Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
About us Latest news News Worldwide Newsletter

Turkey: a bridge between East and West


Traditionally, Turkey has been a bridge between the East and the West, both culturally and economically. Political scientist Erdogan Aykac (1986) is writing a PhD thesis about its bridging role at the UG’s Centre for International Relations, and hopes to gain an understanding of the Turkish perspective on this role .

Istanbul has two bridges across the Bosporus river, with a third underway, that connect the smaller European part of Turkey to the larger Asian part, from East to West and vice versa. This means the country itself is also a bridge, between Europe and the Middle East. As a consequence and harking back to the history of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey feels that it is familiar with life on both banks, says Erdogan Aykac. After all, the Turks once stood at the gates of Vienna, the Balkans were under Turkish influence for centuries, and Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo are still mainly Muslim. East of Turkey, the Ottoman Empire left similar traces,

and there are also several Turkic peoples in Central Asia. Their home countries, such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have never officially been part of Turkey, but their inhabitants are considered ethnic Turks in Turkey because of the similarities in language and culture. The same goes for Azerbaijan and other regions of the Caucasus.

M illions of refugees

While Turkey borders Greece and Bulgaria on its European side, its neighbours in the East include Iran, Iraq and Syria. Due to this geographic position, Turkey is now assigned a crucial, bridging role in two great European political issues: managing the influx of refugees and combatting IS. Turkey is currently harbouring millions of refugees, who often live in harsh conditions, especially those outside the refugee camps. The Turks themselves suffer from the situation too: the housing market is under pressure and there is displacement in the labour market as refugees tend to accept lower wages. In this light, it does not seem to make sense that the country has accepted the return of refugees from the EU countries to Turkey, despite the large sums of money that come with this acceptance.

However, Aykac claims that President Erdoğan could make this deal because the influx of refugees, though an important problem, is not his greatest concern. Rather, he is more concerned with the security and unity of the Turkish state. Terrorism has thus become the second issue that Europe cannot address without the help of Turkey. However, cooperation has been less than smooth from the start, as Turkey has several Kurdish groups to fear besides IS, whereas the Western countries tend to see these groups, such as the Kurdish YPG militias in Syria, as allies. According to Aykac, President Erdoğan has always maintained that he aims to combat all terrorism, whether it comes from Assad, IS or the Kurdish PKK and YPG. And if allies cannot disagree on who their enemies are, it can of course become deeply problematic.


In the past decades, the bridge that is Turkey has seemed primarily oriented towards the European bank. With EU membership within reach, officially since 1999, Turkey was often willing to adapt. However, that flexibility has vanished, and the urge to become a member state is fading. Should it ever come to pass, Erdoğan will surely have a list of demands of his own – he knows that Turkey no longer plays a subordinate role, and Turkey has grown a bit bored with the European project, according to Aykac. Aykac explains that the Turks feel that the EU has failed them massively. They were very angry about the admission of Romania and its neighbour Bulgaria in 2007, for instance – two countries far behind Turkey in many areas including corruption. Yet they were given membership first. So, how many hoops would Turkey still have to jump through to become a member too, and why were these countries given preferential treatment? The admission of Cyprus in 2004 had already been taken as an outright insult. As the EU would not tolerate any conflicts within its borders, the Greek and the Turkish parts of the island were forced to bury the hatchet, which even culminated in a referendum on unification. The Turkish Cypriots voted in favour of unification, willing to sacrifice part of their Turkish identity. The Greek Cypriots, however, voted against it, so that Cyprus could not join the Union as one country. The fact that only the Greek part of the island was subsequently admitted was very offensive to the Turks; their sentiment was that, while they themselves had been prepared to loyally compromise, it was the uncompromising Greeks who were rewarded.

Turkey’s long arm

At the same time, Turkey remains interested in the Turks who live in Europe, and the ‘long arm of Ankara’ has become a standing concept in Europe lately. Its influence even became explicit recently when the Turkish Consulate called on Dutch Turks to report any insults aimed at Erdoğan. But the long arm is nothing new, says Aykac, nor is it reserved to Erdoğan and his AK party. Aykac refers again to the Turkish attention to ethnic Turks, including, of course, the diaspora Turks in Europe. Their influence used to be mainly economic, in that they sent money home, but now they are being targeted by political parties for electoral gain. ‘TV stations for expat Turks, which you cannot even receive in Turkey, now show political ads making promises that are only of interest to diaspora Turks.’ Financial benefits are offered, for instance. Aykac sees these ads as everyday examples of how Turkey addresses all Turks, not just the ones inside its own borders. To the question of whether Turkey is a dictatorship, he responds firmly: ‘That question does not interest me. As an academic, I want to show the ongoing processes without attaching any fundamental value judgments. I’m happy to leave that to others. I think it is important to explain why Erdoğan and his AK party are so popular, or to monitor the steps that the Turkish government takes regarding, for example, press freedom and foreign policy, and to understand its reasons for doing so. As an academic, I can deepen the debate without actually participating in it by showing the Turkish perspective.’

Winds of change

Aykac does not have one definitive answer, as would indeed be impossible with such broad, all-encompassing questions. What he does have is a toolbox full of facts, which he uses to adjust the existing, rigid image of Erdoğan. ‘Do not forget that, until the rise of Erdoğan’s AK party, Turkey was dominated by the army, which set the democratic boundaries of society and the political system, so the degree of democratic governance was already disputable at that time. The AK party set out to reform these military-civic relationships, did not have any military ties and was therefore seen, both in Turkey and in the West, as representing the winds of change, the possibility of a move towards greater democracy. That love affair has cooled in the meantime, and I certainly will not say that he is an exemplary democrat, but authoritarian policymaking seems to be inherent to the Turkish political system and cannot solely be attributed to President Erdoğan. Under the guise of freedom of religion, the AK party has given Islam more leeway in society. Initially, this was thought to be a positive development in Europe as it implied a less rigid imposition of secularism, but today's greatly increased prominence of Islamic symbols in public life antagonizes many Europeans. By gently challenging the Western perspective, Aykac, as an academic, may himself be a bridge in his own right, refusing to choose one bank over the other, offering a connection instead, simply and without frills.

Text: Franka Hummels
Photo: De Volkskrant
Source: Broerstraat 5, the alumni magazine of the University of Groningen

Last modified:19 March 2020 10.16 a.m.
View this page in: Nederlands