I was working at a Turkish-language newspaper in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. The event that rocked the world -- and I am not sure how this happened -- somehow didn’t rock our newsroom or at least until the final edition, when the story finally made its way on to the front page. During the years that followed, this lapse became, in my mind, a metaphor for the way in which Turkey struggled to grasp the implications of the ending of the Cold War. The region’s political geography was being rewritten, former ideological foes in Central and Eastern Europe were knocking down barriers, brand new nations were popping up in the ashes of the former Soviet Union, and yet somehow Ankara hoped that it would be business as usual. While it is true that Turkish diplomats attempted to reach out to Central Asia and create a new league out of the nations along the Black Sea, psychologically the country’s leadership was still fighting the Cold War. It was almost with a sigh of relief that it learned of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Of course it did not rejoice at the presence of an American invading army and complained bitterly at the cost of the embargo against Iraq, but it gave a satisfied nod that Turkey again had a seat in the war room and that the ending of the Cold War had not deprived it of its trump card in the world arena -- its strategic importance.
I don’t suppose Ankara deserves any censure for being caught on the wrong foot by the wobbling of regimes in North Africa. In this Turkey was scarcely unique. Yet while demonstrators shouted in Tahrir Square you could hear a pin drop in the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The prime minister broke that silence on Tuesday when he addressed his own supporters and said no one should fear the democratic voice of the people -- a message directed as much at Egypt’s Western allies who are anxious about what the future will bring as it was to a white-knuckled Hosni Mubarak, still clinging to the cliff edge of power. Yet Mr. Erdoğan must know that however much he flexes his diplomatic muscles, Turkey will have to watch politely from the sidelines and content itself with being wise after the event. Will Mr. Erdoğan be giving similar discourses on the relative merits of democracy to his pal, Omar al-Bashir in Sudan after parallel protests also on Tuesday, which left one student dead and resulted in over 100 arrests? Additional protests are slated for today. And what advice will he give Syria’s president, who may face similar demonstrations this weekend and in weekends to come?
In 1989, as a new world order was about to gel, the conventional wisdom was that Turkey would be a net loser. It was suddenly being moved to the back of the queue of those nations against whom it once stood guard. However, and by that same logic, Turkey will be a net winner if the dominos (or as the Turkish tile game would have it, okey) of Middle Eastern and North African autocrats really do fall. Turkey, by silent contrast, is demonstrating that it has the mechanisms to absorb change and the institutional stability to which these societies still aspire. With stability comes all those desirable perks like investment, tourism and regional clout. The lira may take a dip today (in itself no bad thing), but the economy will grow stronger.
Some are suggesting that events in the Arab world represent the final curtain for Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy. However, if I understand that policy correctly, it is that Ankara cannot afford the luxury of choosing its friends but must behave pragmatically. The real failure has been that the Foreign Ministry did not appear to be living up to its own prescription -- that it was willing to snuggle up to Tehran but not Yerevan, or that it accused Brussels of racism but not Khartoum. Now Ankara and indeed the world faces the challenge of behaving pragmatically when it is not quite what the realities are on the ground. The other problem with “zero problems” is that Turkish foreign policy makers appear to be working much too hard to establish influence. The current crisis in Egypt shows that Turkey is most powerful when it simply tries to be itself.