The Romans had a saying, “By your friends they will know you.” In essence, this meant that you could tell a lot about a person based on who their friends were. Substitute “neighbors” for “friends” and the same could be said of nations. In other words, “By your neighbors they will know you.” If you want to figure out why a nation is the way it is, take a good look at its neighbors.
This is especially true for Turkey. Consider a few of its neighbors: Syria, Iran and Iraq. With neighbors like these who needs enemies. Turkey has to be at turns: tough, worried and extremely vigilant in dealing with these eastern neighbors. The aforementioned three are just problems of the past 30 years or so. Add to this mix, historically bad relations between Turkey and the nations of Armenia, Greece and Bulgaria. There is the potential for a conflict at almost anytime. Turkey’s only really friendly neighbor is Georgia. The situation here has actually gotten better since the Soviet Union imploded. Georgia provides a buffer between Turkey and Russia, at least for the time being. The Turks other neighbor is something known as the Nakhchivan Autonomous Region (an exclave of Azerbaijan). Any place with a name like that is certainly troubled. Nakhchivan is nominally independent because Turkey and Russia guarantee its independence for Azerbaijan. The Turks do this mostly to annoy Armenia. When a relationship with an ally is this convoluted it certainly says something about the situation. Then again, this is about as normal as it’s going to get between Turkey and its neighbors.
To give you an idea of the tough neighborhood the Turks live in, I recall a visit I made to Bulgaria three and a half years ago. Nearly every Bulgar I met who spoke English (mostly young people who usually do not have much of an interest in history or a long historical memory) mentioned “the 500 years of slavery under the Turks.” Time after time, the “500 years of slavery” was brought up as though it had just happened yesterday. Wheras in other Eastern European countries I often hear about the “change of system” meaning the fall of communism, in Bulgaria it was the “500 years of slavery” that was the national mantra of choice. Young Bulgars seemed beholden to this legacy. They had nothing good to say about the centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule. Conversely, Bulgaria was one place in Eastern Europe where they seemed to have a positive attitude toward the Russians. And why not? After all it was with Russian assistance that they finally gained independence in the latter part of the 19th century. Keep in mind, that in 2010 when I traveled in Bulgaria they were enjoying historically good relations with Turkey. Well if this is the situation when it comes to the Turks vis a vis the Bulgars, one shudders to think of the situation with the Greeks, Syrians or gasp, the Armenians.
It cannot be said that from a historical standpoint that the Turks did not bring these fraught neighborly relations on themselves. One thing a tourist is bound to notice in Turkey is the aggressiveness of the Turks. This even goes for their friendliness. To say these people go a bit overboard is putting it lightly. Turkish hospitality is legendary, but so is Turkish ferocity. I used to think this aggressiveness was the main reason that the Ottoman Turks (forebears of modern Turkey) created an empire stretching from Persia to the Gates of Vienna. I still believe that to be true. This aggressiveness was feared by foe and friend alike. Yet in modern times the aggressive instinct also comes in handy. It is a way to keep the neighbors at bay.
And keeping the neighbors in their place will be Turkey’s great external challenge in the 21st century. When you have one eastern neighbor that has just used chemical weapons (Syria), another (Iraq) that had a dictator who used chemical weapons on a people (Kurds) that call Turkey home and yet another that is in the process of developing nuclear weapons (Iran) well you better be prepared. Visiting Turkey, one can not help, but notice how the people stare deep into a stranger’s eyes. It’s as though they are sizing you up. They rarely flinch or look away, it is a form of respect and at the same time a show of toughness. I believe it is the same way the Turks look at their neighbors and by extension the world.