Turkey's Ambassadors vs. Erdogan

By Aras, Damla | Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Turkey's Ambassadors vs. Erdogan


Aras, Damla, Middle East Quarterly


In June 2010, the deepening rift between Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) unexpectedly came to the public eye when seventy-two retired ambassadors and consul-generals issued a written statement protesting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's lack of respect in dubbing them umon chers" and criticizing the government's foreign policy. l Why did the prime minister publicly snub his diplomats? By way of answering this question, this article reviews the ongoing rift between Erdogan and his diplomats before carrying an English translation of the ambassadors' statement and interviews with two retired senior diplomats.

BACKGROUND

Two main reasons come to mind. To begin, there is the perceived class difference between the diplomats and the right-wing political parties (such as nationalist and Islamic movements), which have their roots in and represent mostly the rural areas and the urban working class, and which view the diplomats as an elitist group that looks down on the common citizen. The term mon cher implies that they are snobbish, Western-influenced status seekers who are disconnected from the traditions and values of the Turkish nation.2 A vivid illustration of this mindset was afforded in May 2006 when Erdogan scolded Turkey's ambassador to Berlin, Mehmetali Irtemçelik, for preventing a local Turkish woman from using a photo with a headscarf in her passport though the ambassador was merely enforcing the official regulations.3

While there are some intellectuals and diplomats who disagree with Erdogan's perception of the ambassadors,4 others subscribe to his argument, including diplomats who did not sign the statement for those reasons.5 One senior ambassador asserts that although tarring all diplomats with the same brush is wrong, some diplomats despise the grassroots and are uneasy seeing "commoners" like Erdogan in power. To this end, in January 2010, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu took a group of diplomats to the city of Mardin in southeastern Anatolia to allow them to mingle freely with the masses and get a firsthand sense of their "ordinary" compatriots.6

The second source of tension between Erdogan and his diplomats is ideological. Several retired and serving ambassadors are wary of the AKP government since its leadership comes from the Islamic political movement. Specifically, the old school, brought up on the modernist, secularist principles on which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk predicated the modern Turkish state - established on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire - considers the government's policies a reflection of the AKP 's ideological precepts rather than of Turkey's national interests. They aigue that the government has deviated from Turkey's traditional, Western-orientated foreign policy based on the alliance with the United States, its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the prospect of European Union membership. So far the AKP has commenced EU membership negotiations, contributed to NATO forces in Afghanistan, and lias generally been on good terms with the Obama administration; its previously good relationship with Israel, though, has been significantly damaged as Erdogan has openly cultivated closer ties with some of the region's other states and organizations, notably Iran, Syria, and Hamas.

Some of the retired diplomats who have been highly critical of Erdogan's foreign policies hold top positions in the opposition political parties, such as the Kemalist Republican Populist Party. According to a senior ambassador, it was these individuals and other likeminded ambassadors that Erdogan was actually targeting when he used the term mon chers. Thus, for example, the December 2009 resignation of Turkey's ambassador to Washington, Nabi §ensoy, during Erdogan's visit to the U.S. capital, was officially attributed to a dispute over protocol. In fact, behind the resignation lay the ambassador's subscription to the ideas of the conservative camp within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, his being bypassed by the AKP's own foreign policy team, and his disagreement with the government's Middle Eastern policy. …

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