This essay is part of the series “Turkey Faces Asia,” which explores the development of cultural, political, and economic links between Turkey and the Asia Pacific region. See more ...
The Eurasianist (Ulusalcı in Turkish) ideology, which originated from the far-left movement in Turkey, espouses an anti-Western approach in foreign policy and ultranationalist sentiment in domestic politics. The Eurasianist ideology in Turkey can be identified as a Turkish version of the Ba’athism in the Arab world. The Eurasianists think that Turkey should leave NATO and end its bid for European Union (EU) membership. They contend that Turkey’s interests lie outside the Western world and that Turkey should join the Russia- and China-led “anti-imperialist” camp.
According to prominent Eurasianist Erol Manisalı, “Turkey is acting in accordance with the United States, Israel, and the EU, and gives all the necessary support for their regional politics. However, Turkey has common strategic interests with Russia, China, and Iran. Turkey’s improving relations with prominent Asian powers—such as Russia, China, and Iran—are, all things being equal, a natural outcome of the local dynamics of the region.”
According to another leading Eurasianist, Doğu Perinçek, who is chairman of the Vatan Party (formerly the Workers Party), “The Turkish nationalists would befriend China and Russia in order to get rid of the United States. Turkey will inevitably be at the forefront of the emerging ‘Eurasian civilization’. Ankara is a servant in Atlantic, but an equal partner in Eurasia. In this strategic alliance, the United States has tried to disintegrate Turkey through the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Russia through Chechen militias, and China through so-called Uyghur separatism.”
According to the Eurasianists, Turkey should not only turn to the East politically but also develop defense cooperation with Russia and China, as it collaborates in military technology. In this respect, the Eurasianists firstly reacted to Turkey’s post-1997 defense industry collaboration with China with excitement and support. According to Aydınlık, the newspaper of the Vatan Party, the US Department of Defense was troubled by the Sino-Turkish joint military drills which took place in 2010. These exercises, known as “Peace Mission 2010” and sponsored by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), consisted of a joint air drill between China and Turkey in the Turkish province of Konya. The Eurasianists also regard defense industry cooperation with Russia as being a political and not simply an economic matter. They consider Ankara’s decision to purchase the Russian-manufactured S-400 missile system as conveying the message that Turkey is independent from the West.
The Eurasianists have adopted intransigent stances on foreign and domestic issues, including the Cyprus dispute and the Kurdish question. According to the Eurasianists, maintaining the status quo is the best solution for the Cyprus issue — as reflected in the motto, “no solution is a solution for Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots.” The Eurasianists reacted obstinately to the human rights reform process of Turkey under the guidance of the Council of Europe during the 1990s. They also opposed Turkey’s joining the EU Customs Union in 1996. Between 1999 and 2010, with the help of all these democratic reforms, the Kurdish question had been perceived basically as a political and human rights issue in Turkey. However, the Eurasianists have cast the Kurdish issue in Turkey and in the Middle East strictly in security terms.
Nevertheless, until 2014 the Eurasianist movement had a limited capacity to affect Turkish foreign and security policies. In fact, liberal Turkish governments had tried to eliminate the Eurasianist influence over the Turkish bureaucracy during the 1990s and the 2000s.
2011: The Ideological Shift of the Ruling AKP from ‘Muslim Democracy’ to ‘Political Islam’
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been in power since 2002; however, analyzing the entire period of AKP rule within the same ideological framework is not possible. The AKP governments from 2002 to 2010 had pro-Western policies and described their political stance as that of a ‘Muslim Democracy,’ referring to Christian Democrats (i.e., the center-right party in Germany). Turkey made great progress in its efforts to gain EU membership and applied liberal, peaceful and integrative policies across the world. The AKP’s foreign policy by 2010 was quite compatible with the traditional pro-West foreign policy founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Until 2010, the AKP governments had very positive relations with almost all Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Libya, Iran as well Israel. The ruling AKP also made positive revisions to the Kemalist foreign policy to develop relations with all its neighbors — including Greece, Armenia, and Syria — and with global powers — including Russia and China — to advance Turkey’s role as a “trading state” that depends on “soft power” tools.
However, 2011 marked a turning point. That year, the AKP decided to change its ideology from “Muslim democracy” to “political Islam,” following the same line as had the Refah Party in the 1980s and the 1990s, when the leading AKP founding figures entered politics. There were two main motivations behind replacing AKP’s official ideology. Domestically, the AKP had consolidated its power in Turkey against the secular establishment, and there was no longer a need for Turkish liberals’ support to maintain a stable balance of political power. Secondly, with the death that year of Necmettin Erbakan, the founding father of political Islamist ideology in Turkey, the Saadet Party he had backed no longer posed a challenge for the AKP.
Internationally, at the time, Turkey was enjoying increasing global attention from almost all leading powers, and the ruling AKP was considering that the EU anchor was not necessary for Turkey anymore to sustain its economy stable when the Eurozone financial crisis erupted including Greece and other EU countries. Furthermore, the Arab Spring was delivering a window of opportunity, as the Muslim Brotherhood-backed political movements were spreading their influence across the Arab world, including Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Yemen, and Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood movements in the Middle East were modelling Turkey’s AKP to come power in their countries via democratic and peaceful ways. Besides, Erdoğan’s leadership profile was shining brightly in the Arab streets after the flotilla crisis with Israel in May 2010.
After its ideology shift in 2011, the AKP decided to use hard power instruments particularly in Syria instead of soft power-only policy, there is a start of lessening ground for Turkey. Besides, the use of military power has rekindled bitter historical memories in the Middle East. As almost all Arab countries had become a part of the Ottoman Empire, the use of the Turkish military feeds suspicions in the Arab world that Turkey has an expansionist agenda in the region.
2014: Building an Anti-Western Coalition on Eurasianist and Islamist Ideologies
Facing some challenges in domestic politics, since 2014 the AKP has had to construct another de facto coalition to maintain a favorable political balance — this time with Eurasianists and Turkish nationalists, rather than with Turkish liberals. The earliest sign that the ruling AKP might seek an ambition for axis-shift in foreign policy and a partnership with the Eurasianists in domestic politics occurred in January 2013, when Prime Minister Erdoğan publicly stated that he had discussed with Russian leader Vladimir Putin the possibility of abandoning Turkey’s EU candidacy in return for full membership in the SCO.
Since 2014, for the first time in the post-Cold War period, the Eurasianists have a chance to force policies, including in the sphere of foreign policy. The formulation of Turkey’s foreign policy has been largely on an admixture of the AKP’s Islamism, the Nationalist Movement Party’s (MHP) neo-nationalism, and the Vatan Party’s Eurasianism. The Islamist-Neonationalist-Eurasianist coalition on foreign policy has characteristically depended on an anti-Western orientation. Yet, although Turkey’s pro-Western Kemalist foreign policy has attenuated in recent years, it nonetheless remains in effect. In fact, since 2011 Turkey has pursued a “hybrid foreign policy” that has both pro-Western and anti-Western features.
Although the Vatan Party has developed and promoted the Eurasianist ideology for decades, other leading parties in Turkish politics (e.g., the Republican People's Party, or CHP; the MHP; and the Iyi Party) have been increasingly influenced by the same anti-Western since 2014. Considering that the ruling AKP, like the Saadet Party, has adopted a political Islamist ideology, it is important to mention that almost all Turkish parties have espoused anti-Western sentiments in recent years.
The only ideological difference with respect to nationalism between the Vatan Party and right-wing Turkish nationalist (Ülkücü in Turkish) parties (i.e., the MHP, Iyi party, and the Grand Union Party, or BBP) is the attitude towards China and the Uyghurs. The Vatan Party supports China and the latter’s official claim that the Uyghur issue is an international plot. In contrast, the MHP, Iyi Party, and BBP are unlikely to accept such claims because of strong Turkish nationalist sentiment and an influential Uyghur lobby within their party ranks. The case of Venezuelan has become a litmus test for all Turkish political parties to reveal whether they have a pro-Western or an anti-Western stance. While the AKP-MHP-Vatan Party bloc have supported the Maduro regime in Venezuela, the CHP and Iyi Party have preferred to adopt a neutral stance.
However, with respect to Turkish parties’ Western orientation, the picture in the early 2000s was very different. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit (1999-2002), for example, the MHP was a member of a pro-EU coalition, together with the Democratic Left Party (DSP) and the Motherland Party (ANAP). Between 2002 and 2005, the CHP and the ruling AKP were staunch supporters in the Turkish parliament of the pro-EU reforms. This indicates that the anti-West tendency in some Turkish political parties seems not identical but conjunctural, that is, influenced by domestic, regional and global trends in recent years.
Shortcomings and Failures of the Eurasianist Approach of Turkish Foreign Policy
Despite all the anti-Western discourse, the Eurasianist-Islamist coalition has proven unwilling, or unable, to fulfill Russian and Chinese expectations. For instance, Turkish leaders made frequent references to Russia as being a “strategic partner” at the G20 Antalya Summit in early November 2015, though later that month they did not hesitate to shoot down a Russian jet for violating Turkish air space for a mere 17 seconds. This indicates that all previous dialogue between Ankara and Moscow over Syria was ephemeral.
Similarly, despite rising Eurasianist influence in Ankara, the Sino-Turkish partnership remained stuck from 2014 to mid-2017, because Beijing had accused Ankara of transferring Uyghur fighters from Xinjiang to Syria to join extremist groups. In August 2017, Ankara conveyed additional assurances to Beijing that it would not engage in any such activities, the logjam was broken. Two years later, however, bilateral relations once again soured over the Uyghur issue, when the AKP-MHP coalition sought to balance domestic political considerations and its China policy. The recent Uyghur crisis between Turkey and China also stems from the Eurasianists’ false assurance to Beijing that Ankara would privilege the bilateral partnership with China while ignoring the Uyghur issue forever.
The Eurasianists have also failed to obtain support from Beijing and Moscow in Turkey’s fight against terrorism. Moscow has publicly declared several times that Russia does not consider the PKK as a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, Beijing has never declared the PKK to be a terrorist organization, though Ankara has designated the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as such. Ironically, whereas neither Russia nor China have declared the PKK as being a terrorist group, all Turkey’s NATO allies have.
The failure of the anti-Western foreign policy propagated by the Eurasianists can be seen clearly in how Turkey’s bid for United Nations Security Council (UNSC) non-permanent membership has fared in recent years. When the ruling AKP promulgated a “Muslim democrat” line associated with Kemalist foreign policy, Turkey won the 2008 voting at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) for the 2009-10 period, garnering 151 votes against other the contenders, Austria and Iceland. However, when in 2014 Ankara followed an anti-Western line, Turkey received just 60 votes (for the period 2015-16) against New Zealand and Spain.
Turkey’s Eurasianist foreign policy lacks a full-fledged strategy that can realistically be expected to yield positive outcomes for the country, especially when compared to its Kemalist pro-Western counterpart. Despite its rhetorical allure, the anti-Western stance has not translated into a sustainable and prosperous economic model for Turkey. Indeed, Turkey is structurally dependent on a free market economy and deeply-rooted integration with Western institutions such as NATO, the EU, and the Council of Europe.
As a pivotal “middle power,” Turkey can play an important role in fostering regional stability in the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Black Sea, and Central Asia. As other middle powers can and do, Turkey needs to forge and refresh regional partnerships and alliances as much as possible rather than fuel enmities and rivalries. The path to Turkey’s regaining and extending its influence regionally and globally lies in recommitting to a pro-Western axis underpinned by a Kemalist foreign policy.
 Erol Manisalı, “Rusya, İran ve Türkiye’nin Önemi” [Significance of Russia, Iran, and Turkey], Cumhuriyet, September 10, 2012.
 Doğu Perinçek, “Kürşat, Pekos Bill’in at uşağı olur mu?” [Is Ankara a servant to the Atlantic, but an equal partner in Eurasia?], Aydınlık, October 21, 2012.
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