Erdoğan prioritising domestic politics over NATO’s historic moment - scholar

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears to be prioritising domestic politics over an historic moment for NATO and its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.

Erdoğan is objecting to the membership of Sweden and Finland in the transatlantic security organisation, citing their harbouring or support for terrorism. The United States, which staunchly supports both candidacies, is calling for a swift resolution of the dispute.

“Finland and Sweden joining NATO is a move of historical significance and one of the most important responses the West can give to the horrific and unjustified Russian invasion of Ukraine,” said Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey, in comments on Carnegie’s website on Thursday.

“The next steps are hard to predict because the stakes for Erdoğan in domestic politics are so important,” he said. “Maybe some sort of diplomatic concessions could close the episode, or conversely Ankara could hype it up in the context, for example, of anticipated elections.”

Erdogan must call presidential and parliamentary elections for June next year. He has suffered a decline in his approval rating after currency crises ripped through the economy in 2018 and last year. The lira’s slump against major currencies, which totalled 44 percent in 2021, has led to spiralling inflation – consumer prices rose by 70 percent annually in April.

Pierini said Turkey’s objections to Sweden and Finland joining NATO inevitably place it “in a difficult spot since two neutral countries reverse their defence policy in a spectacular way at a time when Ankara didn’t follow NATO and the West on sanctions or military deployment.

“The resulting impression is one of an unpredictable foreign policy and a lesser reliability than expected from a key NATO partner,” he said. “Again, this sounds like domestic political contingencies prevailing over the Atlantic alliance’s necessities in a major military crisis.”

Turkey has refused to follow many Western countries in imposing sanctions on Russia for the invasion. It has also welcomed sanctioned oligarchs and their luxury yachts to the country. Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have developed close relations over the past five years, cooperating on regional issues such as Syria. Russia is a major supplier of energy and tourists to Turkey’s fragile economy and is an important export market.

“Ultimately this issue is dwarfed by the inescapable feeling that the Turkish objection is also meant to play in favour of the Kremlin, though this was denied by government circles in Ankara,” Pierini said.

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