Turkey has not given up on NATO

Those who follow Turkish foreign policy one headline at a time would be forgiven to think that NATO is a thing of the past. Gone are the days when Turkey considered itself an outpost of the Atlantic alliance. Relations with the United States and its European partners are constantly put to the test, with the next crisis always waiting around the corner. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems to feel much more at ease in the company of Russian President Vladimir Putin than with Western dignitaries. Last week’s three-way summit in Sochi with Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke volumes of where Turkish priorities lie. Turkey talks and acts as a self-sufficient player, part of a fledging concert of powers taking charge of the Middle East as the United States pulls out. 

Still, it is too early to write off Turkey’s NATO membership as a residue of years gone by. The alliance is as relevant as ever to Turkey’s national interest. Last week’s meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels proves the point. The occasion yielded some good news of direct relevance to Ankara’s ties to neighbours in southeast Europe. 

First off, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and his Greek counterpart, Evangelos Apostolakis, agreed to kick-start work on confidence-building measures. The two announced they would task teams of technical experts to hammer out a plan how to scale down tensions along the Greek and Turkish sea and land borders. The initiative follows Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ trip to Turkey this month. There are several items on the agenda: (1) the cessation of frequent dogfights between Greek and Turkish military jets over the Aegean; (2) improving direct communication between the two countries’ general staffs; (3) stepping up cooperation on curbing illegal migration across the Evros/Meriç river that marks the border between the two countries in Thrace.  

Of course, these are all bilateral issues and it would be too much to credit NATO. The thaw between Greece and Turkey is furthermore still tentative and might well prove short-lived. But there is clear progress, at least at the level of rhetoric and the Atlantic alliance provides a forum for the two member states to move forward. 

Another positive piece of news concerns newly renamed North Macedonia. Skopje signed a NATO accession protocol on March 6, with Greece becoming the first of 29 member states to ratify it two days later. North Macedonia Defence Minister Radmila Shekerinska was welcomed at last week’s ministerial meeting in Brussels as if she were already part of the club. By the end of 2019, North Macedonia is likely to officially join NATO, once all the legislatures of member states complete ratification. The former Yugoslav republic follows in the footsteps of Montenegro, which entered the alliance in 2017. 

NATO’s enlargement to the Balkans might appear tangential to Turkey whose attention is largely focused on Syria and the region around it. But it is hardly insignificant taking the long view of Turkish foreign policy. Since the early 1990s, Ankara has been developing close political and security ties with Skopje. It was one of the first countries to recognise the country’s independence in 1992 and thereafter backed its bid to join NATO. In official documents, Turkey has always made a point of using the country’s constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia, rather than the acronym FYROM (the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) adopted by Greece and others.  

At the same time, Ankara welcomed the compromise achieved by the Greek and Macedonian prime ministers last summer. On January 26, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy congratulated the Greek parliament for endorsing with North Macedonia. The Turkish government is happy the hurdles to North Macedonia joining NATO and launching membership talks with the EU have been removed. 

Turkey’s stance highlights a major point of divergence with Russia. In southeast Europe, Moscow has chosen to play the role of spoiler, opposing NATO but also EU expansion in a variety of ways, overt and covert. Turkey, by contrast, is still supportive of the region’s integration into the West. Granted, that support could be taken with a grain of salt in light of Turkey’s rift with its Western allies and the independent policy Erdoğan pursues in the Balkans. But again NATO provides a platform for cooperation. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina is likely to prove a test case. Following Montenegro and North Macedonia, it is the next in line for NATO membership. Implementing its Membership Action Plan (MAP) is becoming a key question for the country. In December, NATO foreign ministers invited Bosnia to submit its first annual programme under the MAP. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, backed by Russia, is doing his best to put a spanner in the works. Turkey, which sits on the Peace Implementation Council overseeing the Dayton Agreement in Bosnia and Herzegovina and contributes to the EU’s peacekeeping mission there, is closely involved. Though it is not antagonising Russia head-on, Ankara will continue to lobby for Bosnia’s integration into NATO.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.