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Vision 2023: Turkey and the post-Ottoman anniversary

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech in Ankara, Turkey on 22 January 2018 [Turkish Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar/ Anadolu Agency]

A century after the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic, the country is looking to celebrate its hundredth birthday in a way that has become popular throughout the Middle East today. Turkey’s ambitious Vision 2023 aims to put the country in the world’s top ten economies within the next five years by making dramatic improvements to its trade, energy, health care and transport sectors. Announced in 2013 by the then Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he gave the country ten years to rise from one of the better off developing countries shaken by a long history of military coups to a nation whose economy, stability and regional influence is to be reckoned with.

One of the massive infrastructure projects which is part of this vision is the Gebze-Orhangazi-Izmir Highway, which would reduce an eight hour journey to that of three and a half hours, and is set to be completed this year. Such projects are being carried out all across the country, with the primary aim of shifting the congestion of trade and business from Istanbul and the narrow Marmara region further east towards Anatolia. Other domestic aims include achieving a GDP of $2.6 trillion, an average of $25,000 per capita income, and reducing the unemployment rate to just five per cent from its current 11 per cent. Istanbul is also intended to become one of the top international financial hubs to match the likes of London and Singapore.

Currently, Turkey sits at sixteenth place in the world’s largest economies and is Europe’s sixth largest economy. For the country to reach the top ten economies within five years is, some say, an overly ambitious goal.

In its bid to achieve these ambitions, large investments have been pumped into rising industries such as the automotive, iron, steel and transportation sectors. The government has also urged the investment of Saudi business into Turkey, with the Minister of the Economy Nihat Zeybekci having emphasised last November that “both the Turkish and Saudi Arabian economies are undergoing technological and sectoral transformation…Let us produce together and sell together to Europe and the world.”

Influence regained – feeling thirsty?

There is no doubt that Turkey aims to become a leading player in the region’s future.

Over the past century, particularly within the last decade, Turkey has risen to become a somewhat hegemonic power within the region, with Iran being its only rival in influence and Israel being its only rival in military might. Its proactive stance in the Syrian conflict – through its famed “Operation Euphrates Shield” and its current “Operation Olive Branch” – has enabled the country to again become a regional power to be reckoned with militarily, economically and diplomatically.

Turkey’s defensive offensive: Operation Olive Branch

One major factor of leverage Turkey has in the region, however, is often overlooked by most: water. In a region with a deep thirst and scarcity for this resource more valuable than oil, Turkey has the advantage in this regard. While its Arab neighbours have an annual average of 300 cubic metres of water per person, Turkey possesses a tenfold increase of that at 3,100 cubic metres per person annually. This is primarily due to the fact that the country holds a staggering 90 per cent share of the Euphrates River and 45 per cent share of the Tigris River, which both originate in the Anatolian mountains of eastern Turkey.

So with control of the majority of the water that flows downstream through Syria and Iraq to the Arabian Gulf, Turkey holds overwhelming influence over the supply of water in the region. The potential of the Euphrates region was realised by the country throughout the sixties and seventies, and its importance to them was best demonstrated during the increased construction of dams built under President Turgut Ozal’s government. After Syria and Iraq complained about Turkey’s manipulation of the flow of water during a dam project in the nineties, Ozal famously remarked “we don’t tell Arabs what to do with their oil, so we don’t accept any suggestion from them about what to do with our water.”

Under Vision 2023, the country is again increasing its construction of dams in pursuit of hydropower and energy. Turkey’s influence on the region’s water supply has been used before and, without any existing formal agreement on the share and distribution of the rivers between the three countries, we can expect it to be used again.

Sultan Erdogan?

There have been some misgivings over the intentions of Erdogan and the nature of his government – are they Islamists, neo-Ottoman fantasists with a dangerous nostalgia for the past and with an aim to occupy its former territories? While that view is an exaggerated one that plays into the hands of his opponents both within and outside Turkey – especially the European Union which vehemently opposes Turkey’s bid for membership – the current AKP government has displayed a love of national history which goes beyond Ataturk’s founding of the Republic.

Indeed, the national aims and visions that have been proclaimed to come after 2023 are those of 2053 and 2071, and these dates were not picked at random. The former will mark 600 years since the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul and the latter will mark the thousandth anniversary of the decisive victory of the Seljuk Turks over the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. What we are witnessing is the recognition and commemoration of Turkey’s historic role of leadership of the Muslim world – something that was unspeakable and abhorred by the staunchly secularist Turkish governments since Ataturk’s reformations.

Turkey’s EU minister rejects any option other than full membership

At a commemoration ceremony held in 2016, Erdogan stated that he rejects “an understanding of history that takes 1919 as the start of 1,000 year history of our nation and civilisation…Whoever leaves out our last 200 years, even 600 years together with its victories and defeats, and jumps directly from old Turkish history to the Republic, is an enemy of our nation and state.”

With “a great nation, a great power” being the motto of this grand vision of Turkey’s centennial since its proclamation in 2013, Erdogan seemed to have full confidence of his position of power by the time the anniversary arrives. And that confidence was not unfounded: he won the Presidency a year later and only last year won the constitutional referendum that would make the role of President an executive one rather than a symbolic one. All he must do to oversee the achievements of the Republic’s hundredth birthday is to win the next Presidential election in 2019.

Regardless of his popularity, hopeful rhetoric, and show of strength, Erdogan is not Turkey and Turkey is not Erdogan. His significance in Vision 2023 and his farsightedness in planning it, however, cannot be overlooked. A century after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, these next five years will prove crucial for Turkey’s future and its place in the world.

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