One of the great misconceptions promulgated by both European observers and some members of the CH Party in Turkey today is that the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey, Ataturk was someone who “looked west”. While Ataturk founded the CH Party, the current CH Presidential candidate who will challenge incumbent President Erdogan in an election on the 24th of June, Muharrem Ince is no Ataturk. When Ince says that Turkey must choose the west over the east, this is not the kind of dogmatic statement that Ataturk would have ever made. Even associating such a dogmatic, self-hating mentality would have been anathema to the man who raised his nation from the depths of war and exploitation in order to re-fashion Turkey as a strong and independent republic.
Ataturk is often falsely mythologised as someone who “looked west” because of his drive to separate religion from state affairs, his drive to educate the nation, build modern infrastructure and give Turks a better future, rather than succumb to humiliation at the hands of Turkey’s opponents. These characteristics ascribed to Ataturk are true, but what is western about them? Every major non-aligned leader of the 20th century from Nasser to Tito, Jinnah to Gaddafi and every socialist leader from Castro to Stalin, Mao to Mandela wanted the same thing.
Looking at Ataturk’s foreign policy, it was not a western nation that first established relations with the Government of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey but the young Soviet Union which like Turkey was still in the midst of its own civil crisis when Lenin and Ataturk signed an historic Friendship Treaty in Moscow which put to rest centuries of Russo-Turkish antagonism. Indeed, so friendly was Ataturk’s relationship with the USSR that when former World War era triumvir Enver Pasha attempted to lead a Turkic revolt against the USSR in central Asia, the so-called Basmachi movement, Ataturk continued to renounce Enver Pasha and maintained good ties with Moscow.
The 1921 Treaty of Moscow saw the two sides work amicably to settle territorial disputes arising from the aftermath of the First World War while Ataturk also refused to allow Britain and France to do what they did to his Ottoman predecessors and exploit Turkey in order to barricade Russian ships in the Black Sea as the west did after the signing of the anti-Russian London Straits Convention of 1841 – a treaty which prohibited Russian ships from free navigation in the Turkish Straits in wartime.
Instead, Ataturk convinced the major powers of Europe and western Eurasia to agree to the 1936 Montreux convention which rejected the stance of the victors of the First World War’s to internationalise the Turkish Straits. Instead, Turkey assumed full control of the Straits while granting all nations with Black Sea fleets full navigation rights in both peace and war time.
But it was not just the eastern Soviet power that Ataturk was quick to engage in fruitful relations with. Shortly before his death, Ataturk signed the Treaty of Saadabad with Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq – an inviolable non-aggression pact which sought to ease historic tensions between the great powers of south-western Eurasia as a bulwark against European imperialism.
Of course when it came to literally looking west, while Ataturk worked to normalise post-war relations with Britain and France, what was more important was Ataturk’s desire to retain friendly Turkish relations in the Balkans while paving the way for a new era of post-Ottoman equality between national partners. It was in this spirit that Ataturk was able to reconcile with The Hellenic Republic shortly after a bitterly fought war which Turkey won and moreover, it was this spirit which led Ataturk to sign the Balkan Pact of 1934 with Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania.
Ataturk clearly knew that the future of healthy Turkish geopolitical relations was in having as few enemies and as many partners as possible, all the while avoiding the entangling alliances which were the proximate cause for the ballooning of the crises which led to the First World War.
Ataturk knew that only a strong relationship with fellow Eurasian powers including the USSR, Iran and Afghanistan could prevent imperial Europe from exploiting ancient hostilities in the region. He also knew that creating harmony where there once was discord both in the Balkans and in central and western Europe was the key to a more harmonious development for a Turkish state let down by decades of poor leadership.
While some argue over the different approaches to religion between Ataturk and Erdogan, one must remember that as under Ataturk, Turkey remains a country where one is free to worship in whatever way one chooses whether intensely or otherwise. Likewise Turkey remains a country where mosque and state stand side-by-side but no longer on top of one another. Nothing in the forthcoming election is going to change this. Interestingly, few dare to mention that Ince’s CH Party is campaign in coalition with the anti-Erdogan religious extremist Saadet Party.
Today, President Erdogan is pursuing a policy that would make Ataturk proud because after all, it is the kind of policy that Ataturk himself pursued. Erdogan has elevated Russo-Turkish relations to their highest since the early 1930s in spite of multiple attempts by the Fethullah Terror Organisation to weaken the partnership. Turkey also maintains healthy relations with Iran after decades of uncertainty while relations with Pakistan remain strong and continue to grow.
Most importantly, the ancient silk road which linked western Eurasia with north east Asia is being re-envisaged for the 21st century in the form of China’s One Belt–One Road initiative. From the launch of One Belt–One Road in 2013, Erdogan has been one of the projects strongest supporters.
While candidate Ince might be from the party of Ataturk, what good is symbolism when it does not match policy? Ince is a man who says that European criticisms of Turkey are correct. This is the same Europe that allows PKK terrorists to burn Turkish mosques without saying a word. Ince says that he believes Turkey should be a member of the EU. This is the same EU sanctioning most of Turkey’s most important trading and security partners. Ince further says that by adopting European standards, life in Turkey will be more fair for journalists, artists and intellectuals. These are the same European standards that are about to censor the internet, these are the same European standards that violate UN demands to free the political prisoner Julian Assange, these are the same European standards that say it is antisemitic to join President Erdogan in supporting Palestine while it was both Ottoman and Republican Turkey that saved millions of Jews during centuries of persecution in Europe.
There is one candidate who follows in Ataturk’s footsteps of multipolarity, putting his country before alliances and putting the future before an already discredited past. That candidate is Recep Tayyip Erdogan.