Six years ago, at the celebratory opening match of the new Basaksehir Stadium in Istanbul, an unlikely football star emerged. The red team’s ageing, six-foot tall centre-forward lumbered toward the white team’s goal; a delicate chip over the advancing keeper brought a goal that sent the stadium into ecstasy. The scorer was Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was the run-up to an election in which he expected to become his country’s 12th president.
For Erdogan, a former semi-professional footballer, it was brilliant self-promotion. Like Fidel Castro’s baseball pitching or Chairman Mao’s ‘world record’ Yangtze River swim at the start of the Cultural Revolution, Erdogan’s contrived sporting prowess helped make him as much a cult as a politician.
In the 18 years since his election victory as head of the Justice and Development party (AKP), he has used his cult of personality to overturn the institutional domination of the secular, pro-western followers of the Turkish Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Elections have been won by appealing over the heads of the educated urban elites to the conservative rural population and those left behind by the country’s economic success. Turkey has morphed from a determinedly secular pro-European country to an authoritarian anti-European Islamic state.
Three current events – which all put President Erdogan at odds with the EU and the US – show the extent of Turkey’s transformation. In the eastern Mediterranean, in search of oil and gas, Turkey is seeking to carve up the area for its own benefit at the expense of Nato ‘allies’ Greece and Cyprus. As Erdogan’s deputy warned in June: ‘We are tearing up and throwing away maps of the Eastern Mediterranean that imprison us on the mainland.’ Meanwhile Erdogan is openly giving military support for his Muslim Azerbaijani confederate’s attempt to regain their Nagorno-Karabakh region from Christian Armenia. But nothing shows the change in the Turkish-EU relationship more than Erdogan’s lambasting this week of President Macron as a man in need of ‘mental treatment’ for a clumsy but not egregious calling out of radical Islam after the beheading of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty. In leading the call for a boycott of French goods, Erdogan has thumbed a nose at not only France but also the West, describing Europe’s leaders as ‘links in the chain of Nazism’. How has it come to this?
The Islamification of Turkey was accelerated by the failed military coup in 2016. Some 50,000 arrests followed. The judiciary, which in 1998 sent Erdogan to prison for reading an Islamic poem, was purged of its Kemalists; likewise, the Turkish bureaucracy. The army, brought under nominal civilian control by Erdogan’s masterly legerdemain in 2004, was purged of its secular commanders. Meanwhile opposition journalists were imprisoned while others fled the country. In total an estimated 180,000 people, identified as Turkey’s enemies, lost their jobs. Erdogan described the failed coup as a ‘gift from God’.
Concurrent with Erdogan’s transformation of Turkey’s constitution and its power structures, but less well understood, has been his so-called neo-Ottoman foreign policy. Hitherto Turkey’s international strategy, after Ataturk’s military prowess had secured his nation’s survival at the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, had been unwaveringly western-centric. This was even more the case after the emergence of an expansionist Soviet Union, which resulted in Turkey joining Nato as early as 1952 – some three years before Germany.
The fragmentation of the Soviet Union changed everything. The Russian threat receded. In spite of entreaties from President George W. Bush, France and Germany rowed back on the planned Turkish accession to the EU even though Turkey had been allowed to join the EU’s customs union in 1995. Erdogan was probably happy to have independence thrust upon him. With Turkey’s economy running hot from further deregulation and Western credit, he felt confident enough to launch a swaggering neo-Ottoman foreign policy.
The results were initially catastrophic. Erdogan’s aim to replace President Assad’s regime in Syria with a Muslim Brotherhood-friendly government failed miserably. More importantly, in spite of Turkey’s support, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, elected President in the aftermath of the toppling of President Mubarak in the ‘Arab Spring’, was in turn overthrown by a military coup. The regional hostility to Erdogan’s interventions, particular from Saudi Arabia, was such that Qatar was the only Middle Eastern country to send a head of state to attend his presidential inauguration in 2014. The EU nations were equally unimpressed. Erdogan’s increasing disdain for the West was shown by his support for a visit to Turkey by Khaled Mashal, Hamas’s military commander. As for Saudi Arabia, Erdogan exacted his revenge by revealing to the global media the ghoulish dismemberment of dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Only in the area of soft power did Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman strategy achieve some success. Warm relations have been developed with former Ottoman territories in the Balkans. Going east the Turkic speaking diaspora, comprising 100 million people, stretches to the vast oblast of Sakha [Yakutia], whose capital Yakutsk is over 4,000 miles from Istanbul. Turkic-speaking Uzbekistan is a natural ally. So too is Turkmenistan whose alliance with Turkey is almost existential; its independence from Russia’s embrace rests largely on the ability to export its natural gas through an EU-supported, Russia-bypassing ‘southern pipeline’ through Turkey. Erdogan has also taken over their network of Islamic businesses and educational foundations to establish a soft-power presence in a dozen African countries.
If Erdogan’s policies in the Middle East were crassly religio-political in the early years of his rule, his foreign policy after May 2016, when he sacked his long-time political ally and foreign policy guru Ahmet Davutoglu, has been marked by ruthless pragmatism. Realpolitik is certainly needed to guide a country that has become of critical geopolitical interest to all of the ‘big four’ superpowers (the US, China, Europe and Russia) – a rare concurrence.
Turkey has control of several levers to use against the EU, the two most important being the Central Asian natural gas supply through Turkish pipelines, which Europe needs to reduce dependence on Russia, and control of the movement of Syrian refugees. Furthermore, Turkey, with a population of 82 million, has more troops than Germany, France and the Netherlands combined. Turkey takes defence spending seriously and its military will become ever stronger as its fast-growing economy threatens to overtake those of European nations over the next 20 years.
Turkey’s relations with Russia are similarly transactional. They are not natural friends; since the mid-17th century they have fought six major wars – seven if you include the Cold War. However, once Russia had intervened militarily in Syria on the government’s side, Erdogan pragmatically gave up his quest to overthrow President Assad. A spat over the shooting down of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 was, after a respectable interval, patched up. In return for their compliance with Russian aims, Putin gave Erdogan a juicy bone to chew on by allowing him to clear out pockets of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorists in the Afrin salient as well as Kobane further to the east. Effectively Erdogan, in displacing hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians, has now created a 30 to 50 km security zone inside Syria’s 565-mile border with Turkey. Eventual annexation of these areas seems likely.
There are more prosaic reasons for the informal Turkish-Russian pact. Russia sells $40 billion per annum of natural gas to Turkey; it is the juice that has powered Turkey’s rapid industrial growth. Russians have also overtaken Germany in terms of tourist arrivals. Economically the two countries need each other.
Erdogan carefully plays Russia against Europe and the US to channel Turkey’s needs. When he narrowly escaped death in the 2016 coup attempt, Putin called him the next day. By contrast, a petulant Barack Obama remained silent even though he had named Erdogan as one of his five trusted international leader friends just four years earlier. The bromance of their early relationship had cooled as Erdogan refused to help the Kurds to fight Isis in Northern Syria. At the same time western liberal media opinion had turned against Erdogan’s increasingly autocrat behaviour – particularly with regard to the arrest of environmentalists protesting a proposed shopping mall in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park. Erdogan may well have presumed, arguably correctly, that Obama and Europe would have preferred the Kemalists to topple Turkey’s elected Islamic leader. Reading the runes, Erdogan dumped a fading Barack Obama in favour of Vladimir Putin, though this relationship has also been subject to stress.
In recent months, Erdogan has been unable to resist the call for help from Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan as it seeks to recover Nagorno-Karabakh from Turkey’s historic enemy and Russian ally Armenia; a state that unhelpfully still refers to Eastern Turkey as ‘Western Armenia’. Turkey cannot forgive Armenia for trying to carve out a large piece of Anatolia after the first world war; Armenia cannot forgive Turkey a genocide that killed 1.5 million of its people. Cynically, it has to be asked whether Putin is happy that Erdogan has helped give Armenia a tap to keep them in line as a Russian ally?
Another remarkable switchback was achieved in Turkey’s relationship with Donald Trump. In June 2016 Erdogan complained that ‘Trump has no tolerance for Muslims living in the US’ and urged the removal of his name from Istanbul’s Trump Tower. Since then Erdogan and Trump’s sons-in-law, finance minister Berat Albayrak and Jared Kushner respectively, have engaged in back door family diplomacy.
The courtship paid off. Trump’s administration held off punishment of Halkbank, a state-owned company accused by the FBI of helping Iran to evade US financial sanctions. Obligatory US government sanctions on Turkey for buying Russian S-400 missiles, designed to shoot down Nato planes, have also been deferred. Most controversially, Erdogan persuaded Trump to withdraw US troops from Northern Syria, thus abandoning the Kurdish fighters who fought with American troops against Isis.
The US relationship remains delicate however and not just because Trump could well lose next week’s US presidential race to Joe Biden whose Democrat administration would be unlikely to favour Erdogan’s autocratic Turkey. In recent months relations with both Greece and Cyprus, both historic enemies, and have plunged to their lowest point since the Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974, as the Turkish navy has harassed their exploration vessels. The EU has threatened sanctions while Mike Pompeo has twice visited Greece in the past year and given a coded warning that the US would use ‘all appropriate means at their disposal, in order to safeguard stability and security in the wider region’. Most likely Erdogan’s threats are a hard-nosed negotiation tactic over exploration licences.
However, by far the most intriguing example of Erdogan’s transformation from a clumsy religious ideologue to a master of realpolitik has been his recent dealings with China. Erdogan used to be a staunch critic of China’s treatment of the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs of Xinjiang Province. Now he has become their persecutor. The arrest of hundreds of Uyghurs resident in Turkey followed the signing of an extradition agreement in 2017; an event that reveals the absurd hypocrisy of Erdogan’s berating of President Macron for his recent Islamic comments.
Turkey’s economic rewards from China have been potentially regime saving. When the Turkish lira crashed by 40 per cent in 2018, it was China rather than its erstwhile allies, Europe and America, that bailed it out with a $3.6billion loan from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. Through a swap arrangement the People’s Bank of China has also rescued Turkey’s corporate sector by allowing it trade with China in Chinese Yuan.
A slew of Chinese investments and other financial support has followed, particular for transport infrastructure related to China’s ‘New Silk Road’. A Chinese consortium has paid $688million for a majority stake in the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, for road and rail, that crosses the northern Bosphorus. In addition, the state-controlled China Cosco Shipping Company and other state actors have bought a 65 per cent holding in a giant container terminus in Istanbul. China has thus completed a chain of port assets that stretch from the South China Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, to the eastern Mediterranean where Casco has also bought the Port of Piraeus. As Xi Jinping stated last year it was part of a master plan to ‘further boost the throughput capacity of China’s fast sea-land link with Europe’. Meanwhile, Erdogan, ignoring US security concerns, has allowed Huawei’s telephony market share to rise from 3 per cent to 30 per cent since 2017.
Given the inroads that Russia and China have made in Turkey, does this mean that Erdogan has permanently severed the almost century-long relationship of subservience to Europe? Probably. It is clear that the EU, bereft of a global geopolitical plan and hampered by a sclerotic political and bureaucratic structure, has failed to tie in countries at its geographic periphery. Meanwhile Erdogan, the former footballer, has learned how to play the game of political ‘keepie uppie’ with all the skill of a Ballon d’Or winner.