Istanbul is a city that has served as a capital to two empires. One of these was the Eastern Roman Empire (285–1453), better known as the Byzantine Empire, while the other was the Ottoman Empire (1299–1922). With the conquest of Constantinople, which had been the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire until 1453, the city became the capital of the Ottomans. In other words, Istanbul, defined by Philip Mansel as the “city of the world’s desire,” served as the center of ruling states for 1.600 years. It is difficult to claim that any other city in world history can compete with Istanbul in this respect. During this period, Istanbul was one of the most important cities in world politics generally and in Near East diplomacy in particular. Despite losing this importance on 13 October 1923 after the Turkish Grand National Assembly selected Ankara as the new capital, Istanbul has continued to play a central role in the diplomacy of the Turkish Republic, established that same year.
Despite the fact that Turkey changed its capital in 1923, in Western minds Istanbul remained the center of the country for a long time. Even as late as 1994, the famous British historian Richard Crampton included Istanbul alongside Lisbon and Stockholm in a list of the neutral capitals of Europe during the 1940s in his much-referenced Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century.But the ongoing importance of Istanbul was not a figment of the Western imagination. The city also continued to occupy a central place in post-1923 Turkish diplomacy. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, for many years the offices of the foreign diplomatic missions remained in Istanbul rather than moving to Ankara. Japan, for example, after establishing diplomatic relations with the new Republic of Turkey following the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923, opened its embassy in 1924 in Istanbul rather than Ankara. The Ambassador of the United States, Joseph Grew, also stayed in Istanbul for an extended period after he was assigned to Turkey in August 1927. When necessary, he would take the night train to Ankara and return to Istanbul when his business in the capital had finished. Similarly, the British at first refused to move to Ankara, as they were accustomed to Istanbul. In addition, compared to the new capital, it was easier to communicate with the outside world from Istanbul.
Secondly, Ankara’s provincial environment did not have much to offer in terms of community life. Indeed, as the story goes, the famous Turkish poet Yahya Kemal described the best thing about Ankara as “the return to Istanbul.” Even some of the people closest to the Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk were known to escape to Istanbul by train whenever possible. Later, Atatürk himself began to stay in Istanbul for longer periods of time, and to use Dolmabahçe Palace more often. The first president of the new Turkey also hosted some of his foreign guests in Istanbul.
The third reason for the continued importance of Istanbul is that the Treaty of Lausanne, which officially recognized the government in Ankara in the international arena, contained special articles related to the non-Muslim residents of Istanbul. Following the treaty, the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish communities of the city remained an active concern in Near East diplomacy. In particular, in the post-1923 period, the Greek and Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in the district of Fener gained importance not only in Turkey’s affairs with Greece, but also with third-party countries. In contrast, the Armenians perceived themselves more as part of domestic affairs, and thus did not figure prominently in diplomatic affairs.
Similarly, the Jewish population in Istanbul did not come to the forefront in multilateral diplomacy. Due to the events of Edirne and Çanakkale in 1934, during which a number of violent attacks took place against Jewish citizens, the Jewish citizens of Turkey started to appear in the foreign media. However, the Istanbul Jewish community was not high on the diplomatic agenda. A few members of the Istanbul Jewish community tried to illegally immigrate to Palestine during the establishment of Israel in 1948; in general, the Turkish government did not give them permission to go. It was only after the establishment of Israel as an independent state that Ankara allowed members of the Istanbul Jewish community to emigrate there.
The final reason why Istanbul remained prominent in the diplomacy of the new Turkey was that the main waterway connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea cut through the city. Beginning from the second half of the nineteenth century, one of the main issues of discord in Near Eastern politics was the Bosphorus; these issues continued to appear in the foreign policy of the new Turkish state. With the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits in 1936, Turkish sovereignty over the Bosphorus and Dardanelles was to a large extent accepted by the world. Soon after World War II, a small-scale crisis arose when Soviet Russia wanted to have a say in the control of the straits. However, after Turkey took its place alongside the other countries of the Western Bloc with its entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952, the problem resolved itself.
During the Cold War, Istanbul stood largely on the periphery of world diplomacy. Nonetheless, it has been referred to as the city that accommodated the largest spy population during the Cold War. A part of the James Bond movie From Russia with Love, first screened in 1963, even takes place in Istanbul. From the end of the Cold War until today, Istanbul has been the center of a variety of issues in Turkish and world diplomacy.
Istanbul as the Center of Turkish-Greek Relations
One of the countries that has the most active relationship with Turkey is Greece. The Treaty of Lausanne was signed after the long war that continued between 1919 and 1922, waged for the most part against Greece. Although Turkey and Greece signed protocols bringing the war to an end, the relationship between the two countries was not immediately normalized. Due to the problems that arose from the implementation of the population-exchange protocol dated 30 January 1923, which was included in the final Treaty of Lausanne, the two countries came to the brink of a new conflict. In 1930, the two countries settled the problem and an historic Greek-Turkish rapprochement began.
Good relations between Greece and Turkey ended with the Cypriot dispute, which took on an international dimension after Greece submitted the matter to the United Nations in 1954. Greece asked for the principle of self-determination to be implemented to determine the fate of the island of Cyprus. Since the Greek Cypriots constituted a large majority of the island’s population, exercising the principle of self-determination meant that Greece would annex the island. Turkey thus vigorously opposed this proposal, favoring instead the continuation of the existing status of the island. It also advanced the thesis that if there were to be a change in the status of the island, Cyprus should be left to its previous owner, namely Turkey. Thus, in 1954 relations between the two countries became strained, and this tension has continued to the present day. Istanbul experienced her share of the tension arising from this issue; not only was a Greek minority resident in the city, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate was also located there. Both were directly influenced by the course of Turkish-Greek relations.
The Greek minority in Istanbul became an issue in Turkish-Greek relations as a result of the two countries’ inability to determine which members of the Greek population in Turkey were to be included in the mutual exchange of populations, even before the population exchange protocol came into force. In political history, this issue is known as the problem of established residents (établis). The government in Ankara wanted to include as many Istanbul Greeks as possible in the population exchange. There were several reasons for this. First, the non-Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century had served as a means of leverage for Western governments to obtain political and economic concessions from the Ottoman Empire. A second reason was that some Greeks in Istanbul were closely linked with movements against the Ankara government between 1919 and 1922, the period known as the National Struggle (Millî Mücadele) in Turkish historiography. As a result, Ankara tried to keep the number of Greeks in Turkey as low as possible.
However, Greece made efforts to keep as many Greek residents in Istanbul as possible, due in part to the social, economic, and political problems that would be caused by a substantial population arriving in Greece, and in part to the probable calculation that the Istanbul Greeks could be used as leverage against Turkey in foreign policy. In this framework, the Turkish members of the Joint Commission for the Exchange of Populations (Muhtelit Mübadele Komisyonu) argued that any Greeks who had come to Istanbul after the Armistice of Mudros but had failed to register with the Ottoman authorities would not be regarded as established residents, and thus ineligible to remain in the country. Greek representatives, on the other hand, protested that no reference regarding registration with the Ottoman authorities had been made in the exchange-of-population protocol ratified at Lausanne. According to them, any Greeks who had arrived in Istanbul for the purposes of residency should be regarded as established residents. The issue was finally resolved in 1930.
Between 1930 and 1954, the Greek Patriarchate in Istanbul was the central bone of contention in Turkish-Greek diplomacy. Only after 1954, in parallel with events in Cyprus, did Istanbul Greeks once again become a factor in the relationship between Turkey and Greece. The 6 and 7 September 1955 outbreak of anti-Greek riots in Istanbul and the 1964 exodus of Greeks to Greece following a period of intercommunal violence affected not only Turkish-Greek relations, but also Turkey’s relationships with third parties.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate’s presence in Istanbul kept Istanbul on the agenda of Turkish-Greek relations, despite all the efforts of the Ankara government representatives at Lausanne. Although Ankara has consistently claimed that all matters regarding the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate are part of Turkey’s domestic affairs, since 1923 the patriarchate has periodically emerged as an issue in Turkish foreign policy. Even the new status of the patriarchate in Turkey was decided by an international treaty.
There were several concrete reasons behind Ankara’s sensitivity to the issue of the patriarchate. Under the leadership of Meletios IV, the patriarchate was one of the centers of political incitement and opposition against the Ankara government during the National Struggle. Thus, when the issue of the patriarchate was discussed, Ankara was insistent that this institution move outside the borders of Turkey. However, in the negotiations in Lausanne, Ankara consented to allow the patriarchate to remain in Turkey in return for a commitment that it would only concern itself with religious affairs. One of the important stipulations of this compromise was that Meletios not remain in Istanbul as patriarch. In the end, the Ankara government got its wish, and in early June—after the former prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos mediated negotiations on behalf of Greece, but before the ratification of the Lausanne Treaty—Meletios went to Greece. The patriarchate issued a statement a day after Meletios left, promising to refrain from any kind of political activity.
The patriarchate was favorably affected by the atmosphere that had been created by the rapprochement in 1930. Eleftherios Venizelos, erstwhile advocate of an expansionist Greece but later one of the architects of the rapprochement, paid a visit to Turkey in October 1930 in order to ratify political and economic cooperation protocols. He went to Ankara, but did not want to leave Turkey without visiting the patriarchate in Istanbul, being aware that it was a polite gesture for a Greek statesman to visit the patriarchate. The Turkish government sent a message to Venizelos stating that a visit to the patriarchate would not be a problem; thus, Venizelos decided to visit the patriarchate on his return from Ankara.
After arriving in Ankara in October 1930, Venizelos participated in the Republican Day celebrations. Turkish and Greek statesmen ratified important protocols in Ankara that marked the beginning of the Turkish-Greek rapprochement. During this visit, leaders had the opportunity to discuss the issue of the patriarchate. Ifigenia Anastasiadou, who produced a valuable work on the Turkish-Greek rapprochement, wrote that while the patriarchate was an important issue for Venizelos, he did not consider it to be one of the more pressing matters confronting the two countries. In fact, the patriarch of the time, Fotios, sent greetings to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on Republican Day and Atatürk replied to these greetings by addressing Fotios as the “Orthodox Patriarch of Fener” rather than merely başpapas (head priest). Thus, the course of the fundamental political issues between Turkey and Greece directly influenced the status of the patriarchate, though the matter of the patriarchate on its own did not influence the course of Greek-Turkish relations. Subsequently, on his return from Ankara, Venizelos visited Fotios at the patriarchate.
Greek-Turkish relations were problematic in the years 1954 and 1955. Toward the end of 1955, the political environment became even more strained. On 6 September, an Istanbul newspaper reported that Atatürk’s house in Thessaloniki had been bombed. As a result, a Turkish Cypriot association held a protest rally in Istanbul. This rally in Istanbul turned into attacks against non-Muslim minorities, in particular against the Greeks, lasting until 7 September. Rally participants attacked homes, shops, schools, and churches that were owned and frequented by Greeks. In a short time, the center of Istanbul had been set aflame and destroyed. The world’s eyes turned upon the city and news that tarnished Turkey’s reputation appeared in the foreign press. Today, Turkey’s international image is still suffering the damage wrought by the events of 6 and 7 September 1955. Who the protest organizers were is still unclear. At the Yassıada trials, held after the military coup of 1960, the Democratic Party government of the era was blamed for the events.
In the 1960s, the number of Greeks in Istanbul had diminished greatly due to emigration. After this time, Istanbul Greeks were not often mentioned in Turkish-Greek relations, nor did the patriarchate appear as an issue on the international diplomatic agenda between 1965 and 1990. One of the most important developments regarding the patriarchate in contemporary times was the closure of the Halki Seminary in 1971. After the seminary had been closed, the patriarchate had difficulties training the religious officials it needed to operate effectively. In the meantime, the patriarchate began to work in earnest, after Turkey applied for full membership to the European Economic Community in 1987, to ensure that problems directly concerning the patriarchate would be addressed during Turkey’s membership talks. As a result of such initiatives and efforts to influence international public opinion, it seems that Istanbul will remain on the agenda in both Turkish-Greek relations and in Turkey’s relationship with Europe for a long time to come.
Istanbul Hosts Foreign Guests
After Ankara became the capital city, it was natural that political leaders visiting Turkey traveled there instead of the former capital. However, Istanbul continued to welcome foreign guests, though to a lesser extent than it had previously.
In 1933, Turkey and Greece signed a treaty to protect their common border. This treaty would become one of the most important cornerstones of the process leading to the Balkan Pact, described in the following section. After its ratification, the main opposition leader in Greece, Eleftherios Venizelos, paid an informal visit to Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk hosted the Greek statesman in Istanbul. During this meeting, Atatürk told Venizelos about his plans for a peace settlement in the Balkans, sealing a political and military alliance in order to keep European countries out of the region and to maintain stability. Due to the steps Atatürk took for the sake of peace and stability in the Balkans, in January of the following year Venizelos nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1936, the British king Edward VIII visited Turkey. During this visit, he was hosted by Turkish dignitaries in Istanbul. The Turkish press regarded this visit as symbolic of Turkish-British friendship at a time when Germany and Italy were creating tension in Europe.
Istanbul welcomed two important guests from Greece in 1952. The first of these was Prime Minister Sophocles Venizelos, who visited Turkey in late January and early February. The second was the Greek king Paul, who visited Istanbul on 8 June 1952 with his wife Queen Frederika. The king visited the patriarchate at the zenith of Turkish-Greek friendship.
One of Istanbul’s most important guests was the American battleship USS Missouri. In April 1946, the Missouri brought the body of Turkey’s ambassador to Washington, Munir Ertegün, who had died sixteen months previously, to Istanbul. The Missouri not only made a gesture by bringing the late ambassador’s body, but the American naval secretary, James Forrestal, planned this visit to be a show of force to intimidate Soviet Russia. The United States wanted to send the message that it was supporting Turkey against Soviet Russia after the latter had asked for a reassessment of the status of Kars and Ardahan, as well as the Bosphorus.
Istanbul Hosts Bilateral and Multilateral Diplomacy
Even after the announcement that Ankara was the new capital, Istanbul continued to host international meetings. As of the 1930s, although Ankara played a central role in this regard, Istanbul was again involved in multilateral diplomacy, both in the early years of the republican and in the post-Cold War periods. As a result, the city continued to welcome foreign guests.
In the early republican period, the Mosul question was one of the topics that most frequently occupied Turkish foreign policy. The British invaded Mosul after the Armistice of Mudros, which announced the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire from World War I. The British tried to legitimize the occupation by stating that they had had no information about the armistice. During the National Struggle, the British did not leave Mosul. Nevertheless, the Ankara government continued to regard Mosul as being within its national boundaries (misak-ı millî). At the Lausanne Conference, which was convened after the National Struggle, no progress was made on the Mosul question. In October 1923, after the Treaty of Lausanne was ratified, Britain demanded that Ankara initiate bilateral negotiations on this matter. Ankara agreed to this demand, and a conference was held on 19 May 1924. Since this conference was convened on the Golden Horn, in political history it is also known as the Golden Horn Conference. However, because no clear conclusion resulted from this conference, the Mosul problem was transferred to the League of Nations, of which Britain was a member but Turkey was not.
Another international meeting hosted in Istanbul was the Balkan Conference in 1931, which was followed by other conferences that led to the signing of the Balkan Pact in 1934. In 1930, Greece, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Turkey met for the purpose of discussing a number of measures to be taken against Italian expansionism in the Near East. These countries wanted to include Bulgaria as well. However, Bulgaria was following a revisionist policy and was in favor of changing rather than maintaining national borders in the Balkans; consequently it did not participate in the negotiations. The first conference devoted to political cooperation in the Balkans was convened in 1930. The Balkan Conference met in Istanbul between 20 and 26 October 1931. During this conference, Turkey and Greece, who had settled their political conflicts a year earlier, made great efforts to conclude negotiations with a pact. As early as 1933, the two countries had signed a common defensive protocol, sending the message, particularly to Bulgaria, that the borders between Turkey and Greece were common and that in the event Bulgaria attacked one of the two countries, it would be regarded as having attacked both. Following this strong message from Turkey and Greece, Romania and Yugoslavia joined in 1934 and the Balkan Pact was signed.
In 1958, Istanbul hosted the meeting of the Baghdad Pact, which had been established in 1955. Expected to follow a routine course, this meeting turned out to be quite unusual due to the coup d’etat that occurred under the leadership of General Abd al-Karim Qasim in Iraq on 14 July 1958. This event was particularly significant for the conference because Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said and King Faisal II, who had been expected to attend, were killed during the coup. Despite this, the meeting took place as planned from July 14 to 17. Events in Iraq occupied a prominent place in the discussions at the meeting, and the other members of the Baghdad Pact—Turkey, Great Britain, Iran, and Pakistan—condemned the coup. There were suspicions that the coup had received foreign support, with the Soviet Union being implicated.
Istanbul began to host more international meetings in the post-Cold War period. In the early 1990s, Turkish President Turgut Özal was involved in attempts to evaluate potential opportunities for economic and political cooperation with former Eastern Bloc members. These initiatives bore fruit in the form of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) after a meeting held in Istanbul in June 1992. Turkey, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan all participated at the prime ministerial or governmental level. Participants at the meeting in Istanbul made a commitment to cooperate in order to eliminate all trade obstacles between member countries. The organization decided to establish a permanent secretariat in Istanbul.
Initiatives for the Black Sea and efforts to ensure that Istanbul played a role in these initiatives were not limited to the BSEC. Turkey played a leading role in the establishment of the Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Group (BLACKSEAFOR), which was formed to enhance cooperation between the countries bordering the Black Sea. The idea of establishing such an organization was initially put forward by Turkey at a meeting of naval commanders from countries along the Black Sea held in Bulgaria. For two years, organizational studies were conducted under the supervision of a Turkish admiral. In April 2001, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine met in Istanbul and signed the organizational protocol.
During the post-Cold War period, Turkey not only sought cooperation with Black Sea countries, but also with Turkic republics in Central Asia. In October 1992, the heads of the Turkic republics participated in a summit. Following this, the decision to start direct flights from Turkey to the Central Asian republics was taken. Also, television broadcasts via satellite from Turkey to Central Asia became possible. In order to coordinate activities in the Turkic world and charitable activities in Central Asia, the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA) was established in January 1992. In 1993, the general council of the Turkic republics gathered in the Turkish city of Antalya. In this meeting, “Turkic unity” was emphasized and the slogan “unity in language, thought, and action” came to the fore.
During this period, Turkic movements gained power in Turkey. Naturally, Russia was disturbed by these developments and harshly criticized the meeting in Antalya. A year later, representatives of the Turkic republics gathered in Istanbul. This time all participants used well-selected phrases in order to avoid provoking a negative reaction from Russia. Nevertheless, Russia still voiced fierce criticism against the meeting. In the statement delivered at the end of the meeting, the emphasis was put on building oil and natural gas pipelines and it was expressed that this was for the benefit of all parties. In addition, the necessity of continued cooperation in the fields of culture and education was expressed. Another summit was held in Istanbul in 2001. During this summit, emphasis was placed on the importance of bilateral and multilateral relations between the Turkic states. Heads of state also agreed to act together on issues such as the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking.
In the late 1990s, Turkey pursued an active policy for transporting Caspian oil through Turkey. These policies also required active lobbying in the Caucasus region. Turkey chose Istanbul again as a base for its lobbying activities. In March 1998, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Georgia were invited to meet in Istanbul. However, at that meeting Turkey was not able to gain the support that the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline required. About a year after this meeting was held, Istanbul hosted negotiations on the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline between the Americans and the Turks. About seven months after these negotiations, a summit of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was held in Istanbul. As the summit negotiations continued, a framework agreement regarding the construction of the pipeline was signed; this was to be supervised by the US president, Bill Clinton. The oil pipeline became known as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.
One of the platforms that Turkey actively pursued in foreign policy after the Cold War was the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Turkey in particular tried to get the OIC to act to bring an end to the war in Bosnia. At Turkey’s request, in June of 1992, the foreign ministers of the OIC member countries met in Istanbul. In the joint declaration that was made after the meeting, the Serbians were held responsible for the conflict in Bosnia. Moreover, the organization demanded the immediate withdrawal of the Yugoslav Federal Army from Bosnia, stating that it was necessary to remove the Serbian paramilitary forces from the area. What is notable in this joint declaration is that it supported the stance of the United Nations in the dispute in Bosnia.
Istanbul was also the setting for negotiation activities carried out by parties involved in conflicts in the Middle East. At the end of the 1990s, Turkey made attempts to convene an international conference in Istanbul to settle the dispute between the Georgian authorities and Abkhazia, which had declared independence. When the trouble broke out in Iraq in the early 2000s, Turkey once again offered to convene an international conference in Istanbul. Turkey was in favor of a peaceful settlement to the crisis in Iraq, calling on Iraq to respect the United Nations’ resolutions. If Iraq did not comply with these resolutions, and if a military operation in this country was under consideration, Turkey suggested that the UN Security Council should intervene. In this regard, in January 2003, Prime Minister Abdullah Gül went on a tour of the Middle East, visiting Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Iran. The foreign ministers of these countries held a meeting in Istanbul; however, no decision was reached.
The most important international meeting to be held in Istanbul in recent years, and a cause célèbre in its own right, was the NATO summit of 2004. This seventeenth summit of NATO was held from 28 to 29 June, and was considered to be an important step towards the process of NATO’s transformation from an organization formed against the Soviet threat into a one that responded to security issues outside of the North Atlantic region. Intense security measures were taken during the Istanbul summit, as a large number of people from all over the world flocked to protest the meeting. Due to the NATO summit and the protests, Istanbul again occupied the headlines of the world press.
Istanbul ceased to be the capital of Turkey at the beginning of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, it remained an active site of Turkish diplomacy and world politics. During the process of constructing a new capital in Ankara, Istanbul remained the center of Turkish diplomacy. Bilateral and multilateral negotiations were conducted in the city. Foreign dignitaries deemed Istanbul more of a center than the new capital of Ankara. After Ankara became more firmly established, the center of Turkish diplomacy shifted to the new capital for a significant period of time. However, by the end of the Cold War, because Turkish foreign policy became multi-dimensional, Istanbul once again took center stage. But this time, it did so not as the “city of the world’s desire,” but as a “city desiring the world.”
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