Turkey’s recent diplomatic reconciliations with both Israel and Russia came as a pleasant surprise to a country that has lately grown numb to bad news. There are also signs of positive steps with Egypt and even Syria, as signaled this week by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. Yildirim had promised this shift right after coming to power in late May, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan replaced former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu with him. “We’ll increase the number of our friends and we’ll decrease the number of our enemies,” Yildirim had said, and apparently he meant it.
Of course, this pragmatic turn in Turkish foreign policy is a positive move that should be welcomed and supported. However, Turkey’s rulers — Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) — should understand why they moved away from pragmatism in the first place. They should also understand that Turkey desperately needs reconciliation within itself as well.
In fact, the lesson that Erdogan needs to draw lies in his own recent past. In his first eight years in power, from 2002 to 2010, he pursued a basically moderate and reformist policy at home and a modest and realist one abroad. At the core of this approach lay the elimination of the concept of “enemies.” In a 2010 speech that captured the spirit of the time, Erdogan criticized the “Old Turkey” for seeing itself as “a country surrounded by seas from three sides, and enemies from four sides.” Whenever the state failed, Erdogan had added, the blame was placed on these imagined enemies, and that was why Turkey could not make progress.
Sadly, soon after fully dominating the state structure and destroying its checks and balances, Erdogan began to adopt the exact same narrative, pumping out a strident mix of nationalism and Islamism. Especially after the Gezi Park protests of June 2013, he began telling his base that the world is full of heinous enemies that conspire against his glorious “New Turkey.” The opposition forces, he added, are a fifth column of these dark powers. This propaganda has worked very well for consolidating Erdogan’s religious base, but it did not help the sinking Turkish lira, the decline in foreign investment and tourism or Turkey's diplomatic weakness. After all the brouhaha, it turned out that a country does not live on propaganda alone.
It is a fine thing that today the government seems to get this fact. But it needs to get it with regard to domestic politics as well. It especially needs to realize that what caused the dead end in foreign policy is the same thing that has poisoned the domestic scene: its own trajectory.
In other words, during Gezi Park protests, millions of Turks went out to the streets to protest Erdogan, not because they were the pawns of nefarious cabals, but rather because Erdogan angered them by threatening their lifestyles or ridiculing their values. The movement of Fethullah Gulen built a major presence in the police and judiciary not because the Zionists enlisted its members for a covert mission, but because Erdogan himself gave them everything they wanted while they were helping his cause. The peace talks with the Kurdish militants failed not only because of the militants' ambition and zealotry, but also because Turkish policy in Syria seemed to favor the jihadists over the Kurds. International institutions criticize the lack of press freedom in Turkey not because they are all cunning "Orientalists," but because Erdogan has suffocated the opposition media and created an environment of fear.
Notably, there are some voices in the AKP universe these days that acknowledge at least some of these points and call on the government to facilitate reconciliation within Turkey as well. For example, Cemil Cicek, the former speaker of parliament and an active AKP member, said, “Now it is time for making friends at home,” reported centrist Hurriyet. Ahmet Tasgetiren, a prominent Islamic writer for the pro-Erdogan Star, also wrote a series of articles calling for moderation and even broad cooperation on vital issues such as education. It took no time, however, for hard-core Erdoganists in the media to slam these moderate voices as naive, spineless or even treacherous. Tasgetiren responded in a sarcastic piece headlined “We need enemies!”
If there is ever to be a national reconciliation within Turkey, Erdogan first has to dismantle the propaganda machine he built in the past five years with the mission of demonizing and intimidating his opponents, even mere critics. He also has to step back from authoritarianism and give room for plurality instead of trying to dominate Turkey's entire political, judicial, cultural and even economic spaces. In particular, he needs to back off from his ambition of a self-styled presidential system, which many people in the opposition see as transition to full dictatorship. Against the Gulen movement, Erdogan needs to seek justice rather than revenge, and he needs to give the peace process with Kurdish militants another chance.
Personally, I would be very happy to see any of these shifts, but I don’t think any are very likely. The shift to moderation in foreign policy is pushed by Erdogan's often shrewdly calculated interests. In the authoritarianism at home, however, the new ruling class has many vested interests, as well as a century of yearning by conservatives to take the country back from more secular Turks. These are very powerful dynamics that are hard to calm.
So, the restoration of Turkish foreign policy could turn out to be merely pragmatic, and replace an authoritarian rule pursuing a combative foreign policy with an authoritarian rule pursuing a moderate foreign policy. That would be a gain in itself, but not a terribly praiseworthy one.