Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Olive Branches and Bombs: President Erdogan's Many Challenges

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Olive Branches and Bombs: President Erdogan's Many Challenges

Article excerpt

Ergenekon Sungec, a young Turkish travel agent, finally had reason to smile again last week. For months, the gaudy hotels across the road from his office in the Turkish resort town of Kundu have been half empty. The big-spending Russians who used to sign up for his rafting trips and jeep safaris have stayed away since November, when President Vladimir Putin punished Turkey for shooting down a Russian warplane by banning package holidays to the country.

On Monday 27 June, in a rare show of humility, Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, extended an olive branch to Moscow, expressing regret for the debacle and clearing the way for a wider thawing of relations. He also formally restored diplomatic ties with Israel following a six-year freeze. After a period of growing isolation, Turkey seemed to be turning over a new leaf. "It is good news for our industry," said Sungec. "This year has been rubbish but it will make a difference in 2017. We are trying to look forward with hope."

A day later much of that hope evaporated. Suspected Isis operatives launched a triple suicide bombing at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, killing 44 people. The attack--the eighth in Turkey attributed to Isis in just over a year--served to highlight the country's myriad domestic problems. Political and social tensions are running high, especially since the return to violence in the mainly Kurdish south-east. Isis, having initially largely left Turkey alone, now appears intent on adding to the turmoil--and the challenges facing Erdogan.

For all the criticism he attracts, the Turkish president's latest diplomatic manoeuvring is a reminder that he is willing to compromise when he has to. Before the Arab uprisings swept across the Middle East in 2011, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) pursued a pragmatic foreign policy, working to strengthen ties with old foes such as Syria, Greece and Armenia.

However, Erdogan's attempt to become the champion of the Sunni Muslim world by launching tirades against Israel and supporting Islamist movements as they rose up against old Arab dictators left Turkey isolated as history turned against him.

The civil war in neighbouring Syria increasingly spilled over the border. The US's co-operation with Kurdish forces in the Syrian conflict fuelled fears in Turkey that it would embolden separatists at home. And when Russia intervened in support of President Assad, Turkish-backed rebels took a beating.

Realising that his lack of friends was risking the health of Turkey's remarkably resilient economy--one of the most buoyant in the G20, with 4-8 per cent growth in the first quarter of 2016--and fomenting instability, Erdogan decided to try rebuild relations with Russia and Israel. Putin is likely to insist that Turkey soften its hostility to Assad. Further shifts may follow.

There are few signs, though, that Erdogan is willing to compromise at home, where he is trying to extend his powers by making himself an executive president--a controversial move within his party and beyond. …

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