International Spectator

The International Spectator

Volume XXXIV No. 1 (January-March 1999)


Bridge or Frontier? Turkey’s Post-Cold War Geopolitical Posture 1
By Shireen Hunter


Before analyzing the way Turkey has adapted its external policies to the geopolitical conditions of the post-Soviet world and how it has responded to the challenges and opportunities presented by the new circumstances, it is important to discuss briefly the consequences of the Soviet Union’s collapse for the character and dynamics of the international political system and the various regional sub-systems in which Turkey is involved. Therefore the first part of this article describes the systemic changes that ensued from the Soviet Union’s collapse, the second part examines the impact that this has had on regional politics and the balances of power, and the third part focuses on the impact it has had on Turkey. This analysis is followed by a short assessment of the balance of negative and positive consequences of these systemic changes for Turkey’s regional and international position.


Systemic consequences of the Soviet Union’s disintegration

The end of the Cold War, followed by the Soviet Union’s collapse in December 1991, drastically altered the international political system and the dynamics of inter-state relations. First, the disintegration of the Soviet Union’s external and internal empires changed a bipolar international political system into one which is often described as unipolar. What is meant by the latter is, in fact, an international system in which the United States has an overwhelming military preponderance and in which the West, collectively, is economically dominant. It also means that there is no single power or coalition of countries which can constitute a credible counterweight to the West’s economic and military power.

This situation does not mean that the West has total freedom of action and the capacity to reorder the world according to its own liking and preferences. Nor does it mean that the West can easily translate power into influence in the sense of making others behave as it wishes. It does, however, mean that in the post-Soviet era the West’s freedom of action and its ability to project force abroad have both been enhanced, since it no longer has to be concerned with the reaction of a significant rival, such as the Soviet Union, as was the case during the Cold War. This enhanced Western freedom of action and ability to project force into far-flung areas of the world was most dramatically demonstrated during the Persian Gulf war of January-March 1991, even before the official collapse of the Soviet Union, when the United States introduced close to 500,000 military personnel into the Persian Gulf, an act which would have been inconceivable during the Cold War. The other example is the introduction of NATO forces into Bosnia.

The elimination of a significant counterweight to the West has also deeply affected the balance of influence between the West and other countries, especially those which are in a militarily and economically weak position. Again, this shift in the balance of influence does not mean that the Western powers can force other countries to do exactly what they want. But it does mean that they can more easily take punitive measures against those countries of whose policies they disapprove, since they no longer have to be concerned about potential Soviet gains. A good example of this new situation is US policy towards Iran, which substantially hardened after the Soviet Union’s disintegration.

The elimination of the Soviet Union has also deprived the weaker countries of an alternative source of military and economic assistance, further shifting the balance of influence in favor of the West.


Impact on regional politics and balances of power

The disintegration of the Soviet Union also fundamentally altered the dynamics of regional politics, especially those regions which are situated in proximity of the former Soviet Union, such as the Middle East and the Balkans.

In terms of the overall balance of power, the Soviet Union’s demise has enhanced the position of pro-Western countries and undermined those of countries which were close to the Soviet Union, thus reducing the impact of anti-Western states in shaping the pattern of regional politics. A good example of this situation is the serious erosion of Syria’s influence in shaping Arab and Middle Eastern politics, including those regarding the issues of peace with Israel.

Other consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union have been: 1) The erosion of cooperative dimensions of relations among a number of regional countries because of the elimination of the common Soviet threat (e.g., the deterioration of Turkish-Iranian and Iranian-Pakistani relations; 2) The intensification of the conflictual aspects of relations because of the resurfacing of old rivalries which were suppressed during the Cold War because of the common fear of Soviet expansionism (e.g., the old Ottoman-Persian rivalry); 3) The development of new alliances (e.g., the Turkey-Israel alliance); and 4) Competition for influence in the post-Soviet space (e.g. among Russia, the West, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan).


Impact on Turkey

The Soviet Union’s disintegration has had such wide-ranging systemic ramifications that it has left very few countries unaffected. However, the impact of this event has been stronger on those countries, notably Turkey, which had common borders with the Soviet Union and a long history of interaction with the Russian empire before the advent of communism. On balance, Turkey has benefited from the systemic changes triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union: the collapse of the Soviet Union has weakened Turkey’s enemies and rivals such as Syria, Iraq and Iran, thereby relieving Turkish foreign and security policy of certain constraints and increasing its options, while opening up new areas for Turkish economic and political activities extending from the Balkans, to the Caucasus, Central Asia and Afghanistan. In addition, Western predominance in the international system has benefited Turkey which is a major ally and partner of the West.

Two concrete examples of how these changes have affected Turkish policy are the strategic alliance concluded between Turkey and Israel, and the Turkish threat of use of force against Syria if it did not end its support for the PKK (the Kurdish Workers’ Party, considered a terrorist organisation by the Turkish government) and its sheltering of leader Abdullah Öcalan. It is extremely unlikely that Turkey could have embarked on either of these courses if the Soviet Union had still been standing. On the negative side of the ledger, the Soviet Union’s disintegration has created a belt of actual or potential instability in Turkey’s vicinity — be it in the Caucasus or the Balkans — which could potentially (although this is not very likely) involve Turkey in regional conflicts or present it with difficult choices.


Turkish responses to the post-Soviet geopolitical environment

In order to understand the process of how Turkey has responded to the post-Soviet world and developed the basic framework of its foreign policy to fit the new circumstances, a number of points must first be noted:


Period of anxiety, 1987-90

Turkey received the end of Cold War with feelings of anxiety and expectation. This mixed reaction derived from concern on its part that the warming of East-West relations would reduce the country’s strategic importance to its Western allies, which would in turn translate into less economic and military assistance and, perhaps a harsher Western attitude towards human rights issues in Turkey. Nor were these concerns totally unfounded. Indeed, in the late eighties, a number of US lawmakers, including such influential figures as the former Republican Senator Robert Dole expressed the opinion that the US should reduce its assistance to a group of countries which included Turkey on the grounds that the end of the Cold War had diminished their importance for the United States.

Meanwhile, although the relaxation of internal politics in the Soviet Union had created opportunities for Turkey to expand its ties with the Turkic-speaking populations of the USSR, it was nevertheless clear that as long as the Soviet Union remained intact, even in an altered state, there would be limits to a Turkish presence and that Russia would remain the principal actor in this space. This factor, plus the fact that the traditional prudence of Turkish foreign policy was still strong at this time, meant that while a variety of Turkish political, cultural and other groups became active in various republics of the Soviet Union, the Turkish government remained cautious in its approach towards developments there.

This desire not to become embroiled in the Soviet Union’s internal disputes was best illustrated during the 1989 crisis in Azerbaijan triggered by the Armenian-Azerbaijani disputes which led to the introduction of Soviet troops into Baku in January 1990. President Turgut Özal, who was visiting the United States at the time, when asked about Turkey’s reaction to these events, said that the Azerbaijan crisis was of more concern to Iran than to Turkey because the Azerbaijanis are Shi’a. However, this statement generated a strong and negative reaction from a considerable segment of the Turkish population and political elite. For example, Bülent Ecevit, the leader of the Democratic Left Party, warned that Turkish neglect would force Azerbaijanis into the arms of Iran. There was even disagreement between Özal and his Foreign Minister Mesut Yilmaz on this subject. 3

Conditions prevailing in the Middle East at the time did not offer many opportunities for Turkey to prove its continued importance for its Western allies. In the summer (August) of 1988, Iran had just concluded a humiliating ceasefire agreement with Iraq and was in the throes of deep national soul-searching about the results not only of the war with Iraq, but also of ten years of a revolutionary Islamic government: the revolution had lost its èlan, and the very system it had created was under serious question from the people. Iraq, meanwhile, was still viewed by the West in a benign light, although some of its neighbors, notably Kuwait, were beginning to feel uncomfortable with the imbalance that Iran’s defeat had created in the Persian Gulf. In short, there were no exceptional circumstances which could enable Turkey to assume a new role which would compensate for the erosion of its strategic significance. Yet, while a time of anxiety and uncertainty for Turkey, this was neither an inactive period in terms of Turkish diplomacy nor a stagnant one in terms of new thinking about the underlying premises of Turkish foreign policy and how they should be reassessed or revised in response to the new circumstances.

On the diplomatic front, under the leadership of its then prime minister and later president, Turgut Özal, Turkey intensified its efforts to become integrated into the European Community (EC), as it was then called. As a part of this strategy, Turkey applied for full membership of the EC in 1987, although it was advised against doing so by a large number of existing members.

The EC’s refusal to accept Turkey’s application accelerated the process of new thinking in Turkey about alternative strategies to follow. One idea which emerged was that Turkey should forge a close bilateral strategic and trade alliance with the United States but, as noted earlier, the atmosphere in the US was not very propitious to such schemes at the time. It was also during this period that Turkey began to develop the idea of a Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) zone. 4 The first important step in preparing the ground work for the establishment of BSEC was taken before the collapse of the Soviet Union during a meeting in Ankara in December 1990 of the deputy foreign ministers of Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and the Soviet Union.

On the intellectual front, a number of political analysts and key politicians were beginning to openly challenge the underpinnings of Turkey’s foreign policy, especially its prudent and non-interventionist dimensions. One important aspect of this rethinking was a reassessment of the Ottoman past and efforts to develop a modern version of Ottomanism as a framework for a new Turkish world view and foreign policy. The emergence of the neo-Ottomanist school of thought was partly the culmination of a ten-year old process of rehabilitation of Turkey’s Ottoman past. As Edward Mortimer put it, Özal “had debunked the orthodox Kemalist vision of history with its near deification of Atatürk and the denigration of the Ottoman past.” 5 The underlying theme of the neo-Ottomanism was that Turkey should no longer be bound by the strait-jacket of the Kemalist theory or, at least, the particular interpretation of Atatürk’s thinking that was accepted during most of the life of the modern Turkish republic. Once freed from this partly self-imposed limitation, neo-Ottomanists, such as Turkish journalist Cengiz Candar, recommended that Turkey “must develop an imperial vision”, while stressing that this should not be interpreted as “expansionism or adventurism”, but rather as the “free movement of people, ideas and goods in the lands of the old Ottoman empire”. 6

This period also saw a revival of pan-Turkist ideas, although they were more fully elaborated after the Soviet Union’s fall. Many intellectuals, political analysts and some officials began to talk about the need to shed old taboos against pan-Turkism. Thus, Aydin Yalcin wrote that pan-Turkism was an idea whose time had arrived. According to him, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of communism “had finally given a public expression and support to pan-Turkism”. 7 However, this new version of pan-Turkism was different from the earlier concept in that it essentially aimed at creating a Turkic grouping within which Turkey would play a leadership role economically and politically rather than a closely knit political union. The head of the Turkic Department of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Bilal Samir, gave expression to this new vision: Turkey’s efforts to develop ties with the Turkic republics could lead to the emergence of “something similar to the Nordic Council, the Arab League, or the Organization of American States. . . . What is more natural than Turkey taking the lead in creating such a grouping? . . . This is not Pan-Turkism in the wrong meaning, it is not expansionism. . . . The Nordics, the Arabs, the Latins and others have such groups. Why should not the Turkish people?” 8


A period of euphoria, 1991-93: Turkey as the center of a new Eurasia

By late 1990, events which were taking place in the Soviet Union and the Middle East would not only ease Turkey’s concerns regarding the erosion of its strategic significance and its value to its Western allies, but give it — and others — a new appreciation of its potential as a significant player in three sensitive regions, namely Central Asia and the Caucasus, the Middle East, and the Balkans. Furthermore, these developments would enhance Turkey’s value to its Western allies and would give rise to a Turkish version of Eurasianism, in which Turkey was seen as the epicenter of a land mass extending from the northern Caucasus to the Great Wall of China and from the Adriatic to the Persian Gulf. These important events were the Persian Gulf crisis and the war of August 1990-March 1991, the acceleration of the disintegration of the Soviet Union leading to its official end in December of 1991, and the developments in the Balkans.


Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait: implications for Turkish policy

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the ensuing events which led to the formation of an international coalition against Saddam Hussein and, eventually, to the war of 1991 initially confronted Turkey with a difficult choice: to remain neutral in the conflict or to become an active participant in the anti-Saddam coalition?

The decision was not an easy one. A solid majority (65 percent ) of the Turks favored a neutral posture. A non-negligible number of officials of the Turkish Foreign Ministry also leaned in this direction. They felt that Turkey’s traditional policy of minimum involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts had served it well and that there was no need to alter that policy. Even Turkey’s defense minister resigned because he did not agree with his government’s policy towards the war. Nevertheless, President Özal opted for Turkey’s full engagement in the anti-Saddam coalition, arguing that the changes triggered by the end of the Cold War necessitated a more activist and less cautious Turkish policy at regional and international levels. He perceived that the Iraq crisis offered Turkey an opportunity to demonstrate its continued strategic importance to its allies. Thus he talked about the pivotal role that Turkey should play in setting up a Gulf war structure of the Middle East, including its becoming a pillar of the post-Gulf war security system in the Persian Gulf.

Many of these expectations did not materialize. But this was largely because no regional security system was set up in the Persian Gulf and because the Gulf states opted for bilateral security arrangements with Western countries. The way the Gulf war ended also created new difficulties for Turkey in dealing with its Kurdish problem and produced a loss of income from the closure of the pipeline exporting Iraqi oil through Turkey.

Nevertheless, the shift produced in the regional balance of power by the Gulf war, largely because of the enhanced US military and political presence in the Persian Gulf and the weakening of the anti-Western countries in the Middle East, created new policy options for Turkey in the Middle East and enhanced its relative power vis-à-vis its neighbors and, hence, its freedom of action.

The best example of this new configuration is the strategic and political alliance formed between Israel and Turkey (discussed later) and the Syrian-Turkish showdown over Syria’s harboring of Abdulah Öcalan, the PKK leader. 9 Turkey threatened military action against Syria if it did not expell the Turkish rebel leader. These threats raised the possibility of a Turkish-Syrian war and led to a flurry of efforts by Egypt and Iran to mediate between the two states. A war was averted and this showdown ended in a clear victory for Turkey since Öcalan was expelled from Syria and was caught in Italy in November 1998 while returning from Moscow. 10


The collapse of the Soviet Union: Turkey as a model for post-Soviet states

By early 1991, especially after Michael Gorbachev’s New Union Treaty (presented in March) failed to gain acceptance and the political infighting in Moscow continued, it had become clear that the Soviet Union as then constituted would not last much longer. Given that a considerable number of the Soviet Union’s constituent republics were inhabited by Muslims, the question of their future ideological orientation — and consequently to a large extent their foreign policy choices — had become of serious concern to Turkey’s Western allies and to Turkey itself. The main concern was that these countries might be influenced by radical Islamist ideas, especially those similar to the ones espoused by the Islamic government in Iran and thus fall under its sway.

The antidote to an Iranian-inspired political ideology and system of government was considered by the West to be Turkey’s secular ideology and form of government. Thus already by 1991, the so-called Turkish model was promoted by the West as the best alternative to communism. The disintegration of the Soviet Union in December 1991 intensified this process. Furthermore, as early as January 1992, the United States embarked on a policy of preventing Iranian inroads in the Caucasus and Central Asia, in general by weakening and isolating it. 11 This policy was further refined by the Clinton administration in the context of its dual containment strategy.

These developments enhanced Turkey’s value to its allies as a barrier against the Islamist contagion and Iranian influence in the post-Soviet Muslim states and strengthened its position among the latter as the favored partner of the West. The collapse of the Soviet Union, moreover, intensified the shifts in the regional balance of power triggered by the Persian Gulf war by depriving the anti-Western countries of their supporter. As an ally of the West, Turkey was a beneficiary of this new configuration of power.

The result of these favorable geopolitical circumstances was increased Turkish activism in the Caucasus and Central Asia. A detailed account of the forms that this activism took is beyond the scope of this article; suffice it to say that it was multi-dimensional — economic, cultural, political and in the security field — and involved both the government and the private sector. 12 One aspect of this activism worth noting because it has current relevance is Turkey’s campaign to become the main export outlet for the energy resources of Central Asia and the Caucasus.

The greatest success of the Turkish diplomacy in this period was in Azerbaijan when the pro-Turkish Azerbaijan Popular Front (APF) and its leader Abul Fazl Elcibey came to power in June 1992. Elcibey idolized Atatürk and in the past had expressed the wish that someday Turkey and Azerbaijan would form a federation or confederation. During the short-lived Elcibey presidency, Turkey also established security relationship with Azerbaijan, including the training of the Azerbaijani military personnel, a relationship which would survive the fall of the APF government and Elcibey. 13

There were some efforts at reconciliation with Armenia, but they fell victim to the dynamics of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as well as certain deep-rooted historical factors. In the Middle East, this period marked the beginning of a process of forging a close Turkish-Israeli partnership, which according to some analysts extended to the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. 14

Initially, concerns over the negative implications of the Arab-Israeli peace for its security and strategic importance and the desire to gain the support of the American Jewish community were Turkey’s primary motives behind rapprochement with Israel. Sukru Elekdag, former Turkish ambassador to the US, wrote: “The Israeli lobby in the United States is far superior to all other ethnic lobbies put together. Whenever this lobby has worked for us, Turkey’s interests have been perfectly protected against the fools in the United States. The development of relations between Turkey and Israel and the formalization of their de facto alliance will place this lobby permanently on our side.” 15 Meanwhile, there was a concern that peace between Israel and the Arabs would reduce Turkey’s importance for Israel and might also shift the military balance against Turkey in the southeast of the country, since Syria would be able to move its troops to the Turkish border after resolving the Golan dispute. 16

During this period Turkey also finalized the process of establishing BSEC. The Turkish foreign minister invited his counterparts from Bulgaria, Romania and the Soviet successor states of Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and the Russian Federation which had been involved in the initial talks when the Soviet Union was still in existence to Istanbul on 13 February 1992. The aim of the meeting as stated at the time was to enable the successor states to renew their commitments and prepare for the signing of the declaration on Black Sea Economic Cooperation. During this meeting it was also decided that Greece and Yugoslavia could attend the planned summit meeting as founding members of BSEC, provided they applied to the Turkish Foreign Ministry before May 1992, which they did. Later it was also agreed that Albania could join BSEC as a founding member and Armenia also eventually became a member.

The summit meeting and the founding conference were held on 25 June 1992 in Istanbul, officially bringing BSEC into existence as a regional economic organization. The creation of BSEC is the best example of an important aspect of Turkey’s post-Soviet foreign policy strategy, namely the use of regionalism as an instrument for mitigating conflictual aspects of inter-state relations as well as a vehicle for expanding Turkish influence in a non-threatening manner.


Events in the Balkans

Although the Ottoman empire had had a long and pervasive presence in the Balkans and there were considerable number of Muslims in the region, as well as Turkish citizens of Balkan origin, Turkey did not have an active Balkan policy until the outbreak of the Bosnian crisis.

Of course, policies such as the creation of the BSEC and the promotion of regional cooperation had a Balkan dimension, but they were not specifically designed to address issues related to the Balkans. Nevertheless, two factors seem to have influenced the Turkish outlook towards the Balkans. The first was a growing feeling among considerable segments of Turkish society that Turkey had a moral responsibility for the Muslim population of the Balkans. The pressure of public opinion understandably was the strongest at the height of the Bosnian crisis.

The second factor which somehow runs counter to pressures emanating from public opinion was Turkey’s determination to avoid any action that might be interpreted as adventurism or the pursuance of an irredentist claim towards former Ottoman territories, which would have caused difficulties in Turkey’s relations with its Western allies.17

The result of the interaction between these two contradictory factors was a Turkish policy that has tried to influence events in the Balkans but essentially within multilateral frameworks such as NATO, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations. Turkey’s handling of the Bosnian crisis illustrates its efforts to reconcile these two influences. Turkey tried hard to argue the case of the Bosnian Muslims within the UN and NATO and undertook other diplomatic activities in this direction, including in its capacity as the president of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, but it scrupulously avoided taking any unilateral action.18

Similarly, Turkey has not allowed public concern over the Balkan Muslims and a sense of moral responsibility towards them to affect the development and improvement of its relations with individual Balkan countries. This has even been the case when the Muslims in question are ethnic Turks. The best example of this approach is the evolution of Turkish-Bulgarian relations which, after a difficult period in the 1980s, now seem to have entered a cooperative stage. 19 In short, if one were to analyze Turkish post-Soviet foreign policy within the paradigm of daring versus caution as one scholar of the Turkish scene has done, in regard to the Balkans, caution has predominated over daring. 20

Nonetheless, developments in the Balkans, especially the break up of Yugoslavia and the dynamics it set in motion, have had negative consequences for aspects of Turkey’s relations. For example, they have exacerbated other conflictual dimensions of Greek-Turkish relations, by generating a degree of competition between them for influence in the Balkans. Moreover, because of religious and historical factors, Greece and Turkey have often found themselves on opposite sides of regional conflicts. For example, Turkey has been a supporter of Bosnia whereas there are strong pro-Serb sympathies in Greece. Yet both countries’ desire not to endanger their other interests, especially as they relate to their membership in NATO, has so far limited the extent of the damage that Balkan developments could have done to their ties. Moreover, in the last few years the gradual improvement in relations between Athens and Tirana, coupled with the easing of tensions between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, has reduced the negative impact of Balkan developments on Greek-Turkish relations without, however, eliminating it. In addition, the opening up of the Balkan countries after the fall of the Soviet Union has generated some competition between Greece and Turkey for economic and political presence in the Balkans.


The period of disillusionment, 1994-96: Russia flexes its muscles

During the period of political infighting within the Soviet leadership between the pro-Gorbachev and pro-Yeltsin elements, the latter encouraged nationalists and pro-independence movements within various republics. Moreover, statements by such key liberal figures as Andrei Kozyrev to the effect that in the future Russia’s greatness should be measured not in terms of its size but in terms of the well-being of its people, coupled with talk of a Euro-Atlantic Partnership encompassing Russia, Europe and the United States, seemed to indicate that Russia had abandoned any desire of exerting a controlling influence over its ex-colonial possessions.

However, this perception was a misreading of Russian thinking. Russians — including the Euro-Atlantists — had never forgotten the country’s intrinsically Eurasian character, nor had they abandoned what they saw as its civilizing mission in the post-Soviet states. The difference was that the Euro-Atlantists believed that they would be able to perform this function in partnership with the West. More importantly, the Russians felt that a strong Russian presence in the post-Soviet space, especially in the south, was essential for the maintenance of the security of the Russian Federation. 21 In short, Russia continued to see itself as the center of the Eurasian land mass, a vision which inevitably clashed with Turkey’s view of itself as the principal link between Asia and Europe.

The Eurasionist school of thinking in Russia became stronger as the so-called Russo-Western honeymoon came to end by the mid-1993. This development in Russian thinking led to a more interventionist Russian policy in the former Soviet Union, especially in the Caucasus. It also led to an active Russian campaign to ensure the transport of Caspian energy resources through the Russian port of Novorossisk. This Russian objective was another challenge to Turkey’s desire to be the main transit hub for Caspian energy.

The new Russian activism in the Caucasus contributed to the fall of the pro-Turkish government of Abul Fazl Elcibey in Azerbaijan and, later, the stationing of Russian troops in Armenia and Georgia. Elcibey’s fall was viewed with dismay in Turkey because Ankara suspected Heydar Aliev of being Russia’s man. 22 However, these fears proved to be exaggerated and Turkish-Azerbaijani relations have remained close under Aliev.

Events in Central Asia also developed in a direction which fell short of Turkey’s earlier expectations. The Central Asian countries were eager to develop relations with Turkey and to form a loose kind of Turkic grouping symbolized by periodic Turkic summits. But they were even more keen to assert their independence and to diversify the range of their diplomatic and economic contacts, in short, to become full participants in the international arena rather than junior partners in a grand Turkic coalition under Turkish leadership. 23

The participation of these countries in Western security institutions, most notably in NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program, and their signing of association agreements with the European Union has helped the process of their integration within the international community. This, in turn, has reduced their need for an intermediary, be it Turkey, Russia or some other country. However, as events later were to show, the pessimistic mood that gripped Turkey after the change in government in Azerbaijan and renewed fears about Russian neo-imperialism were exaggerated. In the following years, Turkey consolidated its position both in Azerbaijan and Georgia and maintained its good relations with the Central Asian countries. Turkey has also gained the support of the Caspian countries for export of their energy through Turkey.

Indeed, what was viewed by Turkey as a major blow to its aspirations to become the critical center of a new Eurasia was, in fact, the beginning of a process of regional shifts and realignments in response to the entry of new actors and the gradual integration of the post-Soviet space into the international political system. These developments nevertheless had an important impact on Turkey’s thinking regarding its foreign policy priorities. By demonstrating the limits of an eastward-looking strategy, these real or perceived disappointments shifted Turkey’s attention towards Europe and the question of its integration within the European institutions. They may also have contributed to the acceleration of Turkish-Israeli rapprochement.


The Erbekan interlude,1996-97

The Turkish Islamists’ world view and their vision of Turkey’s regional and international roles were in sharp contrast to those of Turkey’s traditional elites. Consequently, the kind of foreign policy they advocated for Turkey was also different from the one pursued by Turkey throughout most of its existence in its present form and within its present boundaries. To put it very simply, the Islamists believed that Turkey should replace its Western orientation with an Islamic orientation. Thus, Turkey should leave NATO and abandon its aspiration to become part of the EU in order to expand its relations with Islamic countries, play a leadership role within the Islamic world and create an Islamic common market.

Consequently, when in June 1996 Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the Islamist Refah Party, became Turkey’s prime minister within the framework of a coalition with the right of center True Path Party of Tansu Çiller, there were expectations of a significant shift in the orientation of Turkish foreign policy and serious anxieties among Turkey’s Western allies regarding potential changes in Turkey’s approach to regional and international issues. 24

Indeed, during the brief premiership of Erbakan there were some steps towards improving and expanding Turkey’s relations with Muslim countries. 25 This strategy had both a bilateral and a multilateral dimension, the latter of which was reflected in the establishment of a so-called group of eight which included Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Bangladesh. 26

Yet, regarding the essentials of Turkey’s foreign policy, including its NATO membership, the question of its relations with Israel and the customs union with the EU, the Erbakan government did not make any changes. This was a reflection of several factors: 1) Refah’s limited mandate; it is important to note that Refah had only captured 21 percent of the popular vote; 2) the continued influence of the secular military and political elites; 3) the realization of the costs of imprudent changes of strategy such as withdrawal from NATO; and 4) the disappointing results of Islamic diplomacy. 27


Renewed confidence and the emergence of new alliances, 1997-present

Since the end of the Erbakan interlude, Turkish foreign policy has been characterized by an effort to consolidate gains made in the former Soviet space and the Balkans in the past several years and the formation of a new strategic alliance with Israel which will have important consequences, both of a positive and negative nature, for Turkey’s relations with its neighbors and beyond.

Despite the fears which were generated by Russia’s activism in the Caucasus and Central Asia regarding the renewal of Russian hegemony which would lead to an inevitable Turkish retreat from these regions, several events in the last few years have led to a weakening of Russia’s grip over the post-Soviet space. The most important event was the Chechen war, which demonstrated the inefficacy of brute force in re-establishing Russian control not only over former Soviet states, but also over the non-Russian members of the Russian Federation. The Chechen war also made it much less probable that Russia would resort to the use of force to prevent the slippage of its influence in the former Soviet space. Furthermore, the heavy-handed policies of Russia vis-à-vis some Soviet successor states, such as Georgia, have backfired and encouraged them to balance Russian influence by expanding their ties with other countries, including Turkey.

The second event has been the worsening of the economic and political crisis in Russia itself, which has further reduced its ability to use economic incentives and instruments to re-establish a controlling influence over the former Soviet states. The failure of Russia’s efforts to regain control over the post-Soviet space have not translated into an absolute Turkish gain because of factors discussed earlier. But within the limits of the more realistic Turkish view of what it can achieve in the former Soviet states which has been emerging since 1995, Turkey’s position and influence in these countries has improved and stabilized.

The most dramatic departure from traditional Turkish policy has been the alliance with Israel. The alliance has obvious benefits for Turkey in terms of enhancing its military, industrial, and technological capabilities. The costs are mostly in terms of relations with Arab and Muslim countries. The unhappiness of these countries about Turkish-Israeli ties was clearly demonstrated during the Islamic summit of December 1997 in Tehran. However, in view of the current military and strategic balance internationally and in the Middle East, coupled with the economic difficulties of Arab states, it is unlikely that this unhappiness can be translated into a serious joint Arab or Arabo-Islamic challenge to Turkey. 28 Nevertheless, the Israeli-Turkish alliance has contributed to some closing of Arab ranks, an improvement in Arab-Iranian relations and emerging cooperative arrangements which go beyond the Middle East as traditionally defined.



The end of the Cold War and the Persian Gulf war of 1991, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union have dramatically altered the character of the international political system and the subordinate regional sub-systems, especially those situated in proximity to the former Soviet Union.

These changes, triggered by a shift in the balance of power in favor of the West and its regional allies, the re-emergence of old conflicts, the surfacing of new disputes, and the reappearance and relegitimization of old ethno-centric political ideologies, have necessitated a process of rethinking and reappraisal of old premises of foreign policy on the part of many countries. Moreover, the balance of benefits and losses resulting from them has not been equal for all countries. Turkey as a neighbor of the former Soviet Union and a country with extensive historical, cultural and ethno-linguistic links with many of the peoples of the Soviet Union has been strongly affected.

These changes have triggered discussion about the validity of the basic premises of Turkey’s traditional foreign policy, including the balance between an Eastern and Western orientation. They have also given currency to old and largely discarded ideologies, such as pan-Turkism, and elicited debate about what should be the balance between daring and caution in Turkey’s approach to the new circumstances.

In adjusting to these changes, Turkey has passed through various phases ranging from excessive optimism to extreme pessimism and brief experimentation with an Islamic ally-oriented foreign policy. To its credit, however, it has not allowed its policy to be determined by the excessively unrealistic and perhaps adventurous impulses unleashed after the Soviet collapse. Rather, it has endeavored to achieve its goals through legitimate bilateral and multilateral channels. And in this it has greatly benefited from the current configuration of international and regional power and the active support of its allies. Turkey has also come to realize that relations with the new post-Soviet states cannot be a substitute for its links with the West. Therefore, barring a fundamental social and cultural change inTurkey, which is unlikely, Turkey’s underlying Western orientation should remain strong. However, this does not mean that Turkish-Western relations will always be free of tensions or disagreement.

In sum, ten years after the end of the Cold War, Turkey seems to be reconciling its various interests and aspirations and striking a balance between continuity and change and daring and caution in its foreign policy. All in all, Turkey has been a beneficiary of the post-Soviet systemic changes although its new environment is not without risk.


Shireen Hunter is Director of Islamic Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington.




Note 1. This is a revised version of a paper presented to the IAI conference on “US-European Common Approaches to Turkey”, held at Palazzo Rondinini, Rome, on 20-21 November 1998 and funded by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Back

Note 2. See D. Bazoglu Sezer “Turkey’s Grand Strategy Facing a Dilemma”, The International Spectator, vol. XXVII, no. 1, 1992, p. 25.

Note 3. Other opposition figures also reacted negatively to President Özal’s statement, see “Ozal, Yilmaz far apart on Azerbaijan”, Turkish Daily News, 23 January 1990. Back

Note 4. On the beginning of the BSEC, see O. Sander, “Turkey and the Organization for Black Sea Economic Cooperation” in K. H. Karpat (ed.) Turkish Foreign Policy: Recent Developments (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996). Back

Note 5. E. Mortimer, “A Tale of Two Funerals: Reviving Islam Challenges Atatürk’s Legacy of Secularism”, Financial Times Surveys: Turkey, 7 May 1993. Back

Note 6. Cited from S. Cohen, “Contact with Central Asian States: A Foundation for Pan-Turkism”, The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 1992. Back

Note 7. Ibid. Back

Note 8. Ibid. Back

Note 9. On Israeli-Turkish alliance, see D. Pipes, “A New Axis: The Emerging Turkish-Israeli Entente”, National Interest, no. 50, Winter 1997-98. On the Syrian-Turkish crisis, see “Turks Give Syria Last Warning”, Washington Post, 7 October 1998. Back

Note 10. On the Syrian-Turkish crisis, see “Turks Give Syria Last Warning”, Washington Post, 7 October 1998. Back

Note 11. On the US attitude towards Iran’s presence in Central Asia, see T. L. Friedman, “US to Counter Iran in Central Asia”, New York Times, 6 February 1992. Back

Note 12. For examples of Turkish activities, see K. H. Karpat, “The Foreign Policy of Central Asian States, Turkey and Iran”, in Karpat, Turkish Foreign Policy. Back

Note 13. After coming to power, Aliev agreed that Turkey should continue to train Azerbaijani military personnel. See “Azerbaijani Asks Turkey to Train More Officers”, RFE/RL Daily Report, no. 2, January 1994. Back

Note 14. See “Israel and Turkey in the New World Order”, Israeli Foreign Affairs, vol. VIII, no. 5, 31 May 1992. Back

Note 15. “Paper Views Common Interests with Israel”, Milliyet, 7 November 1994. Back

Note 16. Ibid, part three. Back

Note 17. On Turkey’s Balkan policy, see G. Aybet, Turkey’s Foreign Policy and its Implications for the West (London: Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, 1994) pp. 31-43. Back

Note 18. Ibid. Back

Note 19. Recent visits by Turkish and Bulgarian leaders to each other’s countries, including Prime Minister Yilmaz’s visit to Bulgaria in early November 1998 reflect this improved atmosphere. Back

Note 20. See M. Mufti, “Daring and Caution in Turkish Foreign Policy”, Middle East Journal, vol. 52, no. 1, 1998. Back

Note 21. On Russian thinking in this regard and the various schools of thought, see M. Mesbahi, “Russian Foreign Policy and Security in Central Asia and the Caucasus”, Central Asian Survey, vol. 112 , no. 2, 1993. Back

Note 22. For a certain period, Turkey continued to support Elcibey and refused to recognize the new government. See S. Hunter, The Trans-Caucasus in Transition: Nation-Building and Conflict (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies/Westview Press, 1994). Back

Note 23. On the evolution of the Central Asian countries’ foreign policy, see S. Hunter, Central Asia Since Independence, Washington papers 168 (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996) Back

Note 24. See S. Erlanger, “Islamic Turkey Perturbs West”, International Herald Tribune, 12 August 1996.

Note 25. Iran was among the countries especially targeted by Erbakan for economic reasons. Back

Note 26. On Erbakan’s foreign policy, see P. Robins, “Turkish Foreign Policy Under Erbakan”, Survival, vol. 39, no. 12, 1997. Back

Note 27. A particularly embarrassing and sobering incident was the fiasco of Erbakan’s visit to Libya during which Colonel Gadhafi criticized Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish population. Back

Note 28. See A. Gresh, “Turkish-Israeli-Syrian Relations and their Impact on the Middle East”, Middle East Journal, vol. 52, no. 2, 1998. Back