South Eastern Europe, Turkey foreign policy and the rising of neo-Ottoman soft power

In Balcani, Turchia on novembre 30, 2009 at 11:23 pm

di Paolo Quercia

Relevant regional political developments in the second quarter of 2009

The United States and the Balkans. The visit of the American vice-president Biden in the Balkans marks the level of the political status of the region and in particular of its “instability peak”, namely the political triangle Bosnia Herzegovina-Serbia-Kosovo. Joe Biden visited Sarajevo, Pristina and Belgrade, conveying different messages but reminding everyone that this area still is a priority area for the US foreign policy but that there is an unfinished task at stake to guarantee the stabilization of the region and the anchoring of the Balkans in the Western area. There were different priorities for the visits in the three different countries. In Bosnia Herzegovina the scope was to verify the progress made after the SAA concession with the EU, in particular the implementation of the political agreements between the two entities that will allow the state entity to work more efficiently and be more integrated, thus overcoming the ethnical and territorial divisions. The time has come for the US administration to foster the abandonment of every resistance option to a more solid integration of the Bosnia Herzegovina, and also dissuade  alternative geopolitical options both from the Serbian as well as the Croatian side. If the visit to Bosnia Herzegovina has been more relevant from a geopolitical point of view, the Belgrade visit represented the highest point of the Balkan’s visit, as Belgrade truly holds the keys of the regional security and integration. In particular the opportunity of verifying Tadic’s power and the governmental coalition extended to the socialists who support the Democratic leader Cvektovic, who came to power after the parliamentary elections of May 2008. The highest point of the visit was represented by Biden’s declaration of interest in establishing a strong collaboration with Serbia, besides the Kosovo recognition from Belgrade. Biden also expressed understanding for the lack of independence recognition of Kosovo from Belgrade, inaugurating a sort of double US Balkan policy. What is interesting for the US is the possibility of using Belgrade’s support to stabilize Bosnia Herzegovina. To implement this, the US showed the political availability to grant a “freedom to geopolitically dissent” on the Kosovo status from the side of Belgrade, in order to obtain help to take Bosnia Herzegovina back under its control. At the same time Biden opposed the possibility of a Dayton two, namely of a new peace conference which will draw new political balance of powers between the two entities and the three ethnicities who constitute the Bosnia Herzegovina Federation. If this US policy should be confirmed, it would be increasingly more difficult for the EU not to give Serbia a possibility of integrating in the EU also without the official Kosovo recognition. This could become highly problematic for the EU which has substituted the UN in Kosovo as key player in the safeguard of Pristina independence.

In Kosovo, Eulex police forces and the NATO KFOR army intervened in the northern part of Mitrovica to prevent clashes between those Serbians who lived in a city old neighbourhood and Albanians Kosovars who had tried the reconstruction of some houses which were abandoned ten years ago. Serbians, who de facto control the territory, continue to prevent Albanians to come back in the North of the river Ibar. Serbians claim that the return of the refugees could worsen the security in the area and ask that this takes place through a negotiation process, which could foresee the return of Serbians in other areas of the countries where Serbians fled after 1999[1]. In the meantime the Kosovar government is increasingly demanding the end of the UNMIK mission, that is perceived as a limitation to the national sovereignty obtained in February 2008. However it will not be possible to implement a status change of the mission or terminate it until the International Court of Justice will not evaluate the legality of the Kosovar independence. The resolution has just been conveyed from Ban Ki-Moon to the Court, after the General Assembly’s approval; however the decision cannot be ratified before one year.

In the meantime it would be better to refrain from any substantial change of the balance of  power in the area including the reduction of the NATO and EULEX contingents. Kosovo obtained a very important recognition from IMF (International Monetary Fund) which included Pristina in its members’ slate. Kosovo membership has been voted for from more than 187 countries, a higher number of countries than those who recognize Kosovo as an independent state (less than sixty)[2].

Bosnia Herzegovina. The Bosnia Herzegovina parliament has modified the status of the Brcko district, putting it entirely under the sovereignty of the central state and ending the international status envisaged by the Dayton Agreements. The unique status of the district however remains and it is situated outside of the control of the two entities that constitute Bosnia Herzegovina and it is passing under the control of the federal state and of its structures of triple ethnic rotation. In the meantime the UN has appointed a new high commissioner for Bosnia Herzegovina, the Austrian diplomat Valentin Inziko to replace the Slovack Miroslav Lajcak. The UN had manifested for long the intention of putting an end to its current presence in Bosnia Herzegovina and to abolish the position of the high commissioner, but the ethnic tension of the last year coupled with the fragility and vulnerability of the Dayton state construction will keep the UN still engaged on the ground for a very long time.

Turkey. Turkey and Armenia have agreed over a framework document for the normalization of their bilateral relations. In a diplomatic wording the two countries have stated jointly that they reached significant progress and mutual understanding of their different position in a way that makes possible to start the process of normalising their bilateral relations. The news of this important diplomatic progress, that has been achieved with the mediation of Switzerland, has produced protests and dissatisfaction in Azerbaijan both among the opposition and government parties.

Turkey foreign policy and the rising of neo-Ottoman soft power

The visit of the American president Obama in Turkey has been an important circumstance for assessing the new developments in Turkish foreign policy, especially after the new dynamism that the foreign policy of Ankara assumed towards Iraq and Caucasus. In the Caucasus the Georgian war of last summer has represented an important element in reshaping the regional balance of power effecting the solidity and endurance of the political and energetic axis Ankara – Baku – Tiblisi that stretches from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. After that war Turkey as constantly pursued a policy of stepping up its political ties with Moscow. This reaction to the facts on the ground should be interpreted as a diplomatic guarantee in case of a new future political turmoil in Georgia that could bring to a substitution of the leadership of Saakashvili with the one of a more pro Russian government. But another important change in the political and security environment scenario around Turkey has been activated by the decision of the United State to disengage military from Iraq in few years. This situation from one side is a positive outcome since it could bring an improvement of the security situation and of the internal stability conditions, as well as it will force the local Iraqi government to assume more autonomous governmental capacities; on the other side it is a highly dangerous phase of transition of powers where the risk of creating a power vacuum is high. The risk for Baghdad is that its own military forces could be unprepared to face internal riots and terrorist activities as well as it could create the good occasion for the secessionist part of the Iraqi Kurds to take action towards creating the conditions for a breakaway from the central state. Turkey tried to counter the risks for its own security from these two political developments by necessarily increasing, slowly but still significantly, the distance with its major ally, the United State of America and by revaluating the political “virtues” of its neighbours, Russia and Iran in particular. This was the context that created the framework for the visit of Obama in Turkey, the first Islamic country that the new elected American president decided to visit. Two were the key aspects of this important visit: the Armenian question and the issue of the future of EU Turkey integration. As far as Obama’s approach to the Armenian question, the words of the American president, in his speech delivered in front of the Turkish parliament, have been received in Turkey with coldness and with a sentiment of dissatisfaction. Obama, even if decided to avoid the controversial word “genocide” referred to the Armenian massacre as “one of the biggest atrocities of the twentieth century”. Whatever the historical truth it is, the fact that the American president decided to touch this argument in a speech to the Turkish parliament shouldn’t be read as a contribution to the historical debate but has got a deep political meaning. Erdogan himself lined up with the critics of Obama’s approach to the issue commenting that it would be better to leave the historical questions to the historians and that they shouldn’t influence directly the political present international relations. But the goal of the American president was fully political, that is to push the Turkish government to remove the historical obstacles that prevent an enhanced political dialogue between Turkey and Armenia, a dialogue that is strategically necessary to the American regional geopolitics after the war in Georgia.

At this regard Erdogan has proposed an upside down approach, building the political confidence based on reciprocal interests first and delaying the opening of the historical revisions and confining it at a non political level. Obama, whose political aim seems to be more to detract Armenia from its international alignment with Moscow and Teheran than to praise the Turkish national sentiment, seems to have a different approach to the issue. But Armenia is only a pawn in the American regional strategy, while Ankara is a strategic ally who is, nevertheless, developing an increasingly autonomous international posture that is, to a certain extent, heretic to the American eyes.

Ankara is all the more the pivot between Iraq and Iran

In the first semester of 2009 Ankara has been evermore involved as a major player in the complex web of diplomatic activities predominantly directed towards its with Euro-Asiatic and Middle Eastern geopolitical space. Just looking at some of the State visits made by the President of the Republic Abdullah Gul in the last months is enough to acknowledge the compass of the new foreign policy that Ankara is implementing, under a new and more dynamic international political situation and with the support of the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoglu. In February the Turkish president, faithful companion to Prime Minister Erdogan and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, journeyed to Russia, a country which is now engaging in developing a new tactical entente with Ankara.  In March Gul was welcomed in both Iran and in Iraq. The visit to Baghdad, in particular, represented an important and historic step, if one considers that the Turkish president has not travelled to its neighbouring Iraq for the better of thirty years. Russia, Iran and Iraq represent in fact the new strategic triangle through which Ankara is searching a new political realignment, in part “in retreat” from the Atlantic arrangement in which it has been constrained over the last half century, and in part in execution of an American “mandate” to be the amicable regional power and mediator regarding Russia, Iraq and Iran. These developments constitute a criss-crossed effect involving two different processes.  On the one hand they represent a “normal” evolution of the country following the prolonged power of the AKP and the emergence of an out-and-out different foreign policy on the part of Prime Minister Erdogan’s party with respect to the consolidated, Kemalist-inspired version of the past. On the other hand they are the fruit of the evolution of American Middle East foreign policy, from the last phase of President Bush to the first phase of the new President Obama.  From this point of view, a recent further sign of possible new developments in Turkish foreign policy is represented by the visit of a peculiar Iraqi religious leader in Turkey in May 2009, whose presence in Ankara (and his particularly welcomed reception) cannot but make one consider how the country is preparing to play on the Iraqi scene in anticipation of the Americans military exit.

The Mysterious Visit in Turkey by the head of the Sadrist Iraqi “Opposition”

The first of May 2009 the reserved Shiite cleric Muktada al-Sadr made a surprise visit to Turkey meeting the highest heads of state, from President of the Republic Gul to Prime Minister Erdogan.  Al-Sadr arrived in Turkey from Iran where it seems that the religious leader has largely made his base in the last two years. Al-Sadr has not made foreign visits or official appearances for about two years, since 2007 when he went into voluntary exile in order to avoid possible attacks on himself and his paramilitary groups (the Mehdi army) which for the better part of three years have comprised one of the largely popular contingents of resistance against the CPA and the foreign forces of occupation.  Following a  series of military operations against anti-government forces, al-Sadr’s paramilitary forces declared a temporary truce proclaimed by their leader and accepted the option of controlled withdrawal of the American troops from Iraq as was agreed upon in SOFA with the Iraqi government.  Even while in exile the Iranian al-Sadr brought forward again the Iraqi resistance following the Israeli war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, inviting them to carry out acts of retaliation against their “Zionist enemy”.

The importance of al-Sadr’s visit to Turkey, of which the content and results have been maintained in great secrecy on the part of Turkish authorities, is based on the fact that the Sadrists represent a peculiar component  in the Iraqi opposition galaxy. For Ankara the Sadrists represent an interesting pawn in the fluid Iraqi situation that is preparing to take on the unknown elements tied to the withdrawal of American forces:  Sadrists are a Shiite movement (therefore potentially brought into the Iranian sphere) but marked by strong Iraqi nationalist tendencies, heavily engaged  in combating the American presence in the country in addition to countering  other interference, more than of political-religious nature, on the part of the governments of Islamic countries.  For this motive al-Sadr’s movements have attracted—thanks to the anti-American insurrection of the last years and the fact of its being duly critical of Iranian interference—a range of sympathy also on the part of the Sunni nationalist community. Al-Sadr has not yet decided whether or not to form his own political party, but he does control thirty or so parliamentarians and it is realistic that his influence on the Iraqi political system continues to increase along with the Iraqi governments progression along the road to recovering full sovereignty, as far as he can represent an element of compromise between Iraqi self-determination and Iranian influence.  In this context they usefully reveal some of the ideological positions that they see in order to try to reconcile the authoritarianism of radical Shiite religious leaders with different local customs of the Iraqi Shiite tribes, wagering on an always greater role in the administration of religious law on the part of tribal leaders.

However the significance of the visit to Turkey by al-Sadr goes beyond the religious political role that the Sadrist leader could recover in Iraq in the future and largely inserts itself in the wake of Turkish preoccupations with finding a greater number of supporters against a possible dissolution of Iraq into various states, one of which could be formed as the Iraqi Kurdistan.  In this sense the Sadrist pawn effectively becomes useful to Ankara in so far as one of the firm points of the Sadrist movement is to preserve the unity of the country, to arrest the process of separatism initiated by the Iraqi constitution that allows for provisional authorities and impedes an eventual dissolution of the country.  In so far as al-Sadr succeeds in developing his model of a Shiite theocratic state based on his Iraqi nationalism and tribalism, Turkey could assess—in partial accord with Teheran and Washington—a wager on the Sadrist “wild card” as a possible element of compromise and equilibrium between the centrifugal tendencies of the Kurdish strands and Iranian strands. Surely there exists between Ankara and al-Sadr a series of agreed upon tactics, such as that on the decisive opposition regarding the question of a referendum for the attribution of Kirkuk.  One of the few comments made by Turkish functionaries on the political visit of al-Sadr in fact referred to the disputed status of Kirkuk. The Turkish daily Yeni Safak affirmed that the Sadrist leader, in the course of speeches, stated that in order to avoid the possibility “that Iraq could collapse and that therefore, on the Kirkuk theme, the Sadrists maintain the same position as the Turks”.

According to some analysts al-Sadr could be on the point of openly passing from religion to politics, creating a movement in Iraq that—with necessary differences—could be similar to the Lebanese Shiites of Hezbollah.  If al-Sadr is on the verge of such a move, Ankara cannot imagine to be outside of the game, in the end balancing Iranian influence that, if dominant, could bring about, in the medium-range period, significant fears of the dissolution of the country.

For these reasons the fact that the first relevant political appearance of al-Sadr for almost a year begins with an official visit to Turkey is extremely significant: the visit of an Iraqi Shiite religious leader who lives in Iran but plays an increasingly political role in the Iraqi internal politics and who has been one of the major players behind anti-American military revolts. And, for this reason, notwithstanding the fact that he hasn’t recovered an institutional role in the Iraqi government, he was received in Ankara and Istanbul with all the honours reserved to foreign heads of States and governments.

[1] The issue of the return of Kosovar refugees is an extremely dangerous issue for internal security and can undermine the fragile and difficult ethnic balance reached so far. At the same time this is a test of how effectively government institutions both, international and Kosovar, can control the territory. At present, besides a lack of political will, it seems like none of the Kosovar authorities can cope with the ethnical hate and violence that comes from within. As a result the return of the numerous returnees who had to leave their house is minimal and unlikely.

[2] Kosovo’s membership of the IMF will enable Pristina to obtain funds for developmental economic and infrastructural projects. This is a common objective of all European countries besides the availability to recognize or not Kosovo.



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