“[Greek Cypriots] believe that Turkey will give in at the end when it becomes a member of the EU. But this is not a realistic option for the Greek Cypriots. They should realize that they lost leverage in the EU because many chapters are being blocked by them and France,” he told Today’s Zaman for Monday Talk.
Akgün added that Turkey has lost its desire to become a member of the EU and is not ready to make any sacrifice.
“Even in the reform process, EU membership is a non-issue. Look at the debate on and around the Kurdish problem -- you won’t see any reference to the Copenhagen political criteria,” he said.
There is still hope because of the frequent talks scheduled between the Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders in the coming weeks. Since September 2008, Greek Cypriot leader Dimitris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat have met more than 50 times under UN auspices to discuss a deal to reunify the island. The previous round of talks ended when Greek Cypriots rejected a UN settlement plan in a 2004 referendum.
Another foreign policy issue that will shake up the first few months of 2010 is Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. Akgün, who recently returned from a working visit to Armenia, also answered our questions on that topic.
The Armenian parliament is to decide on Jan. 12 whether or not the protocols signed with Turkey are constitutional. What do you think the outcome will be?
The chief advisor to the Armenian president and the foreign minister say that the Constitutional Court in Armenia will approve the protocols. All civil society leaders also support the view that the approval process is a procedural matter. They also say that Turkey needs to move in that direction by the end of March at the latest in order to alleviate the Armenian opposition’s reaction to the approval of the protocols.
Do you think Turkey will be able to move swiftly in that regard?
Turkey is in a difficult position because of the internal opposition and the reactions from Azerbaijan. It is difficult for Turkey to move forward without any tangible progress in the talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and the surrounding regions. But there is not much time, as April is the month when the issue of genocide becomes prominent and tensions rise. Both sides will face fiercer opposition domestically and internationally. So as agreed in the protocols, the Armenian side expects Turkey to take steps without linking its normalization of relations with Armenia to the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian side believes that Turkey’s conditions discourage the parties within the Minsk process. When asked for a gesture or a partial withdrawal, they usually refer to the Cyprus problem in which the withdrawal of military forces is linked to the overall settlement.
So the Armenian side argues that Turkey’s conditions help neither the rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia nor the rapprochement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Yes, rightly or wrongly this is something Turkey should take into consideration. They have a point that the processes are parallel, but if one of the tracks becomes a precondition for [progress on] the other, then the cycle of conflict can never be broken. Moreover, Turkey is struggling with a spate of serious domestic problems such as the Kurdish problem, trying to settle the score with its unpleasant past. I don’t think the government can shoulder yet another political burden and deal with the Armenian issue considering the opposition in Parliament and dissent in the streets. Needless to say, they don’t want to jeopardize relations with Azerbaijan. All in all, it is not easy for Turkey to move forward unless there is some progress in the talks between the parties.
More specifically, like what?
Like progress in the Minsk process. But it is also possible that third parties trying to contribute to the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem can put pressure on Azerbaijan or at least convince the Azerbaijani leadership of the virtues of rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia. I suspect that if left to its own pace and fate, the relations between Armenia and Turkey may stumble again. The best option for all of us would of course be progress in the Minsk process.
‘Turkey’s EU accession might come to a halt’
Turkish Cypriot President Talat said there is not much progress toward a peaceful settlement in Cyprus. Where is that process going?
There is a ray of hope because of condensed talks between the Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders in the coming weeks. But it is hard to expect concrete results from these talks.
Why is that?
Because the Greek Cypriots are not yet there and do not seem to be ready to accept a fair settlement similar to the Annan Plan. They also have some preconditions such as the withdrawal of Turkish troops from the island. Meanwhile, we have a very complex property problem ahead of us. The principle of bizonality conflicts with individual property rights. The Greek side believes that they have the upper hand due to Turkey’s desire to become a member of the EU. They file cases against Turkey in the European Court of Human Rights and thus threaten to undermine Talat’s capacity to negotiate.
What would motivate the Greek Cypriots to have a positive approach in reconciliation?
They could be motivated if they are convinced that Turkey’s accession to the European Union might come to a halt if the Cyprus conflict remains unresolved. Otherwise, they believe that Turkey will give in at the end when it becomes a member of the EU. But this is not a realistic option for the Greek Cypriots. They should realize that they lost leverage in the EU because many chapters are being blocked by them and France. Turkey lost its appetite to become a member and is not ready for any sacrifice. Even in the reform process, EU membership is a non-issue. Look at the debate on and around the Kurdish problem, you won’t see any reference to the Copenhagen political criteria.
Is it possible that Turkey’s accession negotiations might stop in 2010?
It is possible, although no one wants that. Not the Greeks, not the Turks, not the French -- no one desires that. But when we look at practical developments, we move toward that direction. We may not have any chapters to negotiate. As you know, eight chapters have been suspended due to Turkey’s non-compliance with its customs union responsibilities, that is to say, for not opening its air and sea ports to Greek Cypriot flagged vessels. Five of the chapters are de facto blocked by France to discourage Turkey from full membership. The Greek Cypriots announced recently that they will block six more chapters. There are other obstacles and conditions for progress in Turkey’s accession, not to mentions the ones blocked by Turkey due to benchmarks.
Do you see other obstacles in front of Turkey’s EU accession process?
There are no other issues blocking Turkey’s EU accession process. In the field of foreign policy, Turkey and the EU complement each other. They are on parallel tracks, be it in the Caucasus or in other places. The only question mark may emerge with regard to Iran. But as a member of the UN Security Council, Turkey will act in conformity with its decisions. Unilateral actions or sanctions will not be appreciated by Turkey, but it is highly unlikely for such actions or sanctions to come from the EU.
‘Turkey part of solutions, not problems’
You don’t seem to support the idea of an “axis shift” in Turkey’s foreign policy.
This is not a realistic debate. There is no shift in Turkey’s foreign policy orientation. Obviously some countries and even some analysts didn’t like to see Turkey involved with the problems in surrounding regions and claimed that Turkey was distancing itself from its Western allies. It is true that Turkey deals with problems and is sometimes outspoken about them, but this does not mean that Turkey is exclusively focusing on the Middle East and calibrating its foreign policy on the basis of what they see there. When it comes to its neighborhood, Turkey does not have to be successful in all of its attempts to solve problems either. The process sometimes is as important as the result. You can’t achieve everything you desire all the time.
Are you talking about Turkey’s role in talks between Israel and Syria?
Yes, last time Turkey failed, but it was not because of what Turkey did. It was because of Israel’s intervention in Gaza and its results, the human tragedy. Moreover, don’t expect miracles from Ankara. Turkey may also fail to bring peace to the region just like the US, the EU, Russia and even China do. But failures should not deter us from mediation, arbitration or facilitation. In terms of determination, there is an -- if you wish to call it that -- axis shift in Turkey’s foreign policy. It is more conciliatory and more oriented toward problem-solving. Turkey no longer wants to be associated with problems but with solutions.
What would you say about some of Turkey’s other initiatives in the neighborhood? Do you see any success stories?
We see some tangible results from this reconciliatory mindset. For instance, there is a huge shift in the perception of northern Iraqi Kurds. They are no longer seen as archenemies of Turkey. Ankara is collaborating with them on several fronts. We are likely to reap the benefits in the fight against terrorism and in settling our own Kurdish problem. On the Armenian front, despite obstacles, we also see progress. These two protocols have at least been signed.
Turkey recently tabled a new offer for the solution of the Cyprus conflict and asked the EU to keep only one of its promises made to the Turkish Cypriots in return for opening ports and airports to the Greek Cypriots. Needless to say, Turkey can solve neither its own problems nor problems faced by others alone. No one can. But it can facilitate their solution. I believe such a Turkey is much better for all of us than a Turkey resisting any kind of solution, aggressive, revisionist and basing its policies on ethnic and religious brotherhood.
‘The Greek Cypriots could be motivated if they are convinced that Turkey’s accession to the EU might come to a halt if the Cyprus conflict remains unresolved. Otherwise, they believe that Turkey will give in at the end when it becomes a member of the EU. But this is not a realistic option for the Greek Cypriots. They should realize that they lost leverage in the EU because many chapters are being blocked by them’
Turkey’s new initiative on Cyprus can change all parameters
Professor Akgün draws attention to what Turkey’s chief EU negotiator, Egemen Bağış, said in October in reference to the conflict over the divided island of Cyprus. Under a customs agreement with the European Union, Turkey must extend a trade protocol to the 10 nations that joined the bloc in 2004, including Greek Cyprus. But Turkey does not recognize the Greek Cypriot government and refuses to open its ports to it unless the EU makes good on a promise to break the economic isolation of Turkish Cypriots.
“Bağış said that if the EU accepts the Direct Trade Regulation to have trade between the EU and the Turkish Cypriots, then Turkey will open its ports and airports to Greek Cyprus. This means Turkey has only one condition for opening its ports and airports. Ankara obviously replaced its six conditions declared on Jan. 24, 2006 with only one. This is a compromise by Turkey, and if it is seen and realized by the Greek Cypriots as such, then this can be a step toward ‘confidence building.’ Although all EU member countries have committed themselves to remove the blockade on Turkish Cypriots and pledged to have direct trade, only the Greek Cypriot side can now trade directly with the Turkish Cypriots thanks to the Green Line Regulation accepted by the EU. Endorsement of the Direct Trade Regulation by the EU Council will serve as a confidence building tool between Turkey and the Greek Cypriots and in the end assist the other side of the island in achieving some of its political goals.”
MENSUR AKGÜN an expert on foreign policy
An associate professor and chair of the department of international relations at İstanbul Kültür University (İKÜ), Akgün received his bachelor’s degrees from Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) and Oslo University in the fields of international relations and social anthropology. He earned his master’s degree in political science at Oslo University and completed his doctoral studies at Boğaziçi University in İstanbul. Dr. Akgün has published extensively in the field of international relations and Turkish foreign policy and is currently a columnist for the Referans daily. Since 2008, he has been the director of the Global Political Trends Center (GPoT), a research unit at İKÜ that aims to produce distinctive foreign policy recommendations. Previously, he was the director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), where he currently works as a program adviser.