'Can Turkey shoulder the responsibility of being a model country?'
The question in the headline was not raised by me, but by Hélène Flautre, co-chairwoman of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee.
The latest destination of the exhibition "Time in Turkey," organized by the Zaman daily in celebration of its 25-year anniversary, was the headquarters of the European Parliament (EP) in Brussels. Flautre, known for her love of Turkey, acted as moderator of the panel discussion "EU-Turkish Relations: New Challenges in the Wake of the Arab Spring," held as part of this unique photography exhibition. She asked the question that heads this article, driven by a strong sense of criticism and sincerely felt concern, of our Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was the center of attention on the panel. Noting that the south Mediterranean region sees Turkey as a model, Flautre argued, "Yet it is a daunting task and a challenging responsibility to be a model and to shoulder the role of being a model."

The question and accompanying observation are important and significant in that they come at a time when the Turkish government is drawing a much criticism, from within and without, about a slowdown in its process of democratization and reform. Considered in light of the findings of the survey "The Perception of Turkey in the Middle East 2012," recently released by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), we must acknowledge that this question raises concern and criticism that must be taken seriously. As you will recall, according to the results of this survey, conducted by experts on 16 Middle Eastern countries, Turkey's image in the region is declining from a peak reached in recent years. The survey found that the percentage of respondents who gave a positive answer to the question "What is your opinion of Turkey?" decreased from 78 percent in 2011 to 69 percent this year across the region.

While the results of a single survey may not be sufficient to support serious analysis, the TESEV survey's findings can be accepted as concrete evidence of the fact that the favorable image Turkey has built up in the region as, say, a "model" or "source of inspiration" has been on the wane. Speaking at the panel discussion, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-president of the European Greens-European Free Alliance in the EP, expressed similar concerns, asking, "After cutting loose from Kemalist fundamentalism, is Turkey heading toward another form of fundamentalism?" Cohn-Bendit brought to the agenda the still unresolved Kurdish issue, the obstacles before freedom of expression and freedom of the press and the problem of jailed journalists, with a view to substantiating his worries. He underlined the fact that these problems, with which Turkey has been unable to cope, tend to be questionable elements in the Arab Spring countries as well.

Facing such harsh criticism before a large and distinguished audience, Minister Davutoğlu responded, as usual, with a visionary statement guided by a historical perspective. Pointing out that during the last 20 years the world has been hit by three major sociopolitical earthquakes, Davutoğlu explained that the first of these earthquakes was the process of change and liberalization in the aftermath of the collapse of the Communist bloc. Discussing at length how this process of transformation, which tremendously upset the geopolitical balances of the Cold War, did not touch Turkey and the Middle East for various reasons, Davutoğlu was careful to note the sins and responsibilities of the EU in this regard, using polite but clear language.

He further indicated that the 9/11 attacks and ensuing aftershocks represented the second wave of tremors that had global impact, but, unlike the climate of democratization and liberalization created by the first earthquake, heralded a wave of security paranoia seizing countries worldwide. Davutoğlu defined the third earthquake as the ongoing Arab Spring and developments related to the economic crisis in Europe. Drawing attention to the fact that the institutions of the international system, remnants of the Cold War era, have failed to tackle these crises, he criticized the EU for denying North African nations the support they had given in their turn to the efforts at democratization and liberalization that followed the first earthquake.

Reminding listeners that at that time, the West tended to maintain the status quo in Middle Eastern and Muslim countries, Davutoğlu argued that Turkey had sacrificed those years of liberal winds blowing across the globe to security-oriented policies, and that accordingly it was Turkey which had missed the ubiquitous opportunity of democratization in those years. "I wish Turkey had experienced the process of democratization in the 1990s. I wish the EU had lent support to the democratization of the Middle East in those years," Davutoğlu said reproachfully.

He maintained that during the second earthquake, contrary to the general trend around the world, Turkey managed to swiftly implement the long-delayed reforms, thanks to the stability afforded by its single-party government, noting that the policy of "zero problems with neighbors" was a product of this period. With this policy, Turkey aimed to abolish the entrenched discourse or paranoia of Turkey being surrounded by enemies on all sides, and was quite successful in this. He emphasized the fact that the policies of restructuring implemented by Turkey in this period were formulated with a strong grounding in the triple principles of democratization, economic development and active foreign policy.

Noting that Turkey is always guided by the principle that social legitimacy cannot be ensured if equilibrium is not achieved between security and freedoms, Davutoğlu said: "When we were trying to achieve this balance during the last 10 years, it was the EU that missed its chance. They put the Cyprus issue, which has nothing do with Turkey's democratic restructuring, as an obstacle on our path." He implied that the EU has its share of responsibility for criticism currently being leveled at Turkey, saying, "If Turkey had become a member of the EU in this process, Turkey would have become a completely different model for the Arab world." Davutoğlu further described both the north and the south of the Mediterranean as being in upheaval, asserting that the reforms Turkey has undertaken to implement the Copenhagen criteria are the very reason why Turkey is currently a model or source of inspiration for the Arab Spring countries.

Instead of answering Flautre's question directly, Davutoğlu chose to couch his explanations in a historical context, and although he stressed the EU's responsibilities in this regard, he opted not to touch on emerging problems in Turkey's claim to be a model or source of inspiration for the Middle Eastern countries or the declining image of Turkey in the region.

Despite his busy agenda, Davutoğlu was polite enough to find time to pay a visit to Brussels and attend the opening of the exhibition held by the Zaman Group that closely follows Turkey's EU membership bid and its process of reform and democratization. Yet the strong criticism he drew at the panel discussion can be seen as an indication that Turkey's image has started to erode, not only in the Middle East but also in European capitals. I hope Turkish officials visit Brussels more often and act with more willingness to rectify these perceptions, which have the ability to worsen and breed new problems.

(Cihan/today's Zaman) CİHAN
Last Modified: 2012-11-09 12:00:02
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