The always excellent Dov Friedman needs no further introduction at this point to O&Z readers (his previous guest posts are here, here, and here), and he weighs in again today to look at the foreign policy angle to the talks between the Turkish government and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, and to point out that we have seen a similar dynamic before under the AKP.
On Wednesday, Michael discussed the underlying political reasons for Prime Minister Erdoğan’s sudden about-face on the Kurdish Issue. In short, Erdoğan can count votes. Both the nationalist MHP and some members of Erdoğan’s own AK Party oppose his desired expansion of presidential power in a new constitution. A settlement of the Kurdish Issue that rewrites the constitution’s definition of citizenship and codifies primary language education rights would likely draw support from the heavily Kurdish BDP. The same revised constitution could also include provisions for a stronger presidency—or such is the Prime Minister’s hope. It may be a long shot, but it may also be Erdoğan’s only shot.
Though domestic politics may have spurred Erdoğan to act, we should not overlook the foreign policy impetus for a new Kurdish Opening. It will affect Turkey’s relationship with both the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq and Maliki’s Baghdad regime. It may also have deep implications for Turkey’s regional stature.
After years of hostility between Turkey and the KRG, Turkey wisely corrected course and fostered closer relations with the self-governing enclave. Meanwhile, Maliki’s government and the KRG have become increasingly oppositional, with the rich oil deposits in the disputed Mosul and Kirkuk regions a key point of contention. Despite stipulations that oil revenues are a national issue under Baghdad’s purview, Turkey has facilitated the KRG’s nascent efforts to open an independent revenue stream from fossil fuels. Naturally, Baghdad is livid, and tensions between Turkey and Maliki’s government have understandably risen. The Ankara-Baghdad divergence on the Syrian conflict certainly has not helped matters.
Turkey assists the KRG because it stands to gain tremendously from the development of Kurdish Iraq into an energy power. The KRG is landlocked; Turkey presents its most natural geostrategic outlet to world markets. The infrastructure already exists in the form of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline. In 2012, the KRG inched toward energy—and some would argue political—independence by signing independent exploration contracts with some of the world’s largest oil companies. By transporting KRG oil and gas from its port in Ceyhan, Turkey would transform itself into a major energy hub—with huge economic ramifications for Turkey’s underdeveloped southeast and political implications for the country as a whole.
That the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline is a tremendous political asset doubles as the reason it has become a particularly appealing target for Turkey’s militant Kurdish insurgency, the PKK. In 2010, despite relative calm, PKK operatives bombed the pipeline. The same thing happened in July of last year. In October 2012, rebels bombed a pipeline bringing natural gas from Iran. In absence of a government initiative to solve the Kurdish Issue, these periodic attacks would likely persist. Turkey knows—as does anyone engaged in commerce—that volatility and uncertainty are bad for business.
In light of the dual domestic and foreign policy ramifications, Erdoğan’s abrupt shift toward finding a solution to the Kurdish Issue makes sense. The question becomes: will Erdoğan strike a deal with the Kurdish opposition?
Remarkably, the opening of EU accession talks in AK Party’s early years bears similarities to the present Kurdish Opening. After AK Party took power in 2002, it still faced a secular establishment suspicious of its intentions and a military that had unseated the previous Islamist government in 1997 and banned it from politics. AK Party made opening EU accession talks its first major policy initiative, and Turkey earned a December 2004 date to formally commence the process. At the time, the foreign policy ramifications were massive. Turkey had kept one foot in Europe for decades without being permitted all the way in. This was Turkey’s opportunity to permanently reinforce its unique geopolitical identity.
However, benefits to foreign policy were not Turkey’s only—or even primary—concern. First, the AK Party’s EU stance was a political winner. Kemalists, Kurds, and liberals all supported the process, each for different reasons. Second, in order to open accession talks, the EU required Turkey to implement political reforms that weakened the military’s role in politics. The National Security Council transitioned from foreign policy arbiter into an advisory role.
In 2002, Erdoğan pursued a foreign policy of EU accession that doubled as stealth domestic policy. AK Party shored up its liberal credentials while the military zealously agreed to its own subtly diminished power.
Perhaps 2013’s Kurdish Opening is the mirror image. Undoubtedly, Erdoğan wants to be president with vastly increased power. That is the obvious way to read his sudden shift on the Kurdish Issue. Focusing merely on the constitutional implications yields pessimism—who can trust progress hinging on Erdoğan’s cynical calculus about how to retain power.
That is why ignoring the potential foreign policy benefits of the Kurdish Opening would be a major mistake. In 2002, Erdoğan demonstrated that policies with tangible potential gains in both the foreign and domestic spheres intrigued him and garnered his strong support. It is far too soon to predict whether the Kurdish Issue will be solved; however, early AK Party history may provide reason for a small measure of hope.