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.


Waiting game

On the regional diplomatic front-line against the Syrian violence, more might be expected from Lebanon

It is a fractious neighbourhood. The repressive Assad regime in Syria is surrounded by Iraq (still rocking with violence of its own), Iran (currently quietly watching events from the corner), Israel (dealing with its own Spanish indignado-style protests at the moment), Jordan (where King Abdullah has spoken recently to reassure the people of reforms), Turkey (starting to get restless with Syria and now using its megaphone to condemn Bashar al Assad) and Lebanon (a successful democracy, sitting between West and the Middle East).

However, Beirut is failing to use its geopolitical location and the fact that it has a seat on the UN Security Council at the moment to be able to lead the pack on Syrian policy. When the condemnatory statement was on the table in New York, Lebanon lifted its pen and passed it on. Discussing his country’s refusal to sign, Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour was quoted as saying that:

“The decision reflected Lebanon’s clear convictions. This position sought the higher interests of Lebanon and the entire region, including Syria.”

It is true that a resolution would have been a more defiant outcome and the European-led statement was weak. But that is not a reason not to express support for a small step on the road to reform, sanctions or intervention. This last option is the most worrying and the one that scares Russia and China the most at the moment. But Lebanon does not have to call for a Libyan-style military move.

The violence has escalated in recent days to the shelling of the port of Latakia from the sea by the Syrian navy. A simple denunciation would carry weight, as Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern and major Muslim nation on the present Council (although Gabon and Nigeria have sizeable Islamic populations as well).

But Lebanon has some tricky politics. Hezbollah, the militant Shia Muslim group, supports the Assad regime. Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, looks more to the West. With politics opening up across the region, Hezbollah ought to pause and consider the fallout if it were to continue to support a regime that was to be thrown out and whose members, like Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, ended up in caged docks in front of a condemnatory public. Hezbollah has links to Iran and it is hard for them to think purely within national borders, such are the complexities of the regional patronages and ties.

If it were to do so, it may see the reformist agenda led by Hariri and also the tide of condemnation growing in regional big beasts like Turkey. Lebanon is swimming against the flow at the moment and it would be better at least to turn to face the shore, rather than the swelling, international, condemnatory white rollers brewing out at sea.

Kazakh cure

What can we expect from Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation?

Kazakhstan is about to complete its first month in the hotseat of the OIC – one of the most important Islamic blocs along with the Arab League and the World Islamic Economic Forum. The OIC, (the ‘C’ recently changed from ‘Conference’ to ‘Co-operation’), aims to promote common understanding, ambition and to foster goodwill and unity between member-states.

When one calls to mind Islamic countries, Kazakhstan does not often roll off the tongue naturally. It is true that there are bigger voices in the Islamic world, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia and Turkey, and their reach goes beyond the borders of the Muslim world. But other, smaller members are beginning to show a bit more bite to their roles. The African Francophone members of the organisation are starting to grow in confidence but it is probably the Central Asian nations that are set to be the most significant group in the bloc. Kazakhstan embodies the image of a modern, political driver-nation that many countries, both within and outside the OIC, aspire to be.

Kazakhstan has said it wants to advance the OIC’s aim of continuing peaceful development with the rest of the world. It also wants to address the economic imbalances that exist within the organisation: Somalia and Benin are minnows compared to Malaysia and the UAE. The Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, outlined his proposals ‘to switch [the Islamic world] from commodity development to industrial innovation’, to develop a joint plan of actions in the energy sector and to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, an idea which he hopes could kick-start international de-nuclearisation.

Kazakhstan comes into the chairmanship in the right frame of mind and at the right time. From a global point-of-view, it is a nation well-positioned in the main pack chasing the front-runners – it is a forward-looking and forward-thinking country. From an Islamic perspective, it will be a reassuring but not tranquilising influence on a bloc still rocking from recent challenges. Arab uprisings in the Maghreb and Middle East, (notably the ongoing conflict in Libya and violence in Syria), ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan, political violence in Ivory Coast and the war in Afghanistan are some of the issues confronting Astana.

But secularism is written into the constitution and Kazakhstan underlines the right to freedom of religion, although more than 70% of the population is Muslim. It has successfully modelled itself as a bridge-state: between Europe and Asia; between ex-Soviet nations and the West; and now, hopefully, between hardline Islamic nations and more open members of OIC. It is a time for a safe pair of hands. Kazakhstan has the perfect platform to press on with social, industrial and economic ambitions, backed up by a significant but not overbearing Muslim tradition.

A fortress made of BRICS

The BRICS countries are building a formidable global power base but there are still cracks in the foundations

With the addition of South Africa to the group late last year, the emerging markets bloc has expanded its reach and capability considerably. It now has fingers in pies cooking in all corners of the globe and each member-state has a rough home ‘region’ where it is the dominate force. Brazil has majority sway over Latin American affairs, China rules the construction industry in Africa and Russia has diplomatic and industrial control throughout the former Soviet Union nations. But the way they influence and react with each other – let alone other countries – is both a cause for celebration and concern.

China is the most successful of the BRICS. It competes with Brazil in Latin America and rivals South Africa throughout Africa, be it through construction contracts in Angola or oil agreements in Sudan. Its conveyor lines drive European businesses back home and its markets are being opened up to foreign firms. It is powerful militarily, diplomatically and economically. China also is skilled at both comforting and irritating rival BRICS. It is happy to let South Africa be a diplomatic voice for Africa while it maintains its industrial strength there. But it has annoyed India by cosying up to Pakistan recently with economic agreements and plans for motorways and railways between the two countries. The transport links would pass through a part of Kashmir that India sees as its own and that Islamabad ceded to Beijing in 1963.

The other powers have also tried to carve out distinct paths across the globe. Brazil is promoting itself as a leader of a new international diplomacy by flexing its negotiation muscles and by engaging with Iran and the Middle East. Russia is still sending rockets to the International Space Station and is arguably the closest of the BRICS to Europe. India is starting to move its weight in South East Asia and has belatedly broken free from its comfortable domestic engine room to engage with African nations and make its nuclear-backed voice heard. South Africa is aiming to make the continent it foots its own, at first through diplomacy (President Jacob Zuma recently met Colonel Gaddafi for talks), and later by possibly challenging China industrially.

There are many sticking points. China and India have a disputed border and Beijing is cross that Delhi lets the Dalai Lama use India as his base-in-exile. Diplomatically, Brazil and South Africa are making an impact on the world stage, while quietly letting China continue to invest in their ‘home’ regions. But while China powers on, Russia is stalling and South Africa relatively inexperienced as the baby of the club.

It is up to Brazil and India to move the BRICS on from a second-class talking-shop to the most important international alliance. An Argentine writing his doctorate on Argentina and Brazil’s economies recently told me that “Brazil is big, very big – too big in fact” and the same could be said for India. They are outgrowing their respective Latin American and sub-continental origins and it is time that they give China a rest from pace-setting. They are certainly all building themselves up quickly and strongly and the West ignores them at its peril.

Living on a prayer

Trying to balance religion and politics in West Africa can be a hard game to play

France has been accused of stoking up religious tensions with its recent decision to ban full-face covering garments, such as the Muslim niqab and burka. However, in its former African colonial heartland, religion and the state are managing to carve a delicate balancing act.

The Francophone countries of West Africa tend to have huge Muslim populations. But in Mali, for example, Barcelona FC shirt-wearing men and bare-ankled women abound. Beer is brewed and drunk. Secularism dominates the constitutions of countries such as Niger, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

Far from the Maghreb and the Middle East, it seems that the customs and animism of the area has infused with Islam to breed a slightly different take on the faith. However, the people still faithfully queue outside the vast, mud Mosques on Fridays. There are millions of Christians also living in the area, although they are more numerous in Anglophone states such as Ghana and Nigeria.

There are exceptions, of course. The civil conflict in Ivory Coast, although primarily based on politics, had strong religious undercurrents. Laurent Gbagbo, the deposed former president, is a Catholic and his internationally-endorsed successor, Alassane Ouattara, is a Muslim.

Nigeria held the first-round of a presidential election on Saturday 16 April. According to exit polls, it seems that incumbent (Christian southerner) Goodluck Jonathan will head to a run-off against his main rival Muhammadu Buhari (Muslim northerner).

It is a country with a bloody record when it comes to religious and political balance. Recent years have seen regular fighting and hundreds of deaths in the central prefectures where the Muslim and Christian populations meet. There is a growing Islamist insurgency calling for sharia law to be imposed in the north. The radical group Boko Haram shot dead two people on Friday 15, the day before the presidential polls opened.

Nigeria has a rough agreement to rotate the presidency between the largely Muslim north and the mainly Christian south, although when Mr Jonathan assumed the presidential office last year on the death of his northern predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua that cycle was broken.

The balance of the stability of the region depends on similar domestic accords. Yet if such agreements can be broken without provoking resultant religious fury then the region will have be able to look forward again.

The region’s capability to forge nations out of the bubbling and potentially venomous cauldron of post-colonialism, animism, Christianity, Islam, strongmen and dictators, developing democracies, oil and cocoa, deserts and droughts, rivers and floods and linguistic differences must be lauded and the nations must strive towards growing co-operation and confidence in one of the main areas they have had some success and are trying to improve at the moment: balancing religion and politics.

Hotting up on the Equator

Equatorial Guinea is one of the smallest countries in Africa but it has large, and questionable, ambitions.

Last week, this blog looked at the friendships and enmities between different Latin American countries and Colonel Gaddafi, (see ‘An Arab and his amigos‘– 05/04/11) but could help be on hand for Gaddafi from another Spanish-speaking source?

The tiny country of Equatorial Guinea sits snugly in the central western corner of Africa. The current head-of-state, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, came to power after deposing his uncle in a coup and then sentencing him to death by firing squad.

Gaddafi also came to prominence after overthrowing the establishment and there certainly seem to be many similarities between Equatorial Guinea and Libya:

1) Longevity of leaders

Teodoro Obiang Nguema has been the president since 1979; Gaddafi since 1969.

2) Political parties

Although a couple of opposition parties have been officially ‘legalised’ in Equatorial Guinea, they have only won a handful of seats during Obiang’s three decades of power. Gaddafi has long proclaimed that he is just a revolutionary leader, not a president, and there has been no formal government, let alone functional opposition, in Libya during those 41 years in power.

3) Protest marches demanding social and political reform

Any attempt by Equatoguinean opposition movements (Popular Union, Convergence for Social Democracy, Progressive Democratic Alliance) to show their united condemnation of the repressive regime is stamped out quickly. All reporting of the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East is banned. All protests are quashed by the police. Juan Tomas Avila Laurel is a writer from Equatorial Guinea and he went on a hunger strike in February calling for democratic and social reform and in protest at the corruption, malpractice and maltreatment of which he accuses President Obiang’s government. He had to flee to Spain soon after he started his fast. The current situation in Libya shows why leaders such as Obiang fear the consequences (civil war, foreign intervention) of mass demonstrations.

4) Oil

Equatorial Guinea has huge reserves and its wealth is rocketing, with a GDP far in excess of its neighbours, although it seems that the cash is simply heading straight into the government’s bank account. However, the situation is changing in Libya, where most of the oil is now in rebel-held land.

5) African Union

Obiang is the present Chair of the AU and has used his position to support the Gaddafi regime. Last month, Obiang praised what he called Gaddafi’s ‘readiness’ for ‘political reforms.’ He also ensured that the AU denounced ‘any form of foreign military intervention’ including a no-fly zone. Gaddafi was head of the AU in 2009-10.

As we have seen with Ivory Coast, (Jose dos Santos of Angola, another repressive, long-term president, sending aid to condemned Laurent Gbagbo), the strongmen club of Africa starts to worry when one of their own is in trouble and has no shame in letting it be known where their loyalties lie. Obiang is leader of the AU at the moment and cannot demonstrate worthy, multi-national leadership unless he shows a willingness to sort out his own, impoverished country first.