Turkey’s Looming Gordian Knot
By MARC PIERINI, Carnegie Middle East Center, 06 May 2020
Ankara is pushing problematic policies as its president’s political survival is hitting up against economic imperatives.
Turkey is fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and is helping other countries do the same. However, the health crisis has exposed the country’s vulnerabilities because of its political, economic, and foreign policy choices. Maintaining these choices in the midst of a global recession will be a tall order.
From a sanitary standpoint, and political scuffles apart, Turkey’s health system seems to be coping well with the pandemic. Ankara is also helping a number of countries, ranging from Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, to countries in the western Balkans and Africa. Its carefully choreographed delivery of a consignment of six pallets of medical supplies to Washington, D.C. on April 28 was accompanied by a letter from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan telling President Donald Trump that he was “a reliable and strong partner of the United States.”
The not so subliminal message was that Turkey expects to avoid anticipated U.S. sanctions for its S-400 missile deal with Russia and wants to benefit from a “swap scheme” implemented by the U.S. Federal Reserve for countries most affected by Covid-19.
However, this “Covid-19 diplomacy” will hardly hide the more problematic realities that Turkey faces in its political, economic, and foreign affairs. For starters, the country presents all the trappings of a full autocracy. Freedom of speech and freedom of media are severely limited. The judiciary is politicized. Opposition leaders are verbally assaulted on a regular basis, when not harassed or even dismissed. Prisoners of opinion are kept in jail while organized crime figures have been freed under special Covid-19 legislation.
On the financial front, the reserves of the Turkish central bank are dramatically low and are being used to endlessly defend the Turkish lira against all odds, given the monetary policy that is currently in place. At the same time, Ankara refuses to take advantage of the International Monetary Fund’s special Covid-19 facilities, essentially for reasons of principle, despite their low cost and conditionality. This will make ulterior adjustments more painful.
Meanwhile, the military intervention in northern Syria has ended up illustrating the profound divergences of views with Russia when it comes to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Elsewhere, the Turkish intervention in favor of Libya’s Government of National Accord has also created tensions with several Arab countries, and more importantly with Russia. Unilateral decisions in the eastern Mediterranean, such as the redefinition of maritime boundaries and gas drilling operations in contested waters around Cyprus, have exacerbated relations with Cyprus, Greece, the European Union, and the United States. Making matters worse, the government-organized assault on the Greek border in early March—the first ever by a NATO member against another—using refugees as pawns, ended in failure and added to their suffering.
Finally, Turkey’s deployment of the Russian S-400 air defense system, accompanied by Russian specialists, constituted alignment with Moscow and upset NATO’s missile defense architecture. The U.S. Congress will not be mollified by a shipment of face masks as it considers its response to this.
From a theoretical standpoint, and with a dose of hubris, it could be argued that Turkey has reached such a degree of economic development and military power that it doesn’t need to belong exclusively to the Western alliance anymore. In this vein, it would be legitimate for Ankara to seek a place on the world stage equidistant from all big powers, pursuing an economic policy free of prevailing rules and institutions. However, its leadership’s artificial and hostile narratives, or well-choreographed diplomatic actions, do not represent a policy for two main reasons.
First, becoming a “power in the middle” and acting on par with China, the European Union, Russia, and the United States requires a steady hand and a consistent foreign policy. Assaulting the Greek border with riot police in order to conceal the heavy blow dealt by Russian forces to a Turkish battalion in Saraqeb in Syria’s Idlib Governorate doesn’t buy respect or fear. It just wrecks Turkey’s diplomatic standing. The same goes for the so-called agreement with Libya over maritime boundaries.
Second, hubris notwithstanding, one can’t ignore economic fundamentals. Turkey is a deficit country and relies heavily on the West, primarily Europe, for its export of manufactured goods, its import of technology, and its financial needs, both in terms of short-term and direct investment. China, Russia, and the Gulf countries are not alternatives to Turkey’s European anchor. Even when Qatar or China is willing to help Turkey economically, this is not commensurate with the country’s current financial gap. Besides, beyond hopes, a functioning European economic anchor requires two features that Ankara cannot currently provide—the rule of law as well as respect and dialogue.
Turkey is facing a quandary. The political survival of its president, whose party has lost its electoral hegemony, seems to require an ever-increasing nationalistic narrative as well as a full-fledged authoritarian system. At least, this is what the leadership has decided. At the same time, Turkey’s economic salvation requires cooperation with Europe and international financial institutions. But, here too miscalculations resulting from a one-man power system have sent the country in the other direction. Given the pandemic-induced recession in Turkey, this quandary is bound to become a Gordian knot. That is unless permanent chaos is Erdoğan’s preferred option.