As Europe and NATO voice concerns about the Kremlin's intervention in Crimea and the deepening destabilization of Ukraine, Turkey's strategic importance may be on the rise, experts believe.
Sinan Ülgen, board member at the İstanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), said the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula threatens the security of Europe, a development that has caused the worst East-West tensions since the Cold War.
“Turkey's strategic importance will surely increase as Europe focuses mostly on security,” Ülgen told Sunday's Zaman on Thursday.
Ukraine's crisis began in November, when then-President Victor Yanukovych backed out of an agreement with the European Union. Ukrainians took to the streets in protest, sparking monthslong conflict that ended with Yanukovych's removal from power. That development, in turn, sparked Russia's military intervention in Crimea, despite warnings from the West.
Many Western leaders as well as NATO officials have described the situation unfolding in Ukraine as Europe's most important security issue.
Speaking to Sunday's Zaman on Thursday, Ali Engin Oba, lecturer of international relations at Çağ University, said Europe may warm to Turkey as an important player in the region.
Hinting at the possibility of sanctions, the US and Britain have threatened Russia with “significant costs” if it does not change course on Crimea; since Yanukovych's ouster, Russia has staged military exercises involving tanks, dozens of airplanes and over 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine and deployed troops at Crimean ferry ports, military bases and border posts.
In reply, Deputy Economy Minister Alexei Likhachev said on Thursday that Russia will impose symmetrical sanctions if the United States and the European Union impose their own, Reuters has reported. "We are ready for any eventuality," Likhachev told journalists. "We will mirror [any actions]."
He also said the ministry hoped that any sanctions would be political not economic. "One would like to wish that if the European Union decides to impose any sanctions they will not restrain business cooperation," Likhachev was quoted as saying by Reuters.
With Putin seeming to disregard the threat of Western sanctions, divisions over the peninsula deepened on March 6 when the Crimea regional parliament voted to become a part of Russia. Yaşar Yakış, president of the Center for Strategic Communication (STRATİM), told Sunday's Zaman on Thursday that Russia will end up dominating a larger stretch of Black Sea coastline, which may create an opportunity for Turkey to play a greater role in the region.
A referendum on the status of Crimea will be held on March 16 to ratify the regional parliament's vote. Ankara has strong ties with the local leadership in Crimea and the peninsula's Tatar community, which numbers some 300,000 and with which Turkey has very close cultural and religious links.
Although Turkey may become more strategically important in the region as the Ukrainian crisis deepens, experts say, ongoing political volatility at home remains an obstacle to its EU membership.
Yakış underlined that Turkey's EU bid has been going through a difficult period, pointing to criticisms from EU officials and a recent European Parliament report criticizing Turkey for setbacks in freedom of speech, separation of powers and the rule of law as well as the government's response to a massive corruption investigation implicating members of the inner circle of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The report expressed concern that two controversial laws passed in Parliament in the aftermath of the corruption investigation, which erupted with a wave of detentions on Dec. 17, “are taking Turkey away from its path towards the fulfillment of the Copenhagen criteria.” The new laws, one on the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) and the other on the regulation of the Internet, have also faced severe criticism at home, with detractors arguing the laws are meant to expand government control over judicial appointments and Internet content at the expense of freedoms and the principle of the separation of powers.
The EU has voiced concerns over recent developments in Turkey many times. Hélène Flautre, co-chairwoman of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, sent a letter to Turkish President Abdullah Gül in February, asking him to step in to put Turkey's European Union membership bid back on track.
“Mr. President, I am writing to ask you to take action in order to safeguard the credibility of Turkey's European Union membership bid. Turkey's friends and people who sincerely support Turkey's full membership have been concerned about the signals Ankara has recently been giving,” the letter read.