From a quasi-model of economic success and democratic improvement ten years ago, Turkey has now adopted an uncomfortable posture that combines a recurrent display of hostility toward the West and forging shaky alliances with historically distant countries, such as Russia and Iran. Yet, the European and Western orientation of Turkey is still part of Ankara’s official narrative. This bipolar character may become a permanent feature; Europeans therefore need to learn how to handle Ankara’s roguishness and unpredictability while supporting Turkey’s liberal democrats for the long haul.
When Turkey won its EU candidate status in December 2004, it was due to the country’s economic success and declared willingness to move its democracy toward EU standards. In 2013, however, things started to unravel.
At first, it sounded like another burst of the conspiracy theories that have fed Turkey’s political narrative for a century. Each of Turkey’s woes had a foreign enemy at its roots: in June 2013, it was a “bank lobby,” an airline, and liberal civil society that were responsible for widespread anti-government demonstrations; in December 2013 and July 2016, members of a sect that was once the main political ally of the ruling AKP were to blame; in March 2017, the media, international NGOs, and “Nazi remnants” in Europe were targeted to shore up government support during a constitutional referendum campaign; now, it is an “infiltrated” U.S. judiciary and traitors from within, allied with spies from abroad, that has led to American charges against prominent Turkish businessmen over dealings with Iran.
The virtual world that Turkey’s leaders have confined themselves in is leading the country into an economic and diplomatic deadlock. Whether this trend is attributable to a perennial fear of the country being dismantled, encirclement syndrome, or rhetoric divorced from facts, the reality is that Turkey is haphazardly decoupling from Western norms and behavior.
Immediately after the July 2016 coup had failed, EU leaders supported Turkey’s democratically elected institutions, but also warned that Ankara’s corrective measures should remain within the rule of law. The Europeans did this for a reason: they were aware of the opportunistic temptation—a “gift from God,” said Turkey’s president—to swiftly move to a one-man-rule system that would wreak havoc on the country.
The ensuing massive purge did exactly that, introducing a chilling atmosphere for Turkey’s citizens. In the economic sphere, Ankara’s increasingly rogue behavior created a lasting feeling of uncertainty for foreign operators.
In an “un-Western” move in May, Turkey requested Interpol to investigate 681 German companies for possible links to “terror organizations.” Meanwhile, the ongoing Zarrab case being tried in New York shows that Turkey not only financially supported Iran (then the subject of UN and U.S. sanctions), but that Ankara insists it was legitimate to do so. Attempts to blame the trial on an international conspiracy verges on the absurd, and the economic fallout could be painful: possible U.S. Treasury penalties on Turkish banks (much like the $8.9 billion fees on French bank BNP Paribas in 2014) would come on top of inflationary risks and a hesitant interest rate policy, itself recently fluctuating between religious ideology and sound economics.
Combined with other moves by Ankara, such as the deal to purchase Russian S400 missiles, today’s Turkey inevitably appears as a country that has walked away from its earlier narrative of being a “strategic partner” of the West.
Turkish statements on the centrality of NATO and the EU in its foreign policy, including full EU membership, are delivered regularly at high-level meetings. But, simultaneously, the president’s entourage points to a radically different foreign policy approach, without a Western anchor. Some of Turkey’s moves are seen as deliberately provocative: for example, taking state hostages and publicly offering to exchange them, as authorized by a newly approved decree “in situations required by national security or national interests;” or using a state visit to Greece to score points at home.
Taking a wider strategic perspective, Russia’s interactions with Turkey shed an anti-EU and anti-NATO light on recent developments. The TurkStream gas pipeline is an integral part of Moscow’s strategy to bypass Ukraine and—together with NordStream and investments in Iraq’s and Egypt’s gas fields—to keep a tight control on the EU’s gas supply lines. Similarly, repeated statements about Russian missiles supposedly being deployed soon in Turkey are a useful tool for Moscow’s strategy of nagging NATO.
In substance, most working assumptions of Western diplomacies about Turkey’s cooperation with the United States, the EU, and NATO over the past six years—such as Ankara’s posture in the Syrian war, its effective participation in the anti-ISIL coalition, its attitude toward Iran, its participation in NATO’s missile defense shield, and adopting EU democratic norms—have largely been proven wrong.
Now, the EU and the United States face a dual narrative from Ankara—one of openness versus hostility. They are hard put to figure out which one will prevail in the medium term. Turkey’s perennial, strategic European and Western anchor can no longer be taken for granted. That said, there are many reasons to continue engaging Turkey. It all depends on how it is done.
Up until the 2019 Turkish elections, it is inevitable that EU leaders will be confronted with continued fiery rhetoric and hostile posturing from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, should they imprudently invite him to the “summit” Ankara requests. Most EU leaders seem to be still under the illusion that Ankara can be talked back toward a more conciliatory attitude. This ignores the history of Turkey’s politics as well as its current political circumstances: lambasting Europe and the United States resonates deep within Turkey’s collective narrative since the creation of the republic and, more importantly, is key to salvaging the current leadership’s fragile majority. The EU should deny Ankara the benefit of boxing matches.
Beyond today’s politics, a “dual Turkey” should also be viewed with a long-term perspective. The key issue for the Western world is whether, in 15 to 20 years, a post-Erdoğan Turkey will be able to return to a decent rule of law architecture and functioning democracy. Turkey’s future path will result first from the upcoming elections. It will also be conditioned by the resurgence of Russian and Iranian “imperial” policies.
The EU may have little influence in this respect, but it should at least exert every effort to support human rights defenders, civil society organizations, and cultural and educational exchanges. This is a long-haul endeavor and one that will bring accusations of “enmity” and “international conspiracies.” Notwithstanding, the EU should firmly stay the course and remain—in words and in deeds—an anchor for Turkish democrats.