Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gives a speech on economic policy amid the rapid depreciation of the Turkish lira. Photo Credit: Anadolu Ajansi
Turkey is always at a crossroads. Today so is the world. The consequences of Turkey’s response to current crises leading up to national elections due to occur by June 2023 will determine the country’s relationship with Europe and the US. Importantly, this is a two-way street – US policy engagement plays a significant role in shaping conditions for Turkish foreign policy and can constrain damaging outcomes with reverberations throughout the world. Even as Turkish leaders seek to balance US and NATO influence with Russian, Chinese and non-NATO security relationships, Turkey seeks a degree of strategic autonomy that led to violent confrontation with both US and Russian-backed forces in Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and beyond. The US must consider the implications of Turkey’s domestic political conditions to develop a US foreign policy in line with a shifting geopolitical landscape and complex interdependence between rival states. Policy must avoid conflating Turkish policies of strategic autonomy as just a move towards Russia’s sphere of influence. In fact, many Turkish military actions seem more closely linked with domestic considerations and asserting a Turkish sphere of strategic influence than attempts to align with regional powers.
The primacy President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan solidified since the July 15, 2016 coup attempt gradually transformed into a highly centralized presidential system centered around a small team of core advisors, with other members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) working to gain access or push others out.[i] The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic made this core less permeable and less willing to engage with a struggling global economy still under threat from new variants and ongoing instabilities. In 2021, Erdoğan pointed to Turkey’s rapidly rebounding GDP as evidence that Turkey is in good shape economically and sought investment from former regional rivals like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.[ii] However, the situation on the ground is far more severe. The lira depreciated 46 percent since January 2021, leading to inflation so significant that it constitutes a currency crisis. In late November, rapid acceleration of inflation led to rare national protests calling on the government to resign, and on December 1 Erdoğan replaced the Minister of Treasury and Economic Affairs.[iii],[iv]
Erdoğan responded with further cuts to interest rates and a focus on job creation for his base, which seems to reflect his willingness to forcefully and painfully decouple Turkey’s economy from its traditional creditors and pivot towards long-term investors and local magnates outside North America and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).[v],[vi] This policy proved extremely unpopular to the extent that the AKP’s ruling coalition with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) fell behind in the polls for the first time since 2001.[vii] For analysts studying Turkey, a central question is how much these polls matter. On one hand, Erdoğan’s AKP lost elections in Turkey’s three largest cities in 2019 to the opposition, a huge setback that led Erdoğan to force a re-run of the Istanbul mayoral election, which his party lost again.[viii] On the other hand, since 2007 Erdoğan’s party used its increasing control of the executive, judiciary, parliament, and media to exert increasing influence over elections, jailing opposition politicians, funding its campaigns from government coffers, changing electoral rules on mid-election, and introducing fraudulent ballots in key districts.[ix]
Economic conditions are putting Erdoğan under pressure with his core supporters. This led some to seek alternative conservative nationalist parties with different economic policies. Multiple of these parties, led by former AKP members, saw jumps in polling corresponding with losses for the ruling coalition. This loss of support on the center-right began in June 2015 after Erdoğan’s party lost its majority, contributing to Erdoğan’s decision to end the ‘solution process’ with the Kurdish separatist PKK and accept some far-right positions in exchange for the MHP’s support. In 2017, anti-Erdoğan elements of the MHP left the party and founded the Good Party (IYI Party) which entered parliament and formed a coalition with the main opposition.[x] In late 2019, a former AKP Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu formed the Gelecek Party (polling at 2%) and in March 2020, a former AKP Minister of Treasury and Economic Affairs Ali Babacan formed the DEVA party (polling at 3%).[xi] They appear likely to join the broad anti-Erdoğan coalition in the next election in order to enter parliament, contesting the same center-right nationalist voters that hold Erdoğan’s ruling coalition together.[xii]
In the past, when confronted with economic pressure, Erdoğan turned to foreign policy endeavors that inspired nationalist support, such as an incursion into Syria in October 2019 to fight Kurdish separatists aligned with the PKK, inflaming tensions over disputed maritime exploration rights near Cyprus in 2020, or military advisors and support for Azerbaijan in the 44-day 2020 Karabakh War.[xiii] This year, Erdoğan’s hints at more military action in Syria led to the opposition’s first ever vote against deploying Turkish forces to Syria, resignations of top Turkish generals deployed to Syria, and public repudiations by both Russia and the US[xiv],[xv] Turkey instead pivoted towards targeted drone strikes on what its military reports are senior leadership of the PKK in Iraq and Syria.[xvi]
Faced with constrained space for military action to rouse nationalist support, Erdoğan must make a series of risky decisions. He may choose to pursue military operations despite US and Russian objections to see if either Russia or the US will come to the table and offer Erdoğan something he wants. In the past, Russia was more willing to cut these deals, selling Turkey the S-400 air defense system, offering economic investment, and to jointly develop fighter jet technology. These deals led to severe U.S. and NATO policy consequences for Turkey’s Air Force and defense industry as they are congressionally restricted from participation in the F-35 program and from key imports for their aging fleet of F-16s.[xvii] With these policies, the US and NATO countries are better positioned to leverage their economic power and Erdoğan’s desire for economic results, nationalist defense policy, and strategic autonomy to shape conditions for renewed Turkish tensions with Russia and China.[xviii] Amid Russian tensions with Ukraine, which Turkey often voiced support for, Ankara may come to see Russia as a threat on the Black Sea.[xix] Turkey sources parts for its drones and other defense goods from Ukraine and already sold and fielded Turkish-made drones for the Ukrainian Armed Forces.[xx] Renewed war in Ukraine would prompt Turkey to seek assurances and policies from NATO allies that constrain Russian influence.
On the other hand, Erdoğan may decide that domestic political challengers themselves need to be constrained. Erdoğan risks alienating nationalist officers in the military he has relied on for recent military operations, and steps toward constraining nationalist opposition could be accompanied by additional coup-proofing and mass arrests. In November 2021, Ankara police arrested Metin Gürcan, an ex-military journalist and founding member of the opposition nationalist DEVA Party with significant public presence in the English-language press.[xxi] The popular former head of the main pro-Kurdish opposition party, Selahattin Demirtaş remains in jail since his candidacy in the last presidential election despite EU calls for his release.[xxii] This may indicate the beginning of a wider campaign to crackdown on the opposition parties campaigning for the AKP’s voters. As the election nears, Erdoğan may escalate this crackdown on opposition figures, ban key opposition parties, or engage in fraudulent elections to prevail, which likely further weaken his economic position and increase his reliance on partners willing to ignore the crackdown. Turkey’s desire for strategic autonomy, mutual defense, and mutually beneficial relations with Europe and the US will continue to provide opportunities for engagement that constrain Russia. The US and Europe must balance their visions for NATO and relations with Turkey with an understanding of Putin’s weaknesses and shifting geopolitical conditions post-Afghanistan. Erdoğan is risk-taking but not risk oblivious; he will limit his tests of U.S. and NATO resolve in consideration of constraints and incentives, balancing Turkish desire for strategic autonomy with Turkey’s position at a global crossroads.
[i] Özgür Erkarslan and Isabella Wilkinson, “COVID-19 A Blessing or a Curse for Authoritarians,” Democracy and Society,May 15, 2020, https://democracyandsociety.net/2020/05/15/covid-19-a-blessing-or-a-curse-for-turkeys-authoritarian-incumbents/
[ii] Orhan Coskun, “Turkey, UAE Sign Investment Accords Worth Billions of Dollars,” Reuters, November 24, 2021, sec. Middle East, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/turkey-hopes-uae-investment-deals-during-ankara-talks-2021-11-24/
[iii] Phillip Inman, “Erdoğan Gambles on Economy amid Protests and Rocketing Inflation,” The Guardian, November 24, 2021, sec. World news, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/24/Erdoğan-gambles-on-economy-amid-protests-and-rocketing-inflation
[iv] “Turkey Replaces Treasury and Finance Minister,” Anadolu Agency, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/economy/turkey-replaces-treasury-and-finance-minister/2436294
[v] “Turkish Lira Stability Can Only Be Achieved by Exports, Tourism -Erdoğan,” Reuters, December 1, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/turkey-economy-Erdoğan-currency-idUSKBN2IF2AT
[vi] “Turkey,” United States Department of State (blog), accessed November 30, 2021, https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-investment-climate-statements/turkey/
[vii] JamesInTurkey.com, “October’s Poll of Turkish Polls Produced a Slight AK Party Recovery from the Previous Month’s Record Low — but with a Corresponding MHP Drop, It Leaves the Picture Essentially Unchanged. Meanwhile, the Levels for the CHP and Deva Are the Highest We’ve Seen. Https://T.Co/C9dYSlFofO,” Tweet, @jamesinturkey (blog), November 16, 2021, https://twitter.com/jamesinturkey/status/1460552833615503363
[viii] Can Selcuki, “The Istanbul Rerun Isn’t About the Mayor. It’s About Turkey’s Future.,” Foreign Policy (blog), accessed November 30, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/09/the-istanbul-rerun-isnt-about-the-mayor-its-about-turkeys-future-Erdoğan-election-democracy-imamoglu-yildirim/
[x] “Turkey’s President Erdoğan Is Losing Ground at Home,” Center for American Progress, https://www.americanprogress.org/article/turkeys-president-Erdoğan-losing-ground-home/
[xi] “Ali Babacan: Metin Gürcan’ın yanında olacağız,” Milliyet, https://www.milliyet.com.tr/siyaset/ali-babacan-metin-gurcanin-yaninda-olacagiz-6652878
[xii] “Turkey’s President Erdoğan Is Losing Ground at Home.”
[xiii] Caroline Rose, Erdoğan Foreign Policy, interview by Noah Ringler, Video Conference, November 21, 2021.
[xiv] “Top Generals Step down in Ominous Sign for Turkish Military in Syria – Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East,” accessed December 7, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/09/top-generals-step-down-ominous-sign-turkish-military-syria
[xv] “Turkey’s Parliament Votes to Extend Mandate for Troops in Iraq, Syria – Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East,” accessed December 7, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/10/turkeys-parliament-votes-extend-mandate-troops-iraq-syria
[xvi] “Turkey Suspends Syria Operation Due to Russia, U.S. Rejection,” The Syrian Observer, November 16, 2021, https://syrianobserver.com/news/71297/turkey-suspends-syria-operation-due-to-russia-u-s-rejection.html
[xvii] “Not a Divorce but a Defense Decoupling: What’s Next for the U.S.-Turkish Alliance,” War on the Rocks, October 18, 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/10/not-a-divorce-but-a-defense-decoupling-whats-next-for-the-u-s-turkish-alliance/
[xviii] Aykan Erdemi et. al, “FDD | Collusion or Collision?,” FDD, December 3, 2021, https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2021/12/03/collusion-or-collision/
[xix] “Turkey′s Erdoğan Voices Support for Ukraine amid Crisis | News | DW | 10.04.2021,” accessed December 7, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/turkeys-Erdoğan-voices-support-for-ukraine-amid-crisis/a-57157898.
[xx] Joseph Trevithick, “Ukraine Strikes Russian-Backed Forces Using Turkish-Made TB2 Drones For The First Time,” The Drive, accessed December 7, 2021, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/42894/ukraine-strikes-russian-backed-forces-using-turkish-made-tb2-drones-for-the-first-time.
[xxi] “Ali Babacan.”