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July 01, 2012, Sunday

Dangers on Turkey’s road to becoming a real regional power

Let me start today's column with a partial self-criticism before discussing Turkey's regional power claim.

Last Monday I was asserting that the EU summit could be terminated by deadlock instead of compromise as usual. Indeed, with regard to the two basic subjects of conflict -- the issuing of collective debt (Eurobonds) and the direct rescue of banks by European funds -- no compromise could be reached on the first, but an agreement was reached on the second. The Germans accepted that as soon as a banking supervisory system can be established by the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) will be able to recapitalize shrinking banks. We do not know yet if this German backlash, which was forced by the Italian and Spanish prime ministers threatening to block the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP), will be sufficient to calm markets.

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) claims since the post crisis economic boom, backed by strong popular support for the AK Party, that Turkey has become a very influential regional power, even an “order builder,” as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu likes to say. I have some serious doubts about this assertion. I do not say that it is wrong or unfounded but I simply believe that it is too early to consider Turkey as a regional power capable of securing peace and stability in its very troubled neighborhood. Moreover, I am afraid that acting as a power in regional conflicts provokes worry, apprehension and sometimes hostility from protagonists, such as Russia, Iran and Israel, which also claim to be regional powers.

It is true that Turkey under AK Party rule has achieved both political stability and economic success during the last decade. The threat of a military coup has been warded off, important political and economic reforms have been completed and per capita income in purchasing power parity (PPP) increased to 52 percent of the EU average from 38 percent, while income inequality and poverty have been alleviated. But it seems that these achievements are not enough to make Turkey a regional power.

In a new article, “Turkey as regional power: Unfounded ambition or future reality,” which will be published soon in a book on Turkey, I suggested the following summarized definition for “regional power,” taking into consideration the vast literature on the subject: To consider a country as a regional power, this country must enjoy superiority in demographic, economic, political, military and ideological realms in such a way that this superiority allows the country in question to influence the decision-making processes of other regional nations. Obviously this definition requires a combination of soft power as well as hard power.

There is no problem regarding demographic superiority. Turkey's current population of 75 million should be close to 100 million by 2040 given demographic dynamics. But we can hardly express the same assurance for the remaining items of the definition. There exist important fragilities and weaknesses in political, ideological, economic and military areas. Turkey has not yet switched to a fully democratic regime. The country can only secure a modern democracy under the rule of law and individual freedom once it has replaced the current Constitution with a democratic one. The process of making a new constitution is under way, but a happy end is not guaranteed.

A democratic constitution freed from aggressive Turkish nationalism and giving enough voice to Kurdish citizens is also a prerequisite for transforming the Kurdish problem from violent conflict into political confrontation under democratic rules. As long as this transformation is incomplete, the Kurdish problem will continue to facilitate manipulations from outside as well from inside by forces challenging Turkey's claim of regional power. Last but not least, this problem will continue to be a bane for our fragile democracy while dissipating our scarce economic resources.

For the moment, the Kurdish problem happens to be deadlocked. So far, the situation is not encouraging on the economic front as well. The AK Party government, with the help of the central bank, is trying a soft landing for the economy, which means, as I have explained several time in this column, a growth rate of around 4 percent and a decrease both in inflation and in the current account deficit (CAD). A decrease in inflation as well as the CAD are set for this year, but growth could be well below 4 percent.

In order to keep unemployment on track, Turkey needs at least 5 percent growth, and to make this level of growth sustainable in the long run, a CAD-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio of not more than 5-6 percent is needed. This will not be guaranteed as long as courageous labor market and tax reforms are not implemented.

As for military superiority the bloody attack on the Mavi Marmara by the Israeli army and the shooting down of a Turkish war plane by the Syrian air defense showed that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) are not at the desired level. Recent information and debate on the capabilities of the TSK revealed important weaknesses, particularly in electronic warfare and missile technology. Certainly, until the TSK is backed up by an advanced and independent defense industry, which has recently displayed a much improved performance, its military parity with regional adversaries will not be established.

To sum up, given these weak points, Turkey is only half way to becoming a real regional power. I think that to act as a regional power under these circumstances is rather dangerous and could even be an obstacle on the way to becoming a regional power.

Previous articles of the columnist