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Where is Turkey heading?

On 8 September, three leading experts on Turkey discussed recent developments in this large and important country in Southeastern Europe.

Turkey has been through a most turbulent year, with a violent military coup attempt, imposition of emergency law, a referendum that will greatly increase the powers of president Erdogan, and – in foreign policy – a deteriorating relationship with the country's Western allies. Against this background, the main question asked at the seminar was: Where is Turkey heading?

The leading experts answered this question by focusing on domestic politics, foreign policy, and the military and defense sector.


Hasret Dikici BilginHasret Dikici Bilgin (associate professor at Istanbul Bilgi University) opened the seminar by discussing Turkish domestic policy in light of constitutional debates in the country. All political parties in Turkey agree that the current constitution, which was made under military rule in 1982, needs to be changed. However, the main parties disagree on how the constitution should actually be changed. In Turkish politics, the position of the parties on the question of the Constitution has tended to vary with their position in the power structure. These differences became apparent in the 16 April 2017 referendum on changes to the constitution. 

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the supporting Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)  advocated changes that will strengthen the executive branch of the government, allegedly to avoid weak coalition governments and political stalemate – situations that have characterised previous periods in Turkish politics. 

The other opposition parties, including the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Kurdish-oriented People's Democratic Party (HDP), warned instead of an inherent authoritarianism in the proposed changes, and called for a system with real institutional checks and balances on executive power.


Gencer ÖzcanGencer Özcan (professor at Istanbul Bilgi University) emphasized the importance of Turkish domestic politics for understanding the country's foreign policy. Özcan argued to the perennial state crisis in Turkey was vital for understanding the power strategies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – also in the foreign policy field. In particular, the tug of war between the military and the civilian government in Turkey over the last fifteen years can explain many of the foreign policy choices made by the AKP government since it came to power for the first time in 2002. 

The push for Turkish EU-membership, support for the Annan-plan on Cyprus, and the zero-problems-with-neighbours foreign policy, are all examples of strategic choices that made it possible for the AKP to sideline the Turkish military in foreign- and security policy field. Increasing civilian control with the military in recent years has also coincided with a more realism-based and assertive foreign policy – in particular in relation to Turkey's immediate neighbourhood.


Yaprak GürsoyYaprak Gürsoy (lecturer at Aston University, Birmingham, UK) discussed changes and continuties in the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) since the Cold War. After the end of the Cold War, Turkey set out its goals as projecting more power to its surrounding regions and protecting its internal security. Contributing to international missions abroad, carrying out operations across the borders to prevent any threats materialising within the country, and building up the capabilities of the military (through conscription, a domestic defence industry and high military expenditures) were the main strategies. 

These goals have not changed since the 1990s, but circumstances at home have. After 2011, turbulence in the Middle East and strengthening of the PKK at home and its affiliates in Northern Syria and Iraq, as well as the new threat of ISIS, forced Turkey to abandon its peaceful relations with neighbours and deploy troops across the border. In domestic politics, the erstwhile alliance between the AKP government and the Gülen movement fractured, leading to the 15 July 2016 coup attempt. 

These developments have put Turkey's alliance with the US and European powers to a tough that we have yet to see the full implications of.


The seminar ended with a Q&A session. The panellists agreed that Turkey was drifting, rather than heading in a particular direction. On the question of Turkey's continued affiliation to the West, none of the panelists saw any immediate danger of Turkey leaving NATO or turning its back on Europe. In its foreign policy, Turkey has always sought a leadership role towards the surrounding regions – a role which has not been accepted by other countries in these regions. This applies both to states from the former Soviet Union and to the countries of the Middle East.  

Against this background, Turkey's foreign policy re-orientation is facing limitations, and it seems unlikely that Turkey will forfeit its existing relations with the United States and Europe for any alternatives to the East.

Summary by Lars Haugom

Publisert 8. september 2017 12:00.. Sist oppdatert 19. september 2017 16:02.