Erdogan’s self-created paradox
In Ankara’s growing kerfuffle of politics, the chief paradox is this: The more Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan consolidates power, the more unstable foreign policy becomes.
There seems to be broad international consensus on this point. The element of unpredictability has reached such a worrisome dimension that commentators, such as Marc Pierini of Carnegie Europe and Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, remarked on the “roughness” of Turkey’s partnership with its Western alliance.
The reason is obvious: Almost all the components of Turkey’s domestic and international policy are being defined, presented and implemented on the basis of Erdogan’s interests, not Turkey’s national interests. Now, facing a flood of allegations over corruption and the breach of international law, Turkey’s strongman is in trouble and has known it all along.
The case of lorries allegedly carrying weaponry to jihadists in Syria, which led to the harassment of journalists from the Turkish daily, Cumhuriyet, which published photos of the incident, is lurking. The so-called RedHack trial, in which reporters, including German journalist Deniz Yucel, were arrested and charged for reporting on leaked e-mail messages allegedly written by Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law, spread further suspicion about corrupt practices.
Most important is a criminal case to be heard in federal court in New York. It not only implicates Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab, known to have links to Erdogan, but encapsulates Turkish bankers and a former minister in Erdogan’s cabinet, Zafer Caglayan. Alleged attempts to bypass an Iranian embargo have been placed at the epicentre of all elements of Turkey’s — or, rather, Erdogan’s — foreign policy parameters.
What has baffled and misled many Turkey analysts over the past two years has simply been their negligence in reading into the Zarrab case and misunderstanding the logic of Erdogan: He takes every antagonism personally and, when facing threats to himself, his family or his men, reflexively applies archaic countermeasures, defying the established codes of international diplomacy. It took a little time for observers in Turkey to understand that the cases of the lorries, RedHack and Zarrab were major issues and that all else in Turkish politics came second.
The Zarrab case exemplifies how irrepressible the truth is, no matter how much one wants it to go away. Erdogan was successful in burying the case at home in 2014. With the help of a submissive media sector, he convinced large segments of Turkish society that the case was baseless, a fiction concocted by Gulenist law enforcers and prosecutors.
Its emergence in the American justice system, the product of a years-long FBI investigation, however, came as proof that Erdogan’s personally enforced narrative could not be sustained beyond Turkey’s borders. Thus, the nightmare and the perplexing patterns in Turkish de-anchoring from NATO and the European Union.
Another element growing in the paradox is that there is a sense within the Turkish government that Erdogan has become a liability and is engaging in politics that are hardly rational on the domestic and international level. Mixed messages from Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and other ministers help explain that this perception is common on the top echelons of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). A widening gap between the palace and the party leadership has become visible.
This realisation, never openly articulated but whispered in private conversations among the ruling party elites in Ankara and business circles in Istanbul, brought those somewhat closer to Turkey’s Western partners, which had noted the Erdogan-as-a-liability dimension much earlier.
While establishing consensus on a fact is one thing, how the masses perceive a strong-willed leader is another. While it is true that Erdogan can no longer rule Turkey without the state of emergency, under a strict decree regime, he is in control in two key ways: All the state institutions — judiciary, media and academia, etc. — are under his personal control and surveys indicate he is backed by 38-49% of the populace and unchallenged by an alternative.
The only one who could rock the boat is charismatic Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas, who is being held in prison indefinitely.
Cold, hard logic tells us that to prevent himself from losing power democratically, Erdogan is holding all the tools in his hand. The fact that he, in pure Machiavellian pragmatism, has forged an alliance with the Turkish state’s militarist, anti-Kurdish, anti-Western old guard only makes the prediction bleak.
How to deal with Turkey? This is a key question facing the new governing coalition taking shape in Germany and governments in other world capitals. There seems to be no easy way to normalise relations as long as Turkey’s strongman is in power, with no democratic challenge in sight. All Berlin and Washington are left to do is damage control.