Is Erdoğan moving closer to ‘Making Turkey Big Again’?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seemed unusually calm in the days leading up to last week’s European Union summit, in which the bloc’s leaders were to discuss sanctions against Turkey.

“The EU's proposed sanctions on Turkey would not be a major problem for us,” Erdoğan told reporters on Dec. 9, before flying to Azerbaijan.

He most probably knew, after a series of behind the door chats, or intel, that what his government faced was a paper tiger. And he was right. To hell with the critics, whining that he was turning more dictatorial by every day.

“The EU summit's outcome has indicated that the Turkish pundits, as well as many other non-Turkish analysts, who are critical of Erdoğan with legitimate reasons, have a strong tendency of wishful thinking to see the Turkish president as the loser in his assertive foreign policy moves,” wrote Cengiz Çandar, a prominent analyst and senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.

“No need to indulge in semantics and take pains to conceal the fact. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan defied the European Union – and he won.”

The EU’s half-hearted declaration of sanctions is nothing more than material for the echo chamber. Yes, it is somewhat expanded in measures, aimed at poking holes in Turkey’s shipping, banking, energy and trade. But as things stand, it is not even clear whether they will be implemented after March 2021.

This can explain why Erdoğan seemed confident and at ease before the announcement. He knows his EU and saw through its weaknesses like an x-ray device. He has also made sure that the 27-member bloc remained dependent on by Turkey – held like hostages – on two levels.

Germany, the economic giant with a dwarfed foreign policy and fearful of another potential refugee influx, had found shelter in the argument that the upcoming Biden administration should be the one to whose lap the hot Turkish potato must be thrown onto, and the country persuaded long-frustrated France to be more lenient. Austria caved in. Then, there were the others: Spain, Italy, Bulgaria and Malta, whose resistance to a swift and damaging sanctions scheme had remained unmoved for a long time.

Secondly, the hesitation – a folly of historic proportions – was due to a simple point, summarised in the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

In an article titled, “Erdoğan’s ‘Please Sanction Me’ Challenge”, Burak Bekdil, a critical pundit, referred to a crucial report recently published by German daily Die Welt, which said that if the Turkish economy collapses – a very likely prospect – it may have a severe ripple effect on Europe.

“Europe's financial institutions must fear the collapse of Turkey. Many of them are still involved in the country with billions of euros, and the West has a lot to lose. This makes sanctions more difficult – and strengthens President Erdoğan's authoritarian position,” the article said.

"These are the European banks which, even after four years of ongoing Turkish crisis, are still involved in Turkey with investments of billions of euros. Western financial institutions will have to fear serious depreciation if the country is to truly enter into an extensive balance of payments crisis.”

Die Welt wrote that Spanish financial institutions' exposure to a Turkish collapse was $62 billion. That exposure would be $29 billion for French banks, $12 billion for the British, $11 billion for the Germans and $8.7 billion for the Italians. That means lenders from five EU countries would be vulnerable to a combined $122.7-billion loss.

The numbers speak for themselves – they are Erdoğan’s security for continuing his course unhindered, shaped by his “enforcement policies”, which keeps the entire region in turmoil. Thus, EU leaders sent a message to him, saying that his government may continue challenging the status quo in eastern Mediterranean and keeping Greece on edge – at least until Biden takes over on Jan. 20. Even then, it is unclear whether or not the new U.S. administration will give priority to such a foreign policy issue.

The EU summit also coincided with what Erdoğan and his ultra-nationalist, anti-West ally Devlet Bahçeli see as a major triumph in foreign policy. The Ottoman-style celebration in the Azeri capital of Baku on Thursday – with hundreds of Turkey elite soldiers from Turkey present – gave Erdoğan the opportunity to elaborate on his expansionist vision, as an alternative to a souring West.

"Today, may the souls of Nuri Pasha, Enver Pasha and the brave soldiers of the Caucasus Islam Army be happy,” he said, in reference to the Ottoman armies that invaded the Caucasus during World War I.

Enver was the Ottoman Minister of War during World War I and one of the chief architects of the Armenian Genocide. Nuri Pasha, Enver's brother, had led forces which occupied Baku in 1918 and massacred around 10,000 Armenian civilians living there.

There was a ground-breaking moment in the symbolique and the speech: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, and Enver hated each other. The former always deplored Enver’s pan-Turanism.

Erdoğan’s praise of Enver marks a historic deviation from Enver’s nemesis, Atatürk, whose long-lasting doctrine, “Peace at Home, Peace in the World”, had built its axis. A paradigm shift? Very likely.

The Erdoğan-Bahçeli power bloc in Ankara will continue to be keen on benefitting from the continuous vacuum in the region, self-assured by the gains Azerbaijan made in Nagorno-Karabakh and emboldened by the EU’s “stuttering”.

There was a reason why Erdoğan’s added in his speech that “the struggle carried out in the political and military areas will continue from now on many other fronts”. He was referring to Syria and Libya, in a statement indicating Russia’s quiet consent to what he wants to achieve.

There may even be reason to believe that, given the overall hesitation even in Washington about repeating refrains on Turkey’s “strategic importance”, Erdoğan sees no big deal in the U.S. sanctions imposed on the Turkish Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB) on Monday, which were limited in scope and may now serve his domestic image as a “targeted hero”.

In high self-esteem, he recently said: “When Biden takes over we shall sit and talk about some issues. There will be ways to handle things through diplomacy”. Erdoğan is certainly keen to see whether or not, or at what point, Biden will blink, like his EU counterparts.

Relieved and encouraged, Erdoğan moves forward, already taking steps to prepare for Biden’s presidency. Firstly, realising a new era in the Middle East, he appointed an ambassador to Israel, a position vacant for two years. Secondly, while in Baku, he declared that Turkey may open its closed border with Armenia. Thirdly, he appointed an ambassador to Paris who is known to be “close” with President Emmanuel Macron.

Erdoğan has been assisted enormously by his Western allies to become even more cynical and determined: The Western obsession with realpolitik forgives all that he has been doing to the Turkish people and veils the fast glide to increasingly oppressive, personalised governance and social suffering.

Erdoğan has made certain that Turkey’s relations with the EU and United States will never be the same as before, yet his rule will soon be assured to be seen as infinitely legitimate.

He is in full gear to make Turkey “big again”, but only as an irredentist military power, as far as possible from democracy and the rule of law, a Eurasian power made for cynical economic transactions and that ignores the aspirations of its citizens-turned-pariahs.

Erdoğan has all the reason to be thankful for his enablers.