy to international trade. The steps may not all have been decisive and complete, but the espoused direction of movement was the right one. Incidentally, the preceding era of rapprochement with the West from the 1840s onwards had also fully coincided with a period of political reforms in favour of rules-based government (Tanzimat) and opening up of the Empire to international trade.

Objective conditions in favour of a rapprochement with the West may now be ripening. But that rapprochement can only happen if Turkey can show signs of moving, once again, in the direction of a rules-based country in its domestic affairs as well as international relations. Can that happen with the sort of government and governance that rules Turkey today?

Certainly not. And if Europeans are serious diplomats – hopefully a small if – they are likely to insist, this is not simply a question of getting rid of Mr Erdoğan, ostensibly the culprit behind the recent deterioration in Turkey’s never too high governance standards. In any event, he is far from being removed from power. On the contrary, despite foreign policy setbacks and slower prospects for economic growth – his principal tailwind in the earlier days – his grip on power appears complete.

Turkey is not going to begin to become a more rules-based polity unless the process of change in political power through democratic means is resumed. That, in turn, is not likely, unless what passes as democratic opposition in the country becomes electable and capable of governing. Even if they were to come to power by some miracle, what passes as opposition in Turkey today is not likely to steer the country towards stronger ties with Western democracies, unless their relationship with the concept of power also evolves. For that to happen, the Kemalists (as the two principal opposition forces in Turkey define themselves) need to reassesses their own stand on the subject of arbitrary power. To get rid of Mr Erdoğan in order to replace him with another tyrant merely because he looks or sounds more modern (à la Messrs al-Assad, al-Sisi or, worse, Putin) is not likely to fool anyone.

Those Turks who aspire for a change of direction for their country have to realise and recognise the evil of arbitrary power regardless of who is exercising it. They need to recognise that their idol Atatürk had been just as, if not more arbitrary. If a few may have admired him and benefited from his arbitrary decisions and choices for Turkey, those choices have also stoked up much of the conservative and religious backlash that has ensued. Turkish Islamism in its essence is a counter-revolution to Kemalism’s arbitrary – and clumsily executed – wardrobe modernisation. Indeed, Mr Erdoğan represents little more than Atatürk’s shadow.

Not only that getting rid of Mr Erdoğan may not be sufficient for setting Turkey in the direction of rules-based governance, but convincing the present opposition of the virtues of rules-based, limited power may be near-impossible, without another condition to be fulfilled.

Whether they are convinced Islamists, mildly devout conservatives, pro-AKP opportunists, Kemalists, superficially secular nationalist MHP-supporters or Kurdish separatists, nearly all participants in Turkish politics share one fundamental characteristic – they all worship power. All seek salvation in an all-powerful leader – not unlike the hapless Russian moujik who longs for a good Tsar to save him from his exploitative overlords. The notion that limiting arbitrary power by checks and balances can actually make the whole nation more powerful has no following in any significant section of the Turkish society.

Yet, the dramatic events in Turkey since 2013 provide almost a laboratory experiment on how unchecked power of an individual and a small clique of faithful supporters around him can wreck a country’s prospects for peace and prosperity. But, will Turks – especially those who identify themselves as Kemalists – be able to seize the opportunity to take a stand against arbitrary power in principle?

There remains one more issue. Even if, by some miracle, Turkey’s westernised class were redeemed and suddenly stopped worshipping Atatürk for his wardrobe elegance and the like and started asking serious questions about the accountability of power, there remains the other half of the country who are devoted to Mr Erdoğan and his party and deeply in need for religion and piety in public life. Can they be convinced to consider that there is something deeply wrong in unchecked power? After all, Islam, unlike Christianity, contains no teaching warning against tyranny and cultivates little in the way of compassion for “the meek”.

Yet, one cannot make today’s Turkey more democratic by marginalising half of the population. Can a pious Muslim take stand against arbitrary and absolute power? Can the follower of any Abrahamic, Middle Eastern religion take a stand against absolute power, while worshiping the idea of an all-powerful God? Unless, that is, his religion has been tamed, reformed and civilised in the hands of a more humanist worldview, as it happened to Judaism and Christianity in Europe since the Age of Enlightenment? Can the same happen to Islam one day? If it did, would that creed still be Islam? What would remain distinctive about it?

Must Turkey and the rest of the Middle East suffer as much as Europe did in the wars of religion during the 16th and 17th centuries before they find out how to organise the relationship between religion and the state in a more humane and humanist manner? By one estimate, as much as 40 per cent of Germany’s population disappeared during the last act in the wars of religion, between 1618 and 1648. The Treaties of Westphalia (1648) ending the Thirty Years’ War have helped contain religion-based intransigence in European international affairs, by establishing the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (whoever rules politically determines the predominant religion), which would delight the supporters of Turkish-style laicism. But the real solution to religious fanaticism that has so wrecked Europe in the early modern times has come afterwards, when, during the Age of Enlightenment, religion (all sort of it) was gradually pushed outside politics and public life.

How to even contemplate, in present-day Turkey’s religious and political turmoil, acts that would reduce religion’s sway on people’s mind? A starting point might be to recognise that, contrary to its official ideology and pretence, the Turkish state has never been secular. With its clerics (imams, muezzins, muftis, and so on) on government payroll officially as civil servants, a Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı) more powerful than most ministries[27], with sermons centrally written by religious technocrats (theo-crats?), Turkish-style Sunni Islam is little more than a government instrument to control the meagre spiritual life of the average Turk. Indeed, Diyanet is a government agency that, in a blatant and unashamed manner, serves not just Islam, but one particular variant of it that is preferred by the ostensibly secular Turkish state. In this respect, it is part and parcel of the broader panoply of instruments that the Turkish state deploys to control the mental life of the Turkish population.

More importantly, this state of affairs is by no means an invention by the present Islamist power in Turkey. This Turkish-style pseudo-secularism is the handiwork of the 19th century Tanzimat modernisation, later perfected under the Kemalist regime. Moreover, it is hard to imagine a European Reformation-style religious modernization movement emerging from within such a state-run church.

Once again, the segments of the Turkish population that like to think of themselves as being westernised and aspiring for better ties with Western democracies need to engage in a certain amount of confession and self-introspection. This needs to start with realisation that Turkey was anything but secular during Atatürk’s reign and those of his successors. Indeed, far from it. Kemalism itself has come to acquire certain characteristics of a state religion, complete with a holy figure (Atatürk himself), untouchable and infallible, a holy book (Nutuk[28]) and even a temple – Atatürk’s Mausoleum in Ankara, a visit to which is an unavoidable fixture of any official event, from the opening of the Parliament to visits by foreign dignitaries.[29]

To sum up, if Turkey is once again to embark on a path towards democratisation and closer integration with Western democracies, it needs to become a more rules-based society where arbitrary power is checked. For that to happen, all major segments of the population need to converge around a different idea of governance where they are all protected against absolutism and concentration of power in the hands of any of them. For that to become a reality, there is a need to reduce both the role of religion in public life, and the level of state control in religion. The latter is a precondition for the former.

These may seem a tall order. But it is hard to see another way out. Turkey has tried forced modernisation, perhaps more forcefully than any other nation, save, perhaps for the Russians, and that did not make it Western. Instead, it has produced an Islamist backlash and Mr Erdoğan. Russia too has tried forced westernisation to hold its ground against a triumphant West. From time to time westernisation seemed to have gone deeper into the Russian skin and produced a more convincingly Western veneer. After all, no Turkish composer achieved anything like the mastery and renown in Western classical music of a Tchaikovsky or many other 19th century Russian composers. No Turkish writer could impress Western readership as a Tolstoy. But the same forced modernisation also gave Russia Lenin and Stalin and did not equip it with a political culture that could prevent Mr Putin.

If Turks now have to say good-bye to Mr Putin, and their unhealthy relationship they have built with his Russia, they also have to say good-bye to Mr Putin that lives within them. That isn’t only a question of saying good-bye to Mr Erdoğan. It is about establishing a whole new mental relationship with the likes of Messrs Erdoğan and Putin. What is needed for that?

Is the pious Muslim prepared to contemplate a political order in which he is not only free to practice his religion without interference from the state and where he does not feel compelled to capture and control the state to ensure his freedom of worship? Is the secular citizen prepared to contemplate a political order in which he needn’t maintain state coercion to keep religion under control and own the state to prevent religious diktat to be imposed on non-believers? Can there be a deal between genuine religious freedom and freedom from religion? Can we contemplate a form of secularism in which neither the pious nor the godless is afraid to have the other’s choice be imposed upon him? That would be a form of secularism where the state is free from religion; religion is free from state control and the individual free from religious (or irreligious) imposition by either of the two. It is upon these questions that Turks’ attention must now turn.

We may seem to be quite far from this state of affairs today, but those are goals to which we must aim, if we are one day to reach the type of internal peace and prosperity we admire in the more advanced segments of the Western civilisation – principally the English-speaking nations and others located around the North Sea basin.

But, who would have an incentive to move in this direction in todays’ Turkey? The pious conservative majority that is in power needs to protect and nurture the sources of economic growth – that has so far kept it in power – and avoid extreme risks in the foreign policy arena, which requires a minimum of national unity – which is presently non-existent in a time of grave external danger. To do that they need reconciliation or they need to establish a mode of cooperation with Turkey’s Kemalists and Turkey’s old allies in the West. Turkey’s Kemalist camp on their own have little capacity to coerce the ruling party to change its course, short of threatening a dramatic rebellion, which would bring the gravest of risks in the current international context. The Kemalists also need the support of the West in any effort to convince the ruling party change its course in foreign affairs or alter its style and objectives in domestic ones. The West in turn has an incentive to promote a sort of state in Turkey that would be dissuaded from foreign adventures by means of checks and balances internal to the country. The West can expect no benefit from promoting a superficially pro-Western, al-Sisi-style authoritarian alternative to Turkey’s Islamists. Indeed, it is only a matter of time before al-Sisi’s restoration of the ossified autocracy in Egypt will bring that country to its next eruption.

The West has every interest in maintaining the new – much bigger – Turkish economy anchored in its open multilateral system and would benefit immensely from a Turkey where the religious and the less religious have learned to establish a political system in which neither side needs an Erdoğan or an Atatürk in order to survive. Needless to add, the West has a clear interest in avoiding a Turkey ruled by a sort of Putin or, worse, a sort of local Khomeini or a Hitler. That of course also happens to be in Turks’ own fundamental interest.

All interests point in the direction of reconciliation around the principle of coexistence. What stands in the way is not just Mr Erdoğan’s person. It is first and foremost the great void in the minds of Turkey’s superficially westernised, self-appointed Kemalist “elite” who are unaware of the opportunity before them.

Will they be able to wake up? Will they be able to say “good-bye Mr Putin”, “good-bye Mr Erdoğan” and “good-bye Mr Atatürk” in the same breath? Time will tell.


Deniz Eröcal

Written in Sainte-Luce, Martinique, in December 2015. Revised in Paris in March-April 2016.



Graphics: TR-RUS – Graphics April 7

Full paper in PDF format (with the Graphics): TR-RUS Full paper April 7



[1] “I have not mastered the art of making myself clear to the man who refuses to pay attention” in Social Contract, Book III, Chapter 1, opening sentence. (It took him two books to figure that out.)

[2] In Turkish, Millî Mücadele. In more recent periods the designation Kurtuluş Savaşı (War of Liberation, or Redemption) has been used and is sometimes wrongly translated as a “war of independence”. Despite the occupation of a great deal of its territory between 1918 and 1922, Turkey continued to be an independent state.

[3] In the 1860s, the Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz could be received with the highest pomp and circumstance and reside in the palaces of French and British monarchs in what were the first state visits abroad by an Ottoman sovereign – not counting military campaigns. Despite scepticism in certain quarters, there was a genuine effort to give Ottoman political reforms of the time the benefit of the doubt, and engage that Empire in what was then called “the Concert of Europe” – sort of the G20 of the time.

[4] For example those that run from Iraq to the Mediterranean through the Jordan-Palestine/Israel corridor or Syria-Lebanon, built on the assumption that the post WWI international order in the region was going to prevail.

[5] Sogdiana roughly represents the region between the rivers Amu Darya and the Syr Darya in their upper and middle reaches.

[6] Muzhik or moujik, referring to a peasant or an ordinary person (perhaps, a “bloke”) in Russia.

[7] Vladimir, from vlad (to rule) and myr (the world, or peace), hence “ruler of the world” or “owner of the peace”, depending on one’s interpretation, in any case, meaning the top dog.

[8] Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party).

[9] IMF Data Mapper, March 2016.

[10] Mr Derviş was State Minister in charge of economic coordination from March 2001 to August 2002.

[11] The UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries, May 2011, The UN Forum on Forests, April 2013, UN Conference to Combat Desertification, October 2015…

[12] In GDP per capita measured at market prices and exchange rates. Even though it has become fashionable to make cross-country comparisons of output converted at purchasing power parities, market prices and exchange rates represent the only “real” measure of value at which anybody will actually purchase your goods.

[13] Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party).

[14] Hydraulic fracturing, which enabled a substantial increase in the ability to extract oil from rocky soil formations.

[15] Comprising Greater Syria (Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan) and Mesopotamia (Iraq).

[16] The first recorded military coup in Turkish history actually took place in 861 AD, with the assassination of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil by his Turkish royal guard.

[17] Roughly, the equivalent of a “Lord”.

[18] At least from the Battle of Carrhae (present-day Harran) in 53 BC to the Great Byzantine-Persian War of 629 AD at the time of Emperor Heraclius, just before either empire’s Near Eastern possessions were going to be overrun by the nascent Arab Muslim empire, Rome (including in its Byzantine variety) and Iran were in a semi-permanent state of war. Once Ottomans took control of the Eastern Roman Imperial domain, they also came into conflict with a resurgent (Safevid) Iran, which conflict lasted from the early-1500s to the mid-1700s.

[19] “No love like mother; no place like Baghdad.” (It rhymes in Turkish.)

[20] The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), alternatively translated as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), is a Salafi jihadist militant group that follows an Islamic fundamentalist, Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam. The group is also known as Daesh, which is an acronym derived from its Arabic name ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī ‘l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām (Wikipedia).

[21] Inspired by the work of Arnold J. Toynbee, arguably the historian who has thought in the most systematic way about the life and death of civilisations, and more crucially about “intercourse” between them. See his principal work A Study of History in eleven volumes (Oxford University Press). For the impatient, there is also an Abridged Edition of only 2 volumes.

[22] In addition to aircraft from the US, Gulf Arab countries, Iraq (some flown by Iranian Air Force pilots), and God knows who else.

[23] Given the present state of opacity in Turkish politics, we may never know who was behind the Suruç and Ankara attacks.

[24] Similar aggressions had been frequent in the preceding weeks, including not only through transgressions into Turkish airspace but also through instances of Russian aircraft locking their fire-control radars on Turkish aircraft flying within Turkish airspace – a blatant sign of hostility.

[25] To be precise, France was persuaded first to reach a settlement with Turkey through the Ankara Agreement of October 1921. Incidentally, although the US fought with the Entente powers in 1917 and 1918, Turkey has never been at war with the US – Turks are not that stupid – and the US had no reason to attack it.

[26] Anatolia is a tough nut to crack militarily. The last time it was successfully and durably invaded was in 1071 (by Turks). This, however, does not mean that someone like Russia could not inflict it considerable damage.

[27] Representing 4.5% of government personnel expenditure in the 2017 budget request, or the sixth largest in this respect among 47 principal government agencies in the general public sector budget. See https://www.maliye.gov.tr/Documents/2015-2017_ovm_ekler.pdf.

[28] Literally, “Speech” – a 36-hour speech, delivered by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk at the Turkish Parliament between 15 and 20 October 1927, that contains as much a réglement de compte against certain individuals that took part or were his opponents during the War of Liberation (1919-1922) as a treatise on his views regarding the construction of the young Republic.

[29] Only visiting Iranian statesmen seem to have a dispensation from that requirement.