Back to the Grand Bazaar

The furore caused by Turkey’s attempt to block Finland and Sweden’s NATO application is understandable. However, this is not the first time this has happened. In 2009, Turkey attempted to block Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s appointment as NATO’s secretary-general because of his role in the Prophet Mohammed cartoon crisis in 2005.

In 2019, Turkey threatened to scupper NATO’s plans for the defence of Poland and the Baltic states unless it branded the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as terrorists. Now Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claims that Finland and Sweden are “like some kind of guest house for terrorist organisations.”

The president’s chief foreign policy adviser and spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalın, has also elevated the issue to a matter of national security.

This, of course, raises the question of what Turkey wants to be able to step down without losing face. Or rather, what Erdoğan is prepared to accept, for what, as a member of NATO, is a high stakes gamble.  

Faced with both parliamentary and presidential elections next year, Turkey’s president is sitting on a powder keg: the economy. And whatever move he makes, for example, in foreign policy, there is a blowback effect. The central bank’s gross foreign exchange reserves have been bolstered by currency swap deals with the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and other countries, but in actual fact its bottom line is in severe minus. 

From 2019-2020, the central bank burned through $128 billion in reserves to prop up the lira and Turkey has $124 billion in short-term debt, so the outlook is grim. The Turkish lira is the world’s third-worst performing currency this year after the Sri Lankan rupee and the Ghanaian cedi, and Erdoğan’s objections to Finland and Sweden’s NATO bid have knocked more than two percent off its value in a week.

There is no doubt Erdoğan is exploiting Turkey’s nuisance value, but what does he hope to gain?

According to Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), he is after a bribe. Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, calls Turkey’s stance “blackmail,” but he has no cause to be alarmed.

As Nate Schenkkan, a director at Freedom House, made clear five years ago, hostage taking is a feature of Turkish foreign policy. Back then it was U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson in exchange for Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen, who is accused by the Turkish government of being the instigator of an attempted coup in July, 2016.

As Erdoğan explained to the United States: “You have another pastor in your hands. Give us that pastor and we will do what we can in the judiciary to give you this one.”

With one eye on the evangelicals, President Donald Trump’s reaction was uncompromising. Sanctions were imposed on two leading Turkish ministers, which caused the Turkish lira and the benchmark 10-year bond to hit a record low. In that year, the lira, already groggy, fell almost 40 percent against the dollar. Consequently, pastor Brunson was released.

Ambassador Eric Edelman, counsellor at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), sees Erdoğan, as well as seeking to strengthen his position domestically, in search of leverage both with the West and Russia.

As far as the United States is concerned, the payoff could be a proposed deal for the sale of 40 (block 70) F-16s and nearly 80 modernisation kits to Turkey. However, the initial “small weapons deal” touted by the Biden administration is the thin end of the wedge.   

In Edelman’s view, Turkey remains an unpredictable and unreliable ally in a crucial geostrategic location. This is confirmed by a report from Clingendael (the Netherlands Institute of International Relations), which does not augur well for the prospect of stability in the Eastern Mediterranean.

With reference to Erdoğan’s claim that Finland and Sweden act as ‘guest houses’ for terrorist organisations, there is an additional dimension. According to the Swedish daily Expressen and Ahval’s editor-in-chief, Yavuz Baydar, the Turkish Foreign Ministry has submitted a list of 21 Turkish dissidents who have fled to Sweden and whom Turkey would like to see extradited. There are also a number from Finland.

Given Sweden’s stance on human rights, such extraditions are unlikely. Michael Rubin has published a list of Turkey’s maximalist demands, which will only serve to draw out Finland and Sweden’s application process and undermine Turkey’s credibility.

At an EU summit in December 2004, agreement on the starting date for Turkey’s accession process was almost derailed when Erdoğan, then prime minister, suddenly refused to recognise Cyprus. Luxembourg’s indignant foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, exclaimed: “We are not carpet dealers here in Europe.” 

Henri Barkey, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes Erdoğan will back down under enormous pressure and accept some face-saving concessions.    

Nevertheless, it will be back to the Grand Bazaar before Finland and Sweden’s NATO application is confirmed.

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