ISTANBUL (Hurriyet)—Reflecting international perceptions that Turkey is shifting away from the West, Turkish participants in a global survey have expressed decidedly more interest in cooperation with the Middle East than with Europe or the United States.
Experts say, however, that the trend is also an inward one, with Turks losing trust in international institutions and other countries.
Closer ties with the Middle East were supported by 20 percent of Turkish participants, double last year’s rate, in the annual “Transatlantic Trends” survey, conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Compagnia di San Paolo in Italy and released Wednesday.
Believers in the idea that Turks should act alone in the international arena dropped from 48 percent in 2008 to 34 percent this year, yet the isolationists still far outnumbered those supporting increased alliances with any other country or group.
“This survey does not show a shift from West to East but that Turkey distances itself from every international actor,” Professor Ahmet Evin from Sabancı University told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review on Wednesday. He said the 20 percent of respondents supporting more cooperation with Middle East was not enough to indicate a true shift in outlook.
After the Middle East, cooperation with the European Union had the highest rate of support, at 13 percent. The United States and Russia followed with 6 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
Turks are not shifting toward the Middle East but want to play a leadership role there without cutting their ties to the Western world, said Serhat Erkmen, a Middle East expert from the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, or ORSAM. He told the Daily News that the survey figures might be the result of Turkey’s recently increased regional role.
The “Transatlantic Trends” survey was conduced in the United States, 11 EU countries and Turkey among at least 1,000 people interviewed by telephone and face-to-face.
The results in Turkey showed a decline in support for Western institutions, with the number of Turks saying NATO is not essential increasing from 37 percent to 43 percent in this year’s survey. Turkish respondents also expressed less interest in joining the EU and more pessimism about the prospects of Turkey’s membership in the bloc. A total of 63 percent said Turkey is unlikely to join. Perceptions that Turkey’s membership would be a good thing are also on a steep decline, dropping from 73 percent in 2003 to 48 percent in 2009 and to 38 percent in 2010.
Among people in the 11 European countries surveyed, on average 33 percent said Turkey’s membership in the EU would be a negative thing and 23 percent saw it in a positive light.
The results showed that Turks are more provincial and more skeptical about the rest of the world, said Evin, who is also an executive committee member of the Istanbul Policy Center. It is also obvious that Turks have a low level of trust in the policies of U.S. President Barack Obama, he told the Daily News. Among the countries surveyed, the most dramatic decrease in Obama’s approval ratings was seen in Turkey, where support for the U.S. president dropped from 50 percent in 2009 to 28 percent this year.
The declining popularity of the United States and the European Union among the Turkish public can be attributed in part to Turks’ belief that these international actors are not taking action against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, whose members are trained in northern Iraq, former diplomat and politician İlter Turkmen told the Daily News.
“As Turks, we are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and the threats coming from external powers compared to other nations. This is why we do not trust any international powers,” Turkmen said.
That suspicion does not seem to extend so strongly to Iran. More than people in any other country, Turks expressed limited concern about the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear arms and preference for that scenario over military action against the Islamic republic.
Among Turks surveyed, 40 percent said they are concerned about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and 48 percent are not concerned. The latter figure is the highest rate among countries included in the poll and, Erkmen said, shows Turks do not see a nuclear Iran as a threat to Turkey.
“Turks believe Iran’s armament is a result of its desire to defend itself, especially against the U.S. and Israel, and Turks do not see any threat from Iran,” Erkmen told the Daily News.
This year’s survey was conducted between June 1 and June 29, right after Israel’s May 31 attack on Gaza-bound aid flotilla, in which eight Turks and one American citizen of Turkish descent were killed.
If non-military options to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons are not working, only 13 percent of Turks believe that military action should be taken, while 54 percent said they would accept an Iran with nuclear weapons. Among all countries, Turks are the least willing to take military action against Iran, but respondents in the United Kingdom and Germany also preferred, by 57 percent to 32 percent and 47 percent to 39 percent, respectively, a nuclear Iran to military action.
As a neighbor to Iran, Turks would want to refrain from seeing another war in their region following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Erkmen said.