With the Republic, the Turks have become the commercial tissue with Europe that the Christian minorities used to be previously, creating a society different from the one existing during the Empire. Nationalism, inexistant before the reforms, became one of the theoretical foundations of Turkish public law and the policies of the nation-state, while Turkey attempted to deny any reference to its past history and to build a progressive and secular identity within the West. After three years of civil war, the young republic needed (and moved in haste) to define its territorial limits and to guarantee the peace of its borders necessary for its development. In 1923 this was fully understood by the Greek Government, which had every interest in accepting Turkey’s new borders and being satisfied with the attribution of the Aegean islands. In 1930 E. Venizelos proposed M. K. Atatürk for the Nobel Prize, in 1936 the Montreux Convention fulfilled Greek (and British, and Russian) claims to guarantee free movement of commodities through the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, allowing Ankara to remilitarize the Bosphorus.
Particularly significant interventions such as those against the Greek community in Istanbul in 1953, thirty years after the end of territorial disputes with Greece, or the one in Cyprus in 1974, more than twenty years after joining NATO, are events only apparently in contradiction with the western choices of republican Turkey. They can in fact be explained as necessary actions by the State to settle vital issues resolved only on paper in the early 1920s. In 1982 Turkey did not sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in power in Ankara since 2001 lets some of the philosophical and legal positions existing during the Ottoman time to return to the public sphere, while adding to these a strong nationalist position due to the alliance with the National Movement Party (MHP). It promotes a foreign policy that tends to assert Turkey’s geographical position, its military power now freed from certain ideological limitations and the desire not to lock itself in alliances able to limit Turkey’s freedom of action, in order to play on different tables to maximize its revenue in strategic terms. There is therefore a kind of return to Ottomanism, but the formula does not define the entirety of a very complex reality. The entire republican history of Turkey does not allow a simple re-proposal of the imperial idea, even though the high authorities of the Republic often makes explicit reference to it. The revival of the cultural values of an Islamic empire (Ottoman or Seljuk) is important in the narrative of a conservative government such as that of the AKP, but Ankara expresses its full potential precisely within the Atlantic Alliance and will never benefit in severing the thread that binds it to Washington, regardless of the ideological positions of the ruling party. This is perfectly clear in the Turkish establishment. Ankara is aware that it can act aggressively, but today’s Turkish aggression does not just coincide with the desire to re-establish the ancient imperial spheres of influence and has certainly not begun with the threatened exploration activities in the eastern Mediterranean, nor with the AKP era. It dates back to the 1970s, after the coup d’état “by memorandum” which put an end to the first Demirel government and whose aim was to ensure greater economic and social sustainability to the Country through a strong government. The intervention in Cyprus in 1974 is the most impactful of these policies, and it must be understood above all by having in mind the internal situation in Turkey at that time. That of 1974 is an important contemporary history lesson, useful to understand much of the present. Since then, there have been a series of events which have shaped a Turkey that is increasingly more open to the reintroduction of the religious element, to accept economic liberalism and extreme nationalism. Territorial frictions with Greece once led a Member of Parliament in 1995 to qualify the possibility of the Greek side extending its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles as a casus belli, an opinion shared and reported by the Minister of Foreign Affairs M. Çavuşoğlu.
The constitutional referenda of 2007, 2010 and 2017 defined a “before” and an “after” in the history of republican Turkey, a process to be completed in 2023. It is from 2007 that verbal hostility against Israel, sympathy for (and support for) Palestinian groups, the rhetoric of distancing against the West as an “other than itself” begin to manifest. The aggressive policy finds a target in the Zionist enemy, while Kemalism had made of Turkey a regional ally of Israel. Ankara has also rediscovered its own lebensraum which makes of the maritime dimension a key element. It is called “blue homeland” (Mavi Vatan), and it stretches to both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, which is defined as a “Turkish lake”. It would be interesting to understand why the concept of “blue homeland” is back in vogue, together with its muscular activity, right now and fourteen years after its conception, in a context of financial limitations. Perhaps turkey’s sensitive economic situation is an explanation for this aggression.
The interior front: Hagia Sophia museum of the Turkish Republic
Excluding the practice of worship from an active mosque is an act contrary to Islamic law, according to which the mosque itself belongs to God. In 1453, as soon as the city was conquered, the then Orthodox Cathedral of the Saviour was immediately converted into a mosque by Sultan Mehmet II, who had transferred the Orthodox Patriarchate to the Church of the Holy Apostles. The message was to take possession of the “red apple”, the second Rome that was destined, according to the hadith, to fall before Rome itself and to start the process that would eventually lead to the universal victory of Islam. The decision of Muhammad II made of a military conquest an act of profound political/religious significance, as it marked the beginning of the Islamic conquest. The 1934 decree converting Hagia Sophia into a museum was one of the most significant acts of the first republican Turkey. Given the peculiar significance of Hagia Sophia, reading its transformation into a museum as a merely internal act would be reductive. It was an act equal and contrary to that of Mehmet II. The decision of the administrative Court that returns the mosque to the Directorate General for Religious Affairs does so through the annulment of that 1934 decree and takes on a further step in the opposite directions.
The internal front: parties and political streams
The next general consultations are scheduled in 2023. The type and the electoral weight of the allies that the AKP will bring with itself to the polls are what really means to the Presidency.
The issues of the territorial claims on the Aegean islands, the support for Azerbaijan in the renewed clashes with Armenia, the anti-Israeli rhetoric are important tools to mobilize a cross-party electorate. In particular, they are all factors able to arouse the interests of voters of the Good Party (IYI), a right-wing formation chaired by the former Interior Minister M. Aksener, an enthusiast about the Turkish activities off Cyprus and a leader of a Party that is a spinoff of Erdogan’s allied MHP. IYI is now allied with the People’s Republican Party (CHP). The mobilisation of a widespread consensus on issues that are very important in Turkey, such as the dignity of the State and the defense of its borders, is of enormous importance in this historic moment and could be capitalized within a year in the polls even against the CHP. The latter lost a lot of its Kemalist identity since the 2014 elections, and had adapted to positions, especially in religious matters, that were completely alien to it. The most prominent personalities of the Party combine a secular vision of the public sphere power with a religious personal identity that they do not to hide anymore.
Furthermore, given the importance of nationalism in Turkish culture they can not but support the actions that the current Government undertake in the eastern Mediterranean and at the South-Eastern borders: this empties the cultural heritage of the CHP and makes of it a fragile actor in an electoral confrontation. In order to secure the support of the MHP nationalists, the AKP had to cancel its policy of détente towards the Kurdish element, towards which the Party had approved a line of openness such as to envisage education in Kurdish in certain areas of the country and to foresee a federal future for the State.
Turkey is preparing for the final transition from the Kemalist parliamentary Republic, whose identity has been gradually changing since the Menderes governments, to the presidential one of the Justice and Development Party.
Of the two issues of absolute incompatibility between the two systems, the acceptance of the religious element inthe public sphere began to penetrate the deep State in the 1980s and it is considered to have been completed in 2007, while the economic model of the Kemalist “third way” has undergone a significant transformation since the Ozal governmentof and then disappeared definitively through economic reforms from 2001 onwards.
The elements the old and the new Turkey share are the secure adherence to the Atlantic Alliance and nationalism, although declined in very different forms from the past.
The trend is that of consolidate the idea of a nationalist and monolingual Republic, to stress the importance of the fight against separatism while denying the existence of an ethnic problem and to bring together as harmoniously as possible the pro-Islamic position of the AKP with the highly racial of MHP. It is also important to bring those Eurasians who, although opposed to alliances with the West, are still formally Kemalist and able to design an effective strategy of action for the new “blue homeland”.