A strengthening economy and new confidence have made Turkey a diplomatic rising star. And as the revolts play out across the Middle East, everyone is paying court and wanting the ear of the country’s ambitious foreign minister.
Ahmet Davutoglu is late. Turkey’s foreign minister was late for the meeting with his Romanian counterpart this morning, late for the subsequent press conference and late for a lunchtime meeting with the president. Discussions at the presidential palace about Libya overran, which made him late for his bilateral meeting with the Latvian foreign minister, late for the early evening press conference and late for dinner.
He would have been on time for his 21.00 meeting with the prime minister but he was called back to the palace to have a quick word with the president. “For the past two months I have been working until 2am every day,” Davutoglu says with a mixture of pride and sorrow as he sits down with Monocle at his official residence in Ankara late that night. It is mainly pride, though.
For the past decade Davutoglu, an unassuming man with a grey moustache and mousy brown hair, has been the driving force behind Turkey’s increasingly active foreign policy, initially as a government adviser and, since 2009, as his country’s foreign minister. His desire to have “zero problems in the neighbourhood” has led Turkey to negotiate directly with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, take a lead in finding a peaceful solution to the crisis in Libya and create new trade links with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The work has become more intense and the hours much longer since the start of the year as a series of uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East have highlighted Turkey’s increasingly crucial diplomatic role. In the past week alone Davutoglu had met with nine separate foreign ministers. At a recent Nato summit in Brussels, he held 12 bilateral meetings in 36 hours – and had to turn down a further nine requests.
Everyone, it seems, wants to talk to Turkey, which for Davutoglu and his team at the ministry of foreign affairs is a welcome change. During the Cold War, Turkey saw itself as a part of the West. “We were part of the family,” recalls Selim Yenel, an urbane former ambassador to Vienna who is now a senior diplomat at the ministry in Ankara. “We thought we had been accepted.” They had not. Turkey’s concerns during the first Gulf War were ignored, then its ambitions to join the EU were thwarted. “We had a rude awakening,” says Yenel. “We had changed; the West had not.” Turkey’s perceived rejection by the West had two main consequences. It provoked a desire to work harder to prove its worth, forcing successive governments to introduce democratic and economic reforms. It also inspired Turkey to make friends with its neighbours.
Davutoglu happily admits the “zero problems” policy will always be aspirational rather than reality, but it has already reaped rewards, both in terms of trade and, perhaps more importantly for Davutoglu, clout.
As the “Arab spring” turns into summer, Davutoglu wants to use that growing influence to help foster a region of burgeoning democracies. Change is coming, of that Davutoglu is sure. His only question is whether the current leaders in the Middle East will still be around by the time the music stops.
Sat in a gold-painted, straight-backed chair, sipping a glass of sweet cinnamon tea, Davutoglu outlines three types of leader currently in power across North Africa and the Middle East. Firstly, there are those who understood early on the need for reform and led the process. Turkey, he argues, falls into that category. Then there are those who realise that reforms are necessary but are not carrying them out fast enough. “History flows,” he says, “and they are running behind it.” The third, he says, are “those who try to stop the flow of history.” He adds: “Now it is a test for all of us in the region. Those who are resisting history, they will go. Those who are trying to follow history, they will have trouble. Those who understand the flow of history, they will be leading countries in the region.”
Without stating it, Davutoglu makes clear that the majority of leaders in the region are, at best, in the second category, although probably in the third. One of those is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. While Turkey’s role in Libya has attracted most attention, Davutoglu’s team views the uprising in Syria as the more urgent.
For Davutoglu, one of his proudest achievements has been the creation of a visa-free zone between Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan that allows the open movement of people across all four countries. There are fears in Ankara that a prolonged crisis in Syria could lead to a massive influx of refugees heading into Turkey. “President Assad declared a reform programme in 2005 but unfortunately it was not implemented,” says Davutoglu. “When the events started in Tunisia, again President Assad declared he was committed to make reforms.” Davutoglu shrugs.
One of the diplomats involved in negotiations with Syria outlines Turkey’s frustrations. “They come here for meetings and agree they need to change, then they go back to Damascus and nothing changes.” It is a reminder that Turkey’s influence is not quite as large as Davutoglu sometimes makes out.
Twice in the past three years Turkey has had its fingers badly burned playing high-stakes diplomatic poker. Davutoglu was a forceful mediator between Syria and Israel, attempting to strike a deal over the return of the Golan Heights, but as those talks reached a climax Israel invaded Gaza. Davutoglu’s pride was wounded, and relations with Israel nosedived further with the attack on the Turkish aid convoy to Gaza last year which left eight Turks dead.
The more public setback came last year. Along with Brazil, Turkey tried to strike a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme. Diplomats in Ankara point out that Hillary Clinton gave the talks her blessing but after triumphantly waving a piece of paper, Turkey was slapped down by the US. “We were expecting to be appreciated,” Davutoglu says, “but we are doing this not for prestige but to get regional and global peace.”
Davutoglu is diplomatic enough not to publicly criticise allies, but he is always willing to say enough to get the point across. On Libya, he emphasises Turkey’s belief in a peaceful transition to democracy. “We are not like other countries who… well, don’t ask me which countries,” he smiles. On Nicolas Sarkozy’s refusal to countenance Turkish membership of the EU he insists he will not imagine what the president of France is thinking, before musing about “psychological” issues and “certain prejudices”.
Turkey’s shift towards a more active foreign policy has coincided with a stronger economy and a more confident society. Over the past decade the middle class has grown, dozens of universities have opened, Turkish television has become a soft-power winner across the Arab world and Turkish Airlines has transformed into an international carrier.
There are still concerns, however: the independence of the judiciary, the role of the armed forces and the influence of Islam. If Turkey is judged against its neighbours, it is a model; if it is judged against the rest of the West, it is less so. Bolstered by its growing economy and pushed, no doubt, by the regressive regimes which surround it, Turkey is now looking beyond its own neighbourhood, opening new embassies in Latin America and Africa.
In the past two years alone Turkey has increased its embassies in Africa from 12 to 31. With more embassies and a more active foreign policy there is an obvious need for more diplomats. A new tranche of around 200 junior diplomats has been recruited, bringing the total number to just over 1,000. The new hires bring new skills. “Before, it was enough to have English and another western language,” says Bulent Aras, the head of the ministry’s strategic research centre. “Now our diplomats are learning Russian, Chinese, Persian, Portuguese, African languages, Balkan languages.”
It is a future which Davutoglu looks forward to with relish. He walks like a man who knows he doesn’t have enough time, sweeping in and out of rooms in a manic flurry of bodyguards and aides. He talks, though, like a man with time on his side: carefully, methodically and at length. Such an attitude has consequences. As he finally rises from his chair it is almost 23.00. The prime minister is waiting. Ahmet Davutoglu is late.
Diplomats are, by their very nature, diplomatic. They are masters of couching criticism in upbeat terms, of finding the positives in a sea of negativity. There is one subject, though, on which none of the diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are able to display any such tact: the city they live in. “It’s so boring,” says one. “I hate it here,” says another. “Ugly,” adds a third.
Ankara became Turkey’s capital at independence in 1923. It had served as the headquarters of Ataturk’s resistance movement while Istanbul, the previous capital, had been occupied. It was a tiny town in comparison but has since grown to become the second largest city in the country, with a population of more than four million. While it may have attracted new residents, it remains a city in search of an identity. Its architecture is uninspiring, particularly on a grey, drizzly day – the sort of day that Ankara seems to specialise in. The charms of Ankara do so little for one diplomat that he commutes to and from Istanbul every day. “If it was by the sea it would be OK,” says one official. “But it’s not.”
One of the most intractable relationships Davutoglu has tried to repair is with Armenia. The events of 1915, which saw between 300,000 and 1.5 million Armenians killed after being deported en masse from eastern Anatolia, are still contested fiercely. Turkey has always refused to accept the killings constituted genocide.
The two countries’ presidents met in 2008, which led to an agreement to normalise relations and establish a historical commission to study the genocide issue. The protocols have yet to be passed by either parliament though, with Turkey insisting that a separate dispute in Azerbaijan over territory held by Armenia must also be dealt with at the same time.