Turkey’s becoming more and more a bridge that links East and West [AUDIO]

The second part of the Cross-border Talks episode with Marian Karagyozov – a Bulgarian expert on Turkey with a PhD from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences on Turkish foreign policy in the period between 2005 and 2011. We discussed how Turkey’s foreign policy shifted after the 2016 coup, with a focus on cooperation with Turkic states, navigating Middle East conflicts, and establishing energy partnerships, while also facing growing Chinese and Russian influence in Central Asia.

Summary and the entire transcription are available below.

00:00 Turkey’s foreign policy shifted after the 2016 coup, which was blamed upon the Gülen movement. Marian Karagyozov (PhD, with a thesis on the Middle Eastern Turkish foreign policy) criticizes this movement, and the parapolitical movement influences politics through non-electoral means. The parapolitical movement does not participate in elections but tries to influence politics through bureaucratic, judicial, economic, and media means, and was a situational partner of AKP (Erdogan’s party) in their early years.

02:29 The Gülen movement had limited influence on foreign policy in Turkey, which has strong relations with Russia and China but also supports the pan-Turkist movement and sees Central Asian nations as natural partners. The Gülen movement had an undemocratic agenda and limited influence on foreign policy making in Turkey, with their schools being more popular in Central Asia and the Balkans than in the Middle East. Turkey has strong economic and political relations with Russia and China, but also supports the pan-Turkist movement and sees the Turkish speaking nations of Central Asia as natural partners, which may conflict with the interests of Russia and China.

05:53 Turkish efforts to cooperate with Turk states have increased economic, cultural, and political exchange in Central Asia, while Central Asian countries are diversifying their foreign policy options in response to growing Chinese and Russian influence. Turkish politics in the past hindered the country’s ability to exert influence in Central Asia, but current efforts to unify Turk states have elevated economic, cultural, and political exchange between the countries.Central Asian countries are diversifying their foreign policy options due to growing Chinese and Russian influence.

08:51Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East, especially regarding the Israeli war in Gaza, affects its relationship with Iran and trade with Israel, with public opinion in Turkey supporting the Palestinians. Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly in relation to the Israeli war in Gaza, has implications for its relationship with Iran and its role as a corridor for trade with Israel. Turkey and Israel were in the midst of a rapprochement before the outbreak of war, with public opinion in Turkey mobilized in support of the Palestinians.

11:52 Turkish journalists in Gaza are highlighting the humanitarian crisis, and Marian Karagyozov believes that Western awareness could impact foreign policy, while recent developments in Turkey-Greece relations are influenced by potential energy partnerships with Israel. Turkish journalists in Gaza are covering the humanitarian crisis, and the speaker suggests that if Western audiences were as informed as the Turkish public, it could impact foreign policy. Public opinion of countries varies, with Greece being important for Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey, and recent developments in relations between Turkey and Greece are influenced by potential energy partnerships with Israel.

14:14 Turkey insists that the only viable route for oil and gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean region to Europe is through Turkey, as creating a deep underwater pipeline from Israel to Cyprus to Greece is costly and technically challenging.

16:05 Greece, Israel, and Cyprus are working to create a coalition for transporting hydrocarbons, while the recent meeting between President Erdogan and Prime Minister Mitsotakis also shows that Ankara and Athens are trying to prevent tensions through discussions and confidence-building measures. The logic behind the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement was to create a coalition with Cyprus, Israel, and other countries to make transportation of hydrocarbons from the Eastern Mediterranean possible. Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus are trying to prevent tensions from escalating by discussing territorial waters and creating confidence-building measures in the military sphere.

See also the first part of the interview:

We are now entering the second part of the talk. And Iran may also be one of our concerns. But first of all, I want to start a little bit chronologically and maybe the first really significant event after the end of the time period, which you studied is in 2016, when there was a failed coup d’etat in Turkey. The blame is placed on the Gulen movement, which is known to have had an important international network of schools, media etc. How does the foreign policy of Turkey change after this Gulen tendency was taken out of the elites of the country?

The coup attempt was one of the thresholds in contemporary Turkish politics. I have a very negative view towards the Gulen movement because it was never, in my view, a democratic movement. It’s a political movement as it is called in some publications, because it uses political means. They never competed in elections. They never participated in elections like an ordinary party or a mass movement. They try to influence politics through political means, like influencing the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the economical life and media. This is not really a democratic way to do politics.

This movement was to a large extent a situational partner of AKP during their early years, because Gulenists had their own staff and cadres prepared. While the AKP was working this bureaucracy personnel, for example, in the 90s Gulen movement was the army or top army echelon. They were basically sided with them against other popular Islamist parties and movements. I think they have a deeply undemocratic agenda.

But I’m not sure what’s the real influence of the Gulen movement in foreign policy making. How real their influence on foreign policy making in Turkey was? I’m not an expert on this issue because it’s beyond the scope of my dissertation. In the Middle East the Gulenists were not that popular. They were mostly present in Central Asia and the Balkans. In the period, which I researched for my dissertation, the issue of Gulen media and schools is left aside, because they’re not very active on the ground in the Middle East.

You mentioned that Turkey also has interest in Central Asia. It is a region where Russia and China are important stakeholders. At the same time, Turkey tries to have strong economic and other political relations with Russia and China, but also Turkey is supporting the so-called pan-Turkist movement. So all the Turkish speaking nations of Central Asia are seen as somehow natural partners of Turkey. To what extent does this Turkish solidarity go in odds with the interests of Russia and China? To what extent does Turkish interest in Central Europe comply with the interests of these two great powers?

Yes. Nowadays we have very interesting developments with this organization of Turkic states. By the way, Hungary has an observer status in it. This is a new level of all previous regional cooperation efforts, which also dates back, since the fall of the Soviet Union, after the fall of the Soviet Union in the first decade after it, Turkey tried its hand to penetrate in Central Asia. But at that time, the Turkish economy was weaker than it is now. Then Turkish politics was a mess in the sense that there were a couple of very short-lived left coalition governments and also the actors, the political parties participating in this government were quite diverse.This meant a work of a long term foreign policy. There were a lot of foreign foreign ministers, taking the position longer than, say, two years, sometimes even a couple of months. So those are the reasons why Turkey at that time was not powerful enough to project a significant influence in Central Asia and, yes, these Gulen schools were there. What we see right now is a completely different situation. These previous attempts to unify or to create a common organization of Turkic states in terms of culture, society, media, education, and so forth, are upgraded to another level.

The idea of this organization of Turkic states is to promote the economic and cultural and political exchange between all these countries from Central Asian countries. This is kind of a diversification of their options, because they’re also afraid that Chinese and Russian influence is growing. So China and Russia are neighbors. People from Central Asian countries are going to work in Russia. China is one of the main investors. China is buying gas and other other products also flooding these countries with its own consumer goods. So, all these Central Asian countries are landlocked. They don’t have sea access. I guess they’re trying to somehow diversify their foreign policy options. And that is why they are also trying to work with Turkey and with the Caspian Sea country Azerbaijan. Turkey. This is a very good corridor towards open seas and towards Europe.

If you allow me now, I will return you a little bit to the Middle Eastern foreign policy of Turkey. We have the war in Gaza going on and Turkey has a lot of stakes in Palestine. Khaled Meshal, one of the leaders of Hamas used to live in Turkey. We also saw that the Iranian foreign minister visited Turkey in November 2023. So, what was the Turkish reaction to the outburst of the Israeli war in Gaza and the large human toll among civilians there?

At first, in my view, the Turkish reaction was quite modest. But later on with the escalation of Israeli assault on Gaza, the rhetoric of Turkish leadership became harsher. Turkey is important for Israel, because it imports Azeri oil and oil from a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq via Turkish ports. Also the bilateral trade, a year ago was like 9 billion USD annually. Turkey was just starting its rapprochement with Israel, before the outbreak of the war. The prime minister of Israel, Mr. Netanyahu and President Erdogan met during the UN General Assembly session this September. So they just started their rapprochement and then the war started. The Turkish domestic public opinion is very much mobilized in support of the Palestinians and Turkey. Turkey is having a significant presence of journalists in Gaza – 88 correspondents, TV crews and agency crews are covering what is happening on the ground. So, Turkish people are very well aware of the humanitarian crisis. They see the bloodshed. They see the bombed hospitals, schools. The question I want you to pose here is that maybe if the Western audiences are informed about what is going on in Gaza, the way the Turkish public is informed, probably the foreign policy or at least public opinion of some countries will be completely different, I guess.

We know that Greece is also an important country for both Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, and Greece is also very closely related to the Middle East, with a lot of protests in support of Palestine as well. I mention Greece because recently there was a groundbreaking summit between Erdogan and the prime minister of Greece, Mitsotakis. It is interesting that it happens also in a moment when Bulgaria and Romania are improving their relations with Greece, hoping to develop the infrastructure between the three countries and this happens under American support. What is the big picture here? What are the reasons for the approximation of Turkey and Greece at this moment?

What I missed to mention in my previous answer was that Israel is important probably or potentially to say it more correctly as energy partner for Turkey. Turkey always insisted that if you have exploration and commercial exploration of oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean region, the only commercially viable route to Europe is through Turkey, because if you have to create a deep underwater pipeline from Israel to Cyprus to Greece, this would cost a fortune. And also it has to be probably two kilometers beneath the water surface, meaning the pressure is extremely high. The physical conditions, the saltwater and this pressure… I can’t explain it very well… These physical conditions are very harsh. And it means you need stronger, more expensive pipes, just to create this pipeline. All this makes the projects commercially unviable. That is why Turkey is saying that if it has a good partnership with Israel, there will be a feasible project. You can transport the gas to Turkey. And it’s a shorter pipeline. It will be cheaper. So that was the logic behind the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement, while at the same time Greece was trying to use the problems in Turkish-Israeli relations, to create a kind of a coalition with Cyprus, Israel, other countries, to make this transportation of hydrocarbons from eastern Mediterranean possible through this road. I already mentioned Cyprus, Greece, then Italy. We saw this competition in the past and we see it now as well

With regards to the meeting between the Mitsotakis and Erdogan I think they were trying to subdue, to somehow mitigate the problems between the two countries. There are many problems with regards to the eastern Mediterranean, how to share the resources near Cyprus because Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, they all want to have a say in that matter. They have territorial waters. There are many other issues. So they were just trying to deliver a message that the tensions would not escalate, that the countries are enlarging the number of topics they’re trying bilaterally to discuss and actually expanded. They were also trying to create again these confidence-building measures in the military sphere in order to avoid the eruption of unnecessary clashes.

This was the latest episode of Cross-border talks. Our guest was the Bulgarian specialist for Turkish foreign policy, Marian Karagyozov. We thank you for your time and for your answers. And I would like to remind everybody that Cross-border Talks are on several different platforms. We are on YouTube. If you like our videos and our interviews to subscribe and like our videos. And we are also on different platforms, where you can listen to our podcast. And we are also on social media and we have a very interesting web page where you can read the articles from different authors besides the transcriptions of our interviews in different languages. Thank you very much, Marian. I am greeting you, Vladimir, and wishing everybody a great day or evening. This is all from today.

Thank you for having me. I’m wishing everyone Merry Christmas and happy New Year.

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