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September 26, 2011
Summary: Turkish civil society is lagging behind in terms of grasping the reform agenda of, and sharing causes and vision with, counterparts in the wider Black Sea region. It is important that Turkish civil society be linked in the process of shaping a common future across the region. Partly due to Western facilitation and donors, an increase of Turkish civil society involvement in the region can indeed be observed. However this engagement should be charted with more deliberative, systematic, and sustained effort.
Can Turkey Inspire? Part II Turkish Civil Society: From Black Sheep to Synergy in the Black Sea
by Diba Nigar Göksel
Promotion of European models of governance in the EU’s Eastern neighborhood may have so far had limited success1 but the value of sharing knowledge and having networks among NGOs, youth activists, academics, and journalists in the long term is crucial for when other economic and political developments are ripe for change. To help steer the rise in Turkey’s engagement in the region, it is important that Turkish civil society also be linked and share in the building of a common future across the geography it straddles. Turkish NGOs have not been instrumental in shaping the civil society agenda in the region. They have also rarely been a part of Western initiatives to support the transition of the former Soviet space for the past 20 years. The weak levels of Turkish NGOs’ and intellectuals’ involvement in the transition debates of their counterparts in Georgia and Azerbaijan, two countries with which other bilateral ties are strong, depicts the unused potential. The reality that neither Turkish media nor
1 Nicu Popescu & Andrew Wilson, “Turning presence into power,” http://www.ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR31_ENP_AW.pdf
policymakers are geared at capitalizing on the field experience of civil society feeds into this trend. The fact that Turkey is perceived by its neighbors to be closer (in many senses of the word) than other European countries can boost the ability of Turkish civil society to set a positive example. This also makes sense from an EU perspective because EU support (financial, technical, and political) has shaped and empowered Turkish civil society to drive Turkey’s transformation since the late 1990s. If Turkish NGOs that have been a part of this process act as multipliers in the region, EU investments could be capitalized on more efficiently. Furthermore, Turkish democratization itself is an often fitful work in progress. Including Turkish NGOs in Black Sea initiatives that offer learned lessons and solidarity for civic activism can be used towards overcoming Turkey’s remaining challenges. Moreover, in countries where Turkish civil society links are particularly weak, such as Moldova and Ukraine, EU frameworks can facilitate the building of networks. Such exposure may raise the
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level of Turkish public debate on Western “imperial intentions” in this neighborhood. Partly due to Western facilitation and donors, a pattern of increased Turkish civil society involvement in the region can indeed be observed. However a stronger vision and more systematic, effective plans for engagement in the region are still needed to sustain this trend and make the most of it. Turkish Absence to the East In the mid 1990s, the Turkish political leadership declared lofty ambitions for regional influence in the newly independent region to its east. Western allies supported Turkey’s penetration into the post-Soviet space, not only for geopolitical reasons but also with the assumption that good governance practices, principles of liberal democracy, and market economy would flow from the West through a Europeanizing Turkey to the Caucasus and Central Asia. In the decade to follow, although infrastructure, education, diplomacy, and economic links were forged to this end, Turkish mainstream NGOs and liberal intellectuals remained relatively absent from the revamping of civil society among their Eastern neighbors. In other words, creating trade, investment, infrastructure, and cultural ties did not translate into the transfer of models for civic participation. Whereas, with the proliferation of civil society organizations in this region — albeit with limited effect on policymaking — interest in and demand for ties with Turkish counterparts has been on the rise. In Azerbaijan, a country with close cultural and linguistic affinity and strong penetration of Turkish business, schools, and entertainment, civil society across the board has been eager to involve Turkish counterparts for know-how or support for their causes. While Azerbaijani NGOs have found receptive partners among European and U.S. counterparts, Turkish NGOs have been all but absent. In Georgia, Rose Revolution reforms as well as a free trade agreement and lifting of visa requirements with Turkey have led to a surge of Turkish business presence in Georgia. However, while European and U.S. NGOs weigh in on the heated debates about Georgia’s economic models, the fight against corruption, or human rights, mainstream Turkish NGOs have been detached. Turkish mainstream NGO
While European and U.S. NGOs weigh in on the heated debates about Georgia’s economic models, the fight against corruption, or human rights, mainstream Turkish NGOs have been detached.
indifference to the pressing questions of its neighbors is also reflected in the lack of analytical coverage of related developments in the Turkish media.2
Arguably the weakness of links between civilian actors in Turkey and these two countries also contributed to cases of strategic drift and communication breakdown in the course of Turkey’s diplomatic activism in the region from 2008 onwards.
Why Left Out? One of the reasons so few Turks seem to have taken part in the causes of their eastern neighbors has been the domestic agenda in Turkey and related constellation of Turkish civil society actors (see part 1 of this article series at http://www. gmfus.org/cs/publications/publication_view?publication. id=1915). Another reason is that Western state institutions and donors ordinarily excluded Turkish NGOs from programs that offered opportunities for NGO interaction in this region. Turkey’s relative level of economic development and not being “post-Soviet” ruled it out of most initiatives.3 To this end, part of the problem may have been Turkey’s desire to differentiate itself from its eastern or Middle Eastern neighbors, for the sake of its image as a developed, European country. But there were also false assumptions
2 This is even more the case in Turkish civil society (NGOs, media, academia) engagement in Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus. Armenia on the other hand is a special case for which donor funding has actually enabled disproportionally high levels of NGO exchanges, dialogue projects, media coverage, and the like. 3 In the case of USAID funds, apparently Turkey itself opted to set itself apart from its “less developed” neighbors in terms of economic and political standards.
on the part of donors that perpetuated this disconnect. For example, it was often presumed that Turkish mainstream NGOs already had inroads and traction in Azerbaijan, thus not needing the facilitation of Western vehicles. Turkey fell between the cracks in countless regional NGO collaboration efforts from the mid 1990s onwards. Though their interest has been on the rise recently, Turkish NGOs have little knowledge of their eastern neighbors’ domestic dynamics, are inexperienced in transferring models in general, and are curbed by language barriers. In this sense, GMF’s Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation (BST) has begun to fill an important void in recent years. By abandoning the divisive and outdated “post-Soviet” characterization and including Turkish civil society into its scope, BST, along with initiatives by new EU member states,4 plugs Turkish NGOs into the agenda of their counterparts in the region, breaking Turkish NGOs out of their black sheep status in the wider Black Sea. representatives had virtually no opportunities to contribute to the pro-West reform agenda of neighbors. Other Western regional initiatives fostering dialogue and collaboration should follow suit, most notably the civil society dimension of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program, which was launched two years ago. EaP’s Civil Society Forum brings together NGOs from the EU’s six eastern neighbors, along with EU-based civil society organizations in order to foster networking and knowledge transfer. But as an EU candidate, Turkey’s NGOs slip between the cracks. Geographically and conceptually, it seems self-evident that including Turkish NGOs in this framework would have mutual benefits and aide in realizing the potential synergy between Turkey and the EU in their joint neighborhood. Ultimately, the Brussels bureaucracy — instruments, programs, or department demarcations — should be in step with and advance the Union’s diplomatic goals (ie more collaboration and strategic dialogue in neighborhood policies with Turkey) by enabling Turkish NGOs to be systematically included in initiatives, databases, and platforms where the neighborhood’s NGOs gather to “Europeanize.” This year’s Civil Society Forum meeting will take place in Warsaw on September 29. Notably, Turkish NGO representatives will not be present in this civil society component of the Eastern Partnership, which will take up issues such as judiciary and public administration reform, as well as cross-border issues such as trade and environment, which intrinsically relate to Turkey too. Conclusion Turkish NGO involvement in the Black Sea region is on the rise. This is, though, quite a recent phenomenon and has not yet taken on a life of its own. Traditionally, Turkish NGOs have not been plugged into the transnational democracy support networks and do not have domestic resources that can be earmarked to human rights agendas abroad. To continue and consolidate the recent pattern of Turkish NGO engagement into sustainable links and convergence of visions, proactive support from Western foundations and initiatives is important. For the EU to invite Turkish NGOs to take part in EaP civil society platforms would
Turkish NGOs have little knowledge of their eastern neighbors’ domestic dynamics, are inexperienced in transferring models in general, and are curbed by language barriers.
Besides grant-giving foundations, Western think tanks have also recently intensified their inclusion of Turkish analysts in their regional work. European and U.S. policy institutes are increasingly opening branch offices in Turkey or including Turkish researchers in analysis of neighborhood-related questions. Turkish experts are also being increasingly recruited as trainers in capacity-building outreach to EU neighbors on issues such as political party campaign or NGO project management. By contrast, 10 years ago, progressive Turkish civil society or academia
Such as the Black Sea NGO Forum initiative of Romania since 2008.
Ultimately, the Brussels bureaucracy should be in step with and advance the Union’s diplomatic goals by enabling Turkish NGOs to be systematically included in initiatives, databases, and platforms where the neighborhood’s NGOs gather to “Europeanize.”
have multiple benefits, not least to instill the sense of being a stakeholder in transatlantic causes among Turkish NGOs and intellectuals. Turkish civilian actors have the potential to inspire and aid their counterparts in neighboring regions that are embarking upon new waves of reform, advocacy, and civic participation efforts. Informal dialogue among and the development of common purposes among opinion leaders and civil society can also contribute to Ankara policymaking, backing up Turkey’s regional diplomatic proactivity. An NGO component in Turkey’s outreach to its neighbors is also one way in which Turkey can substantiate its claim to bridge the EU with its neighbors.
About the Author
Diba Nigar Göksel is editor-in-chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a non-partisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.
About the On Turkey Series
GMF’s On Turkey is an ongoing series of analysis briefs about Turkey’s current political situation and its future. GMF provides regular analysis briefs by leading Turkish, European, and American writers and intellectuals, with a focus on dispatches from on-the-ground Turkish observers. To access the latest briefs, please visit our web site at www. gmfus.org/turkey or subscribe to our mailing list at http://database. gmfus.org/reaction.
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