Is Turkey a committed NATO member?

Instead of raging about Western countries’ perfidy, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan needs to engage in a little soul-searching and decide whether Turkey is a committed NATO member or not, said Robert Ellis, an international adviser at the Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS) in Athens.

“The principles that underpin NATO membership are democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. How far does the president consider that Turkey fulfils these criteria?” Ellis asked in an article published in the National Interest on Wednesday.

Erdoğan, who won presidential elections in 2018 partly by weaponising a refugee crisis in Europe, is now using the same pattern to take advantage of NATO’s standoff with Russia in a bid to increase his declining approval ratings ahead of an election next year, Ellis said.

A full reproduction of the article follows below:

NATO has been nonplussed by Turkey’s objections, which amount to a veto, to Finland and Sweden’s applications for membership. What began as an outburst by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about the Scandinavian countries acting as “guesthouses for terrorist organisations“ was quickly elevated by his spokesperson and chief foreign policy advisor, Ibrahim Kalın, to “a matter of national security.”

Both Finland and Sweden have been handed lists of political fugitives that Turkey would like to see extradited. In addition, there is the arms embargo that both countries imposed on Turkey after its invasion of northeastern Syria in October 2019.

NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has been conciliatory and spoken of Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns” but Erdoğan has been adamant and rejected NATO’s offer of trilateral talks to resolve the issue. Instead, Turkey has demanded concrete steps from Helsinki and Stockholm to address its concerns, which include an end to the arms embargo.

After German chancellor Angela Merkel flung Europe’s doors wide open to a refugee influx in 2015, Erdoğan was quick to utilise the situation and invited Merkel to sit enthroned with him in the Yıldız Palace in Istanbul shortly before the parliamentary elections in November.

Here the chancellor offered Erdoğan the whole package: three billion euros, visa-free travel, and a renewal of accession talks to stop the refugee flow and extricate her from her predicament. After an all-night session with Erdoğan’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, the following March, Merkel upped the ante to six billion.

From then on, Merkel was beholden to Erdoğan and became the architect of the EU’s “constructive dialogue” and “positive agenda” toward Turkey. In September 2019, Erdoğan threatened to unleash a new flood of refugees on Europe if the EU failed to provide more aid. Consequently, a further 535 million euros were disbursed and a year ago, the EU pledged an additional 3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) in support.

A shrewd operator, Erdoğan has weaponised the refugee crisis and now he intends to extort the maximum advantage from NATO in its standoff with Russia. The Biden administration has already called on Congress to approve an arms deal with Turkey and launched “a strategic mechanism“ to strengthen bilateral ties.

Facing presidential and parliamentary elections next June, it is essentially Erdoğan’s future that hangs in the balance, not to speak of Turkey’s. Sagging behind in the polls, Erdoğan faces defeat from two of his rivals, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the CHP (Republican People’s Party), Atatürk’s old party, and Ekrem Imamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul. It was Imamoğlu who three years ago defeated the [ruling Justice and Development Party] AKP’s candidate in a re-run of the mayoral election, engineered by Erdoğan.

Now an attempt is being made to nobble Imamoğlu’s candidacy with a charge of “insult,” carrying a four-year jail sentence.

Ten years ago, Erdoğan declared it was the government’s intention to raise “a pious generation,” but already the following year his plan backfired with the Gezi Park protests, which spread to most of Turkey. Therefore, it must come as a disappointment that more than half of Turkey’s first-time voters have declared they will never vote for him.

The overriding issue for most Turkish voters is the economy, which in the view of former Turkish economy minister, Ali Babacan, is on the verge of bankruptcy. The Turkish lira is in free fall and raging inflation, which in May reached 73 percent, has left 90 percent of the population struggling to make ends meet. 

As the Bipartisan Policy Center earlier pointed out, Erdoğan relied on the narrative of a booming economy for electoral success but now he is facing the backlash.

Russian economist Sergei Gurlev writes of a similar pattern in Putin’s Russia, when Russia’s GDP growth slowed to almost zero and Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings dropped. According to Gurlev, Putin decided to address an economic problem with a non-economic solution, the annexation of Crimea, which boosted his popularity.

Erdoğan has followed the same recipe. For example, when Turkey invaded and occupied Afrin, a Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria, in 2018, it gained him support from almost 90 percent of the electorate. Now he is playing the same card again, using security concerns to justify a new incursion into northern Syria and block Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership. A “special operation” targeting Greece’s Aegean islands would also be grist to Erdoğan’s mill.

There has been some debate as to what extent Turkey is a committed NATO member, in which case there is a simple litmus test. Instead of raging about Western perfidy, it would be helpful for Erdogan to engage in a little soul-searching. The principles that underpin NATO membership are democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. How far does the president consider that Turkey fulfils these criteria?

(The original version of the article can be found here.)


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