The Awakening of Societies in Turkey and Ukraine: How Germany and Poland Can Shape European Responses

March 31, 2016
Joerg Forbrig
Adam Balcer
3 min read
Among the European Union’s neighbors to the east and southeast, Turkey and Ukraine clearly stand out in their strategic importance.

Among the European Union’s neighbors to the east and southeast, Turkey and Ukraine clearly stand out in their strategic importance. Both countries are central to the broader confrontation between Russia and the West, Turkey holds the keys to Europe’s managing the refugee crisis and to Western engagement with Near Eastern conflicts, and Ukraine is as important a trendsetter for developments in the post-Soviet space as Turkey is for the Muslim world. Both countries occupy a critical geopolitical location in the Black Sea region, Europe’s eastern gateway and bridge to the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East. However, European policy toward both countries has not lived up to their key strategic position and potential.

For a number of years now, Turkish and Ukrainian societies have been increasingly coalescing and growing bolder, and are taking an ever-more active part in their countries’ politics. Nothing illustrates this clash between the less-than-democratic state and politics and awakening democratic societies better than the series of social and political mobilizations, which Turkey and Ukraine have witnessed over the past decade. These shifting socio-political grounds in both countries have not, to date, been sufficiently appreciated by external actors and policies to create a stable, cooperative, and democratic Turkey and Ukraine.

The EU, in particular, needs to seize this growing social momentum, acknowledge Turkish and Ukrainian societies in their own right, and support their efforts at democratic transformation and European integration. Only a successful rebalancing of state-society relationships will provide long-term stability in both countries and allow them to realize their strategic potential beyond their borders. The necessary adjustments in European policy should be spearheaded by Germany and Poland. More than others in the EU, both are deeply intertwined with Turkey (particularly Germany) and Ukraine, providing them with a unique degree of leverage with Turkish/Ukrainian societies and states alike. Combined with their political weight in the EU, a German-Polish initiative would go a long way toward more effective EU policies regarding Turkey and Ukraine.

In this policy paper, Adam Balcer and Joerg Forbrig argue for joint Polish and German initiatives to reinvigorate European policies toward Turkey and Ukraine. These should be guided by several parameters: 

  • an acknowledgement of changing state-society dynamics in Turkey and Ukraine. In both countries, tensions are increasing between emboldened societies and the status quo represented by state and political structures. As agents of democratic change, Turkish and Ukrainian societies deserve stronger and direct support from European governments, without relinquishing state-level cooperation. 
  • stricter European conditionality than has existed to date on Turkish and Ukrainian governments. Whether in response to Kyiv’s failure to reform or to Ankara’s massive human rights violations, the EU must assert a corrective role and respond to government action in Turkey and Ukraine, not least also to retain and restore its credibility before Turkish and Ukrainian publics. 
  • direct support to Turkish and Ukrainian societies needs to be boosted and, to the extent possible, decoupled from government performance. Only then will Turks and Ukrainians more directly benefit from, and become more supportive of, European integration. 
  • more efforts to bridge the social and political divides inside Turkey and Ukraine. Significant cleavages along social, ethnic, and cultural lines exist in both countries that are often reinforced by politics and result in explosive polarization. Defusing these divisions is critical to retaining the integrity and stability of Turkey and Ukraine. 
  • a credible perspective of European integration. Doubts and political obstacles notwithstanding, EU membership must be the stated future goal, with the same conditions to be met by both countries and the same assistance readied by the EU as with previous rounds of enlargement. 

Along these lines, systematic efforts and generous support will be necessary from the EU if sustainable and democratic reforms in both countries are to succeed. Failure, in turn, would render Turkey and Ukraine permanent problems for Europe rather than strategic partners.