Turkey's past and future collide: Why 2015 is a critical year

Now based in Istanbul, CBC News Correspondent Nil Köksal looks ahead to what will be a crucial year in Turkey. With ISIS on its doorstep, two million Syrian refugees fleeing civil war and Turkey's own domestic battles, the country's past and future are again at odds.

ISIS, Syrian refugees and Kurdish unrest all factors in the year ahead

While his government has touted the notion of a 'New Turkey,' many of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's detractors say his policies hark back to the Ottoman empire - the 'Old Turkey.' (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

Turkey's past and possible future seem to be picking a fight once again.

Istanbul and Ankara saw major gatherings this week that show the kind of year 2015 will be in Turkey, and why it matters.

In the nation's capital on Monday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan did something a Turkish president hasn’t done in 15 years. He held a meeting with cabinet – an eight-and-a-half hour one at that.

This is big news here, because it is usually the prime minister, not the president in his largely ceremonial role, who meets with ministers.
Earlier this week, demonstrators in Istanbul commemorated the eighth anniversary of the death of Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink, who was killed outside his office under mysterious circumstances in 2007. (REUTERS)

There were assurances Erdogan would not be making a habit of this. But tell that to those who are concerned the president is tightening his grip on power.

The governing AK (Justice & Development) Party puts this under the banner of what it calls a “New Turkey.” Critics aren’t convinced.

They point to ongoing media censorship as one example of Erdogan's style of rule. Just this week, members of his party presented a new bill that, if passed, would allow the government to shut down any website it wants for "protection of public order."

They are concerned Erdogan’s vision is far too reminiscent of Turkey’s Ottoman past – a time of conquests, empire and single-leader rule.

Remembering the past

Part of that past once again reverberated through the streets of Istanbul this week, where thousands gathered to remember Hrant Dink.

In 2007, the Armenian-Turkish newspaper editor was murdered outside the paper’s Istanbul offices by a teenager now serving a 22-year sentence. It is believed he didn't act alone, but there is still no clear picture of who helped orchestrate the crime.

As Dink mourners marched on the eighth anniversary of his death, authorities announced the arrest of the former chief of intelligence for the Trabzon police, who allegedly, along with other authorities, ignored evidence of an imminent threat to the editor.

The arrest is not enough for Armenian Turks, however, who demand answers not just for Dink’s murder, but for deaths that occurred 100 years ago.

This year marks the centenary of the killings of Armenian Turks in 1915. In recent years, the Turkish government has taken steps to improve relations with Armenia. It offered formal condolences, but will not use the word genocide. 

Canada is among several countries that do, however, and Armenian Turks demand the same of the country they still call home. As the April anniversary of the massacres approaches, those demands are likely to become louder.

A new strategy abroad

On the home front, Turkey is also grappling with a resurgence of Kurdish violence in the southeast, the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) at its border and a Syrian refugee crisis.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, right, has been looking increasingly comfortable on the world stage. (REUTERS)

At the same time, Turkey continues to assert itself abroad.​

Prime Minister (and former foreign minister) Ahmet Davutoglu looks increasingly comfortable on the world stage. He is currently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, ending Erdogan’s long-standing boycott of the summit, which helps pave the way for the G20 summit, which Turkey is hosting this year.

Earlier this week, Davutoglu met with British Prime Minister David Cameron as well as British Muslim leaders to tackle the issue of growing Islamophobia in Europe.

President Erdogan confronted concerns over ISIS in an address to international Muslim leaders in Istanbul on Wednesday, asking rhetorically where these extremists are "getting the authority” to commit murder in the name of Islam, given that the Muslim faith does not support such acts.

There has been criticism from the West that Turkey hasn't said or done enough to stem the rise of ISIS. Turkish officials say the vast 900-kilometre southern border separating the country from ISIS-held areas in Syria is a clear example of how difficult stopping the Islamic extremists, and preserving Turkey's own security, can be.

A poll from Istanbul's Kadir Has University found that 93.2 per cent of Turks surveyed view ISIS as a terror organization, and 82.3 per cent see ISIS as a serious threat to Turkey.

Turkish authorities say they've stopped thousands of potential threats from getting through. Yet among the threats Turkey says it has identified, the world is concerned with the ones that may have gotten away.

Turkey has always been wedged tightly in a temperamental region, but this space is now more volatile than ever. How well the country navigates domestic challenges and the dangers on its doorstep, and how it balances planning its future while addressing its past, will define the year ahead. The entire region's security may well depend on it.


Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey in 2018.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?