Two recent international surveys confirm Turks’ changing perceptions on international matters in favor of the East and their disillusion with the West. On Sept. 7, the US-based Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Survey revealed that only 17 percent of Turks have a positive opinion of the US, the lowest, along with Pakistan and Egypt, among the 22 nations included in the survey. The same survey showed that Turks with a favorable opinion of the European Union have dropped to 28 percent from 58 percent in 2004. On Sept. 15 another poll revealed similar results. The German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Transatlantic Trends Survey revealed that the percentage of Turks who think EU membership would be a good thing fell from 73 percent in 2004 to 38 percent in 2010. The survey also showed that the percentage of Turks who think Turkey should act in closest cooperation with Middle Eastern countries on international matters has doubled to 20 percent from 2009. Cooperation with the EU is favored by 13 percent and cooperation with the US by 6 percent only. In other words, more Turks approve of cooperation with Middle Eastern countries than with the EU and the US combined.
How should one interpret all these data about Turkish society’s perception of East and West? I think the good news is that Turkey is becoming a more self-confident actor in the international arena. It no longer displays an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West. On the other hand, there is considerable anger against the US and Europe. The classic source of this anger is the perception that the West supports Kurdish nationalism. I think whenever there is a major increase in violence related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey’s perception of the West worsens simultaneously. In other words, what is often called the “Sèvres Syndrome” -- the Turkish belief that Europe and the US are interested in dismembering Turkey in order to create an independent Kurdistan in eastern Turkey -- is alive and well.
Interestingly, all this shows is that more democracy and improved Turkish self-confidence do not necessarily translate into less anger towards the West. Normally, one would expect that a more democratic and self-confident Turkey would develop a healthier perception of Europe and America. An important reason why this is not the case is related to the Turkish belief that Europe continues to treat Turkey according to double standards. The French and German reluctance to embrace Turkey’s EU membership is a major problem. The fact that such European behavior is coming at a time when Turkey is economically strong and politically more self-confident exacerbates the situation. Simply put, Turkey is running out of patience with Europe. The majority of Turks may still desire EU membership, but they clearly know that Europe is not interested. Such European disinterest used to humiliate Turkey. Now Turkish feelings are shifting from humiliation to frustration and anger.
Given these complex dynamics in Turkey’s worsening perception of Europe and the US, the question is whether Turkey can continue its democratization process without feeling close to the West. It is hard to deny that Turkish democratization was greatly helped by the prospect of EU membership. If Turkish society no longer believes that EU membership is possible, will there be strong societal support for democratization? I think the 58 percent “yes” vote in the referendum gives us some hope. The referendum showed that most Turks will continue to support democratization even in the absence of EU membership prospects. Yet, part of me still thinks that everything boils down to the economic situation. In other words, the “yes” vote may have less to do with democratization than with how Turks feel about the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) handling of the Turkish economy. One can only hope that somehow economic development and democratization will, in the long run, change Turkey’s negative perception of the West.