Turkey, Russia and modern nationalism

Turkey, Russia and modern nationalism

Bulletin article
01 August 2006

The EU faces few challenges greater than working out a modus vivendi with two large and difficult neighbours. The way the Union chooses to deal with this duo will do much to determine its future character. If it cannot develop a coherent and effective common policy towards Russia, its efforts to build a ‘common foreign and security policy’ will lack credibility. If it rules out Turkish membership, its voice and influence will diminish – and not only in Muslim countries. And if the EU mishandles both Russia and Turkey, it may unwittingly push them into an anti-European alliance.

Superficially, Russia and Turkey have much in common. Both straddle Europe and Asia and emerged out of multi-ethnic empires. In both, rapid economic modernisation is creating super-wealthy elites and widening inequalities. The western-leaning cultural capital (St Petersburg and Istanbul) vies for influence and status with the more inward-looking seat of government (Moscow and Ankara).

More fundamentally, both countries are uncertain of their European identity. Their pro-Europeans compete with traditionalists who argue that looking east is an option. Recently, for example, Russian leaders warned that if the EU was unco-operative they would turn to Asia for gas deliveries and political alliances. In Turkey those who argue for closer links with Russia, the Middle East and Central Asia have been relatively quiet in recent years, but will reassert themselves if Turkey’s bid for EU membership falters.

In both, a prickly, defensive and sometimes paranoid nationalism is never far beneath the surface. Most Russians view the loss of empire in the Gorbachev period as a national humiliation. They lament Boris Yeltsin’s cow-towing on foreign policy to a patronising West during the 1990s. Most are glad that high oil prices and Vladimir Putin’s more disciplined regime have restored Russia’s strength and international standing. Senior figures in the Russian security establishment see NATO as a hostile organisation with an anti-Russian rationale that is intent on surrounding the country and encouraging parts of it to break off.

Turkey lost its empire much longer ago, but the anguish of the early 1920s – when several European powers invaded Turkey – has not been forgotten or forgiven. When a West European reminds a Turk of his country’s failure to apologise for the massacres of Armenians in 1915, or suggests autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds, he may be told that the West Europeans are reviving ancient schemes to break up Turkey. Stung by the opposition of several EU countries to their bid for membership, some Turks accuse them of racial or religious prejudice. Of course, the paranoia of Russians and Turks is partly justified: there are people in the West (though more in Washington than Europe) who have spent recent years trying to weaken Russia, while a minority of West Europeans (including the Pope) wants the EU to be a Christian club.

National unity is a powerful doctrine in both states, championed by the security services and military establishments. ‘Foreign forces’ are accused of aiding Kurdish and Chechen separatists. In Turkey, many people believe that if separatist Kurds were granted more rights, their state would fall apart. In Russia, anyone who argues for a negotiated solution to the Chechen problem is soon branded unpatriotic.

Both countries lack natural allies among their neighbours and have a poor record of making friends. The Russians will not win over hearts and minds in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova or the Baltic states so long as they treat those places as part of their sphere of influence rather than independent countries. Russia’s current boycott of Georgian and Moldovan wine, and of Ukrainian food, has damaged its soft power in its neighbourhood. Turkey has improved ties with Iran and Greece in recent years but still closes its border with Armenia.

Russia and Turkey are probably the most ‘modern’ states in Europe, in the sense defined by EU diplomat Robert Cooper: they are centralised and nationalist, resisting significant transfers of authority to autonomous regions within them or supranational institutions outside. By contrast the ‘post-modern’ EU states have shifted powers downwards to regions and upwards to Brussels. The modernism of Russia and Turkey makes it hard for them to integrate with the EU.

The big difference, of course, is that Turkey has begun membership talks while Russia has not applied to join (and would be rebuffed if it did, being much less democratic than Turkey). Turkey’s secular elite sees accession as a fulfilment of the westernising vision of Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey; a way of fixing the country’s secular orientation against Islamist threats; and a matter of national pride (if Greece is in, Turkey has to be). Meanwhile the Islamists in the AKP government look to accession as a way of ensuring that the military cannot intervene in politics. Russia’s leaders, believing their country a great power, see little virtue in integrating with the EU.

However, this difference could diminish quite soon. The Cyprus problem seems likely to scupper Turkey’s accession talks by the end of the year. Turkey will not ratify the extension of its customs union with the EU to the ten new members (including Cyprus) unless the EU delivers on its promised restoration of trade links with Northern Cyprus. The EU cannot because of Cyprus’s veto. The collapse of the accession talks would strengthen nationalist forces within Turkey. In the long run Turkey may – like Russia – need to consider forms of association with the EU that are less than membership.

Russia is preparing to offer a sympathetic shoulder to a Turkey spurned by the EU. Over the past five years ties between this once hostile pair have burgeoned. Russia is Turkey’s second biggest trading partner (after Germany), with two-way trade amounting to about $20 billion a year. Two million Russian tourists a year visit Turkey. Both countries are suspicious of US efforts to promote democracy in their region. Each has clamped down on the terrorist groups that threaten the other (Kurds in Russia, Chechens in Turkey). Each likes the fact that the other does not lecture it on human rights. President Putin and Prime Minister Erdogan met four times last year. Russian diplomats wax lyrical about Turkey and Russia becoming leading and allied Eurasian powers.

Nationalist and anti-EU sentiment is growing in both countries. If this trend continues, Russia and Turkey will create major problems for the EU. The Union therefore needs to renew its efforts to engage with both, looking for new ways of drawing them into its policies – even if, as is to be hoped, Turkey finds the stamina to continue its quest for membership.

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