Bittersweet Turkish foreign delight

Turkey is pursuing a wide-ranging and refreshed foreign policy

Turkey has slow-burning plans to join the EU at some point but there is one major bump on that road. Last week Cyprus began offshore drilling for possible oil and natural gas resources. Turkey immediately warned it had warships at the ready to protect its own deep-sea claims. It maintains a military presence in the mini-state of Northern Cyprus, the Turkish Cypriot north-eastern end of the island, a territory that is only recognised by Turkey. The Cyprus issue of greatest concern to the EU. The union has recognised and admitted the island nation on the basis that the only legitimate governing authority on in Nicosia is the Greek Cypriot one.

The Mediterranean is choppy in other areas as well at the moment for Ankara. Diplomatic relations with once-friend Israel have dropped to new lows. The Turkish public is still fuming over the deaths of nine activists killed on 31 May after Israeli commandos intercepted an aid convoy heading towards Gaza. The massive ruptures in relations since over Turkish demands and Israeli refusals to apologise for the incident have done serious damage.

Despite a slow start, Turkey has been an intelligent local voice on the Arab Spring. Ankara hosted meetings of the Libya Contact Group to facilitate international financial and diplomatic support for the National Transitional Council. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been calmly but incessantly turning up the temperature on the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Last weekend Mr Erdogan said a Syrian-flagged ship had been seized by his forces and he said Turkey will intercept any arms shipments headed to his violent neighbour.

Last month, Ahmet Davutoglu, the busy Turkish Foreign Minister, travelled to the former ally and let Damascus know that Turkey had “run out of patience” with the regime over its the brutal crackdowns on protesters. Syria is out in the cold and so is Israel. Into their place has stepped the new Egypt, another previously staunch Semite.

The hugely successful administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has prided itself on moderation and mediation but also, critically, playing a strong hand when faced with a challenge. Mr Erdogan’s response to Kurdish uprisings is one example. However, relations with the Arab world have never been better. The EU issue has been a path to tread carefully but for now Turkey certainly views the tumultuous Middle East as a renovated region of which it can become political master, using its democratic model, bubbling economy and geographic and cultural Europe-Asia bridge history as a springboard for greater standing in the world.


The Quetzal Conundrum

Rising violence will be the biggest problem confronting the next president of Guatemala

The first-round of the Guatemalan presidential election on 11 September produced no clear winner and so a run-off will take place on 6 November. Retired former general Otto Perez Molina (36%) and businessman Manuel Baldizon (24%) will contest the second vote. At barely 2%, support for the only left-leaning candidate, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Mayan rights champion Rigoberta Menchú, hardly registered.

Unsurprisingly, the topic of public security formed the core of the election campaigns. The people are worried about powerful criminal organisations from Mexico, such as Los Zetas gangsters, tapping into the Central American underworld of mara criminal units and building allegiances and animosities. In May this year, outgoing president Álvaro Colom declared a state of siege in the northern jungle region of Petén after 27 people were brutally killed at a ranch. Guatemala has a murder rate of 45 per 100,000 (the second-highest in the region after El Salvador, according to a World Bank report).

Mr Perez Molina adopted a clenched fist as his campaign logo and has promised a firm response to the violence; his pledge to expand the role of the army in the fight against the gangs has been supported by rival Mr Baldizon. However, with weak state institutions and a glance north to current Mexican public feeling about the deployment of the military to battle the gangsters, letting the army loose in the rainforests will be far from an easy twirl of the presidential pen.

Mr Baldizon has hinted at another tough measure to deal with the violence: increasing the use of the death penalty, last used in 2000. This may well be popular with the people but Guatemala must not just look inwards in the battle. The Mérida Initiative pledges much greater US support for Mexico than for Central American nations. Renegotiating the terms of such agreements and calling upon cross-border aid and debate through such institutions as the Central American Parliament, or PARLACEN, (which was founded in Guatemala), would be a prescient and less regionally divisive reaction to the growing crisis.

Mr Baldizon’s pledge to continue the social programmes started by incumber leftist Mr Colom poll well in a country with critical levels of poverty, especially amongst the indigenous Mayans, but his promise to ensure the national soccer team qualifies for the 2014 World Cup is a distraction.

By focusing on the destructive violence, Mr Perez Molina has maintained healthy support that will probably see him home in the run-off. Training his eye on the gangsters is one thing but it would also be wise to devote some attention to the July 2012 Mexican presidential elections, which are set to be the most important event in the current drugs violence crisis. If Mr Perez Molina really wants to use his ‘clenched fist’ he will have to shake hands and ensure neighbourly support first to combat this cross-border problem.

Playing the Gaddafi game

There is still support for the ousted colonel across a divided Africa

On Sunday 11 September, Carlos Gomes Junior, the prime minster of Guinea Bissau, told Radio Bombolom:

“With all the investment that Gaddafi has put into Guinea Bissau he deserves that respect and good treatment by the authorities and people of Guinea Bissau.”

Mr Gomes said he would welcome Gaddafi if he were to seek refuge there. Guinea Bissau is a tiny country (for further details see ‘Diagnosis elections‘– 05/09/11) with an equally small voice on the world stage. It is also a very poor country and regular cash injections from the Gaddafi regime would be celebrated publicly, even if, in reality, the money was headed for  the cabinet’s bank accounts instead of social projects and food programmes. When the anti-Gaddafi fighters stormed Tripoli and the National Transitional Council (NTC) moved into town the Colonel elected to flee and African nations, including Guinea Bissau had to choose one of four paths to tread in the post-Gaddafi era:

1. Recognition and condemnation, e.g. Nigeria

On 23 August the continent’s most populous nation and one of Africa’s most important players recognised the NTC. The government was quick to lay down the law to the new Libyan leaders and said the agreement was conditional on the upholding of human rights and democratic principles.

2. Stubborn and angry refusal to accept the new order and a loss of face, e.g. South Africa

The South Africans wanted to ensure that African problems were dealt with by the African Union (AU). This was a fair aim. President Zuma flew to Tripoli in May to try to broker a peaceful end to the conflict with the AU’s backing.

But the drip-drip of countries across the world coming out in favour of the NTC and the rebels, (as they were then), backed South Africa into a corner. Hopes that it could use its membership of the BRICS emerging nations power bloc were dashed when Russia and, as of today 12 September, China recognised the NTC.  In fact, Pretoria’s useless battle against the stream may well see it shipwrecked and isolated on the world stage.

3. Quietly accepting but uncertain, e.g. Niger

Niger has been accepting the steady flow of Gaddafi loyalists fleeing the new order on humanitarian grounds. In the last 24 hours, the country’s justice minister said that Colonel Gaddafi’s third son Saadi had been intercepted in an incoming convoy. Niger has also said it is unsure what it would do if the ousted leader himself turned up in Niamey.

However, on the other hand, Niger has recognised the NTC as the legitimate governing authority in Libya. It also recognises the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) jurisdiction and the ICC has an arrest warrant issued for Gaddafi. The Libyan border nation has manoeuvred into a quietly effective position: show your caring side by accepting fleeing regime soldiers but show your hardened side by waving the ICC arrest warrant at Colonel Gaddafi.

4. Continued support for Colonel Gaddafi, e.g. Guinea Bissau

Carefree and careless, Guinea Bissau, unlike South Africa, has no international standing to lose by admitting the close ties to Gaddafi and offering him a safe harbour. Such self-harm flies in the face of the attitude of influential and helpful neighbours. Bissau may feel their hands are tied by the old Gaddafi-era investment cheques. It would be better to stand up and say that those are some of its debts that will never be paid off.

Diagnosis elections

Presidential health problems must be taken seriously as soon as they are uncovered

On 1 September, the president of Guinea-Bissau, Malam Bacai Sanha, was flown to neighbouring Senegal for a ‘medical check-up’, according to the government. He has had numerous hospital trips recently, normally to next-door Dakar. In December 2009, Sanha postponed a visit to Portugal ‘for health reasons’. He was hospitalised in Paris for ten days. When asked about his health, Sanha said: “It’s true that I also suffer from diabetes but that is not as serious as people want to make out.”

Popping in and out of the country over health concerns can make the people worry. Unsurprisingly, as a small West African state, Guinea-Bissau has suffered political turmoil and in March 2009 the then president Joao Bernardo Vieira was assassinated. Mr Sanha has provided some welcome stability to the tiny nation after a peaceful transition followed Vieira’s killing. But the balance could easily swing back a violent way if Sanha can no longer go on or dies.

If you look 1,600 miles to the east, a similar situation arose last year when Nigerian president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua died. He had suffered from a chronic kidney condition for at least 10 years. One health trip to Saudi Arabia, in November 2009, lasted three months. This left a power vacuum and Nigeria began to rock. Replacing him with the vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner, was far from a simple step: Mr Yar’Adua was a Muslim northerner. The Abuja presidency, on a regional and religious rotation schedule, was on its Muslim spin, though in subsequent elections, Mr Jonathan won a majority fairly.

The most well-known poorly president at the moment is Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has cancer and completed his third round of chemotherapy on 2 September. He has been undergoing treatment in Cuba and the opposition has claimed that this has been putting national security at risk. However, Mr Chavez underwent his latest batch of treatment back home in Caracas. This was surely a move designed to prove his recuperating fitness and to warn both his deputies and the opposition that his full recovery is approaching. Chavez has been defiant so far, saying on Friday that he “feels better than ever”. He has warned his older brother and other ministers off eyeing up his office, saying he will contest and win next year’s elections.

The manoeuvring and electioneering that inevitably occurs as soon as the main man whizzes off to some overseas clinic is destabilising to a country. Fragile situations, such as those in West Africa, can be left on a knife-edge. In Venezuela’s case, there are worries over to what extent Mr Chavez really can run the country from his hospital bed, despite the president’s phone-ins to state TV. As enticing as triumphant returns from the brink of death can be for presidents lured by possible electoral boosts, the best health policy must surely be honesty from the start over the seriousness of the condition and clear planning for elections and successions if things get worse. And, of course, some of that fresh foreign air.