Ten Tasks for Turkey’s New Government

New cities, high-speed trains, suspension bridges, airports, tax holidays, a “crazy” grand canal parallel to the Bosporus waterway, iPads for all – the campaign trail ahead of Turkey’s 12 June parliamentary elections is strewn with promises of great times coming. Resolution of vexed questions in the domestic and foreign policy sphere has been relegated to the list of things “to be done after the election”. These more mundane challenges will however resurface as soon as the political class gets back to work.

So, based on Crisis Group’s four years of reporting in Turkey – and not counting the many challenges of the country’s booming economy, or what its external partners should also do – here are ten outstanding diplomatic and political tasks that we think should be tackled with determination by the new Turkish government.

1. Relaunch Turkey’s EU accession process

The EU’s internal divisions, and some European politicians’ hostility to Turks joining the club, have done much to harm the EU’s appeal in Turkey. Indeed, the fact that Turkey’s EU membership negotiations in progress since 2005 have virtually ground to a halt has barely been mentioned in the election campaign. But Turkish (and European) leaders should remember that if there is one single factor that makes Turkey stand out in its troubled region, it is the country’s convergence with Europe – arguably nearly two centuries old, but treaty-based for nearly 50 years.  EU standards are the locomotive of Turkish reform, some four million people of Turkish origin live in Europe, half of Turkey’s trade is with Europe, most tourists to Turkey come from Europe, NATO is the cornerstone of Turkish defense and two-thirds of Turkey’s foreign investment comes from EU states. Turkey and Europe shared many of these fundamental interests for decades, and the two sides stepped back from the brink with an attempt to restart the process in 2009. Yet Turkey’s EU process is now hanging by a thread, since there are almost no negotiating chapters left to open. Turkey holds the key to unlocking EU blocks on at least eight of these chapters (see Cyprus below). EU politicians’ talk of an alternative ”Privileged Partnership” for Turkey seems empty, as Crisis Group has argued. But with Europe distracted by its internal struggles, the idea is being pushed back on the agenda. The new Turkish government must proactively find a way to allow lifeblood back into the relationship.

2. Fix Cyprus

Ankara must refocus on the strategic goal it set itself in 2004: removing the Cyprus problem from the international agenda through achieving the reunification of the island. An easy first step is to implement the Additional Protocol, namely, opening Turkey’s ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic, a commitment Ankara formally signed in 2005 as a condition for starting EU negotiations. The EU could have helped by allowing direct, preferential trade to Turkish Cypriots – as Crisis Group pointed out here – but it did not, and Turkey’s best interest is now to help itself. Implementing the Additional Protocol has no direct link to any Turkish position on a Cyprus settlement and serves a double purpose: freeing several blocked EU negotiating chapters, and helping to normalise relations between the Turks of Turkey and Greek Cypriots. As Crisis Group argued in its 2011 paper Six Steps to a Settlement, and on our blog, a mutual absence of trust between Ankara and Nicosia is the single biggest obstacle to reunification of the island. The new government would also do well to start a real, structured dialogue with Greek Cypriot officials to give a new impetus to ongoing talks to solve the Cyprus problem. Failure to achieve a compromise settlement will cause real damage, as set out in our 2009 reportReunification or Partition.

3. Undertake broad, inclusive constitutional reform

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has promised a reformist, inclusive new constitution. As Crisis Group detailed in its 2008 report on theDecisive Year Ahead, implementing AKP’s ideas for a new constitution promised in the 2007 election campaign would go far to reduce ethnic tensions and modernise the way Turkey is governed (for instance, by removing ethnic attributes from Turkish citizenship, making Turkish the official and not the only recognised language, removing parliamentarians’ immunity). EU-oriented reforms over the past decade have already changed about one third of the 1982 constitution, drawn up under military rule. The AKP has promised a whole new text. For it to stick, it must be the product of a genuine consensus, including the Kurdish national movement, not a top-down imposition. Changes must first reduce sources of domestic conflict, before trying potentially divisive new ideas like moving to a new presidential system. At a minimum, any marks of ethnic discrimination should be removed and freedom of expression further anchored. The idea of increased powers for local government, a main demand of many ethnic Kurds, is now supported by some opposition parties including the biggest Republican People’s Party (CHP).

4. Broaden and deepen reforms to solve the Kurdish problem

The AKP’s taboo-breaking ”Democratic Opening” to reach out to Turkey’s approximately 15 per cent Kurdish community, helped put a long-term settlement of the Kurdish problem within reach and will be the subject of a forthcoming Crisis Group report. As the strongest party to the conflict, the new government must broaden and deepen this initiative, offering permission to towns and villages to revert to their original names, more local government, and the right to bilingual education. AKP has scored genuine breakthroughs, prosecuting members of now inactive death squads, granting respect to Kurdish culture and embracing the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq (see Crisis Group’s 2008 analysis of Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds). Consequently an apparent majority of Turkish Kurds no longer profess an ambition for a separate state in Turkey’s southeast, nor support the use of force by the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

5. Sustain Turkey’s engagement in the Middle East

The revolts in the Arab world set back Turkey’s hopes of rapid progress to a more stable, prosperous neighbourhood, evaluated by Crisis Group in its 2010 report Turkey and the Middle East: Ambitions and Constraints. But Ankara should continue to work towards Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s ”zero problem” foreign policy goals: a better-governed, more interdependent region with more efficient borders, integrated infrastructure, visa-free travel and free trade. Turkey is too unique to be a one-size-fits-all model, as we pointed outhere, but Ankara should continue to use its influence and experience where it can to urge regional regimes towards more representative government. It should also remember that it is the charisma, investment and higher standards that have flowed from the EU accession process have helped Turkey rise above the troubles of the Middle East, and made the country such an object of regional admiration.

6. Seek chances to normalise relations with Israel

A voyage planned by a new international flotilla to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza at the end of June will pose an early test for the new government. Turkish NGOs plan to participate in large numbers amongst the approximately ten ships from around the world. Ankara says there is nothing it can do to stop them, but taking into account the risk of a repeat of the Israeli killing of nine Turkish members of last year’s flotilla, the potential for further damage to Turkey’s relationship with the U.S., Egypt’s opening of its border with Gaza, and Israel’s partial lifting of its blockade, the government is showing no more inclination than in 2010 to participate directly in the flotilla. After the 2010 disaster, Crisis Group detailed Turkey’s miscalculations, and Israel’s rapid use of deadly force inTurkey’s Crises with Israel and Iran and we analysed a pertinent UN investigation . Going forward, Turkey should seek chances to normalsie relations with Israel in the consciousness that its international leverage is most effective when it has productive ties with all parties in the region.

7. Seize any opportunity to normalise relations with Armenia

Two ground-breaking protocols signed between Turkey and Armenia in 2009 on normalizing relations, explained in our Opening Minds, Opening Borders, have floundered on a Turkish condition that Armenia first withdraw from at least some Azerbaijani territory occupied around Nagorno-Karabakh (see our blog here). Since then, a growing number of armed incidents, soaring military budgets and belligerent rhetoric threatens to trigger new conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as Crisis Group recently warned in Preventing War. Disappointment in the failed protocols increases intransigence in Armenia, while better Turkish-Armenia relations could support conflict resolution. The new Turkish government should seize on any breakthrough to find ways to implement the protocols on re-opening the Armenian border and establishing diplomatic relations.

8. Finesse the Aegean Sea dispute

The new government can take bold steps to resolve Turkey’s 40 year-old territorial disputes with neighbouring Greece over the Aegean Sea. Ankara and Athens have done much to consolidate normalisation since 1999, as Crisis Group detailed in 2007 in The Way Ahead. Official talks on the Aegean since 2002 now seem tantalizingly close to agreement. In private, both sides agree that the time has come to settle the dispute, especially since it is more psychological and political than real. As will be laid out in a forthcoming Crisis Group briefing, the new government can help by preparing the rhetorical ground for compromise, along with similar steps by Greece’s leadership, which has an urgent interest in reducing defense spending. Turkey is far more powerful militarily, and can help by eliminating Turkish military flights over inhabited Greek islands, and demonstrating that theoretical Aegean disputes can be talked about rather than fought over.

9. Seek long-term domestic improvements, prioritising the judiciary, the education system, women’s rights and freedom of expression

In the first two terms in office, the AKP government, building on the work of its predecessors, registered remarkable progress. Torture almost disappeared from Turkish jails, single-party government brought more policy consistency and better municipalities have brightened the face of most Turkish cities. Looking forward, four more areas of domestic governance still need attention. Firstly, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has rightly made reform of Turkey’s judiciary a major goal, and judicial publications are filled with articles by judges, prosecutors, and lawyers about how to make the system work better. Secondly, UN indexes show Turkey’s education system lagging behind Iran, Algeria and Tunisia, and in need of a well-planned overhaul. Thirdly, Turkey must address its shocking neglect of women’s rights – in 2010, it ranked 126th of 131 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report – and plug the legal, educational and policing gaps that result in 42 per cent of women in the country experiencing physical and sexual abuse (according to a first comprehensive report on the issue by Hacettepe University in 2009). Fourthly, laws and regulations and judicial mindsets must be changed across the board to prevent ethnic groups, journalists or critics of the government from being jailed or prosecuted for the simple expression of peaceful opinions.

10. Continue to widen democratic participation

The democratic legitimacy of Turkey’s elections make it the stand-out country in the region – ballot-stuffing, intimidation and violence are remarkably rare. Now it is time to raise the democratic level of the system itself, as set out in Crisis Group’s  The Decisive Year Ahead. Political parties need to move to a system that is more bottom-up and less top-down, to end the scandalously low participation of women in politics, and to encourage more young people to join parties and work their way up them. The 10 per cent threshold for a party to win election to parliament is by far the highest among the 47 member states of the Council of Europe (double that of the next country, Germany’s five per cent threshold) and should be lowered. Finally, parliamentary regulations need to be reformed to allow more efficient legislation drafting and to win greater public trust in the assembly’s workings.

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