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With an eye on re-election, Turkey’s Erdogan risks the ire of Western partners


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be taking advantage of the global focus on Ukraine to bolster Ankara’s geopolitical position – even at the expense of NATO and its Western partner. Such moves may target a domestic audience in the run-up to the June 2023 presidential election, with Erdogan seeking to fuel nationalist sentiment as a worsening economic crisis threatens his popularity at home.

In recent weeks, Erdogan has once again complicated Turkey’s relationship with its NATO allies — stalling Swedish and Finnish plans to join the bloc; threaten another military incursion into northern Syria; refuse to join Western sanctions against Russia; and rekindling tensions with perennial rival Greece over the Aegean Islands.

The Turkish president seems eager to take advantage of the West’s focus on the war in Ukraine, using bellicose rhetoric to defend Turkey’s interests and imposing his own terms on top of European and American priorities.

Talks in Brussels on Monday about the latest NATO accession bids led to “clear progress” on some points, a Finnish presidential aide said said† But Turkey threw a spanner in the works, demanding that Sweden and Finland take action against the “terrorists” of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) before approving their accession – ahead of next week’s NATO summit in Madrid.

Erdogan is well aware that the accession of Sweden and Finland would be a milestone for the transatlantic alliance, with both countries jettisoning their longstanding Cold War neutrality amid a re-emerging Russian threat.

‘impose his agenda’

Ankara considers both countries – and especially Sweden – too close to the PKK, which has been waging a guerrilla war in Turkey since 1984, punctuated by periodic ceasefires. The PKK, a militant insurgency that dreams of an independent Kurdish state uniting southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and a small part of northeastern Iran, has been classified as a terrorist group by both the EU and the United States.

Erdogan says he wants “concrete” and “serious” steps from Sweden and Finland before admitting them to NATO. In fact, he wants them to negotiate directly with him to get the green light.

>> As the Ukraine crisis rages, Erdogan sets his sights on Syria’s Kurdish north

The Turkish president also wants Western countries to lift restrictions on arms and technology exports imposed in late 2019 after a Turkish attack on Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) were instrumental in defeating the Islamic State group in Syria and a key ally of the US-led international coalition fighting the jihadists.

“By raising the prospect of a new offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria and by blocking NATO applications from Sweden and Finland, Erdogan is trying to show that he does not compromise with Turkish nationalist goals — and that he can impose its agenda and priorities. in the international arena,” said David Rigoulet-Roze, a Middle East specialist at the IRIS (French Institute of International and Strategic Affairs) think tank in Paris.

In addition, Erdogan is trying to “compensate for his disastrous management of the Turkish economy, strengthen his electoral base and mobilize voters in the run-up to the upcoming elections, which seem rather complicated to him,” Rigoulet-Roze continued.

‘Like a poker player’

With both presidential and parliamentary elections approaching a year from now, Erdogan’s geopolitical chess game with the West could provide him with an electoral boon.

A Poll of the German Marshall Fund published in April showed that 58.3 percent of Turks see the US as the “greatest threat” to Turkey’s “national interests”, while 62.4 percent believe European countries want to “divide and disintegrate Turkey as they see fit”. past the Ottoman Empire”. An even larger number, 69.8 percent, believe European countries have helped bolster separatist organizations such as the PKK.

“Erdogan is a real political animal; he acts like a poker player on the world stage,” said Rigoulet-Roze. “But there is often a domestic agenda behind his games with the West – and his differing stances in the global arena are nothing more than a response to domestic problems and a reflection of his desire to maintain his grip on power.”

>> Turkey challenges allies and enemies in quest for ‘greater role on the global stage’

The Turkish president is more than happy to pursue policies in line with the domestic agenda, even if it means irritating the West – as evidenced in recent years by the decision to drill in disputed parts of the Mediterranean and the controversial purchase of an S-400 missile system from Russia.

Erdogan is making such moves on an “ad hoc” basis, Rigoulet-Roze said, rather than working from an overarching strategy.

“For the most part, they are acts of provocation — Erdogan knows he cannot burn bridges with the West or recreate the world on his terms.”

Indeed, Erdogan is all too aware that the EU is still Turkey’s largest trading partner (it is part of the customs union) and that by 2020 the US became Turkey’s third largest export market.

‘Extremely vulnerable’

More recently, Erdogan has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia. According to Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St. Lawrence University in New York and the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, speaking in a March interview.

>> Turkey juggles relations with Russia, Ukraine amid economic crisis

Erdogan has also infuriated Western leaders in recent weeks by hosting Venezuela’s autocratic far-left president Nicolas Maduro for talks on June 8; neither the EU nor the United States recognize Maduro’s regime as legitimate.

Another provocation to the West came in early June, when the Turkish president announced he would stop regular bilateral meetings with the Greek government aimed at building cooperation after decades of antagonism between these historic enemies. Ankara claims Athens is stationing troops on Aegean islands near the Turkish coast in violation of peace treaties and has threatened to reopen a debate over ownership of the islands.

“At first glance it sometimes looks like Erdogan is the master of this game against the West, but in reality he tests them every time, see how far he can go, see if he can get some sort of geopolitical victory on the regional chessboard or an economic victory to try to alleviate the financial pressures Turkey is under,” said Rigoulet-Roze. “Erdogan’s position is not as comfortable as it seems, as he risks antagonizing all other NATO members and making Turkey the black sheep of the alliance.”

Erdogan is trying to make Turkey a great power again – both on the global and regional stage.

“Erdogan is very nostalgic for Ottoman imperial greatness, which finds deep resonance in the contemporary Turkish psyche – this idea that Turkey should be re-recognized as a great power even if it cannot have an empire,” said Rigoulet-Roze. “Unfortunately for Erdogan, reality limits these ambitions, as Turkey’s significant economic difficulties cannot afford to be isolated.”

Over the past two decades, Erdogan’s moderate Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) has gained and maintained power because it “assured Turks continued improvements in living standards,” Rigoulet-Roze said.

But that reputation of economic competence has gone, leaving Erdogan at odds with millions of transaction voters he has relied on for support. Hence his diplomatic rapprochement with the wealthy Gulf petro-monarchies he previously despised.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his first official visit to Turkey on Wednesday, and several agreements were expected between the two Middle Eastern powers. Erdogan went to Saudi Arabia in late April after three and a half years of strained relations between Ankara and Riyadh following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

For all its troubles, Erdogan knows that Turkey’s geographic location — at the crossroads of Europe, the Black Sea, the Caucasus and the Middle East — makes it strategically essential to the West. The Cold War is long gone, but the factors that motivated NATO to make Turkey the only Alliance member in the Middle East in 1952 have not disappeared. As much as Erdogan’s threats against Swedish and Finnish accession infuriate NATO members, they know they must work with him.

But while much has stayed the same, the nature of Turkish politics has changed a lot since the Cold War, Rigoulet-Roze noted. At the time, Turkey was “secular, anti-Communist, pro-Western and pro-European; things have become very different since Erdogan and the AKP came to power, making Turkey a nation dominated by an Islamo-nationalist party that is at least non-aligned.”

“This is certainly not the time to question Turkey’s role and status in NATO; it’s in nobody’s interest,” he continued. “But that said, the way other NATO members view Turkey is clearly not what it used to be.”

This article has been translated from the original into French.

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