The Problem with Turkey's "Zero Problems"

By Kouskouvelis, Ilias I. | Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The Problem with Turkey's "Zero Problems"


Kouskouvelis, Ilias I., Middle East Quarterly


Turkey, Past and Future

Under the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP), Turkey's foreign policy has been associated with the prescriptions and efforts of three men: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Abdullah Gill, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Davutoglu, a former international relations professor, has been the most articulate exponent of the troika's ideas, penning perhaps the most authoritative summary of its worldview in his 200 1 StratejikDerinlik (Strategic Depth)1 and coining its foremost article of faith: a "zero-problems policy" with Turkey's neighbors because Ankara "wants to eliminate all the problems from her relations with neighbors or at least to minimize them as much as possible."2

This might all be well and good if such words were supported by actions. But Davutoglu has also described Turkey as a "heavyweight wrestler," hinting that it may use "the maximum of its abilities" when dealing with its neighboring "middleweight wrestlers."3 A survey of Ankara's relations with these "middleweight wrestlers" reveals its "zero problems policy" to be little more than a cover for the AKP's reasserted "neo-Ottoman" ambitions.

THE EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN

Achieving a zero problems status with Greece and Cyprus would seem to be the most difficult goal for Ankara to attain, given both countries' painful history with Turkey.

Even if one could put aside the long and tortuous past - from the Greek war of independence of the 1820s, to the 1923 uprooting of Greeks from Asia Minor, to sporadic crises over Aegean islands(1976, 1987, 1996), to the continuing standoff over air space and territorial waters - the AKP's rise to power has exacerbated, not allayed, tensions.

Far from following a zero problems policy with Greece, Turkey maintains existing problems and adds new ones: It has made alleged violations of the Muslim minority's rights in Western Thrace an item on the Islamic Conference's agenda4 and has muddied the waters over what constitutes Greece's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by questioning the role of the Greek island of Kastelorizo (one mile off Turkey's coast) in detennining that EEZ. And Davutoglu's ambitions did not stop here:

The security of the Balkans is increasingly identified with the security considerations of Turkey's western border. The security zone that has been established in eastern Thrace during the Cold War should be extended to the west with multilateral and bilateral agreements which should be made on a Balkan level.5

These are not mere words. Ankara has recently signed a military cooperation agreement with Albania, allowing docking privileges for Turkish warships at Dures, thereby marking the return of the Turkish navy to the Adriatic Sea after centuries.6 The press has reported that Turkey is responsible for the cancellation of an agreement between Athens and Tirana over the delimitation of maritime zones,7 and Turkey has also initiated major programs of military assistance to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a state with which Greece is in dispute over the use of the name "Macedonia." Finally, Turkey continues to flood Greece and the European Union with tens of thousands of mostly Muslim illegal immigrants.8

Meanwhile, the already fraught relations with Cyprus have worsened. Turkey not only works against ending the continued and illegal occupation of the northern half of the island but seems bent on increasing problems. Such behavior is not all that surprising considering Davutoglu's belief:

It is not possible for a country that neglects Cyprus to have a decisive say in the global and regional politics . . . Even if there was not one Muslim Turk there, Turkey had to maintain a Cyprus issue. No country can stay indifferent toward such an island, located in the heart of its very own vital space . . . Turkey needs to see the strategic advantage which it obtained ... in the 1970s, not as the component of a Cyprus defense policy, directed toward maintaining the status quo, but as one of the diplomatic main supports of an aggressive maritime strategy. …

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