Turkey Prospers Amid Neighboring Nations' Woes

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As Europe suffered economic crises in 2011, Turkey's economy boomed. And as neighboring Arab countries faced political turmoil, Turkey became a bigger regional player. Martin discusses the country's good year with John Peet, Europe editor at The Economist, and Rami Khouri, international affairs expert from American University of Beirut.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, it's time for Kwanzaa, the week long celebration of the African Diaspora. The holiday is supposed to emphasize family and community and all things homemade, so of course, we're going to talk about food you might want to serve for your Kwanzaa celebration or just because.

But first, as 2011 winds down, we're taking some time to offer a twist on the traditional end of year roundup here at TELL ME MORE and, in fact, across NPR all week, we're highlighting the people, movements and ideas that had a good year.

Today, we turn to the country of Turkey. It was once called the sick man of Europe, but all that has changed in the last decade. Just this year, its neighbors to the west have gone through an economic crisis that still threatens to topple the eurozone.

Turkey's economy has been booming with an estimated seven percent growth. Its neighbors to the east and south have gone through widespread demonstrations and political turmoil, but Turkey has championed the cause of the Arab Spring and is being increasingly recognized as a regional player.

Let's listen to this speech by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed to the Syrian president. First, you'll hear his voice and then you'll hear the voice of the translator. Here it is.

PRIME MINISTER RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) If you believe in yourself, if you are confident as a leader, you would call for elections. If these ballot boxes take you to power, then you will come to power and rule that country. You can remain in power with tanks and cannons only up to a certain point. The day will come when you will leave.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about why this has been a good year for Turkey, so we have called upon Rami Khouri. He is the editor-at-large of The Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon. We reached him there. Also with us is John Peet, the Europe editor at The Economist magazine and we reached him in Wilshire, England.

Thank you both so much for joining us. Happy holidays to you both.

JOHN PEET: Same to you.

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you.

MARTIN: So Mr. Peet, I'm going to start with you because the economy is such a concern in the U.S. and Europe at this time. So I'd like to ask you why Turkey's economy has had such a good year.

PEET: Well, it's had a series of good years, but this year, 2011, has been probably better than most of the previous ones. The Turkey economy was in terrible state up to about 10 years ago. It went through repeated high inflation, (unintelligible) crises, trouble with the currency and they did a lot of economic reform at the time.

They sorted out their banks 10 years ago and the last 10 years have been very good years, booming times, very strong exports to Europe and increasingly to the region and through Asia and they've done well again this year, so they're much better off than the rest of Europe. They look, really, like one of the BRIC countries.

MARTIN: And has this rising tide lifted more boats than just the few? I mean, has it, in fact, improved the living standard of citizens in a way that they can feel?

PEET: Very strongly. I mean, the traditional visitor to Turkey will go to Istanbul and life in Istanbul has been good for quite a long time, but what I think has changed since I first went to Turkey 10 years ago has been the living standards right across the main Anatolian land mass.

You go in to towns like Gaziantep or Kayseri in the middle of Anatolia and living standards have increased very substantially in the last 10 years. People, you know - there are quite a lot of much richer people and the average is much higher than it was. So it's been a pretty good time for most Turks.

MARTIN: And Rami Khouri, let's bring you into the conversation. Here's Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking to Al Jazeera English about their policy toward the Arab Spring protests this summer.

AHMET DAVUTOGLU: We established two principles. One is, now, it is time for change in our region. There is a need of a new politics in our region. Second, the method of this change should be peaceful transformation.

MARTIN: Now, of course, Rami, many, you know, diplomats from many countries have been saying this, but they are not necessarily believed. Tell us a little bit about what Turkey's role has been in the course of this tumultuous period. And are they seen as an important player and to what end?

KHOURI: Well, Turkey has developed much greater influence in the region and much closer - many closer, tighter connections in terms of the business interests, some security interests, trade, tourism, open borders, now they have open travel with many Arab countries. And this has generated a sense that Turkey is not only a close partner, but perhaps an influential big brother in some respects for some people in the region and people look at Turkey in the Arab world, for the most part, with a lot of admiration.

And almost everybody in the Arab world sees something in Turkey they like. They like the business development, the economic boom, the democratic transition, the rule of law. They like the Islamist cultural influence, the fact that Islamist groups came into power.

Everybody sees something in Turkey that they like and the secular nature of the system and, therefore, this has given Turkey some real significant soft power influence in the region and it has tried to learn over the last two or three years how to use that power, how to use that influence in a constructive way, and as the foreign minister pointed out, now they're pretty much focused on trying to promote democratic peaceful transitions, which is what they experienced in their own country, so this is something quite positive and significant.

How much Turkey can actually be involved inside Arab countries to promote this remains to be seen and this is their big challenge now, to translate a broad principle into actual foreign policy and actions.

MARTIN: And as part of NPR's year end series, we're looking at how 2011 was a good year for the country of Turkey. We're speaking with Rami Khouri of The Daily Star in Beirut and also John Peet of The Economist.

Rami Khouri, pick up on that theme a bit, if you would. We're saying that Turkey is more influential in the region. How does it see itself? You're seeing its influence to what end, to help kind of ease the transition to fuller participation in each of these countries and how?

KHOURI: Well, one of the things that Turkey is doing is that, having become powerful, democratic, stable, self-confident, it's now learning how to use that potential power and influence that it has around the region.

At the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Turks were a little bit caught on the back foot. In mid-year, they weren't quite sure in the beginning what to do. They have huge business interests there. Then they finally came down on the side of the people revolting for their freedom.

And Syria, the same thing. They tried to intervene and then, finally, they felt they were not treated honestly by the Syrian government and they came out on the side of a democratic transition. So they're trying. They're learning how to play the role of a regional power, which is what they are.

They are doing this primarily for their own self-interests, as any powerful country does. For them to have a democratic, stable, prosperous and democratic Arab neighborhood is incredibly positive because it drives their economy and then it helps in many other strategic interests that they have.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting is that Turkey, for years, at least from a marketing perspective and also diplomatically, in some ways, has positioned itself as kind of the bridge and the buffer between Europe and the Middle East. But for years, Turkey's gone after membership to the European Union with no results.

So John Peet, are Turks less interested now in joining the EU, you know, as the European economies have struggled and as their own has boomed?

PEET: I think they are. I think they are. You can see that when you listen to Prime Minister Erdogan's speeches or when you talk to Foreign Minister Davutoglu, their goal clearly continues to be one day to join the European Union. But to quite a large extent, they've been rebuffed by the Europeans. The French and Germans have made clear that they don't want Turkey as a member and I think they are increasingly seeing their role in the Middle East as not quite an alternative, but as giving them some broader position that doesn't just depend on Europe.

MARTIN: There are still concerns about Turkey's human rights record, are there not? This morning, we heard that a Turkish air strike reportedly killed more than 30 people in a Kurdish area of Iraq. Do you see these human rights concerns abating as time goes on or is there still a concern that particularly the current regime kind of has an authoritarian tilt that is of concern?

KHOURI: Well, the Turks are really making a transition, which is a transition that any mature country or regional power goes through, which is they come out of this idealistic, romantic world where they say, as they have for years, that they want to have good relations with everybody. They want to have no enemies in the region and that worked for a few years.

But then their relations with Israel became tense. Their relations with Iran may be getting a little bit more tense because of Syria. They still have the Cypress issue that's unresolved. The Armenian issue is unresolved. The Kurdish issue.

So they're really living in the real world, but it's a real world in which the assets and the positives that I mentioned of Turkey far outweigh the negative ones. And it's really exciting to watch Turkey develop. And its problems are still there. They have to address them, but I think they have the tools to address them more effectively than has been the case in many other countries in the region.

MARTIN: Rami Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon. We reached him there. We heard also from John Peet. He is the Europe editor at The Economist magazine and he was kind enough to join us from Wilshire, England.

Thank you so much for speaking with us and happy holidays, once again.

KHOURI: Thank you and you, too.

PEET: Thank you. No problem.

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