238 Humanitarian, hospitable and generous: Turkish Public Diplomacy’s ‘story’ [...]
Rev. Carta Inter., Belo Horizonte, v. 15, n. 2, 2020, p. 238-263
Humanitarian, hospitable and generous:
Turkish Public Diplomacy’s ‘story’ in times of
authoritarianism and military interventionism
Humanitária, hospitaleira e generosa:
a ‘história’ da diplomacia pública da Turquia em
tempos de autoritarismo e intervenções militares
DOI: 10.21530/ci.v15n2.2020.1050
Paula Orrico Sandrin
Victor Damasceno Toscano Costa
This article aims to analyze Turkish Public Diplomacy (PD) since the Justice and Development
Party (AKP, in Turkish) came to power in 2002. In particular, it aims to make sense of the
plurality of public diplomacy discourses and practices which attempt to enact a particular
identity for Turkey and to tell a particular ‘story’ to foreign and domestic audiences. Based
on a post-structuralist theoretical framework, we present the many institutions responsible
for Public Diplomacy in Turkey and analyze the ‘stories’ told by them, arguing that PD is one
of the many practices engaged by the AKP government in its attempt to enact a particular
identity and in its pursuit of legitimacy and influence. The particular identity the AKP has
been trying — and keeps failing — to enact is that of a ‘benign’, benevolent, humanitarian,
hospitable and generous emerging power, a model of a Muslim democracy with a growing
economy, heir of a (positive) Ottoman legacy. The article also attempts to understand how
1 Professora Assistente de Relações Internacionais do IRI/PUC-Rio, com doutorado (2013) e mestrado (2007- com
mérito) em Relações Internacionais pela University of Westminster. Suas áreas de interesse incluem o papel
de afetos e emoções na política global; relações entre União Europeia e Turquia; política externa e diplomacia
pública da União Europeia e da Turquia. Link para Currículo Lattes: http://lattes.cnpq.br/0964723089757076;
ORCID: http://orcid.org/0000-0002-0295-4620; email: paulasandrin@hotmail.com
2 Mestrando em Relações Internacionais pela Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio). Possui
interesse de estudo nas áreas de identidades e formação de identidades — particularmente masculinidades,
branquitudes e identidades nacionais —; evolução do Sistema Internacional; migrações; fronteiras e
processos formadores de fronteiras; e conexões de religião e política. Link para o Lattes: http://lattes.cnpq.
br/9843643367430648; ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-4581-8071; email: victor.toscano@live.com
Artigo submetido em 20/02/2020 e aprovado em 09/06/2020.
239Paula Orrico Sandrin; Victor Damasceno Toscano Costa
Rev. Carta Inter., Belo Horizonte, v. 15, n. 2, 2020, p. 238-263
AKP public diplomacy has been trying to modulate such a ‘story’ in a context marked by
Turkish military interventions abroad and growing authoritarianism at home.
Keywords: Turkey; Public Diplomacy; Post-Structuralism.
O artigo tem como objetivo analisar a diplomacia pública da Turquia desde que o partido
Justiça e Desenvolvimento (AKP, em turco) chegou ao poder em 2002. Em particular,
visamos fazer sentido da pluralidade de discursos e práticas de diplomacia pública que
tentam construir uma identidade particular para a Turquia e contar uma ‘história’ sobre
o país para audiências domésticas e internacionais. Utilizando um arcabouço teórico pós-
estruturalista, apresentamos as muitas instituições responsáveis por diplomacia pública
na Turquia e analisamos as ‘histórias’ contadas por elas, argumentando que a diplomacia
pública é uma dentre as muitas práticas empregadas pelo AKP em seus esforços para
construir identidade e obter legitimidade e influencia. A identidade particular que o AKP
vem tentando — sem sucesso — construir para o país é de uma potência emergente benigna,
benevolente, humanitária, hospitaleira e generosa, um modelo de democracia muçulmana
com uma economia em crescimento, herdeira de um legado positivo do Império Otomano.
O artigo também tenta entender como a diplomacia pública do AKP vem tentando modular
tal ‘história’ em um contexto marcado por autoritarismo na esfera doméstica e intervenções
militares no exterior.
Palavras-chave: Turquia, Diplomacia Pública, Pós-Estruturalismo.
This article aims to analyze Turkish Public Diplomacy (PD) since the Justice
and Development Party (AKP, in Turkish) came to power in 2002. In particular, it
aims to make sense of the plurality of public diplomatic discourses and practices
which attempt to enact a particular identity for Turkey and to tell a particular
‘story’ to foreign and domestic audiences. Based on a post-structuralist theoretical
framework, we argue that AKP’s PD slogan — “Turkey has an image and a story
to share” — is doubly misleading. First, by using definite articles — an and a —
3 O presente trabalho foi realizado com apoio da Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior
— Brasil (CAPES) — Código de Financiamento 001.
240 Humanitarian, hospitable and generous: Turkish Public Diplomacy’s ‘story’ [...]
Rev. Carta Inter., Belo Horizonte, v. 15, n. 2, 2020, p. 238-263
it implies that its story is cohesive and consensual; there’s only one story to be
told. As we attempt to demonstrate, Turkey, through its multiple public diplomacy
institutions and disconnected voices, has many stories to share. Second, the
‘stories’ themselves constitute part of an effort to enact a particular identity for
Turkey, which is not prior to the actions that try to enact it.
The article will, first, provide a review of the literature on Public Diplomacy,
discussing how it is based on a set of assumptions which tend to point towards
a constructivist, if not outright essentialist, understanding of foreign policy. We,
argue that, instead of a reflection of an actor’s given identity, as stated by this
literature, public diplomacy is one of the practices an actor engages in its attempt
to enact its own, though precarious and unstable, identity. Turkey, as any other
entity, can never have a unitary and cohesive identity. Instead, its identity will
be fragmented, multiple and contradictory. After all, Turkey is composed of a
multiplicity of institutions, agencies, organizations and peoples
, and, as such,
will have multiple voices, all of which work to enact identities. Such complexities,
we believe, are better dealt with a poststructuralist analysis, which is the focus of
our second section. Third, we present the many institutions responsible for Public
Diplomacy in Turkey and analyze the ‘stories’ told by them, arguing that PD is
one of the many practices engaged by the AKP government in its attempt to enact
a particular identity and in its pursuit of legitimacy and influence. The particular
identity the AKP has been trying — and keeps failing– to enact is that of a ‘benign’,
benevolent, humanitarian, hospitable and generous emerging power, a model of a
Muslim democracy with a growing economy, heir of a (positive) Ottoman legacy.
The article will finally try to understand how AKP’s public diplomacy efforts have
been trying to modulate such a “story” in a context marked by Turkish military
interventions abroad and growing authoritarianism at home.
4 In an article entitled “Who are the Turks?” Mustafa Akyol (2011) argued that Turkey is composed of “several
nations under the Star and Crescent” (p. 17): the conservatives (muhafazakarlar), whose main source of values
is Sunni Islam and are currently represented by the Justice and Development Party (AKP); the secularists (laikler)
or Kemalists, represented by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Military, and other state institutions;
the Kurds, who constitute about 15% of the population; and the religious minorities, including Muslims of the
Alevi sect and non-Muslims such as Armenians, Greeks and Jews. These categories overlap in many instances:
some who identify as Kemalists can side with some self-identified conservatives when it comes to the Kurdish
issue; conservatives and Kemalists serve in the military; some Kurds might vote for the AKP, whereas some are
staunch secularists, like Kemalists.
241Paula Orrico Sandrin; Victor Damasceno Toscano Costa
Rev. Carta Inter., Belo Horizonte, v. 15, n. 2, 2020, p. 238-263
What is public diplomacy? A literature review
The concepts of public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy and soft power usually
overlap. The three terms evoke the ideas of a power of attraction (actually possessed
or desired) by a given nation-state, and the perceptions and preferences of a foreign
public. It is impossible to determine the exact boundaries of each concept, as each
one is also subjected to contestation and all of them are also related in different
ways to a country’s foreign policy. After reviewing the literature that deals with
the subject of what public diplomacy is or should be, it becomes clear that the
definition of the concept varies slightly: PD can be seen as “a method by which
an international actor can conduct foreign policy by engaging a foreign public”
(Cull 2013, vii); “an instrument used [...] to understand cultures, attitudes, and
behavior ; build and manage relations; and influence thoughts and mobilize actions
to advance their interests and values” (Gregory quoted in Melissen 2011, 2); “how a
nation’s government and society engage with external audiences, typically with the
aim of improving these foreign publics’ perception of that nation” (Cross 2013, 4);
a way to project an actor’s “self-image, or the image that a given actor intends to
project to a third party” (Duke 2013a, 114; Duke 2013b, 2); or “a country’s effort
to share a coherent and convincing account of its own story with the rest of the
world” (Kalin 2011, 8). According to Çevik (2016), in Turkey, Public Diplomacy
is “narration and publicity, geared towards a duality of audiences, both domestic
and international” (p. 56).
Regardless of conceptual variations, it is astounding how widespread are
constructivist understandings about identity in PD literature. It is widely assumed
that the relationship between identity and PD is one in which identity precedes
(or should precede) the practices of public diplomacy. Cross (2013), for example,
argues that PD “narratives gain legitimacy when they derive from the real identity
of the people involved” (p. 5; emphasis added), that “a legitimate and credible
PD strategy is only possible if it directly reflects the identity of the people it
represents” (p. 6; emphasis added), and also that “PD must [...] reflect real identity
otherwise it will not be persuasive” (p. 9; emphasis added). Çevik (2016) says
that “countries turn to a rather traditional public diplomacy that rests on image
projection […] expecting to share a more desirable image” (p. 57; emphasis added).
Huijgh and Warlick (2016) speak of a Turkish “democratic identity” (p. 10) and
say that PD is comprised of “master narratives”, which are “stories that reflect
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a community’s identity and help community members to understand who they
are and what they stand for, and make sense of the developments around them”
(p. 15; emphasis added). Ibrahim Kalin, special adviser to the President of Turkey
and the presidential spokesperson, says that PD “reflects the new identity which
the country wants to embrace” (2011, 12) and that “Turkish public diplomacy
must take into consideration […] particular realities born out of its own story”
(p. 16). Kalin also tries to explain the concept of “identity” directly: “what really
matters is not image but identity. The determinant of a community’s true qualities
is not its appearance” (Kalin 2011, 17, emphasis added).
It can thus be noted that the literature sees PD as a reflection or projection of
a given, pre-existent, and “real” identity, image or narrative. Public diplomacy, in
such perspectives, is seen as reflecting how a society “really” is. We, in contrast,
argue that public diplomacy is one of the practices through which the identity of
an international actor is enacted. This dimension of identity enacting is rarely, if
ever, explored in PD literature — particularly Turkey’s — which tends to essentialize
identity as preceding political action, not as relating to it in a simultaneous and
mutually constitutive way. In short, public diplomacy’s relation to identity can be
summed up by a neat sentence used by Willard (2012): “The question of Turkey’s
identity is core to Turkish public diplomacy”. The biggest point of contention
between us and the reviewed authors is how public diplomacy and identity actually
relate to each other.
Public diplomacy and identity — a poststructuralist take
Poststructuralism’s main insight on states and their identities is that “states
are never finished as entities” (Campbell 1992, 11), with “ahistorical, frozen and
pre-given boundaries” (Ibid., 69). Instead, they are “unavoidably paradoxical
entities which do not possess pre-discursive, stable identities” (Ibid., 11), being
“devoid of ontological being apart from the many and varied practices which
constitute their reality” (Ibid., 105).
all states are marked by an inherent tension between the various domains
that need to be aligned for an ‘imagined political community’ to come into
being — such as territoriality and the many axes of identity — and the
243Paula Orrico Sandrin; Victor Damasceno Toscano Costa
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demand that such an alignment is a response to (rather than constitutive
of) a prior and stable identity (Ibid., 11).
This tension demands of states that they rely on “the regulated and stylized
repetition of practices like Foreign Policy” — such as the practices that fall under
the Public Diplomacy umbrella — “to contain contingency and secure the self”
(Ibid., 251), a struggle that is poised to fail, since the “performative nature of
identity can never be fully revealed” which means that the state is rendered “in
permanent need of reproduction […] always in a process of becoming” (Ibid., 11).
In other words, “contemporary states are multiple acephalous federations
which exist as states only by virtue of their ability to constitute themselves as
imagined communities” (Ibid., 195), borrowing from Benedict Anderson’s famous
conceptualization of nations (Anderson 2006).
Considering that states are never finished as entities, being always in a
process of becoming, Foreign Policy practices, including those of PD, cannot
be understood as practices that act as a bridge between pre-existing states,
since such an understanding implies that the state is previous to said practices
(Campbell 1992, 44), and that states’ identities are secured before their interactions
(Ibid., 56). Departing from a poststructuralist understanding, Foreign Policy,
instead of being the outward orientation of practices of a pre-existing state
with a stable identity, is in fact the very act by which the states give rise to
their boundaries (Ibid., 56), in a process that enacts both the state and the
international system, part and parcel of the same process (Ibid., 68). This process
is inherently tensioned by the various domains that constitute the reality of the
state and this complexity has to be disciplined by Foreign Policy practices. In
other words, to secure legitimacy and avoid contestations, the alternatives to the
intended identity must be suppressed so that such identity appears as natural,
integral, cohesive and homogenous, conditions that are inexorably unachievable.
It is not without reason that Richard Ashley and R.B.J. Walker argue that any
identity is
recognized as one among many arbitrary interpretations; it is seen as a
knowledgeable practice of power, itself arbitrarily constructed, that is put
to work to tame ambiguities, control meaning, and impose limitations on
what people can do and say (1990, 262).
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Identities are enacted
by linguistic resources and by “repertoires of action”
(Aradau et al 2015, 4), or practices: “embodied, materially mediated arrays of
human activity centrally organized around shared practical understanding”
(Schatzki in Aradau et al. 2015a, 3). Meanings do not emerge from an inherent
relationship between an object and the word used to make reference to it, or
between the signified and signifier, “but from a contingent relationship between
the signifiers” (Epstein 2008, 7). Signifiers form linguistic chains, which refer to
other signifying chains (Stavrakakis 1999, 57). The infinite possible combinations
of signifiers mean that, in principle, an infinite number of significations can be
produced. However, political and societal actors attempt to fix the meaning of
signifying chains through nodal points: words, terms or phrases that attempt to
fasten groups of words together into meaningful narratives (Laclau and Mouffe
2001, 112). The potential never-ending flow of signification can, thus, be arrested
and partial fixity and stability of meanings can be achieved through nodal points.
The linguistic and the material are mutually constituted: materiality acquires
meaning through language; language has material effects, since “what is said about
[objects] is intimately tied to what is done with them” (Epstein 2008, 5); and
material practices are also “loci where meanings are produced” (Epstein 2008, 5).
Through linguistic and non-linguistic practices “meanings are produced, identities
constituted, social relations established, and political and ethical outcomes made
more or less possible” (Campbell 2013, 234, 235). In other words, these practices,
both linguistic and non-linguistic, define and constitute subjects, objects and the
relations between them; and normalize certain ways of being and certain courses
of action (Epstein 2008; Milliken 1999).
In the next section, we will provide an overview of the many institutions
engaged in public diplomatic activities in Turkey, in order to identify the material
5 In this article we prefer to say that identities are “enacted”, instead of “constructed” or “performed”, following
the suggestion of authors working on Actor-Network Theory. The term has the double connotation of both
putting something into action, as in “enacting a law”, and of performing something, as in a play or story. This
suggestion is offered as an alternative to both “construction” and “performance”, two of the most widely used
terms for implying that the entity being constructed or performed is contingent and not natural (Magalhães
2018). One of the criticisms to which “construction” is subjected is that, while the term tries to convey such
contingency, its use risks implying that the “construction” is supervised by an “architect”, whose existence is
previous to the construction actively acting for its concretization (Ibid., 114). “Construction” also implies that
there is a process that by its end the entity being constructed “becomes”. If states and other entities are always
in a process of “becoming” (Campbell 1992, 56), identities can never be finished. If such process actually had
an end, if constructions actually reached a conclusion, such that no more enacting was necessary, it would
mean the existence of a pre-discursive realm. However, the lack of pre-discursive foundations is precisely the
reason why states need to — and do — constantly and infinitely enact their identities (Ibid., 11).
245Paula Orrico Sandrin; Victor Damasceno Toscano Costa
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apparatus involved in telling Turkey’s ‘story’. In the following sections, we will
analyze the many stories that are being told, including their contradictions,
transformations and continuities.
Turkey’s Public Diplomacy institutional structure
The AKP government began to build the country’s public diplomacy institutional
structure in 2009/2010, with the creation of new institutions such as the Yunus Emre
Institute (YEI), the Office of Public Diplomacy (KDK, in Turkish) and Presidency
for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB, in Turkish), and the repurposing
of older institutions such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency
(TIKA), a development agency, which was folded into the public diplomacy
structure and expanded its activities from the Balkans, Caucasia and Central Asia
to the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America and now works in more than
150 countries. TIKA began to serve as a public diplomacy institution by pinning
Turkey as a donor country (Huijgh and Warlick 2016, 25).
As we shall see in more detail below, the impetus for the institutional build-up
was to send a more ‘coherent’ message about the AKP’s different understanding
of the role Turkey should play in its surrounding regions, particularly those that
used to be part of the Ottoman Empire, such as the Balkans and the Middle East.
The message stressed two main points: that this government was different from
previous administrations, which favored either a hands-off approach or securitized
and militarized policies towards these regions; and that Turkey, due to a positive
Ottoman legacy, and its successful combination of Islam and democracy, should
play the role of a benevolent regional leader.
The Office of Public Diplomacy (KDK)’s primary task, as stated in the
publication of decree 27478 of January 30th 2010, was to provide “a more efficient
coordination, cooperation, and decision-making mechanism” as “necessary among
public policy institutions”. It was intended to coordinate the activities of several
institutions directly or indirectly dealing with public/cultural diplomacy, such as
the aforementioned YEI, YTB and TIKA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and
the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, although it also established its own programs
(Kalin 2011, 8; Huijgh & Warlick 2016). Since the transition to a presidential
system in 2018, KDK has been replaced by the Directorate of Communications of
the Turkish Presidency.
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The Yunus Emre Institute was modelled after cultural diplomacy institutions
of Western countries, such as Alliance Française, the British Council and Goethe
Institute, and, accordingly, aims to promote Turkish culture, language, art and
history abroad (YEI n/d). More than 58 cultural centers have been established
around the world, and among their many activities are included film, food and art
festivals; poem, song, painting and drama competitions; scientific and academic
conferences and workshops; and different courses (from Turkish hand crafts
to folk dance) (Eski and Erol 2018, 32). The Presidency for Turks Abroad and
Related Communities, as the name implies, has as its main target Turkish diaspora
communities, but also coordinates the Turkey Scholarship Program, which provides
higher education scholarships to international students.
It is interesting to note that many intercultural dialogue activities preceded
the creation of the Yunus Emre Institute and were already carried out by the
Gülenist Hizmet movement, a faith-based international network of organizations
and individuals named after the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen. The movement
operates in more than 180 countries, having established schools and cultural
centers, including in Brazil (“Centro Cultural Brasil-Turquia”, launched in 2011).
The movement and the AKP government worked in close cooperation inside and
outside Turkey until their relationship began to sour in 2013. The government
accused the movement of plotting the coup attempt of July 15
2016, labelled it
“Fethullah Terrorist Organization” and closed many of its institutions involved
in public and cultural diplomacy, such as Kimse Yok Mu, one of Turkey’s largest
charitable organizations, which operated predominantly within Muslim countries
(Çevik, Sevin and Baybars-Hawks 2018).
In addition to the institutions mentioned above, Kalin (2011) adds others, such
as “Kizilay (The Turkish Red Crescent), […] TRT (The Turkish National TV)”,
aid organizations, foundations, civilian platforms, and other civil society actors”
that “have become indispensable to public diplomacy efforts” and are all active
in it “through political, diplomatic, economic and cultural activities” (p. 21).
In conjunction, these institutions make up Turkey’s multiple and fragmented
public diplomacy network and work to enact Turkey’s identity, as envisioned by
the government and other constituents. Such a vast array of agents, as we shall
see, leads to dispersion and contradiction in discourses, all of which undermine
the literature’s claim to public diplomacy as a cohesive practice that reflects a
pre-given stable identity. On the other hand, we can discern attempts by Turkish
political actors to sediment and fix particular configurations of meaning about
247Paula Orrico Sandrin; Victor Damasceno Toscano Costa
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Turkey, and its relations with the West and neighboring regions, through privileged
discursive tropes.
Analyzing primary and secondary sources on Turkish PD, we have discerned
the prominence of two themes: a (positive) Ottoman legacy and Turkey as a ‘benign’
emerging power. As we shall see, these two discursive tropes are interrelated:
the latter is a consequence of the former. In the following, we argue that AKP
PD efforts constitute attempts to demarcate and stabilize a particular conception
of Turkish identity, one which is portrayed as different and better than the one
articulated by Kemalist elites. This designation of a particular “Turkey’s story
and image” has both domestic and international publics as intended audiences.
These attempts to seal in, contain and stabilize particular meanings about Turkey’s
image and story are doomed to fail, since, as we have seen, it is impossible to
contain systems of signification — “they always retain paradoxes, open ends,
and impossibilities” (Wæver 2009, 173). Multiple meanings, both dissonant and
consonant, insist on flowing, in spite of the partial fixity attempted through the
frequent repetition of two themes.
In order to understand PD efforts under the AKP government, we must
understand the context within which they acquire meaning. AKP PD narratives
acquire meaning in a context populated by several other narratives (about Turkey’s
image and Turkey’s story) which attempt to contain and stabilize particular
configurations of meaning about Turkey and its relations with other countries.
Turkey’s story(ies) and Turkey’s image(s) have been told and described many times
and in many ways. Sometimes, some of those stories and images are significantly
different from each other; sometimes, they bear striking similarities. As we explore
these two prominent themes, we will emphasize how Turkey’s relations with the
West/Europe and with the Muslim Middle East have been framed and narrated in
AKP PD discourses, in order to identify ruptures and continuities with regardto
previous narratives.
Telling Turkey’s ‘story’ through public diplomacy: what is being
told? A positive Ottoman legacy
Former members of the Ottoman Empire, in particular Arabs, were frequently
depicted by Kemalist leaders, military officers, school textbooks and everyday
chatter as traitors who stabbed Turkey in the back during World War I. As a
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consequence, Turkey was presented as a lone country, situated in an unfortunate
geographical location, encircled by unfriendly countries devising schemes to
weaken or even disintegrate Turkey with the help of enemies within (Altinay 2004;
Bilgin 2007). In contrast, AKP narratives frequently portray the Ottoman past as
the basis for the establishment of closer relations with former members of the
Empire. According to President Erdogan: “We have grown up with the motto that
Turkey is surrounded by three seas and neighboring enemy countries […] ‘Arabs
stabbed us in the back during the First World War’ was the common saying until
very recently. You know what? I even feel ashamed when I recall it, but the word
Arab’ was the common way of calling a stray dog on the street […] Our policy
is not to create enemies but to establish stable ties with all countries. Turkey’s
relations with Middle Eastern countries are only natural as is the case with Balkan
or Caucasus countries” (quoted in Demirtas 2010).
The idea that a shared Ottoman past naturally creates bonds between
its former members and that Ottoman heritage provides a basis for Turkey’s
leadership in the region had one of its clearest formulations in the book Strategic
Depth, authored by former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet
Davutoglu. According to this idea, the end of the Cold War “defrosted” some of
the deep connections between Turkey and its neighborhood. As a result, Turkey
has the possibility to become once again a central country (Davutoglu 2010),
providing security and stability to areas where it has historical responsibilities,
namely the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Gulf and the
Caspian, Black and Mediterranean Seas (Davutoglu 2008, 79). The aim to achieve
peace between Turkey and its neighbors was encapsulated in the “zero-problem
policy” formulated by Davutoglu. According to the former Prime Minister, the
zero-problem policy was “the fundamental principle we have applied in foreign
policy […], deepening friendships, intensifying and growing fraternity […] This is
why we said […] we will open doors of friendship and fraternity […] let siblings
meet, mingle with each other; and let the fraternity which comes from the depths
of history be transferred to the future generations” (quoted in Today’s Zaman
2011, 04). By enhancing socio-cultural and trade relations between Turkey and
its neighbors, the “security-based and hard-power-based politics of the former
governments” were left behind (Eksi and Erol 2018, 40).
In PD efforts, the idea that Ottoman heritage and legacy allows Turkey to be
a regional leader is frequently expressed. According to Ibrahim Kalin, the purpose
of Turkish public diplomacy is to tell the new Turkish ‘story’, which “reflects the
249Paula Orrico Sandrin; Victor Damasceno Toscano Costa
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new identity which the country wants to embrace” (2011, 12, emphasis added).
According to Kalin (2011), the content of the new Turkish ‘story’ told by PD
activities springs from a new political, social and geographic imagination, which
enables Turkey to overcome “its old fears” (p. 5) and “Eurocentric notions of
history and society” (p. 6); and to “reconnect with its history and geography”
(p. 5). A revaluation of the Ottoman past and signifiers associated with it and,
consequently, a more positive reading of Turkish history and geography, have
been regular features of AKP leaders’ statements. In fact, Kalin (2011) recognizes
Davutoglu’s Strategic Depth vanguard position when it comes to the “effort to see
the world in a non-Eurocentric perspective” (Kalin 2011, 7).
The narrative establishes that “Turkey’s descent from the Ottoman experience
results in genuine familiarity with a large geographic area extending from the
Balkans to the Middle East (Kalin, 2011, 20). Now, after overcoming “past mistakes”
and “misguided government policies” of the past (Kalin 2011, 12) — presumably
during Kemalist governments — “the emotional and political distance between
Turkey and the Arab world is diminishing, and those relations are normalizing
after a long hiatus” (Kalin 2011, 20). Diverse groups, such as “Turks, Kurds,
Bosnians, Albanians, Circassians, Abkhazians, Arabs, Azeris, Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs,
Uzbeks, Turkmens […], Armenian, Greek, Jewish and Assyrian communities” are
brought together and reconciled due to “the Ottoman experience they have shared
and built together”. Turkey, as “the pivotal point of this heritage” can extend its
soft power “from the Balkans and the Middle East to inner parts of Central Asia”
(Kalin 2011, 10). References to the positive Ottoman legacy are widespread. In
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website, a section entitled “Brief History of the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey” (Turkey 2011a) it is written that
“The Foreign Service of the Republic of Turkey is founded on the well-established
traditions and legacy of Ottoman diplomacy with a long history”. It claims that
this “commanding diplomatic tradition […] was one of the leading factors which
enabled the Ottoman Empire to reign over a vast geography for several centuries”.
If AKP narratives about the Ottoman legacy serve as an attempt to clearly
distinguish the party and its followers from Kemalist elites, when it comes to
Europe/EU, on the other hand, AKP narratives reveal that differences between the
two groups, so frequently represented as the antithesis of each other, are not so
clear cut. In fact, since the early Republican years, a deep ambiguity in Turkish
elites’ discourses about Europe and the West, be they left-wing, right-wing or
Islamist, can be discerned (Bilgiç 2016; Bilgin 2009, 2017; Bilgin and Bilgiç 2012;
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Zarakol 2010, 2011; and Gülsah Çapan and Zarakol 2017). Desire, admiration,
suspicion, anxiety, anger, frustration and resentment all coexist in Turkish political
leaders’ views of Europe/EU.
On one hand, suspicions and anger about continuous European/Western
hypocrisy, double standards, aggression and intrusiveness in Turkish domestic
affairs, manifested in the Ottoman Empire system of capitulations, the Treaty
of Sevres, EU conditionality, criticism of Turkey’s democratic and human rights
standards, and other instances, are frequently voiced by AKP leaders today as
they were by Kemalist leaders in the past.
On the other hand, the West/Europe have functioned as nodal points in Turkish
discourses for more than a century, binding together signifiers such as civilization,
modernization, secularism, industrialization, rationality and science. Turkey’s
socialization in a hierarchical international order meant that signifiers associated
with the Ottoman Empire were devalued whereas signifiers associated with West/
Europe were valued. As a result, Turkish political leaders have been attempting
to identify with signifiers associated with the West/Europe ever since. Mustafa
Kemal Ataturk’s reforms, conducted in the early Republican period, for example,
were attempts to replace Ottoman-Islamic ways of thinking with ‘modern’ modes
of thought and epistemologies based on rationality and science. More recently,
the signifiers democracy, rule of law, human rights, (economic) development and
prosperity have been bound by the nodal point “European Union”. Example of
this is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website explaining that Turkey “cherish[es]
and defend[s] the same values and norms the EU is built on, such as democracy
and respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law” and that
Turkey’s “ongoing reforms, especially in the areas of democracy, human rights and
rule of law, constitute a significant aspect of our efforts towards EU accession and
show [Turkey’s] willingness to contribute to the global role of the EU” (Turkey
2011b). Although AKP leaders have recast the Ottoman Empire in a new light,
and in several instances appear resistant to the EU, they also have inherited the
desire for recognition and validation from Europe/EU; the resentment towards it;
and the attachment to certain signifiers associated with it.
In spite of PD claims about a new non-Eurocentric imagination, the persistent
attachment to certain signifiers associated with the West/Europe/EU becomes
visible when the same “Brief History of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs” (Turkey
2011a), which spoke about a commanding Ottoman diplomatic tradition, mentions,
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without a hint of protest or grief, that “Ambassadors of the Ottoman Empire
appointed to European capitals […] served as pioneers of modernization by
accelerating the process of westernization and reform within the Empire”. The
Ministry of Foreign Affair’s own Directorate for EU Affairs also states that “Turkey
began ‘westernising’ its economic, political and social structures in the 19
century […] it chose Western Europe as the model for its new secular structure”,
continuing on to say that “Turkey has ever since closely aligned itself with the
West […]” (Turkey 2017).
Turkey as a benevolent emerging power
Another prevalent theme in PD discourses is the image of Turkey, under the
AKP government, as a generous, humanitarian, hospitable, benevolent and/or
benign emerging power in the world stage, usually citing the hosting of millions
of Syrian refugees in its own territory or its provision of humanitarian aid and
development cooperation activities abroad (Tolay 2016, 135; Çevik 2016, 55;
Huijgh and Warlick 2016, 26, Kalin 2011). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs website,
in an entry entitled “Turkey’s Enterprising and Humanitarian Foreign Policy”
(Turkey 2019), stresses that “Turkey hosts the largest number of externally displaced
people in the world […] accommodating around 4.9 million externally displaced
people, 3.7 million of whom are Syrians, who have had to flee destruction in their
home country. Turkey has spent around 40 billion USD to deliver aid and services
to the Syrians”. This claim is followed by the assertion that “With 8.6 billion USD
of humanitarian assistance in 2018, Turkey is the largest humanitarian donor in
the world, and the most generous country on the basis of per capita humanitarian
spending” (Turkey 2019).
In fact, the AKP government places its open-door policy for refugees at the
center of its public diplomacy efforts (Özdora Aksak 2019, 2). Almost half of the
news stories run between 2011 and 2018 by Anadolu Agency, the country’s official
news outlet, under the control of the Directorate of Communications, about Syrian
refugees in Turkey, presented Turkey as a good host (Özdora Aksak 2019, 8).
Besides mentioning the funds, services, projects and programs provided to
refugees, many of the news articles cited international actors’ praises for Turkish
hospitality, including praises by the President of the European Parliament, the
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European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship and the United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This generosity and hospitality are also
framed as enduring legacies of the Ottoman Empire, which had “the tradition of
being a safe haven for battered and persecuted people” (Eski 2019). Furthermore,
until recently, the AKP government had been one of the most outspoken critics
of China’s policies towards the Uighur minority, who is ethnically Turkic and
religiously Muslim, in Xinjiang province. In 2009, then Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdoğan used the term “near-genocide” to describe the Chinese crackdown
in the region
. These vocal criticisms could be interpreted as part of a strategy to
present AKP’s Turkey as a leader of oppressed Turkic peoples
and Muslims around
the world.
This ‘new’ benevolent Turkey, which confidently embraces Ottoman heritage,
is positively compared with Turkish image in the 1990s, when the country was
described as a “post-Cold War warrior” (Kirisci 2006, 8), a “coercive regional
power” (Onis 2003, 84) and a “regional bully” (Kramer, 2000, 212) for constantly
threatening the use of force against its neighbors. It is also contrasted with
the international community, particularly Western powers, lack of support for
refugees. The EU, in particular, was frequently criticized for delaying the transfer
of funds promised in the context of the 2016 Turkey-EU migrant deal (Özdora
Aksak 2019, 11). “Such discursive strategies in news stories reposition Turkey
as an ally of those in need and a good neighbor, while positioning the West as
an uncaring antagonist that has failed to fulfill its promises” (Özdora Aksak
2019, 17).
In addition to its altruistic actions towards foreigners abroad and at home,
Turkey’s democracy and economic prosperity have been described in PD texts as
sources of the country’s influence. According to Kalin (2011, 9), two of the main
6 In recent years, due to China’s increasing economic influence in Turkey, particularly through infrastructure
investment projects, and the deterioration of Turkey-United States ties, the AKP’s policy towards China’s
crackdown of Uighurs shifted from strong condemnation to relative silence. In October 2019, the Turkish
government refused to join other countries in joint a statement to call on China to end violations against Uighur
Muslims (Kashgarian 2020).
7 The emergence of new Turkic Republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus with the dissolution of the Soviet
Union had already provided, pre-AKP years, an opportunity for Turkey to devote its energies to regions sharing
linguistic and cultural ties with the country. The “discovery” of these regions in the 1990s seemed to abate to
a certain degree the feeling of isolation characteristic of Kemalist government’s discourses. Former President
Süleyman Demirel (1993-2000) went so far as to say that Turkey should assume the leadership of a giant “Turkic
world stretching from the Adriatic Sea to China” (quoted on Bozdaglioglu 2003, 96).
253Paula Orrico Sandrin; Victor Damasceno Toscano Costa
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pillars of Turkey’s soft power are its democratic experience and its successful
economic development, which render the country a model to Arab countries. In
this narrative, the image of Turkey is of “an island of stability [which] has become a
sanctuary for people escaping from terrorism and violence in the region” (Davutoglu
in Tolay 2016, 142). Huijgh and Warlick (2016) also note that a prominent narrative
of Turkish PD is “its economic prosperity and commitment to democracy” (p. 14),
although the authors acknowledge that there is an “ever-growing discord between
the government’s democratic rhetoric and some autocratic tendencies” (p. 29),
manifested in “the violation of democratic rights, media censorship, police
brutality (p. 30). This narrative, despite its contradictions, is neatly summed up in
Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affair’s website: it states that Turkey’s “policies adapt
to constant changes and strive to shape the dynamics around us towards peace,
prosperity and stability” (Turkey 2019, emphasis added) — which is eerily close
to the EU’s own trope of itself as a “zone of peace, prosperity and democracy”
(European Union Global Strategy 2016; European Commission 2010; European
Security Strategy 2003).
The EU has been described, or describes itself, as “a positive global force”
(European Commission 2017); a ‘civilian power’ (Duchêne 1973), ‘normative
power’ (Manners 2002; Manners and Whitman 2013), ‘ethical power’ (Aggestam
2008), ‘a model’ (European Commission 2007a and 2007b). It is in this context that
we can understand the constant reference to a generous, benevolent, democratic,
prosperous and stable Turkey which serves (or served) as a model to neighboring
countries. Such terms attempted to place Turkey alongside the EU in the hall of
foreign policy and domestic virtuosity. Turkey’s parameters continue to be the
West/Europe/EU, even though the rift between the two continue to grow in other
The fact that Western frames of reference lap at the shore of the new
(presumably non-Eurocentric) Turkish ‘story’ is a reminder that material and
symbolic hierarchies have deep psychic effects and, thus, are not easily dismantled.
It is also a reminder that attempts to seal in particular configurations of meanings
are doomed to fail, since meanings are unstable and impossible to contain. Finally,
it reminds us that borders (such as those between conservative and Kemalists)
must be kept through many practices, linguistic and non-linguistic, including PD,
lest they expose their absence of ontological status and porosity.
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Modulating Turkey’s ‘story’ in times of domestic authoritarianism
and foreign military interventions
The ‘story’ of AKP’s Turkey as a model of a Muslim democracy with a
thriving economy, a regional leader which combines entrepreneurship with
humanitarianism, generosity and hospitality, had to be modulated as domestic
and foreign policies began to take on more authoritarian and militaristic tones .
Domestically, the government increasingly adopted a more authoritarian
behavior, supporting a purge of (secular) opposition forces via the Ergenekon
and Sledgehammer court cases and later, after the failed coup attempt of July
15th 2016, of members of the Hizmet movement and anyone accused of having
ties with them. Hundreds of thousands of people were investigated, dismissed or
arrested, including civil servants, judges, prosecutors, military officials, academics,
teachers and journalists (Turkey Purge 2020).
Internationally, Turkey carried out three military operations in Northern
Syria (Euphrates Shield in 2016/2017; Olive Brach in 2018 and Peace Spring in
2019) against Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey
considers a terrorist organization due to its links to Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK). Operation Peace Spring, carried out after the withdrawal of American troops
from northeastern Syria in October 2019, received widespread condemnation.
As a result of the operation, hundreds of thousand people were displaced
and Turkey was accused of committing war crimes and several human rights
violations (Amnesty International 2019). European countries imposed an arms
embargo and the United States established sanctions against senior government
Given these domestic and international developments, the story of Turkey as
a model of how to reconcile Islam and democracy, and of a benevolent regional
leader who deploys a zero-problem policy towards its neighbors, became harder
to sustain. After a ‘golden period’, Turkey’s soft power and global image were
severely affected (Eski and Erol 2018; Uysal and Schroeder 2019).
In this final section, we aim to analyze the stories that are being told in this
changing context by Turkish PD apparatus. Given that material practices (such
as purges of dissenters and military interventions) also produce meanings — in
these cases, possible meanings produced could be that Turkey is neither a model
of democracy nor a humanitarian and benevolent neighbor —, how has Turkish
public diplomacy been trying to seal in, contain and stabilize particular meanings
about Turkey’s story?
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We have identified the deployment of four discursive strategies: 1) a renewed
emphasis on Turkish cultural products and on its humanitarian, hospitable and
generous actions towards Syrian refugees; 2) a growing cult of personality around
President Erdogan; 3) an effort to tell Turkey’s ‘story’ right, in order to avoid
misinterpretation and negative ‘propaganda’; and 4) the mobilization of ‘old’
discursive tropes of Turkey as a lone country, located in a unfortunate region,
subjected to foreign powers’ scheming. The stories being told combine narratives
associated with AKP’s ‘new’ Turkey with narratives associated with Kemalists’
‘old’ Turkey, in an attempt to produce particular meanings, enact a particular
identity and make particular courses of action seem natural and ‘normal’.
Turkish public diplomacy shifted the emphasis of its message: from the
country’s political and economic success (as a country that managed to successfully
combine Islam, democracy and capitalism) to its cultural products, in particular
TV dramas broadcasted throughout the world. Investments in cultural diplomacy
attempt to counter the negative repercussions of unpopular actions (Donelli 2019,
128 and 129). In addition, the humanitarian dimension of Turkey’s open-door
policy to Syrian refugees continued to have prominence. According to Director of
Communications Fahrettin Altun, “As the country that hosts the world’s largest
number of refugees, we put this issue on the agenda of all internationally respected
organizations. We are informing the world public opinion in order for Turkey
to receive the respect it deserves in humanitarian aid policy” (Altun 2020). The
frequent depiction of Turkey as a good host to Syrian refugees in government
leaders’ discourses and media outlets, and the characterization of Turkish foreign
policy as ‘humanitarian’, represent a continuity of the discursive trope of Turkey
as a benign and benevolent regional leader. Missing from these discourses are
references to Turkey being a model. “Turkey’s […] policy of becoming a model
country for the Middle East with its Muslim democracy identity, which was
interrupted by the Arab Spring, has transformed into this new foreign policy and
public diplomacy over the Syrian refugees” (Eski 2019).
The three other discursive strategies — a cult of President Erdogan, ‘telling
Turkey’s story right’, and the mobilization of narratives associated with former
Kemalist governments — are deeply entwined. An analysis of more than 2500
Twitter posts by Turkish government’s most influential PD accounts have shown
that President Erdogan is presented as a charismatic, strong and heroic political
leader, possessor of superior qualities
: a savior and a champion of the Muslim
8 In an interview, Director of Communications Fahrettin Altun claimed that “our President’s supplement and food
only consist of his dedication and faith” (Altun 2020).
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world, a fatherly figure who stands up for and protects Muslims who are
persecuted around the world, be they Palestinians or Rohingya people (Uysal and
Schroeder 2019, 6).
The need to accurately frame and tell Turkey’s ‘story’ to the world, in
order to counter “unfair allegations” and “black propaganda” targeting Turkey,
constitutes one of the reasons for the creation of the Directorate of Communications
(Altun 2020). According to Director of this institution, Fahrettin Altun, the unity
of state institutions’ discourses is deemed important because “if different actors
in the State put forward different discourses on an issue, it delivers a negative
message to foreign countries. This does not only portray an image of chaos but
makes the state vulnerable to foreign interventions” (Altun 2020) These foreign
interventions, black propaganda and unfair allegations are made by “almost all
of the great powers”, “who are disturbed by Turkey’s growth rate” (Altun 2020).
In a sentence that weaves together the threads of ‘cult of personality’ and
‘telling Turkey’s story right’, Director Altun claims that “Our President has been
thinking for a long time that foreign actors have been unfair towards Turkey […]
Our President is striving to increase Turkey’s regional power and make Turkey
stronger while also exerting efforts to avoid threats emanating from the region.
Every step he takes for our country’s good causes a chain of black propaganda”
(Altun 2020).
The mentions of foreign powers being unfair towards Turkey, and of threats
emanating from the region, reverberates previous discourses about Turkey’s
unfortunate predicament in the world stage. As we have seen, Turkey was
frequently presented as a lone country, situated in an unfortunate geographical
location, encircled by unfriendly countries devising schemes to weaken or even
disintegrate Turkey. The current endeavor to “accurately” frame and tell Turkey’s
story entails the unearthing of old ‘Kemalist’ tropes of Turkey being the victim of
foreign powers’ meddling and encircled by unfriendly countries. Director Altun
succinctly revives this narrative by saying that “This is an element of the siege and
the war of attrition against Turkey. We have to struggle constantly and strongly”
(Altun 2020).
How can we account for the presence of a narrative mostly associated with
Kemalist groups, from whom AKP leaders wanted to distance themselves, among
PD discourses entailed with the task of telling a new Turkey’s story? First of all,
as we have seen, the suspicions of foreign powers meddling in Turkey’s internal
affairs is shared among AKP and Kemalist elites, demonstrating the frontiers
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between them are porous in some respects. Furthermore, by bringing to the fore a
narrative of regional threats and instabilities so ingrained in people’s imaginaries,
this discourse resonates among many sectors of the population, thereby helping
legitimate foreign policy actions as necessary and unavoidable. In fact, in spite of
widespread international condemnation, Operation Peace Spring was supported by
all political parties in parliament, except for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic
Party (HDP), and by 79% of Turkish population (Duvar 2019).
The issues which, according to the government, are subjected to black
propaganda and unfair allegations, and hence have to be ‘accurately’ told by
Turkish public diplomacy institutions, concern mainly the military interventions in
Syria and the post-attempted coup of July 15 crackdown. The post-coup measures,
usually referred to by international press as “purges” or “crackdown”, are referred
to by PD discourses as July 15 ‘resistance’: “We are coordinating the works in
our country and abroad to ensure that our July 15 resistance remains where it
deserves in our collective memory” (Altun 2020). The military interventions in
Syria are framed as a logical and existential necessity to protect Turkey’s “national
interests” against the threat of (Kurdish) terrorism: “We try to use every traditional
and innovative method of communication in order to explain our country’s fight
against terrorism in the most accurate way […] With regard to all operations that
we undertake to protect our national interests, such as the Peace Spring Operation,
we provide the world press with the necessary accurate information and technical
infrastructure needed to ensure fair coverage”.
The framing of an issue as a threat to the “national interest”, or to “national
security”, results from political processes, not from any intrinsic characteristics of
the issue at hand. When an issue is successfully framed as a threat to the “national
interest”, or to “national security”, certain courses of action are authorized, while
others are foreclosed. In addition, the process framing an issue as a threat to the
“national interest”, or to “national security” in itself contributes to bring into
existence the “national” that is being referred to as if it was pre-existent. In this
particular case, the “national” seems to exclude not only some segments of the
Kurdish population, but government opponents in general.
In the following quote, we can discern the strands of ‘encirclement’, ‘telling
the right message’ and ‘cult of personality’ being woven together, culminating in
the conjuring of a country that needs to be defended: “If Turkey had not had a
strong leader like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the turbulence that began in 2010 [the
Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil war] would have swallowed us up. Despite all
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these storms, we were able to tip the scales in Turkey’s favor, and it has happened
thanks to our President’s leadership […] The Operation Peace Spring has been
ordered by this strong leadership. It was possible to take a step, which has been
opposed by the whole world […] our President […] destroyed that terror corridor.
What I’m trying to learn from our President is the following: […] no concessions
should be made in a situation that would be against our country” (Altun 2020).
Departing from a poststructuralist understanding, this article made the
argument that Turkish PD, instead of reflecting or projecting a pre-existent Turkish
story, image or identity, is one of the many practices through which political and
societal actors attempt to fix the meaning of Turkey’s many stories, images and
(precarious and fragmented) identities. Throughout the article, we attempted to
show that AKP PD’s privileged discursive tropes — the (positive) Ottoman legacy
and Turkey as a ‘benign’ emerging power — had to be modulated in a context
of domestic authoritarianism and military interventions abroad. As the security
and hard-power-based politics of the former governments came to the fore,
a stress on AKP’s difference became harder to sustain. In an effort to legitimize
militarized and anti-democratic actions, ‘old’ Kemalist discourses of encirclement
were recycled, the positive Ottoman legacy lost prominence and Turkey as a
‘benign’ emerging power attempted to survive via threads of hospitality to Syrian
refugees and President Erdogan as a savior and champion of Muslims around
the world.
Through all these processes, it becomes clear that Turkey is composed of a
multiplicity of institutions and peoples, and, as such, will have multiple voices
which produce multiple meanings, in spite of the partial fixity attempted through
the frequent repetition of privileged themes. Although such attempts are never
fully successful, they are not inconsequential: through them, boundaries are
enacted; subjects, objects and the relations between them are constituted; and
certain ways of being and acting are authorized, while others are foreclosed. In
particular, we showed how the mobilization of discourses associated with ‘old’
Kemalist elites helped legitimize militarized foreign policy actions which the AKP
had claimed had been left behind.
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