Global Insight

January 28, 2013 5:17 pm

Erdogan displays his more moderate side

The Turkish prime minister tones down rhetoric in the face of conflict

Is it a case of the suddenly moderate Recep Tayyip Erdogan? In recent weeks, the often confrontational Turkish prime minister has changed his message on the biggest internal issue confronting his country – the Kurdish conflict, in which some 40,000 people have died over three decades.

Not too long ago, he was suggesting that Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, should be executed. Now Mr Erdogan is – indirectly – talking to the PKK leader, amid hopes of peace negotiations to bring the fighting to an end. Nor is this an isolated case.

Mr Erdogan has also toned down his rhetoric on the Syrian conflict, emphasising a push to reach common cause with Russia on the future of Damascus. He has started talking about Ankara’s European Union bid again, visiting European capitals and preparing to welcome the French and German leaders to Ankara.

There is a certain backdrop to this. In 2011, Mr Erdogan won a resounding re-election with 50 per cent of the vote, was greeted by tens of thousands of supporters in Cairo as he began a tour of the North African homelands of the Arab spring, and presided over an economy growing by more than 8 per cent a year. The risk of hubris was non-negligible.

Last year, however, implied course correction. At home, more than 500 people died in the renewed battle with the PKK, Turkey struggled against the limits of its influence as the slaughter in Syria plumbed new depths and economic growth slowed to 3 per cent – a healthy clip compared to the eurozone but not enough to absorb new entrants to the workforce.

Moreover, Mr Erdogan once again has elections to worry about and his desire to be elevated to the country’s presidency.

An effort to end the costly war with the PKK could address all of these issues. Despite residual doubts about Mr Erdogan and Mr Ocalan’s ability to strike a deal, the prime minister signalled his bona fides last week by sacking his hardline interior minister and replacing him with a more conciliatory figure.

The sheer carnage of the Syrian war – and the prospect of a failed state on Turkey’s borders – has also led to repositioning. Ankara remains deeply frustrated by the Obama administration’s reluctance to intervene. But the dispatch of Patriot missiles from Germany, the Netherlands and the US to southern Turkey has reaffirmed the country’s Nato ties, even though allied diplomats describe the move as largely symbolic. Meanwhile the emphasis on Russia’s role highlights Ankara’s greater interest in realpolitik after more than a year of fulminating but fruitless denunciations of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

At the same time, a certain distance has opened up between Ankara and Gulf countries, who, some Turkish diplomats suggest, are much more willing than they were to support extreme Islamist groups operating in the area.

Then comes the EU, still the source of three quarters of foreign direct investment in Turkey and an economic power Ankara cannot ignore. Turkish officials hope that an impending visit by François Hollande, French president, will coincide with the start of negotiations on at least one of the hitherto blocked chapters of Turkey’s EU bid.

The stumbling blocks are of course legion. After a decade of disappointments a new poll shows that a record two-thirds of the Turkish public now opposes full EU membership. Mr Erdogan also recently said Ankara was considering membership in the Russian-Chinese backed Shanghai Co-operation Organisation as an alternative.

The Iraq war has made the US still more unpopular. Last week, a group of German soldiers accompanying the Patriots were assaulted on the misapprehension they were Americans.

Ankara insiders caution against any grand theory of what Mr Erdogan may recently happened to have said. The prime minister remains a unique politician, at once mercurial and farsighted, an instinctive practitioner of the long game. The final destination at which he wants to arrive has long been a matter of intense debate.

And yet the opening is there; the change in rhetoric is undeniable. The Middle East, and indeed Europe, are in a state of flux not comparable to anything seen for decades – with much still to play for as they seek a way out of their current predicaments.

The same is clearly true for Turkey, one of the rising powers on the world stage.

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