While the Obama Administration confronts military setbacks in Afghanistan, and Congress struggles through an acrimonious healthcare debate, there is unprecedented good news from a part of the world that is usually synonymous with crisis.
For the first time in three decades covering the Middle East, I returned from a recent assignment there with optimism about the future. The reason, in a word, is Turkey.
Under the moderate Islamic government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara is registering dramatic progress in its own most stubborn crises – violent hostilities with its minority Kurds and Armenian neighbours.
On October 10, Turkey confirmed that it will establish full diplomatic relations with the Republic of Armenia. The step paves the way to eventual reconciliation between the two nations, almost a century after bloody clashes that left most of Turkey’s once large Armenian population dead or in exile.
Last week, Erdogan announced plans for the massive reform of “Turkish only” cultural laws, formally ending a decades-long ban on Kurdish-language books, broadcasts, and even recorded songs.
It would be impossible to exaggerate the importance of these developments. The Obama Administration has made little progress in undoing the damage left behind by the Bush era’s disastrous foreign policy record. Almost everywhere Washington’s influence is in decline. The European Union has no joint foreign policy, is at best a minor supporting player on the diplomatic stage.
Ankara’s star, by contrast, is soaring, thanks not only to domestic stability and diplomatic engagement with Armenia, but also to an economic miracle that translates into big-time geopolitical clout.
A NEW START AT HOME
The effects of the miracle are unmistakable in the two largest cities along Turkey’s eastern borders. A decade ago, Diyarbakir was ground zero in a bloody war with separatist Kurds that took 40,000 lives, while Gaziantep, 200 miles to the south, was reeling from the arrival of hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees.
Today, both are in the midst of a sustained boom that has transformed the landscape – and expectations – of southeastern Anatolia, historically Turkey’s poorest region.
Timur Schindel, a Turkish-American raised in Istanbul and educated in California, moved in 2001 to Gaziantep, where he opened a boutique hotel in an area known as “Kurdish Hill.” About a third of the city’s metropolitan population, now approaching 1.5 million, are Kurds – most of whom fled their bomb-cratered ancestral villages at the height of the war in the mid-1990s.
Less than 15 years later, as Schindel put it, “Gaziantep is an Anatolian version of San Francisco.”
The city is awash with hip cafes and neo-Italian restaurants. It boasts a manicured central park outfitted with swimming pools, a planetarium and an ultra-modern museum. One of Turkey’s most prestigious universities has been built in Gaziantep, along with a state-of-the-art medical center and a light-rail transit system.
With just 2 percent of Turkey’s population, Gaziantep Province is the nation’s largest exporter and largest importer, accounting for 6 percent of its booming small-scale industries.
“There’s no friction here between different ethnic groups,” Schindel said. “None, period. Everyone is too busy living.”
The transformation is even more striking in Diyarbakir, the de facto capital of Turkish Kurdistan, the most volatile flashpoint of its tensions.
Like Gaziantep, its ancient city-center is now surrounded by immense new high-rise suburbs. The population has quintupled, from 400,000 in 1995 to nearly 2 million. But the biggest changes are political.
For a decade, October 9 has been marked by annual protests in support of the imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), and longtime leader of its guerrilla war against the Turkish Army. This year, as in the past, most shops in the city were closed and boarded up, to avoid collateral damage from confrontations between protesters and riot troops.
Tensions have been easing since 2004, when the government began gradually relaxing the “Turkish only” ban. The reforms are meant to bolster its efforts to join the European Union. But Erdogan and his ministers also realized that the old policies pointlessly alienated Turkey’s 18 million-strong Kurdish community, 25 percent of the population, and seriously damaged its stature overseas.
Within three years, the relaxation had paid measurable dividends. In the general election of 2007, many eastern Anatolian cities voted in heavy majorities for government candidates. By 2009, Turkish was no longer regarded as the language of “the enemy” by many Kurdish young people. It was simply a practical tool, suited to modern life. “It’s okay to speak Kurdish openly now, and older people do in the city centre,” said Sirin Gencer, a Dirabakir official. But in the new suburbs, she said, “hardly anyone does.”
On November 14, detailed legislation was presented to the country’s parliament, terminating most of the cultural restrictions, restoring the Kurdish names of towns and cities that had been forcibly changed, and creating an administrative body to investigate claims of ethnic discrimination.
“Today is the beginning of a new timeline and a fresh start,” Erdogan told the nation in a televised speech.
The policy revolution at home has been accompanied by radically new initiatives abroad, headlined by the forging of diplomatic relations with Armenia.
Ankara has dramatically upgraded its profile in the Arab Middle East and North Africa, keeping pace with its $31 billion in annual exports there, up an astonishing 700 percent in seven years. It has signed free-trade agreements with Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Israel – with which it maintains critical military ties, despite a falling out over January’s lethal Israeli assault on Gaza.
In early October, high-level Turkish envoys signed no fewer than 88 mutual cooperation agreements in Damascus and Baghdad, on subjects ranging from anti-terrorism to regional tourism promotion. Turkey – a NATO member in good standing, with 1,600 troops in Afghanistan – has taken the lead in keeping international channels open to Iran during its post-election turmoil.
The overall policy aim, said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, is “zero problems with neighbors.”
But it has much wider implications. A stable and engaged Turkey, a nation that is geographically both Asian and European – an overwhelmingly Muslim nation that is industrialized, tolerant and democratic – is the most promising model for change in the Islamic world. A natural mediator in the central conflict of our times.
Frank Viviano – barganews staff reporter – World View CBS5