By Jesse Biroscak Staff Writer April 26, 2010

Last week International Affairs Review staff writer Jesse Biroscak spoke to Ambassador Ross Wilson, former United States Ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan, to discuss Turkey’s prominent role in its surrounding region.

Ambassador Wilson is currently the Director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and a visiting lecturer at The George Washington University.

IAR: How does the increased media attention directed towards Turkey of late affect the country, especially with regard to its status as a budding regional power?

Ambassador Wilson: I would separate Turkey’s recent visibility into two categories: foreign and domestic. The Turkish government, especially over the past couple of years, has worked very hard and fairly effectively to diversify Turkish relationships with its neighbors–both immediate neighbors and those nearby, in its ‘near abroad,’ to use a term that’s more regularly used with respect to Russia. This reflects its aim to reassert Turkey’s influence and interests throughout the region; in particular, its influence in regional stability and prosperity, and having good, or at least reasonable relations with the countries around it that can and will affect its interests.

At the same time, a maelstrom of things are going on within Turkey and issues that cut across domestic and foreign affairs, of which dealing with history and normalization of relations with Armenia is one. I think, however, that they operate in essence on separate tracks and should be looked at that way.

IAR: Prime Minister Erdogan expressed confidence that the U.S. president will not use the word “genocide” in his upcoming April 24 statement on the 95th anniversary of the start of the mass killings and deportations in Armenia. Will President Obama follow the recommendations of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and affirm Turkey’s role in the Armenian genocide? If so, could this potentially damage U.S. – Turkish relations on a long-term scale?

Ambassador Wilson: The President chose to highlight American interests last year, which may indicate how he will handle this year’s statement. The United States wants to do everything possible to support reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, based in part on the protocols the two countries negotiated and then signed in April 2009.

The bilateral conversations on the margins of the Nuclear Security Summit between President Obama and President Sarksian, President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan, and President Sarksian and Prime Minister Erdogan, seemed aimed at getting the normalization and the protocol processes back on track. What back on track means is, of course, difficult to know without inside information.

The President’s visit to Turkey in April 2009, his discussions here with Prime Minister Erdogan in December 2009, and discussions taking place in the wake of the House Foreign Affairs Committee vote on the so-called Armenian genocide resolution have all informed the President of the deep sensitivity of this issue in Turkey. He was obviously sensitive to Armenian sentiments, both among their diaspora community and among Armenians generally around the world.

IAR: Will Turkey’s policy of friendship with its near-abroad neighbors and PM Erdogan’s supposed friendship with President Ahmadinejad of Iran heavily influence Turkey’s potential vote on Iranian sanctions in the UN Security Council, given Turkey’s rotating seat thereon?

Ambassador Wilson: The Turks will calculate their approach in part based on whether the Security Council resolution is broadly supported by all of the Permanent Members and by others in the rotating seats. As a subset of that, the Turks will reflect on the U.S. views as well.

I think a second factor is Turkey’s calculations about what is the most effective international strategy for resolving the issue. Something that comes through in Ahmet Davutoglu’s [Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs] words and in the Turkish press is the idea that sanctions in and of themselves are not the issue. The issue in question is which strategy will solve the problem. What is the best way to convince the Iranians not to try to build their own nuclear weapon? That is an issue on which intelligent and objective minds can have differing views. It is important to listen to alternative views about what the right strategy is here.

A third consideration will be Turkey’s relationship with Iran. Turkey’s only significant and ongoing alternative source for natural gas to Russia is Iran. The Iranians are unreliable suppliers, but the Turkish economy needs those supplies in order to be able to function. Iran is also the transit route for the bulk of Turkey’s trade with Central Asia and Afghanistan. Around 300,000 to 400,000 trucks per year cross that route. The only alternative route would be through Russia, but it is longer. The route through Iran has been a profitable and important one to the Turks.

Finally, one million or so Iranians come to Turkey every year. That, in part, is a function of a good bilateral relationship. Iranians take home an impression of a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim that also happens to be free, democratic, and prosperous. Turks would argue that that is a soft power way of influencing Iran in the long term that is helpful to Western interests.

IAR: Are the tensions between Turkey’s Islamically-rooted civilian government and its secular military a signal that Turkey is not as internally stable as its government would like to project to the West?

Ambassador Wilson: The remarkable thing about Turkey over the past several years is how stable it has proven to be. In 2007 there was a huge political crisis when the military, effectively speaking, intervened to block the ruling party’s candidate for president and lost. The subsequent national election strengthened the ruling party and strengthened the consensus that military interventions are a thing of the past.

In 2008, there was a constitutional court procedure over whether or not to close the ruling party and to ban 100 of its top leaders, including the Prime Minister, from politics. The court found the party guilty [of anti-secular activities] but did not penalize it in such drastic ways. Again, Turkey weathered all of this.

Since then, there has been an increasing focus on Ergenekon [an alleged ultra-nationalist terrorist organization] and more recent allegations associated with the so-called Sledgehammer coup-plot by the military. Yet, there is no unrest in Turkey; there is no conflict on the streets. Few observers would expect a move to overthrow the government. The democratic institutions, while complicated and flawed in a number of respects, are actually working. In that sense people are more likely to look back on this period as one in which Turkish stability was tested, but came through it in a reasonable fashion. A culture of institutions is taking hold.

IAR: The European Union (EU) requires member states to have civilian control over the military. Is the current ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) trying to reduce the military’s influence in order to increase Turkey’s chances of entering the European Union or in order for it to remain in power?

Ambassador Wilson: You would have to ask somebody in the AKP what their ultimate aims are, and it’s hard to get too far inside of that. Officials do say, especially in public, but also privately, frankly, that they pushed legislation through with the support of other political parties to bring Turkey more into conformance with European standards about civil-military relations. Second, they make reasonably clear that they believe in civilian control of the military. They want – or they say they want – to strengthen and perfect Turkish democracy so that the normal legal institutions of a democracy can fully function.

It is important to look at what the Government actually says and does. There you find that the Turkish government actions hew more closely to EU criteria and to criteria that the US has had about the importance of modern civilian-military relations.

IAR: Will Turkey continue its efforts to face both East and West through further mediation of conflicts, like that between Syria and Israel, or will it choose other routes? What other methods can Turkey use to assert itself in both worlds?

Ambassador Wilson: Turkey has always faced both East and West. Turkish diplomacy has become much more active in the past decade on relations with countries to its South and its East. In the 1990s, relations were extremely tense with Syria over its harboring of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] leader. Relations with Saddam Hussein were always difficult and complicated, although probably better than those with Syria. With Iran, the relationship has been more or less what it is today – it is a correct relationship, but I would not characterize it as a particularly warm one. But as I said earlier, Turkey needs Iran and feels that it is important to have a reasonable relationship with a neighbor, which is not at all illogical.

I would expect to see that as long as the Turkish economy remains healthy and the government remains relatively strong, Turkish diplomacy will continue to remain very active around the region. Will it be able to resume mediation between Syria and Israel? Certainly Turkey would like to and thinks it could be useful. The Syrians have said positive things, but the relationship between the Turks and the Israeli government is not a very good one right now.

Turkey more than any other member of NATO has an interest in seeing the Iran nuclear problem dealt with somehow. No one else is on the front lines like Turkey is, and I would expect that they will remain active. However, Turkey has pretty consistently avoided putting itself in the mediating position. They have been supportive of the diplomacy by the P5+1 group. They have put forward some ideas to try to solve problems, including the scheme to ship out highly enriched uranium and instead provide the Iranians with a supply for their research medical reactor. That is more or less constructive behavior.

Turkey will also remain active in the Caucasus, and it desires an expanded and more effective role therein. Its activity is fundamentally the main reason for reconciliation efforts with Armenia. The actions of the United States, the U.S. Congress or the President on genocide are not the issue.

Finally, Turkish businesses have an interest in sustaining and building on increasingly important export and markets and sources of investment money throughout the Middle East, in the Gulf states, and even as far as northeast Africa. Turkish trade with Arab countries is up something like 200 percent over the last 10 years. That is important, and it has been an important source of economic growth and development for Turkey.

IAR: What will a more powerful Turkey mean for the Eurasian energy environment, especially given that Russia, which likes to exert a great amount of control and influence in the region, has recently become more active on the international political scene?

Ambassador Wilson: That’s a really good question and I am not sure I know the answer. As with Iran, Turkish authorities want a good relationship with Russia. They understand the limits of both those relationships, but value them nonetheless. Turkey has been at pains to not allow its policy in the region to be portrayed as anti-Russian – it is pro-Turkish. The key sets of issues going on today have to do with the export of Caspian-based gas and large volume export of oil through the Turkish straits – legitimate environmental and safety issues. Kazakh oil in particular has very substantial volumes coming through the Turkish straits and at a certain point that is not sustainable. In response to a question about tanker traffic in the Turkish straits this past week, the Turkish Energy Minister seemed at some pains to point out that the Samsun – Ceyhan oil pipeline is still a live issue for Turkish authorities.

On gas, energy and relations with the European Union and Western Europe motivate Turkish policy. At least a chunk of that has to do with Turkey’s EU accession effort and interest in opening up negotiations on the energy chapter in the talks, which have been resisted by a number of the main European players.

It helps Turkey’s overall influence throughout the region around it and with its immediate neighbors to do the diplomacy on these things. At the end of the day, the actual pipelines and the actual purchase contracts will be driven much more by economics than by anything else. Turkey’s economic fundamentals are very good. There is a complicated set of things going on there and Turkey’s increased influence in the region ends up not being the main driver – it is economics and commercial benefits.

IAR: Does Turkey’s involvement in the Eurasian energy environment encourage stability for the region and what does that mean for the United States?

Ambassador Wilson: Yes. The United States has defined it as in its interests, going back to the breakup of the Soviet Union, that Turkey be active and engaged in the region – not in an anti-Russian way, but just out there. Many of these countries are Turkic countries and speak Turkic languages. There are some not insignificant historical ties, and Turkey has an obvious comparative advantage: as a member of the West, as a NATO country, and as an EU accession candidate country, it has interests and can project into Central Asia and the Caucasus in ways that far away Western countries are less able to. In short, Turkey is the conduit for helping to modernize these countries and draw them more into the global economy and the European economy. It’s helpful for our interests that Turkey is there and that it is engaged.

IAR: How do you see Turkey and its neighbors evolving together over the coming years and decades? Do you view that evolution positively, especially regarding the desires of the current U.S. administration?

Ambassador Wilson: I think that there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the region with trends pointing more in the direction of stability, particularly if you’re talking about Eurasia. There is more money throughout the region – in Turkey, in the Black Sea and Caspian littoral states, and in Central Asia – a lot of it associated with energy. These countries almost without exception are incomparably better off than they were 20 years ago, and many of these signs point to more of that as these countries open up – as the Turks and other Western firms are able to get in there and as barriers between these countries maybe start to fade away. That opens up opportunities for Azeris in Kazakhstan or Russians in Azerbaijan or someday in Georgia.

There are obviously wildcards. What may be the effect of renewed large-scale instability in the Middle East, whether in Lebanon, with respect to Syria, or in Iraq? The Iran nuclear issue also makes it very difficult to predict exactly how the region will play out over the coming couple years.

There is another set of wildcards in the Central Asian former Soviet states that has to do with political succession. Political succession is not well defined nor well understood, and that is a source of instability almost in and of itself. Certainly if you’re looking 20 to 30 years in the future there will be political change at the top in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. There just has been change in Kyrgyzstan and that has had some serious impact there. Turkmenistan may be okay for a little while because they just went through this.

A third wild card is the global economic trend. Things globally seem to be more on the upswing than on the downswing now, but we do not know how this is going to play out. A prolonged global stagnation or a renewed crisis in five, ten, or twenty years could have a lot of effect on those countries and could divert them from what could otherwise look fairly promising. I would put Turkey at the top of that group. It has a stable government, a strong economy, a young, reasonably well-educated and well-trained population, and it is conversant in the languages of a lot of its neighbors. It is also able to move around among a lot of its neighbors, many of which are more likely to be greater engines of growth for Turkish economic interests than the older, more traditional, and more developed economies in the world that aren’t going to grow as fast relative to the emerging market economies.

Please note: this interview was taken before President Obama made his statement of Wednesday, April 24, 2010, commemorating the anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

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