Nikolaos Stelgias

Nikolaos Stelgias

Turkey in the Western headlines

Erdogan's realpolitik and authoritarianism worry the West

At the beginning of 2023, Turkey is starring in the Western headlines. Specifically, Turkey's negative stance towards NATO's expansion to the North, as well as the critical developments in the Ankara-Washington axis, are increasingly attracting the attention of Western media. Similarly, Western analysts are focusing on Turkey’s disruptive attitude considering the future of the North Atlantic Alliance. Moreover, they do not take a positive view on Turkey's role in the Ukrainian crisis and the developments in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Besides turning their attention to Turkey's foreign affairs, Western researchers also focus on the latest episodes in the country’s internal affairs. Their rekindled interest is mirrored in the headlines of the Western press which warn that Turkey is on the verge of turning into a “dictatorship.”

"The Ukraine war has brought Erdogan’s independent realpolitik into sharp relief"

The negotiations in the Ankara-Washington-NATO axis on the enlargement of the North Atlantic alliance in exchange for reinforcing the Turkish Air Force are making headlines in the West. Western analysts consider that there are important obstacles that keep Turkey and her Western allies from reaching an agreement first on the issue of the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO and second on the preservation of the territory controlled by the Kurds and their allies in Syria in exchange for the reinforcement of the Turkish army. In a new analysis, Bryant Harris and Stephen Losey underline that politicians in Washington object to selling new fighter planes to Turkey. Even if the sale goes ahead, “F-16 manufacturer Lockheed Martin might not build those jets for Turkey.”

Returning to the objections of American politicians, analysts underline the role of the Greek lobby in the US. The U.S. kicked Turkey out of that program in 2019 over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. The U.S. government had cited concerns over the system’s advanced radar and the possibility that its presence in Turkey could allow Russia to spy on F-35 stealth fighters. Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey and a member of the Congressional Hellenic Caucus, also issued a statement blasting the Biden administration’s proposed F-16 sale to Turkey. He vowed to work with Menendez to block the deal from proceeding. He singled out Erdogan’s 'vitriolic rhetoric advocating for the invasion of Greek and Cypriot sovereign territory and encouraged illegal overflights by Turkish jets.' He also accused the Turkish president of holding “hostage the Finnish and Swedish applications to join NATO until his absurd and unrelated demands are met," Harris and Losey remind us.

The two analysts also point out that "A further complicating matter is the fact that the Turkish government has repeatedly threatened to launch another large-scale offensive against the U.S.-backed forces in northeastern Syria ahead of the Turkish presidential elections in May. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Council lobbied the Biden administration and Congress last year against selling fighter jets to Turkey, pointing out that Ankara has used F-16s to target civilian infrastructure in northeast Syria."

In a similar approach, Robert A. Manning mentions that "Turkey, a wayward NATO ally, has been a frequent irritant, most recently because it purchased the Russian S-400 defense system. Erdogan and his Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP) have dominated Turkish politics since 2003, first as prime minister and then, since 2014, as president. During his time in power, Erdogan has evolved from a democratic modernizer to a repressive authoritarian with his own agenda. That agenda is poorly understood in the U.S. Erdogan is proving to be a master of Realpolitik of Kissingerian dimensions, driven by geography, history, culture, religion, and ambition.”

Manning adds that, "The Ukraine war has brought Erdogan’s independent realpolitik into sharp relief. He criticized NATO for not deterring the war and then for provoking it; he condemned the Russian invasion but rejected Western sanctions and expanded economic ties to Moscow. Yet Erdogan, with strong economic and military ties to Ukraine, provided Kyiv with effective drones, negotiated the opening of Ukrainian wheat exports via the Black Sea, and has positioned himself as a mediator, actively calling for a ceasefire. There are contradictory implications for U.S. interests. On the one hand, Turkey has given military aid to Ukraine and helped negotiate an opening to wheat exports through the Black Sea. Ankara has distanced itself from the U.S./NATO response and has deep economic ties to Russia".

"Turkey is a good example of the need to accept the limits of U.S. power in an increasingly multipolar world. The Turkey dilemma suggests that to successfully lead in the post-post-Cold War world emerging, the U.S. needs more humility, more diplomatic agility, and more imaginative statecraft," Manning concludes.

NATO's northern enlargement

Discussing the same subject, Gerd Hohler adds that "with his saber-rattling in the Mediterranean and the veto against northern enlargement, Turkish President Erdogan has become a security risk." The journalist emphasizes that: "Even if the alliance's statutes do not provide an exclusion procedure, one should familiarize himself with the idea that it may have to be done without Turkey. Erdogan's coalition partner, the ultranationalist Devlet Bahceli, has already proposed that if Turkey cannot prevent the accession of Sweden and Finland, it should leave NATO and form a new security alliance with other Muslim countries."

Returning to NATO's northern enlargement, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published a few days ago that Turkey's "attacks" on Sweden and Finland are causing a disturbance in Scandinavia. "Sweden and Finland have applied for NATO membership together. But Swedish politicians have been more accommodating towards Turkey than those in neighboring Finland, where the government has kept a lower profile," reports the Swedish newspaper.

The article continues to say that: "In neighboring Finland, Sweden's actions towards Turkey have frequently attracted attention. Recently a doll depicting Turkish President Erdogan was hung outside Stockholm City Hall. One of those surprised by the strong Swedish criticism of the doll protest was the Finnish newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet's editorial writer, Tommy Westerlund. ‘That's the reaction I'm most surprised by so far. Sweden showed too much understanding towards Turkey's reaction. The demonstration was not a violation of the law in Sweden,’ he says. Westerlund does not think there is a big difference between how Sweden and Finland handled the NATO issue. The differences are more significant since Turkey has made greater demands from Sweden than from Finland. According to the Finnish diplomatic veteran René Nyberg, 'you should keep your nerve. The matter is not decided by what Sweden does or does not do. NATO membership will come, but it will take time, and now we have the US with us.’"

The Greek dimension

The Greek-Turkish relations which have been troubled for a long time, lately have reached a high level of tension. On the Greek dimension of Turkey's confrontation with the West, Jean-Marc Four notes that "the new Greek military maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean are a new indicator of the state of their relations. These naval maneuvers were called 'Lightning.' And the official Greek objective says it all: to prepare for attacks on enemy fleets, retake occupied territories, and protect mining or hydrocarbon platforms. Since the maneuvers in question are taking place at the eastern end of the Aegean Sea, there is no need to name the enemy. There is only one neighbor in the vicinity: Turkey."

While Ankara is negotiating with Washington on acquiring fighter jets, the French journalist points out that "Greece started a vast plan to modernize its army. The country had already spent 10 billion euros on investment projects, recruiting 15,000 additional soldiers and, above all, purchasing new military equipment from abroad, from France. The latest purchases are three new generation frigates and six new Rafale aircraft, besides the 18 already ordered. France also conducted joint military maneuvers with Greece (and Italy) last October. Athens has also just signed a defense agreement with the United States that could lead to Washington's delivery of the latest generation of F35 fighter jets."

"The renewed tension in the bilateral relations is rising while elections are looming in Greece and Turkey," points out Marc Four, who adds, "in Turkey, the vote may be moved up to May. In Greece, the date has not been set, but it will probably be between April and July. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after 20 years in power, is doing everything to remove his opponents. But his victory is far from being guaranteed. There may be a temptation to revive tensions with his neighbor, to flatten the nationalist chord, for electoral purposes."

"Erdogan could push what is today a deeply flawed democracy into a full-blown dictatorship."

Alongside the critical developments in Turkish foreign policy, the Western press worries about the likely outcome of the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.

"Outsiders should pay attention to Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections, which Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested this week will be held on May 14th. All the more so since the country is on the brink of disaster under its increasingly erratic president. Erdogan’s behavior as the election approaches could push what is today a deeply flawed democracy over the edge into a full-blown dictatorship" stresses a new analysis of the weekly British magazine, The Economist.

According to The Economist, "The longer Erdogan has been in power, the more autocratic he has grown. After 11 years as prime minister, he was elected president and set about turning that previously weak post into a dominant one. After an attempted coup in 2016, he had tens of thousands of people purged from their jobs or arrested, often for the merest whisper of a connection to the religious group blamed for the plot".

Based on the above remarks, the magazine concludes that "Erdogan once likened democracy to a tram journey: when you reach your destination, you get off. Under him, elections have seldom been completely fair, but they have been broadly free, with large numbers of voters taking part. The worry this time is that, with Erdogan fearing defeat, he alights and ensures that the elections are neither fair nor free."

Regarding Turkey's undemocratic turn, Erkan Pehlivan underlines that to secure his political hegemony, the President of Turkey is recruiting paramilitary groups. In the framework of this aim, the Turkish Interior Ministry announced the recruitment of a new "Bekcis." Erdogan created the Bekcis after the 2016 coup attempt. These guards now stand at around 40,000, and they are to be deployed primarily in neighborhoods and on the streets. “The pro-Kurdish HDP had warned against the Bekcis in 2020 because their numbers were increasing sharply,” reminds Pehlivan.

Pehlivan adds, "the opposition criticizes Erdogan for building a counterweight to the gendarmerie and police loyal to him. Independent deputy Cihangir Islam spoke of a 'cornerstone for a security state' when discussing the Bekcis law. A new era will begin in which people will be constantly asked for their personal details and will be disturbed in markets and shopping streets. The entire country will be littered with checkpoints,' Cihangir Islam warns.”

*Dr Nikolaos Stelgias was born in Istanbul. He is an independent researcher, writer, historian and journalist. His doctorate is in the field of the modern Turkish political system (Panteion University, 2011). His latest book “The Ailing Turkish Democracy” was published by the Cambridge Scholars Publication in 2020. Dr. Stelgias was a correspondent of the newspaper "Kathimerini (Cyprus edition)" for Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot community from 2009 to 2021. Currently, Dr. Stelgias works at the Cyprus News Agency. Dr. Stelgias publishes in Turkish news articles and analyses on Cyprus and Greece.

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