The diplomats can relax. No one needs to worry about “losing Turkey”. The West’s most trusted Muslim ally (usually described with the cliché “bridge between East and West”) is not shifting its loyalty away from Europe toward the Islamic world. Rather it is opening and seeking good relations with its eastern neighbours as well.
It is precisely because of its political and economic flexibility that Turkey can expect 2011 to be the country’s strongest in centuries, since the star of the Ottoman Empire began its slow descent. Turkey is now a rising economic and political power. The growing self-confidence can be felt especially powerfully in the streets of Istanbul and its increasingly international culture. Like big changes in any relationship long taken for granted, many in the West are uncomfortable with Turkey’s courting of the East and its new assertiveness. But this geo-strategically key country with the world’s 17th largest economy and Nato’s second largest military is not going anywhere.
Turkey does need to be careful to not overextend its reach though or it will learn quickly the limits of geopolitical power. The tensions will become clearer in the highly charged political build-up to parliamentary elections expected in June.
Istanbul’s extraordinary economic development was highlighted last year in a study of the world’s 150 biggest metro areas by the Washington-based Brookings Institute.
The Global Metromonitor found that Istanbul had the most dynamic economy of any big city in the world. Istanbul has recovered from the 2008 global economic downturn better than all the rest, partly because the country was better prepared since going through economic meltdown in 2000-1. Since the Justice and Development Party [AKP] of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in 2002, the country is almost unrecognisable in its economic strength and political assertiveness. As an example of its new eastern orientation, exports to the Middle East as a share of all of Turkey’s exports have doubled from 9 to 18 per cent since 2002 and look set to increase this year as well. During the same period, the share going to the EU fell from 56 per cent to less than half.
In the summer elections, voters will choose whether to give a third mandate to the AKP. The election campaign started long ago and tensions are already building over key issues such as peace with Turkey’s Kurdish minority, Turkey’s international orientation, women’s headscarves and the country’s economic development. Whatever the outcome, Turkey’s global influence is likely only to grow.