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'What Turkey thinks', or what people think Turkey thinks

September 16, 2010

The German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends survey released earlier this week was an interesting-as-always view of shifts in public opinion in several key countries – the US, 11 EU countries, and Turkey, to be specific. Naturally we here were eager to see “what Turkey thinks,” as that’s usually useful in determining “where Turkey is headed,” as we are wont to pontificate on at length after our second beer or so.

This year’s survey was conducted in a dark month for Turkey from an international relations perspective – in June, right after the flotilla incident, when the papers here were full of outrage against Israel, the US, EU and UN for not doing enough to support Turkey’s side in the incident, etc. Plus, this was right in the middle of the UN vote on Iran sanctions, which Turkey voted “no” on after a last-minute agreement signed between Turkey, Iran, and Brazil on swapping nuclear material. These events sparked this summer’s wave of “Is Turkey shifting its axis from West to East?” hand-wringing, which was of course annoying and not all that accurate a perspective (popular though. Very popular. It’s got a nice ring to it, after all.).

And that’s when this survey was taken.

AlertNet found “evidence of Turkey’s growing frustration with the United States and the EU, and its shift towards the east and the Arab world” the most compelling thing to comment on in Turkey’s numbers, but I disagree: Check out their handy graph. As they note, the proportion of Turkish respondents saying that Turkey should act in closest cooperation with countries of the Middle East increased from 10 to 20 percent over the last year. But the proportion saying Turkey should act in closest cooperation with the US increased 1.5-fold, from 4 percent to 6 percent, and what I find most telling and most interesting is the proportion of respondents who said Turkey should act alone: This number fell 9 points, from 43 percent to 34 percent. I’d like to see that number over time, but the year-on-year change definitely indicates that Turks are willing to be less isolationist and are more open to working with other countries on international or regional issues. I think that’s important.

No less important is Turkey’s cooling enthusiasm towards the EU, but that’s been covered much more widely. I think it’s a little unfair (although eye-catching for sure) to compare Turkey’s 38 percent support of the statement “Turkey joining the EU would be a good thing” this year with the over-70 percent support of 2004, when Turkey’s popular EU support was at a peak and entry talks were approved, but there has been a marked fall in Turks supporting EU membership over the past half-decade even as European support has held relatively steady, albeit at a lower level than Turkish support.

I don’t know that the rest of the poll data shows anything new, necessarily – half of Turks don’t want to see progress on mitigating Turkish-Armenian issues or Cyprus issues, 40 percent are worried about Iran’s nuclear program (half aren’t, though). HDN has some good coverage (and very pretty graphics), although I obviously don’t agree with their talking head that the poll numbers indicate increasing isolationism – we both do agree though, that despite what might fit the “shifting axis” narrative, Turkey’s Transatlantic Trends statistics don’t show the country casting aside the West in favor of the East. Turkey comes out of the Transatlantic Trends looking positive in some areas, not so positive in other areas, and, as always, complex.

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