What a difference a year makes. Less than 12 months ago, Turkey was slipping to the sidelines of world politics. Its strategic partnership with Washington was in ruins after the Turkish Parliament refused U.S. forces permission to launch a northern front against Iraq last March. The prospect of Turkey's joining the European Union seemed a dream, requiring human-rights reforms so radical that no one in Brussels expected Ankara to comply. And hopes of finally reuniting the divided island of Cyprus after three decades of conflict never appeared more distant after the breakdown of U.N.-sponsored talks.
Suddenly that's all changed. Instead of being a bit player, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become the center of a diplomatic whirlwind that would put Henry Kissinger to shame. Erdogan was received with full state honors in Washington last week by George W. Bush, who described Turkey as a "friend and important ally"--a far cry from last year's conventional wisdom that a liberated Iraq would supplant Turkey as America's key military and political platform in the region. Erdogan has become the go-to guy for Muslim leaders--Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, Iran's Mohammed Khatami, and Syria's Bashar Assad have all been to Ankara during the past month seeking Erdogan's intercession with the United States or Israel. At home, Erdogan's religious-conservative AK Party has been so vigorous in passing new human-rights laws that EU membership is starting to look more like reality, less a pipe dream. European Commission head Romano Prodi pronounced himself "surprised" and "very impressed" during a recent visit, a strong hint that Brussels could give Turkey a start date for talks after an EU summit this December.
The point of this diplomatic maneuvering? Erdogan has two main goals. One is to restart stalled talks to reunite Cyprus before the island joins the EU in May, chiefly to remove a major obstacle to Turkey's own EU aspirations. The other is to persuade the United States to dial back Kurdish ambitions to create an autonomous federal state in northern Iraq, which Turkey fears would encourage separatist hopes among its 12 million Kurds.
On Cyprus, Erdogan has used the full weight of Ankara's influence to get the island's Turks back to the negotiating table, despite opposition from Turkey's military and Turkish Cypriots who oppose "surrender" to the Greeks. At the same time, Erdogan has pushed for the EU--as well as Britain, Germany and the United States--to exert diplomatic pressure on Athens and the Greek Cypriots. Secretary of State Colin Powell agreed last week to press U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to get talks going again. After receiving a letter from Bush urging him to work for a solution, Greek Cypriot leader Tasos Papadopoulos said he was "ready to start talks without preconditions." On the Turkish Cypriot side, meanwhile, Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Talat has managed to form an unlikely pro-unification coalition with strong support from Erdogan. "It looks like we could be getting critical mass," says one EU diplomat in Ankara. "Uniting Cyprus is not a precondition for Turkey starting talks to join the EU, but by God it'll help."
On Iraq, Erdogan's visit seems to have allayed some of Ankara's worst fears. Bush pledged that Washington was committed to "a territorially united Iraq" and wouldn't allow the country to split up. More immediately, Turkish pressure to round up an estimated 5,000 militants from the separatist Turkish terror group the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, who are holed up in the Kandil mountains of northern Iraq, seems to have paid off. Last week L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Baghdad, declared that the PKK and its affiliates would be treated as "terrorist organizations" by Coalition troops. Privately, U.S. officials conceded that Iraqi Kurds would have to "tone down" their calls for autonomy as Iraq prepares its draft constitution. In return, the Americans asked Ankara to rein in ethnic Turkomans who have been mounting attacks on Kurdish forces in the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
All this is good news for Erdogan, who has staked his political future on a "yes" from Europe and a restoration of good relations with the United States. Just as important, Turkey's newfound regional importance has given weight to Erdogan's voice in the Islamic world. At the recent Jeddah Economic Forum in Saudi Arabia he made an impassioned speech for democracy and reform across the Middle East, citing politically secular but culturally Muslim Turkey as an example of how the "clash of civilizations can be avoided." Not bad for less than a year in office.