Turkey: Resurgent Kemalism and the Nagorno-Karabakh

by Dr. Victoria Araj - 28 October, 2020, 12:00 2513 Views 0 Comment


The 27th of September 2020 saw the rapid and violent escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between the Azerbaijani oligarchy of President Ilham Aliyev and the neoteric  Armenian democracy led by ‘Velvet Revolution’ leader Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Both sides have been accused of indiscriminate attacks on civilians and the United Nations has urged for the immediate de-escalation of the violence. Although the region has a majority Armenian population, it is geographically claimed by Azerbaijan. Turkey, a long-term ally of Azerbaijan has been accused of manipulating the violence for strategic gain.

The accusations against Turkey have included sending Syrian mercenaries to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh, using the region as a testing ground for new weaponry and neo-ottoman expansionism. Yet, as Ankara’s security dilemma in the geopolitical neighbourhood shifts, neo-ottomanism is a grave miscalculation of the AKP’s (Justice and Development Party) trajectory away from the post-Islamist expansionism of the early 2000s towards a more fascistic fortification of its ‘triple entente’ with Azerbaijan and Israel. Ankara’s coercive politics includes militarizing and securitizing the supply of natural gas oil in the Eastern and Southern Anatolia, the South Caucasus and the Eastern Mediterranean;  reinvigorating its military institutions; local investment in arms technology and building party-political alliances with far-right ultra-nationalists. This form of politics if reminiscent of anything, evokes the tenets of the stringent Kemalist regimes of Turkey’s past.

Understanding Neo-ottomanism

Neo-ottomanism’s ideational foundations were established in the  AKP’s ex-foreign and prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu’s book the Strategic Depth Doctrine (2001). In his book, Davutoglu states that Turkey should use its historical and cultural bonds to promote neoliberalism, democracy and peace within its geography, moving away from the Kemalist foreign policy tradition towards “more liberal, less ardently nationalist, foreign policies.” Characteristics of this dogma of the early 2000s was the move made by the AKP in 2003 to engage Armenia in trade talks followed by the Zurich Protocols of 2009, an agreement towards full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia that collapsed in 2015.

Yet, from 2013 onwards, the Erdoganists of the AKP have increasingly been moving away from this form of alliance-building political reproduction. Regional turmoil had failed to produce the post-Islamist neoliberal regimes that Turkey had hoped for on its borders and domestic consent for the AKP project waned due to ethnic and economic discontent. Domestically, this has meant the widespread suppression, arrest and purge of any suspected supporters of the July 2016 coup, the resurgence of the Turkey-Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) conflict and the AKP’s monopolization of state security institutions. Turkey’s foreign intervention in the South Caucasus is simply an international expression of a reversion to its capstone, paranoid past as it becomes increasingly inept in strategic diplomacy and fights to contain its ever-decreasing sphere of influence.

The Triple Entente: Turkey, Azerbaijan, Israel

The Triple Entente between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Israel emerged in the 1990s when Turkey’s foreign policy was in the hands of Kemalist generals from the Turkish Armed Forces. This multi-lateral alliance was driven by the commonality of the state-identities of the countries, the shared threats to their security and the insecurity of the oil and gas supply to Turkey and Israel; economies with scarce energy resources and volatile economic relationships with energy-rich states.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, completed in 2006, was a point of physical and economic consolidation of the Entente. Followed by the $40 billion Shah Deniz natural gas pipeline and its extension, the BTC provided the Caspian region an international sea route,  freeing Azerbaijan from dependence on Russian transportation and Europe, Turkey and Israel from Russian supplies. Furthermore,  it secured Turkey’s future as an energy hub and Israel’s access to the oil and gas reserves of the South Caucasus.  This enabled Turkey and Israel to counter Iranian, Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

The BTC and Shah Deniz pipelines lie just 40 Km North of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijan has a defence budget of over $2 billion a year. In 2016, Israel signed a $5 billion procurement deal to provide long-term arms and technology to Azerbaijan. This included Israel Aerospace Industries’ new Long-Range Attack (LORA) missile, with an operational land range of 400km that was used on the battlefield against Armenian soldiers and civilians along with Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drones. In return for its weapons, Azerbaijan provides Israel with 40% of its oil needs from Turkish ports.  

A neo-Kemalist Foreign Policy?

In November 2017 Turkish political commentator, Sinan Baykent wrote a piece in Hurriyet ‘Neo-Kemalism: Turkey’s new political compass’.  He argues that there has been a neo-Kemalist turn in AKP’s politics, “Nationalistic political discourse is gradually taking root. This is part of a state-level initiative and it is largely about reshaping Turkey’s raison-d’etat in order to tackle new national and regional challenges…the international agenda has imposed the necessity of rediscovering certain aspects of the old Kemalist practice.” 

The Turkish intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh represents a neo-Kemalist turning point within the AKP’s war of position. Unlike the Kemalist regimes of the past, that did not operate in an era of neoliberal globalization and resource scarcity, neo-Kemalism’s distinguishing feature is its step away from protectionist politics towards warmongering in the East and South Mediterranean, the Levant and the Caucasus.   

Despite the neo-Ottoman departure in AKP politics, Ankara has in fact consolidated the Turkish-Islamic synthesis through coercion, authoritarianism and the replacement of soft power tactics to hard power alliances with pariah regimes. This combination of interventionism, post-Islamist populism and Kemalist ultra-nationalism presents an unprecedented danger to Turkey’s regional sphere of influence.

Dr. Victoria Araj
Author holds a PhD in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford, UK and a Masters in International Development: Poverty, Conflict, and Reconstruction from the University of Manchester. Her research centers on civil-military relations in Turkey and the Middle East, Islamist political parties, authoritarianism, and security. She is currently a mentor with the Women in International Affairs Network and a peer-reviewer at the Asian Journal of Peace and Security.

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