After a year of disputes, ranging from refugees to maritime limits and human rights to Russian missiles, Turkey has now embarked on a wave of neighborly fence-mending – “making nice” from Tel Aviv to Paris.
Starting out with an offer in December to reset relations with Israel, Ankara has since reached out to the European Union (EU), with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announcing in mid-January “a forward-looking development path with permanently constructive relations” with Brussels.
Cavusoglu also then scheduled a resumption of talks with neighbor Greece – a country with whom Turkish ships were about to trade gunfire over maritime limits last summer.
At the same time, Turkey has also been trying to make up with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Paris sent warships to back up the Greeks in that maritime dispute with Ankara last year, while France has also clashed with Turkey over Libya, Iraq and Nagorno-Karabakh.
The new year, however, saw Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan extend his best wishes to Macron – whom he had urged to undergo “mental checks” in early December – while finally expressing his condolences for last year’s jihadist massacres in France.
Meanwhile, with the end of the blockade of Turkish ally Qatar by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt – countries with which Turkey has been at loggerheads around the Middle East – Erdogan announced in early January that “Turkey will strengthen its relations with the Gulf,” after a widely reported phone call to Saudi King Salman.
This new friendliness is not a coincidence, either, but “part of a coherent strategy,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara director, told Asia Times.
Driving this is a combination of domestic political and economic problems and concerns over shifting sands abroad.
“Erdogan is looking to the future,” added Unluhisarcikli, “and for the first time, he doesn’t see a clear path forward.”
Key to Erdogan’s current dilemmas is the Turkish economy, which saw a major meltdown in its currency during much of 2020, as well as rising unemployment, rising prices and foreign investor flight.
These economic woes have been driving a deterioration in support for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002 and with its ability to deliver economic growth its key electoral selling point.
A poll by Istanbul Economics Research in early January showed support for the People’s Alliance – the ruling electoral coalition between the AKP and the far-right National Action Party (MHP) – falling to 39.2%, its lowest level since the company began polling in November 2019.
One reason for that poor economic performance has been the fallout from Erdogan’s foreign policy.
NATO-member Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft missiles has raised rancor in both Europe and the US, while clashes with EU-members Greece, Cyprus and France over Eastern Mediterranean maritime limits have antagonized neighbors while raising the specter of EU and US sanctions.
“Turkey has been isolated from most of its neighbors in recent years,” says Ioannis Ν Grigoriadis, Head of the Turkey Programme at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) in Athens.
Now too, with Joe Biden entering the White House, “the US might not only criticize Turkey,” says Unluhisarcikli, “but actually act on this.”
A string of issues in addition to the S-400s was left to languish by former US President Donald Trump, who boasted of a special relationship with Erdogan. These include a major court case alleging the involvement of a Turkish state bank in Iranian sanctions-busting, along with a growing sense in Washington that Turkey’s overseas ventures are becoming destabilizing for many key US allies.
When Biden won the presidential election last November, “Turkey realized all this,” adds Unluhisarcikli, “and so started pulling back, trying to improve relations with as many countries as possible.”
So far, though, Turkey’s “making nice” has been unconvincing to many.
“The response in Israel to the Turkish overtures has been remarkably mute,” says Gallia Lindenstrauss from the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Erdogan has become famous around the Middle East for his scathing attacks on Israel over the years, including accusing it of “genocide” against the Palestinians in 2018.
The Turkish leader has also backed Hamas, which rule the Gaza Strip and is seen as a terrorist organization by Israel, the EU and the US.
As for neighbor Greece and the talks with Turkey set to begin on January 25: “There are slim chances for reaching a successful outcome and a viable agreement, at least in the short run,” says Sotiris Serbos, Associate Professor of International Politics at Democritus University of Thrace.
For the EU more generally. “There is rhetoric, but so far not followed by substance,” added Grigoriadis.
Rock and a hard place
At the same time too, the domestic pressure on Erdogan is also telling.
The AKP relies on its alliance with the MHP for its majority in the Turkish parliament, with the far-right MHP hostile to any democratic reform and a strong advocate of an aggressive, even militaristic foreign policy.
“The MHP make it clear every day that they won’t allow Erdogan to make any reforms,” says Unluhisarcikli.
A case in point was Erdogan’s firing of one of his top advisors and an AKP founder, Bulent Arinc, in late November.
This happened after Arinc had called for the release of the imprisoned co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, and human rights activist Osman Kavala – moves firmly rejected by the MHP.
Since then, too, there has been no let-up in arrests and detentions of human rights activists and journalists in Turkey, with others forced into exile.
Indeed, according to independent Turkish rights monitors Bianet, five journalists were physically attacked in Turkey in the first 15 days of 2021, with the MHP accused of inciting some of these assaults – a charge it denies.
Pressure is also coming from within the AKP. For years, Erdogan has followed a policy of keeping interest rates low, ensuring a supply of cheap credit to fund high economic growth.
“This is what has helped Erdogan’s party gain ground over the years,” says Erdem Aydin, from the London-based RDM Advisory. “Cheap credit to finance construction.”
Recently, however, the low-interest rate policy has only served to make the economy worse, triggering currency depreciation, inflation and capital flight. Last November, Erdogan finally bowed to demands to change course, firing his son-in-law – the finance minister – and the central bank governor, while allowing rates to jump from 10% to 17%.
This caused relief in the markets but choked off cheap credit to the giant construction conglomerates that back the AKP.
On January 15, Erdogan appeared to change course again, hitting out at high rates and saying he would “continue my struggle” against them. The Turkish currency immediately had its biggest one-day fall since November.
Given these pressures, then, trust in genuine change is in somewhat short supply around the region.
It takes two to tango, indeed – with many still skeptical of joining Erdogan’s new dance.