By joining the West in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and supporting Ukraine’s military, Turkey is walking a fine line between two allies – Moscow and Kiev. Although last month’s meeting of Ukrainian and Russian delegations in Istanbul failed to deliver a peace deal, Turkish policymakers continue to insist that they can facilitate dialogue between the warring parties.
But there is one Turkish political bloc that has adopted a very different take on the war. For Turkey’s Eurasianists, Ukraine’s loss is their gain.
“Eurasianism” is a broad term that covers disparate groups including Islamists and leftist nationalists called “ulusalcis,” many of whom have military backgrounds. Their ideas center on mistrust of the West, the romanticization of pan-Turkish history, and championing a strong centrist Turkish state in a global order aligned with Russia, Iran, China, and the Turkic countries of Central Asia.
Ever since the 2015 election, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority, ultranationalists in the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and some personalities in the Eurasianist camp, have had an outsized role in politics.
In “Eurasianism in Turkey,” a new report for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, analyst Suat Kiniklioglu notes that it isn’t easy to classify a Eurasianist voter because “not all ulusalcis are Eurasianists and not all ulusalcis support the same political party.”
But it’s easy to see their influence. He writes: “Despite their small numbers and poor electoral showing, [Eurasianists] have disproportionate influence within the security bureaucracy and judiciary and are vocal in trying to shape the strategic debate in Turkey.”
For Dogu Perincek, chairman of the Homeland Party, that debate looks like this: As Russian tanks rolled across Ukraine’s borders, Perincek remarked that NATO’s eastward expansion constituted a threat to Turkey, called the invasion “a Russian weapon that will bring peace and stability,” and urged the Turkish government to resist imposing “Atlanticist” sanctions against Russia.
Not long ago, such statements might have drawn more attention from the ruling AKP, which relied on Eurasianists for support. But now, because of a confluence of political currents, they are falling on deaf ears.
A pillar of Ankara’s foreign-policy making in recent years has been the desire for what can be called “strategic autonomy” – the ability to act uninfluenced by others. This concept has so driven Turkish foreign policy that when faced with the threat of alienation by its neighbors for its inflexible unilateralism in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, party elites begin to praise the country’s “sublime loneliness.”
Over the past couple of years, however, Turkey has taken tangible steps to rehabilitate its relations with neighboring states. The government faces unprecedented high inflation (60%, according to official figures) and rising unemployment coupled with a depreciating currency. Making gains abroad eases some of the pressure at home and lends credibility to the ruling party.
Ankara’s new playbook appears to be normalizing ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union member states, as well as regional allies like the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Egypt. The mix of relative macroeconomic stability and political reform, coupled with the declining role for the United States and other historical heavy hitters, has opened a zone of influence for new mediators – a role Turkey looks keen to fill.
International condemnation for Russia’s disastrous war has upended the Eurasianist vision of a regional order led by Turkey and Russia that challenges Western hegemony.
As Turkey readies itself for next year’s centennial parliamentary and presidential elections, fragile and tactical domestic alliances will shift. Foreign-policy success will be one way to bolster AKP’s standing across constituencies desperate to see Turkey’s reputational losses diminish. This in turn could yield economic dividends in the form of new foreign investment and growth.
While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to rally for United Nations reform with the slogan “The world is more than five,” referring to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Turkey’s new foreign policy suggests a strong desire to choose reintegration with the global order over revisionism.
The wisdom of the Eurasianist grand strategy that sought to reorient Turkey’s foreign and security policies toward Moscow is being questioned in Ankara as Vladimir Putin commits one strategic miscalculation after the other.
But this begets a dilemma: A delicate tightrope runs between Turkish domestic and foreign politics.
Turkish voters across the political spectrum unite on nationalist urges for an independent Turkey not beholden to any external actor. Persuading Turkish voters and ultranationalists working in the state security forces and bureaucracy – including pro-Perincek groups – of the merits of the AKP’s pivot back to its European and trans-Atlantic allies may present yet another challenge for the governing party.
The loose pact with Eurasianists was a pragmatic one for the government to consolidate its grip on power. In ways reminiscent of Cold War–era bipolarity, Turkey now seems poised to reclaim its role as a key NATO ally integral to European security.
But as the election cycle nears, the government will amplify the tried and tested “Turkey first” slogans, being careful not to alienate voters who are suspicious of American meddling in the region.
For Turkey’s Eurasianists, the war in Ukraine has dulled their narrative, but it hasn’t muted it completely.
This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.