Erdoğan’s Threat to Spoil NATO’s Nordic Welcome Party is a Desperate Shot in the Dark
The outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring about a decade ago decisively put an end to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s neo-Ottomanist ambitions to revive the country’s imperial past by becoming the benevolent leader of the region. Since then, the Turkish government has pursued a largely transactional diplomacy in its foreign relations, whereby it has attempted to exploit most international issues as matters to negotiate and seek benefits in return.
In fact, in the recent past, this strategy paid off rather handsomely, enabling the Turkish government to receive significant concessions and even tacit support for its increasingly more authoritarian regime from the European Union, in exchange for signing the infamous ”migrant deal” in 2016, and from the United States in exchange for releasing the detained American Pastor Andrew Brunson in 2018. However, in the post-Trump/post-Merkel era, and in the face of intensifying Russian aggression, this approach jeopardizes Turkey’s credibility as a trustworthy and respected partner, whose status as an “ally” is already and frequently questioned by its Western counterparts in NATO.
By declaring his opposition to Swedish and Finnish bids for NATO membership rather unexpectedly, President Erdoğan has seemingly closed the door for dialogue by stating first what should be said last. In addition, his emphasis on the Turkish government’s concerns in relation to its Kurdish and other political opponents living in these two countries as the primary reason for his opposition is largely interpreted as an attempt to influence Finnish and Swedish domestic politics. As it stands, aside from lifting the already ineffective arms embargo, Turkey’s opening salvos seem to have left little room for Finland and Sweden to take any significant steps towards fulfilling Turkey’s expansive demands. Both countries simply follow decisions made by the European Union, according to which the PYG, unlike the PKK—its sister organisation in Turkey—is not classified as a terrorist group. Except for an unlikely turn on this decision on the part of EU, there is no feasible way for Sweden or Finland to limit the freedom of expression for thousands of its citizens and/or residents, let alone extradite them, without completely dismantling their entire liberal democratic regimes.
This is not to say that Turkey does not have a leg to stand on regarding its security concerns about the PKK/YPG, whose decades-long armed fight for an independent Kurdish state has claimed the lives of thousands of its citizens and continues to pose a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity. It is also a fact that Sweden, unlike Finland, has long been viewed as a strategic hub for many key figures, publications and organisations that operate to harness international support for the cause of an independent Kurdistan. Insofar as the prospect of NATO membership is brought up to diminish the increased sense of insecurity Sweden and Finland (as well as their Western allies) rightfully feel in the face of Russian expansionism, Turkey, as a long-standing member of that security alliance, does indeed have the right to expect its current and would-be partners to acknowledge and help defend its own equally serious concerns to the best of their capacities. Rather than posing its own security interests as incompatible with those of its European counterparts—as Erdoğan has done so far—Turkey could find a more constructive way to raise this issue within the current security framework. This could be initiated, for instance, by underlining the shared nature of the threat the PKK/YPG poses against the security of both Turkey and other current and potential NATO members, especially given the PKK/YPG leadership’s outright pro-Kremlin stance that it has maintained since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That would at least be less unreasonable than demanding the extradition of a Swedish MP, who is of Kurdish descent and was born in Iran.
It is important to remember that since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Turkey has had significant differences with its closest allies, especially the US, regarding the PKK and YPG, both of which it considers as terrorist groups that pose the greatest threat against the country’s security. Over the years, Turkey has failed to bring the country’s most powerful ally to its side and could not persuade the US government to stop providing financial, arms and training support for those groups in Syria and Iraq. It appears as though by displaying its capacity to spoil the latest phase of NATO expansion, the Turkish government intends to turn this issue into a bargaining chip to obtain some concessions from Washington, regarding not so much those Kurdish groups but other much more pressing matters on the table—such as the CAATSA sanctions imposed on Turkey following its purchase of Russian S-400 air defence systems, or the ongoing case against Turkish state banks in the US courts in relation to their alleged involvement in helping Iran to evade American sanctions.
Despite Turkish government’s repeated attempts over the past year or so, Erdoğan has so far failed to secure a proper meeting to discuss these issues with the US President Biden, whose persistent avoidance from being seen in the same room with him, whilst hosting or visiting several other NATO leaders, seems to confirm rumours about the existence of a de facto blacklist in Washington. By publicly dragging his heels over Sweden and Finland’s NATO bid and causing a scene, Erdoğan likely hopes to get his name written off that list.
Such persistent refusal to handle the issue constructively or keep negotiations behind closed-doors is a sign that, rather than defending Turkey’s long-held security interests by way of obtaining actual concessions from Sweden or Finland, what President Erdoğan is primarily interested in is to exploit all his country’s potential power and convert whatever leverage he has left, including veto power in NATO, to assert his position as Turkey’s one and only “strongman”, whose hold to power is so absolute and uncontested that its international counterparts would have to accept it as a fact that is unlikely to change anytime soon. It is for this particular reason that, rather than leading to fits of fury in the Presidential Palace corridors, Western media’s tired depiction of Erdoğan as the “sultan” of Turkey comes as music to Ankara’s ears, as such stories only serve to solidify the belief that Turkey’s allies have Erdoğan, and Erdoğan only, to deal with.
But the political situation at home is much more complicated than the Turkish President would like to admit. Not unlike experienced weather forecasters of the Finnish countryside, seasoned observers of Turkish politics can almost smell a snap election by looking at certain star formations, many of which are now plainly visible. President Erdogan recently made the following announcements: (1) A de facto amnesty for 90,000 prisoners [Check!]; (2) A law allowing approximately 550,000 men to pay a fee to be exempted from an otherwise obligatory 6-months long military service[Check!]; (3) An imminent large-scale cross-border military operation that targets Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria and Iraq [Check!].
Presence of such signs is what primarily leads me to think that Turkish representatives have no concrete expectations from negotiations with Finnish and Swedish delegations, other than perhaps turning them into a platform for Ankara to receive a tacit green light from the international community for its upcoming military operation into Syria and Iraq, thereby avoiding yet another round of global condemnation and further isolation that would have otherwise surely followed.
Turkish government has much bigger fish to fry as the President struggles to overturn his dwindling chances to win the upcoming elections. In the absence of any plan to recover Turkey’s crumbling economy, with over 70% annual rate of inflation and a currency crisis, or intention to address the growing public resentment against more than 6 million asylum seekers and migrants that have arrived in Turkey as a result of the government’s so-called open-door policy and deeply problematic deal with the EU, Erdoğan’s approval rate has sunk to a historic low against all four of his potential opponents. Despite their disagreements over specific policy-related areas and the government’s near constant attempts to forcefully break it, the electoral alliance formed between six opposition parties has been gaining ground and is expected to pick one of those four names to run against Erdoğan as the opposition candidate.
This is not to say that the negotiations are unimportant for the Turkish government. On the contrary, albeit incomplete, there is a discernible logic behind its deeply vague demands from Sweden and Finland: they can be declared as “solved” only by the President and this is the crux of the matter. In other words, before all the explicit or implicit demands put forth by Turkish side, through the very formation of a protracted negotiation process, Erdoğan expects a particular reassurance from his counterparts that is reminiscent of Louis IX and his famous phrase: L’etat c’est moi! (I am the state). That they consider him as the sole, uncontested, one and only broker of Turkey; that he is the state, and the state is him. As the intended audience of this demand, US President Joe Biden, refuses to publicly acknowledge Erdoğan as such an absolute ruler, two relatively small Nordic countries would have to do. For like all paternal figures that are at their most vulnerable, the Turkish President existentially needs others to reaffirm his authority and hopes to silence that crippling feeling of deep self-doubt which has been spreading down the ranks for some time, and which risks turning into an endemic on the eve of all-important elections. There is an absolute need to crush the very idea of a “Post-Erdoğan” era by pushing it beyond the limits of collective political imagination. “I am all you’ve got!” is the message he first and foremost needs his domestic and foreign audiences to accept.
Each passing day, Turkish President gets more desperate to score a “win”—however small that is—that would help him restore his image as a uniquely competent “world leader” who, unlike his opponents, can still get concessions from the West and find wizardly solutions to the country’s metastasised problems. Hence, the extensive fork between Erdoğan’s defiant statements that Finnish and Swedish representatives should not even bother to visit as there is nothing to discuss, and the statements made by his top foreign policy advisor İbrahim Kalın and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, both of whom have been careful to hint at Turkey’s simple “desire to have a discussion” with their Western counterparts. While the President’s unflinching posture is largely calibrated towards domestic audiences, the more nuanced stance of his subordinates is intended for Turkey’s international partners, whose approach to the negotiation table will most likely be exploited in the government’s extensive propaganda machinery: yet another hat-in-hand plea made by Western leaders for Erdoğan’s gracious cooperation.
The attempt to score points at home by way of threatening to spoil two relatively small Nordic countries’ NATO prospects may sound like a rather long shot. However, for those who have studied Turkish politics long and close enough not just to appreciate the true depth of Turkey’s socio-economic woes and the government’s utter desperation to weather through the upcoming storm, but also to recall how eager Western governments have been to appease the country’s authoritarian regime during similar crises in the past, it does actually look like a shot worth taking for Erdoğan. After all, what is there to lose?
Featured image: Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock. Supporters wave Turkish flags during the arrival of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prior to a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium on June 13, 2021.