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Will Turkey head east or west?

Stephen Beard Dec 15, 2010

Will Turkey head east or west?

Stephen Beard Dec 15, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: We’re going to talk about emerging economies here for a bit, up-and-comers on the global economic stage. There are the BRIC countries, of course: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Let’s add another one to that list: Turkey. It’s expected to be the world’s 10th largest economy by the year 2050.

Yesterday, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard explained some of the problems Turkey’s having getting into the European Union. Today, where the Turkish economy’s turning instead.

Truck revving

Stephen Beard: A truck depot in northwest Turkey. Just 30 miles to the west is the frontier with the European Union. But the depot does more and more business in the east — with Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iran.

Hasan Bekimci: I believe Middle East is much better opportunity at the moment.

Depot boss Hasan Bekimci says he’s shipping more goods — like car parts, building materials and clothes — to the Middle East now that many eastern countries have lifted travel restrictions.

Bekimci: And now, if you want to go to, say, Lebanon, you don’t need a visa. If you want to go to Jordan, you don’t need a visa. It makes everything easier. And we find it more attractive in the Middle East.

Sound of truck driving

Visa-free travel is one result of the Turkish government’s policy of improving relations in its own backyard. As Europe, Turkey’s largest export market, has suffered a downturn, Turkey has sought new customers for its goods.

Ruling Party lawmaker, Ozlem Turkone.

Ozlem Turkone: Having good relations with our neighbors really helped us a lot to improve our economy. Economic aspect is very important in this process.

Turkey’s exports to the Middle East doubled over the last decade. It now sells more goods to Syria and Iran than to the U.S. And the greater friendliness towards eastern countries such as Syria and Iran is also due to a certain frostiness from the west.

Sounds of cars honking, people cheering

There was jubilation on the streets of Istanbul five years ago, when Turkey began EU membership talks. Today, the talks have stalled. France and Germany have made it clear that a large Muslim nation like Turkey isn’t welcome. The mood on Turkey’s streets today? Disillusion.

Man 1: We feel rejected. And I am not happy with that.

Man 2: You must be in a group. If European countries doesn’t accept us, we must be in a group.

Beard: And even if that group includes Syria and Iran, you’d be happy?

Man 2: We will not be happy but we must be in a group.

Turkey’s cozying up to Iran infuriated the U.S. But the Turks say the West benefits from a Turkey at peace with its neighbors. And Europe would lose out by not making Turkey an EU member. Its economy is growing at around 6 percent a year. It has a large and youthful population, and carries vast quantities of oil and gas across its territory.

Arif Molu, boss of a big textile group. says Turkey is a vital friend for Europe.

Arif Molu: We are a giant pipeline, not only for energy, for human resources, for trade, for everything. It’s like a bridge for accessing the Middle East.

Sounds of fireworks and cheers

“Building bridges between the cultures” was the optimistic slogan used at the start of this year to launch Istanbul as the “European Capital of Culture.” Turkey’s long struggle to join the EU has brought big rewards. To make itself eligible, the country’s been forced to improve its human rights and modernize its economy.

Commentator Cengiz Aktar.

Cengiz Aktar: Turkey still needs the western European anchor to perform well and to continue the reformist path.

Turkey’s dilemma is this: As it draws closer to countries like Syria and Iran, it risks growing further from the west and making EU membership even less likely.

In Istanbul, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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