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Has Turkey turned eastward?

There are signs that Turkey, which has long straddled East and West, may be acceding to its Ottoman past and Arab neighbors.

Military cadets attend a ceremony to mark Youth and Sports Day at the Inonu stadium in Istanbul, May 19, 2009. The ceremony also commemorates the 90th anniversary of the start of Turkey's independence war, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, arrived in Samsun during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. (Murad Seze/Reuters)

ISTANBUL — Turkey has long been the bridge between Europe and the East, between the Christian and Muslim worlds. This was largely due to its location, the fortune — or, some might say, the misfortune — of geography.

For much of the past century, Turkish leaders have equated the East with backwardness and the West with modernity. While this attitude has allowed Western leaders to sleep comfortably, assured of a cultural, political and physical "bridge" that promotes what they see as moderate values in a geo-strategically important country, it has led Arab countries to regard Turkey with something between wariness and resentment.

But times, it seems, are a changing. Under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has been sending emissaries throughout the region, cultivating close ties with Iran, Syria, Sudan and the Gulf countries, as well as with Russia. Trade with the country’s eight nearest neighbors — including Syria, Iran and Iraq — nearly doubled between 2005 and 2008, from $7.3 billion to $14.3 billion.

"In Washington there has long been a debate over whether Turkey was moving away from the West," said Soner Cagaptay, senior fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute. "Recently, however, that debate has shifted from 'Is Turkey moving away?' to 'Yes, they are, and what can we do about it.'" 

Many interpret this reorientation of Turkish policy as a return to the country's Ottoman history — a policy of "neo-Ottomanism," as some are calling it. In February, Asharq Alawsat, a pan-Arab newspaper based in London, highlighted these changes in a widely circulated column, "The Return of the Ottoman Empire?"

Others argue that such a perspective masks the true force behind Turkey’s shift in policy, pointing out that Turkey is asserting itself exclusively in the Muslim Middle East while ignoring the other areas of the Ottoman realm.

“Rather than Ottoman instincts, it is a religious view of the world and financial interests that seem to be shaping the AKP’s foreign policy,” Cagaptay argued in a recent article published in The Turkey Analyst.

Whatever the nomenclature, the concerns of the West seem to be growing not simply due to strengthening ties between Turkey and the rest of the Muslim world, but in large part due to a perceived lack of political will for the process of accession into the European Union. While the AKP rose to power on a platform that strongly supported EU accession, since membership talks actually began in 2005 the party’s energy for the process seems to have faded.