Turkey is a newcomer to democracy promotion. Until the mid-2000s, democracy mainly figured into Turkish foreign policy as part of debates with the West, in particular the European Union, on Turkey’s own democratic transition and consolidation. Ankara’s domestic democratic record was and continues to be an important issue in its relations with Western democracies. The country remains an EU candidate, and ongoing accession negotiations mean that its internal political developments are under close EU scrutiny.

But increasingly, democracy has also become a central issue in Turkish foreign relations with the non-Western world. Turkey has started to focus on democracy promotion at two distinct levels, simultaneously trying to position itself as a model of democracy in its neighborhood and attempting to advance reform in other countries by funding democracy assistance projects. Ankara has been more successful at some of these endeavors than others, but overall it has come up against substantial challenges in its attempts to further integrate democracy promotion into its foreign policy.

A New Focus on Democracy

In the past few years, Turkey has provided substantial amounts of international aid, and much of this money has been earmarked for democracy assistance. In 2012, it provided $3.4 billion worth of aid to 121 countries across the globe, which included numerous projects to foster democratic and governance-related reform.1 According to the 2013 Global Humanitarian Assistance Report, Turkey—with a budget of $1 billion for humanitarian assistance—ranked as the fourth-largest humanitarian aid donor in 2012, after the United States, the EU, and the United Kingdom. This figure amounted to 0.13 percent of Turkey’s national income in that year. These numbers represent a substantial increase from Turkey’s previous aid and democracy assistance contributions.

The history of democracy promotion efforts in Turkish foreign policy can be traced back to the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. In the 1990s, the annual amount of Turkish official development assistance was $80–90 million. Between 1992 and 1996, Turkey allocated almost 87 percent of this aid to countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus, where Ankara was trying to enhance its economic and political influence. This figure dropped to 40 percent after 1997 as attention shifted to reconstruction in the Balkans following the ethnic conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo.2 Some assistance to these regions was dedicated to fostering democratic development.

However, the makers of Turkish foreign policy have traditionally refrained from using the rhetoric of “democracy promotion,” instead emphasizing national sovereignty and nonintervention. This noninterventionist stance stems from Turkey’s close relations with a number of authoritarian regimes in its larger neighborhood as well as from the country’s concerns about Kurdish nationalism within its own borders.

Noninterventionism remained a hallmark of Turkish policy even after 2002, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power during the country’s general election and brought substantive changes to Turkey’s foreign relations and its role in the region. The AKP government altered the place of democracy promotion in Turkish foreign policy at both the macro and micro levels. The macro level refers to the role that democracy plays in Turkey’s general foreign policy line as well as to Turkey’s potential to be a model of democracy for its wider neighborhood. The micro level is that of democracy assistance projects carried out by the various institutions of the Turkish state. While Turkey has been losing influence and credibility at the macro level, democracy assistance at the micro level has progressed considerably.

The Big Picture: A Model Democracy?

In terms of the macro-level role democracy plays in Turkey’s foreign policy, the AKP’s election was a crucial turning point. The party’s ascent to power became a test case of whether Islam and democracy could be compatible. The moderately Islamist AKP was a splinter party of the Welfare Party, a more overtly Islamist political party that had been ousted from power by the military in the so-called postmodern coup of February 28, 1997.

In its first term, the AKP focused primarily on Turkey’s EU accession process, passing a series of crucial domestic democratic reforms that eventually led to the opening of accession negotiations in 2005.

The period in which the AKP came to power in Turkey was also the time of the Iraq war, which substantially changed dynamics in the Middle East. As the United States in particular came to attach more importance to democratization in the region, the Turkish experience with democratic consolidation under the AKP emerged as a possible model for other Middle Eastern countries. Various AKP policy initiatives sought to promote the idea that Turkey could serve as an example of a successfully democratizing country for other states in the region. To that end, Turkey increased civil society contacts and exchanges with its neighbors through a liberalized visa regime, enhanced economic and trade relations, and created scholarship programs for students from the Middle East and the Balkans to study in Turkey. The increasingly transnational activities of Turkish civil society organizations and businesses—and even Turkish soap operas, widely watched across the region—further contributed to strengthening Turkey’s soft power and visibility in its neighborhood.3

However, the supposed attractiveness of the “Turkish model” masked the reality that the AKP’s initial foreign policy line at the macro political level in fact de-emphasized democratic concerns. The party’s motto, “zero problems with neighbors,” reflected its desire to use Turkey’s Ottoman legacy and its socioeconomic ties to the region to rekindle relations and avert tensions with both democratic and nondemocratic partners in the Middle East. Within this framework, Turkey initiated new dialogues with countries such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria as well as with the Kurds in Northern Iraq.

This policy was no longer tenable after the onset of the Arab Spring, which radically changed Turkey’s foreign policy calculations. Although Ankara initially hesitated on whether or not to support the burgeoning democracy movements, particularly in Libya and Syria, it eventually aligned itself with the popular revolts.

Still, Turkey continues to enjoy close relations with a number of its nondemocratic neighbors. It refrains from bringing up democracy and human rights concerns with some of these regional partners, including Azerbaijan and the Gulf states.

In addition, the Turkish government has used strong rhetoric to criticize the Alawite regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has given rise to the perception that the Sunni AKP government in Turkey is a sectarian actor. This development has prompted severe doubts about the impartiality of Turkey’s discourse on democracy in the region. While Turkey was careful not to project the image of being a sectarian actor in the initial stages of the Syrian conflict, the government abandoned this caution as Assad clung to power. The AKP has also used anti-Shia discourse to discredit its domestic opposition, which has further exacerbated this problem.

The Turkish government’s response to the July 2013 military coup in Egypt that overthrew Mohamed Morsi, the country’s Muslim Brotherhood–backed president, also eroded its image as an impartial actor. Turkey was highly critical of the coup and expressed strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood both at home and abroad. Its backing of Morsi’s government and subsequent outrage at his ouster appeared to many to be more an act of solidarity by the AKP with the Muslim Brotherhood than a principled stance in favor of liberal democracy. The AKP seemed to be drawing direct parallels to its own historical struggle against the Turkish military and the secularist establishment. But Turkish citizens who expressed caution about the country’s strong engagement in the Egyptian crisis were quickly branded by the government in Ankara as undemocratic coup supporters.

The Micro Level: Turkish Democracy Assistance

Although Turkey’s commitment to nonintervention prevents it from having an institutionalized democracy assistance policy like those of the United States or the European Union, Ankara under the AKP has emerged as a major international donor of development aid, including governance and democracy assistance. The volume and scope of Turkish democracy assistance (as well as of development and humanitarian aid) rapidly expanded in the 2000s. This shift was driven by several factors, including the AKP government’s ambition to spread Turkey’s soft power throughout the post-Ottoman space. In addition, the AKP’s long tenure—it has led the country’s government for three consecutive terms—guaranteed substantial policy consistency, and the growing Turkish economy strengthened the government’s capacity to implement its foreign policy vision.

The Turkish institution that comes closest to resembling Western democracy promotion organizations is the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA). TIKA was initially established in 1992, but the volume and geographic scope of its assistance have grown significantly since 2004.4 TIKA currently has program coordination offices in 30 countries and provides aid and assistance to 100 nations, mainly in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and East and South Asia as well as increasingly in the Middle East and Africa. Between 2002 and 2012, TIKA spent seven times more in Central Asia and the Caucasus than it did between 1992 and 2002 and eleven times more overall. In 2012, the top three recipients of TIKA assistance were Somalia, Palestine, and Afghanistan.5

TIKA’s annual budget now varies between $700 million and $1 billion. In 2012, 93.8 percent of this budget was dedicated to “social infrastructure and services,” of which 6.9 percent was spent on promoting administrative or governance reform and supporting civil society and 29.7 percent went to improving education.6 These activities typically include projects on strengthening central or local governments, capacity building for NGOs and schools, and training for members of the judiciary, the police force, and the diplomatic service. Roughly 90 percent of all TIKA projects are coordinated directly between the Turkish government and the recipient country and can thus be considered bilateral assistance programs.

Other Turkish ministries also undertake international projects in this realm. The Ministry of International Affairs has sponsored initiatives to train police in Afghanistan, Iraq, and several African states; the Ministry of Justice has undertaken projects to train members of the judiciary and parliamentarians in Afghanistan and Iraq; and the Ministry of Education has provided assistance for capacity building and curriculum development in schools abroad.

In addition, the Turkish government funds a number of development and humanitarian projects that at times go hand in hand with democracy assistance because socioeconomic development can be considered an important building block of democratization. Since 2008, TIKA has donated nearly $100 million in emergency aid to Iraq. In 2011 alone, Sudan received $21.33 million of humanitarian assistance through TIKA. Afghanistan has so far received over $30 million from TIKA for two prominent provincial reconstruction teams in Wardak and Jawzjan that are assisting Afghan authorities in the fields of healthcare, education, and agricultural development and providing training for members of the judiciary, the police force, and district governors.7 Two hundred and twenty experts and advisers from the Turkish Ministries of Education, Health, Agriculture, and Interior as well as from the Presidency of Religious Affairs were deployed to Afghanistan along with a special police operations team to help with implementation.

Limitations of Turkish Democracy Support

The substantial increase in Turkey’s democracy promotion efforts at the micro level stands in sharp contrast to the loss of credibility the country has suffered at the macro level. And Turkey’s shortcomings at the macro level may do more than prevent it from serving as a democratic model for the region—they may also undermine the effectiveness of Turkey’s democracy assistance efforts at the micro level.

The first such shortcoming is the tension between democracy support and Turkey’s regional economic and security interests. This challenge, visible in the government’s silence on democracy-related concerns in some of its regional partners, makes it difficult for Turkey to project a democratic image.

A second substantive limitation at the macro level is democratic stagnation within Turkey itself. Turkey’s democratic reform process stalled in 2005 and has since been reversed by increasingly authoritarian moves on the part of the governing party. The recent draft law on the High Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors put forward by the AKP, which aims to bring the judiciary under increasing executive control, exemplifies this negative trend. The massive antigovernment protests at Istanbul’s Gezi Park in June 2013 demonstrated public dissatisfaction with the state of Turkish democracy, and the government’s violent crackdown on the protesters showed how little domestic dissent it is willing to tolerate. The current state of Turkish democracy thus raises severe doubts about whether the country can serve as a positive example for its larger neighborhood.

In addition, Ankara’s relations with the EU are at a stalemate, which further hampers Turkey’s ability to serve as a democratic model. It was largely the country’s close cooperation with the EU and the prospect of full accession that made it an attractive example of regional democracy in the first place.

Another limitation concerns the contradiction between Turkey’s democracy rhetoric at the macro level and its democracy promotion policies at the micro level. Turkish policymakers engaged in democracy assistance at the micro level repeatedly highlight that Turkey deliberately stays away from “nation building”—that is, imposing its own political institutions and culture on others. Instead, it focuses on “state building,” where the goal is to foster good governance, administrative reform, and capacity building in recipient countries. To this end, Turkey does not attach political conditions to its assistance programs. Yet in certain instances, such as during the Syrian crisis and in the wake of the July 2013 Egyptian coup, Turkey has conveyed the image of a sectarian actor that prioritizes identity-based concerns over broader state-building ideals.

In a similar vein, the policies and priorities of the AKP have increasingly become conflated with Turkish foreign policy. For example, the AKP has put considerable effort into building the capacity of political parties in the Middle East, but it has not always been clear whether this support is part of Turkish foreign policy or represents party-level assistance to like-minded partners. In the case of Egypt, this confusion has raised suspicions of partisan allegiances and alienated those Egyptians outside the Muslim Brotherhood’s circles.

And at the micro level, despite the advances of the past few years, a number of policy-related challenges and limitations hinder Turkey’s implementation of democracy assistance projects. For instance, there is little collaboration between different government offices, which often undermines the effectiveness and sustainability of democracy policies. Policymakers emphasize that they prefer bilateral engagement in democracy assistance projects, which they see as more effective at delivering tangible results than multilateral mechanisms that can result in a one-size-fits-all prescription. However, this approach also has disadvantages, such as poor coordination and coherence. In addition, in the delivery of assistance programs Turkey must contend with problems related to the limited level of expertise among personnel, the absence of reliable monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, and language constraints.

The question of inclusiveness in democracy promotion policies has also proved problematic for Turkey. The AKP has tended to exclude liberal and secular NGOs from the state’s official democracy promotion efforts, instead privileging organizations with religious values that mirror its own. This pattern is a reflection of Turkey’s own internal tensions between religious and liberal identities.

These tensions are now posing serious challenges for Turkey’s incipient profile in the field of democracy support. While the AKP government has succeeded in making democracy a focus of Turkey’s foreign policy, at least at the micro level, serious issues remain. Until it addresses these shortcomings, Turkey’s efforts at democracy promotion will remain limited.

Senem Aydın-Düzgit is associate professor and Jean Monnet Chair in the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. E. Fuat Keyman is director of the Istanbul Policy Center and professor at Sabancı University.

The Carnegie Endowment gratefully acknowledges support from the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Ford Foundation, and the UK Department for International Development that helped make this publication possible.


1 “Turkey Donated $3.4 billion in Aid in 2012,” Today’s Zaman, October 29, 2013, http://todayszaman.com/news-330108-turkey-donated-34-billion-in-aid-in-2012.html.

2 Pınar İpek, “Ideas and Change in Foreign Policy Instruments: Soft Power and the Case of the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency,” Foreign Policy Analysis, August 15, 2013, doi: 10.1111/fpa.12031, p. 8.

3 Kemal Kirişçi, “Turkey’s ‘Demonstrative Effect’ and the Transformation of the Middle East,” Insight Turkey, vol. 13, no. 2 (2011): 33–55, http://file.insightturkey.com/Files/Pdf/insight_turkey_vol_13_no_2_2011_kirisci.pdf.

4 Pınar İpek, “Ideas and Change in Foreign Policy Instruments: Soft Power and the Case of the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency,” Foreign Policy Analysis, August 15, 2013, doi: 10.1111/fpa.12031.

5 Turkish Cooperation and Coodination Agency, TIKA 2012 Activity Report, http://store.tika.gov.tr/yayinlar/faaliyet-raporlari/faaliyet-raporu-2012.pdf.

6 Ibid.

7 Interviews with TIKA officials, Ankara, February 2014.