Dimitar Bechev: In Crimea, Turkey's Hands are Tied
Dimitar Bechev is a senior policy fellow and head of the office of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Sofia. From 2006-2010, he was a research fellow at Oxford's European Studies Centre and held a lectureship in International Relations at Worcester College, Oxford, and a visiting professorship at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. He is a region head for Central and Eastern Europe at Oxford Analytica, a leading consultancy on current political and economic affairs. He holds a D.Phil. (2005) in International Relations from the University of Oxford as well as graduate degrees in International Relations and Law from Sofia University. Dimitar has published widely on the EU's enlargement and neighbourhood policies as well as the politics and modern history of the Balkans.
Ukraine's region of Crimea is to hold on Sunday (March 16) a referendum on seceding and joining Russia. In your opinion, is the outcome known beforehand?
If you look at the ballot-papers, only two options are present. The first: Are you in favour of reuniting Crimea with Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation? And the second: Are you in favour of restoring the action of Crimea's constitution with 1992 and of Crimea's status as a subject of Ukraine? But the constitution defines Crimea as a sovereign state. This means citizens will not be allowed to vote for the status quo. I think it has been decided beforehand, how Russia will respond is a more interesting question. Will it recognize the annexation or leave Crimea in an indefinite state, just like it did in Transnistria, Abkhazia or South Ossetia. An unclear status for Crimea under international law and its conversion into an enclave would be of benefit to the Kremlin, as it would allow for Russia to influence and exert pressure on Ukraine at key moments, it would be a frozen conflict that could be taken back to life from time to time.
Will Crimea's secession create preconditions for a weaker Ukraine or, on the contrary, will lead to a concentration of Russian political and economic interests on the Peninsula and "liberate" the rest of the country from Russia?
It will stir up more trouble for Ukraine. As no joint decision could be reached - there is no way Ukraine would confirm Crimea's secession - this would create a foreign policy problem that will always be at disposal for Russia to exploit. Crimea has always been Ukraine's Achilles heel and will keep being one. What is more, a precedent could be created regarding other regions - Southern Ukraine or the eastern provinces. Crimea's secession will not help Ukraine. The referendum does not lead to Ukraine getting rid of Crimea and turning west, it is not that easy.
On Crimea's territory, Tatars are the third-largest ethnic group after the Russians and Ukrainians. Why did they decide not to vote and have thus confirmed the secession they do not want to happen?
If they vote, they ascribe legitimacy to the poll. As I said, the two options are nearly one and the same, and Tatars are interested in maintaining the status quo. Their position is, obviously, to undermine the referendum through non-participation and make it illegitimate.
Turkey is the political actor that is most interested in the fate of Tatars, at least in its own words. Its Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has even said that his country has the full right to protect Crimean Tatars on the peninsula's territory and that his country will be the first to provide assistance in case of danger. What could this "assistance" involve? Or is it just rhetoric?
It is rather the second answer. Davutoglu has no choice but to deny that Turkey is powerless. He must meet expectations within Turkey itself, as well as the expectations of Tatars that came to the country from Crimea or parts of Russia. They are waiting to hear a clear stand, but in fact Turkey has no options, it has a limited number of steps it could take. Economic relations with Russia are vital to the country. This is evident even if we observe the two states' bilateral relations. Turkey and Russia managed to smooth away their contradictions over Syria, where they are literally in conflict, but do not allow for this to affect their relations. At the level of rhetoric, Crimea already is a problem, but Turkey will hardly sacrifice any of its interests, putting the standoff on the peninsula at the first place.
How would Crimea's independence from Ukraine affect Turkey's politics and economy?
I don't think it would have a tremendous impact. But an issue rarely broached in discussions on Crimea is that if we use Transnistria as a precedent, we can notice that on "no man's land", a capacity for all types of trans-border crime is being generated. Transnistria is among the big arms markets within the Black Sea region, and I would not rule out a scenario in which Crimea, after becoming such an enclave, also turns into a "gray area" emanating security threats, including for Turkey. Its pending status, its unclear jurisdiction, its unsettled borders, and the lack of controls might create this sort of threats. Economic turmoil for Turkey, however, seems unlikely to me.
And what about a scenario in which, with sanctions imposed on Russia over Crimea's annexation, Turkey and Russia might become closer allies?
An interesting hypothesis, but I will refrain from looking into it. There are many steps of escalation before trade war or trade sanctions. I do not think the conflict could reach that far. Turkey and Russia, on the other hand, are very active in their economic relations. After Ukraine, Turkey ist the largest consumer of Russian gas. A halt to the supplies would carry a risk to the country. Notwithstanding, I don't see any political will for such economic deadlock neither in Moscow nor in western capitals as both parties would bear huge costs. Obviously Turkey is not interested in such a development and will seek to avoid it as much as it can.
You said the situation in Crimea resembles in some aspects that in Transnistria. What possible consequences could Crimea's annexation to Russia trigger as a precedent that could also be used by Moscow in its policies toward the former Soviet states in Central Asia, in which it has economic interests, and how would this affect relations with Turkey, which also considers the region important?
Russia's decision to use ethnic Russian communities abroad is sending a bad message to the other parts of the former Soviet Union. They will have very good grounds to look at their citizens of Russian origins as a potential "fifth column". This is importance in the case of Kazakhstan, which as large population of such origin. Although Kazakhstan is already part of a customs union together with Russia and Belarus and cannot easily break ties with Moscow, I suppose that in such a scenario, the governing elite in this and other Central Asia countries will have an incentive to diversify their politics, to look for unions both with the West and with China, as the latter becomes more and more important economic factor in the region. They will seek guarantees, an "insurance policy' protecting them from future pressure against Russia. Regarding Turkey, it is a secondary player in Central Asia, even though it adopted in the 1990s declarations stating it could be of importance in the region. But in a situation where these states are in need for new allies and fresh foreign policy options, Turkey's role could become more relevant.
If we return to the topic of Crimea, are there any specific domestic factors that tie Turkey's hands and prevent it from any further action?
The political environment as a whole is such a factor. Turkey, on the one hand, has entered an election cycle. Municipal, as well as presidential elections are forthcoming, constitutional reform that might introduce a presidential system is on the agenda. Some speculations suggest that the parliamentary vote which is to be held in 2015 might be rescheduled for this year. On the other hand, polarization in society reached a very high level after the ongoing corruption scandal broke in mid-December.
Turkey is more and more preoccupied with itself and that restricts its ability to put forward the same ambitious policy as it did a few years ago. A good example is the Middle East, which was its focal point in international relations, and the limitations are even stronger in its attitude to the former Soviet Union and the Caucasus. In a few fords, Turkey's hands are tied due to the peculiarities of its domestic affairs – and, as it happens in every other country ruled by a democratic system, due to the election cycle.
Speaking of the local elections on March 30, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan said amidst the scandals involving his government that he would quit politics if his party comes as a loser out of the polls. Is that possible?
No, that was a declaration which aimed at showing citizens' support of him remaining in politics. What is interesting is not whether he will win or lose. It is obvious that [the ruling Justice and Development Party, known as] the AKP will score a victory. The question is whether some municipalities will pass into the hands of the AKP or the opposition. The battle for Istanbul will be important - even though the present [AKP] mayor will perhaps retain his position, the opposition candidate will probably have a very good result and this will enable him to place his bid for the main opposition [Republican People's Party]. A turn could also be expected in Ankara, it would be interesting if the capital could be handed to the opposition. Nevertheless, the AKP will retain most of its presence at a municipal level. There are no reasons for another outcome; the economic situation in Turkey is not dire enough to change voting preferences, as it happened in 2009 - the only year when Turkey was in a recession and when the AKP lost some of its positions in local power. Today, the question is rather if the opposition will gain some smaller victories, which could put on the AKP's agenda a decision on who will run for president in August - if it will be Erdogan or the current president, [Abdullah] Gul.
Is there a clear-cut union against Erdogan between the opposition and Hizmet, the movement of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen?
Yes, there is, although it is of a very obscure essence, as it involves two entities of quite a different nature. One is a party operating on well-established grounds, whereas Gulen's movement is opaque, indirectly exerting influence through its representatives in institutions, but not through elections. This is precisely what Erdogan poses as a challenge for Gulen, inviting him to fulfill his political ambitions by creating a party. But now we do not know how many voters can Gulen actually mobilize. Local elections will thus be a test reveling to what extent this fault line the AKP and Gulen's movement will lead to a reflux of AKP voters. It will show how many ballots can be poured by Gulen into the opposition. It seems almost certain to me that these votes will go the People's Republican Party.
A series of wiretapped conversations shook Turkish society. Why did they emerge now?
They were related to the electoral campaign. Dirty games were expected, but nobody had thought that tensions would heighten and the undeclared war could escalate that far. It was the first step taken by Erdogan, to literally abolish educational institutions connected to the movement through which followers are gathered, that led to mounting tensions and provoked the corruption scandal in the ruling party. Then Erdogan tried to make a purge in judiciary and subordinate judges and prosecutors to the executive, and Gulen responded by presenting the leaks. However, in both Bulgarian and Turkey, using such methods show the weaknesses, not the maturity, of democratic development. It is through such dirty games, and not by means of open debate and elections, that political affairs are being settled. Both intelligence services and judiciary can apparently be used for political purposes. Basic constitutional rights are not guaranteed. There are no "good guys" on any side in this story.
Is Turkey´s democratization hostage to this undeclared war and is there a political player capable of changing the status quo?
A very good question, but it has no simple answer. Apart from the personal clash and that between two Islamic movements, there are more deeply rooted problems. One is the absence of a functioning principle of checks and balances in power, which leads to using the judiciary as a means to settle personal accounts. The opposition is also weak, it lacks strong leadership and is divided along the lines of ideology, it is also marginalized after 10 years in which the AKP is in power. The media are also being under control. Presently this conflict is like a mirror reflecting all of Turkey´s long-term structural problems.
Can the EU still provide incentives to deal with these problems?
It depends on our expectations. It would prove hard for the EU to be a moderator, as negotiations have come to a standstill. Turkey is a big country and Erdogan is not willing to share power with anybody, neither in domestic nor in foreign policy. Despite these difficulties, I am rather optimistic. The past year has brought some positive results in the relations between Turkey and the EU. A new chapter has been opened, and the debate is ongoing over opening another two chapters which are entirely of political essence and are tied to reforms in judiciary and basic rights and home affairs in Turkey. Their opening would raise the debate over issues such as the relations between executive and judiciary, functioning of the police and secret services, and this will allow for the European Commission to exert more control and to increase its leverage. This doesn't mean Turkey will change immediately, but the fact that these chapters have been put on the agenda, as well as the fact that the country itself insists on opening them means the EU could have a chance to enter the game after it has been losing its influence over the last 6 or 7 years. It is not only Turkey that is being courted by the West, on the contrary - she also needs the European Union. No wonder if in a short time the EU could be necessary to Erdogan if he faces pressure on the domestic scene.
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