Turkey has a unique position in the Muslim world as a country that held the Caliphate for several hundred years but then turned into a secular republic. Over the past ninety years, Islam has coexisted uneasily with the Turkish state, which has tried both to co-opt and suppress a powerful political Islamic movement that began gathering force in the 1960s. Turkey is unique in the fact that a movement rooted in political Islam managed not only to come to power in democratic elections, but proved able to stay in power and continue to win elections for over a decade. Whereas this aspect of the Turkish experience is widely lauded by Western observers, there is nevertheless another side to the coin. As the power of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) grew, they also turned increasingly authoritarian and Islamist. Turkey’s experience is indicative of the broader nature of “moderate” political Islam, and its relationship with democracy; it suggests that “moderate Islamism” has embraced the mechanics of electoral democracy but not its fundamental values.
By Svante E. Cornell
Predicting the future of US relations with any country under the Trump Administration may appear a fool’s errand. The new president has little political background, especially in foreign policy; and he has explicitly made unpredictability a mark of honour. Can anything, then, be said about the Trump Administration’s likely approach to Azerbaijan and the Caspian region? At this early date, only several preliminary conclusions can be drawn.
However, to appreciate the prospects of America’s approach to the region, it is useful to briefly examine the history of the past 25 years. Simply put, for the first half of the quarter-century since independence, there was a bipartisan consensus that held that the Caspian was an important region for American national security interests, and both Democratic and Republican administrations pursued balanced foreign policies that sought to advance security, trade, and democratic development. Yet in the second half of the period, this began to change, and an American disengagement from the South Caucasus and Central Asia has been very visible. This disengagement was most visible in the areas of security and trade; whereas the normative agenda of supporting democracy and human rights remained in full vigour, creating a lack of balance in US policies.
Article, The American Interest, May 2, 2017
Svante E. Cornell, The Raucous Caucasus
The United States must restore its leverage and credibility in the restive region caught between Russia, Turkey, and Ira
Article, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, May 1, 2017
Halil Karaveli, Turkey's Authoritarian Legacy
It's tempting to blame the country's recent slide into repression on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's thirst for personal power. But did the ruling Islamist party ever really abandon the country's long tradition of state authoritarianism?
Article, The American Interest, March 17, 2017
S. Frederick Starr, Time to Re-Engage
Whipsawed by years of foreign policy activism and then by general retreat, the United States is at risk of losing an opportunity to cement hard-won gains in Central Asia/Afghanistan.
Op-Ed, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, January 16, 2017
Svante E. Cornell, Russia: an Enabler of Jihad?
Russian officials have had to contain their glee in monitoring recent political events in America and Europe. They appear to think their days in the cold may soon be over. Much has been made of President-elect Donald Trump’s wish to improve relations with Moscow, but the last news out of France appears even more auspicious to Moscow.
The far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, is known for her pro-Putin sympathies. Now, with François Fillon’s nomination as the center-right candidate, both major contenders in next year’s French presidential election are favorably disposed toward Russia.
These warmer feelings towards Russia are based, mainly, on changing threat perceptions in the West. Since the emergence of the Islamic State and the proliferation of terrorist attacks in Europe and America, many Europeans and Americans appear to view Moscow’s aggression against its neighbors, such as Ukraine and Georgia, as an increasingly esoteric problem.
Particularly after Russia’s intervention in Syria, even on the right many now view Russia not as a threat to the West but as a natural ally in defeating the jihadi threat.
While this notion is gaining popularity, it is at best the triumph of hope over experience, and at worst a dangerous delusion. Russia’s interaction with radical Islam over two decades shows that it is part of the problem, not the solution. In fact, leaders in Moscow have a track record of manipulating radical Islam whenever that has suited their purposes – including systematic collusion with Islamic extremists. A few examples illustrate this policy. Read more
Svante E. Cornell is Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Center affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy.
Op-Ed, Foreign Affairs, January 3, 2017
Halil M. Karaveli, Assasination in Ankara
On December 19, Mevlut Mert Altintas, a Turkish police officer, assassinated Andrei Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey. His action was apparently meant as retribution for Russian bombings in eastern Aleppo, and he is the latest in a string of right-wing terrorists in Turkeywhose acts have served to draw Ankara back toward the West. Less than two weeks after the assassination, in the early hours of January 1, a gunman believed to have been affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS) killed at least 39 people at an Istanbul nightclub. If such attacks continue, as they very likely will, they could undermine Erdogan's grip on power, which is what the wave of terror is all about, even if the perpetrators differ.
At this stage, it is impossible to know Altintas’ precise intention, whether he was a “lone wolf” or was directed by others, and what consequences the murder will have. But historical patterns offer some clues. First, Turkey has seen a long line of high-level assassinations carried out by the country’s right wing, made up of Sunni Islamists and Turkish nationalists, who have always been aligned in Turkish politics. The killers have typically had connections—a direct one in the case of Altintas, who was a riot police officer—with the country’s security agencies. Second, assassinations have tended to take place in particular geopolitical circumstances, namely whenever Turkey’s long-standing commitment to the Western security alliance has seemed to be in jeopardy. Read more
Essay, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2016 Issue
Halil M. Karaveli, Erdogan's Journey
What happened to Recep Tayyip Erdogan? The Turkish president came to power in 2003 promising economic and political liberalization. But under his rule, Turkey has instead moved in a profoundly illiberal, authoritarian direction—although not toward repressive Islamism, which some feared was Erdogan’s true agenda, given his background in Islamist politics. Rather, Erdogan has become something more akin to a traditional Middle Eastern strongman: consolidating personal power, purging rivals, and suppressing dissent.
Over the summer, it briefly appeared as if Erdogan might have overreached, when a group of military officers attempted to topple him—at the direction, Erdogan has insisted, of his erstwhile ally turned bitter foe Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric based in the United States. But when the plotters struck, Erdogan was able to quickly rally support inside the armed forces and among the broader public and managed to put down the coup attempt with surprising ease. A subsequent crackdown has been swift and merciless: the government has jailed tens of thousands of alleged Gulenists, conducted a sweeping purge of the army and the state bureaucracy, shut down media outlets, and suspended thousands of academics. Erdogan’s response to the coup attempt has demonstrated that the president’s grip on power remains stronger than even many of his fiercest critics had assumed.
No one could have foreseen the coup or its aftermath. But even long before those events, it should have come as no surprise that Erdogan had failed to live up to the expectations of many liberals in Turkey and elsewhere who had initially hailed his ascent as a sign of progress. Erdogan never really aimed to make Turkey an Islamic state, but he also never wanted to liberalize it. Read more
Book, Routledge, 2011
Svante E. Cornell, Azerbaijan Since Independence
Azerbaijan Since Independence offers a comprehensive intro- duction to modern Azerbaijan, a post-Soviet republic located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. This small country has outsized importance due to its strategic location at the cross- roads of Europe and Asia, its energy wealth, and its historical experience as an early modernizer in the Muslim world.
The book begins with six chapters on Azerbaijan’s history from pre-Soviet times to the present, with an emphasis on the past twenty years. The next four chapters are thematic, covering the con ict over Karabakh, the political system, the oil-dominated economy, and societal changes and trends including the role of Islam. The remainder of the book surveys Azerbaijan’s foreign relations, with an analysis of the foreign- policy-making context complemented by chapters on relations with Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the West. The book closes with a brief epilogue discussing the country’s future.
Svante E. Cornell is Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Center affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP).