How should the Ottoman legacy be perceived?

Published 25.11.2014 01:43

With the assumption of power by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and the reforms that were swiftly implemented afterward, the Turkish economy and administrative structure has become much more effective. The decades-long bottlenecks in bureaucracy, health services or transportation infrastructure were solved in a matter of months or few years. This was basically the bedrock upon which the AK Party government has established its electoral superiority for terms to come.

The unexpected opening of accession negotiations with the EU gave the AK Party a real boost in public opinion in both 2004 and 2005. But more precisely, the old statist and secular bureaucracy, including the Armed Forces, Judiciary and High Education Council have waged almost a war against a successful government on the grounds that it has a "hidden agenda."

This full frontal attack has shown two major issues. First, public opinion has massively and strongly reacted against an umpteenth overt or hidden coup, second, it made visible the total ineffectiveness and deliquescence of the "high bureaucracy" in Turkey, guardian of secular values.

The government and intelligentsia that have supported Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since the beginning have seen the paramount achievement of their views and efforts in the 2007 elections, where the AK Party received almost half of the votes cast, slamming public support in the face of the statist bureaucracy. This gave the proponents of the AK Party the feeling that all that was being done in Turkey was new and successful. Foreign policy, with some very courageous openings, was seen as the spearhead of future, "innovative" policies of the government personified by an exceptional academic and politician, Ahmet Davutoğlu, previously known by his unorthodox thesis of strategic depth that professed an ever-growing political and economic integration with former Ottoman territories of the Middle-East and, to some degree, the Balkans.

Important steps have been taken, especially the free trade zone between Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey that should have been implemented by the year 2011. The Turkish government, while taking these steps, has perhaps underestimated two important dimensions. First, the resilience and tenure of undemocratic regimes in the Middle East - the Syrian case is the best example of this - second, the idea of Turkey being the continuation of the Ottoman Empire, which maintained centuries-long stability and peace in the Middle East, was essentially an incorrect idea.

Indeed, the Republic of Turkey looks on the surface like the continuation of the late Ottoman Empire, especially regarding the administrative structure. However, the Ottoman Empire was demolished and busted in the worst possible way, through civil wars, deportations, population exchanges and arbitrarily drawn borders. Every province of the empire has become a nation-state with more or less success, having kept a little something from the old empire, but having a totally different structure, traditions and historiography. Turkey is only one of the countries that descended from the Ottoman Empire and it has very few remaining relations to its imperial past. Moreover, none of the countries descending from the Ottoman Empire are keen to go back to a period that certainly would not be imperial, but that would look like a commonwealth of ex-Ottoman provinces.

Turkish foreign policy has been very cautious in style because of that rejection of the Ottoman past by all the countries that formed the empire. It was a good idea to have a more interactive policy with such countries - it was a courageous and good idea to open an angle for Armenia, however all these steps failed to produce results. This should not be taken as a total failure as some are keen to label it, however the "cautious" nature of Turkish foreign policy, mainly also inherited from the late Ottoman past, should always shed a light on our international steps.

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