The generals are calling the shots in Turkey - Felix Schmidt

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration of support for Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is Turkey’s latest “foreign adventure” in a series of regional spats, said Felix Schmidt, Turkey representative for the Bonn, Germany-based Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

Turkey has been accused by Russia, France and Armenia of providing Syrian mercenaries to Azeri forces fighting Armenian separatists in the mountainous breakaway state of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey denies the claim.

Turkey’s foreign policy initiatives have not been limited to the South Caucasus this year. Turkish forces have launched major offensives against Kurdish armed groups in Syria and Iraq, supplied hardware, fighters and know-how for a  military confrontation with the United Arab Emirates-backed opposition in Libya and confronted Greece and Cyprus over territories in the eastern Mediterranean.

The following is an interview with Schmidt, conducted by Claudia Detsch. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation is a German political institution associated with, but independent of, Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Q: Turkey is engaging in more and more international conflicts – first in Syria, then Libya, most recently the eastern Mediterranean and now, the Caucasus. What is President Erdoğan's strategy?

Turkey increasingly views itself as a regional hegemonial power that enforces its interests with robust - military - means. While its various interventions have had different motivations, including defending Turkey's economic - oil and gas - and security interests, the rise in Turkish nationalism also plays a role.

President Erdoğan is not free to make decisions by himself.

He has to take into consideration his far-right-wing coalition partner, the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), whose chairman, Devlet Bahçeli, is constantly pushing Erdoğan to act more aggressively.

Many Turks consider that it's Bahçeli who runs foreign policy.

Another reason for President Erdoğan to get involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is Turkey's deepening economic crisis. Erdoğan is hoping that yet another foreign adventure will unite the country behind him and distract Turks from the growing impoverishment of their compatriots.

Erdoğan is getting what he wants: The conflict in the Caucasus has created an upsurge in nationalism in Turks, who broadly support Azerbaijan.

Q: In Western Europe, Turkish involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh has been harshly criticised. What does Turkish society think of Erdoğan's geopolitical ambitions?

While they generally approve, it is important to distinguish between the various conflicts. The general public overwhelmingly supports Turkish policy on Azerbaijan. With regard to the conflict in the eastern Mediterranean, a large majority of Turks consider that Greece's claims are excessive.

There, too, the CHP (main opposition Republican People’s Party) and smaller opposition parties back the government's position. As for Turkey's intervention in Syria, a majority of Turks are against the dictatorship of (President) Bashar al-Assad, but the destruction of the autonomous Kurdish region of Rojava in northeastern Syria is very controversial.

The doctrine of former PM and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu, having 'zero problems with neighbours’ and relying on diplomacy, has had its day.

Now it's the generals who call the shots, a radical change that pleases many Turks.

Q: Deploying military forces abroad gobbles up tons of money but the Turkish economy recently suffered an historic economic slump. How can it afford to get involved militarily in Nagorno-Karabakh?

It's true that Turkey's economic situation is problematic, but no one questions the large share of military costs in the total budget. It's also not true that the economy is on the brink, as it's often portrayed. In 2019, government debt measured 33 per cent of GDP. That is not very much. Many countries have shown that during crises, resources can be mobilised for foreign adventures – and to restore the government's legitimacy.

Q: After the large anti-government protests of recent years, not much is heard from the opposition these days. Why not?

After the Gezi Park protests in 2013, the government adopted many new measures to prevent similar demonstrations and instituted numerous bans on public gatherings. Protests are further thwarted because many of the people who supposedly encouraged them are in prison. One well-known case is that of philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been detained since 2017. After the European Court of Human Rights ruled that his detention was unlawful and ordered his release, he was acquitted by a court in Istanbul on Feb. 18, 2020. Yet the day after Kavala left prison, he was re-arrested on other charges.

Anti-government protest continues, with critical civil society groups forced to develop less obvious ways to protest.

At the same time, the political opposition is actively seeking to democratically bring about regime change. In the March 2019 municipal elections, the opposition won many big cities, including Istanbul and Ankara. It remains to be seen whether a democratic change of government will result from the next parliamentary and presidential elections that are supposed to be held in 2023.

Q: At their recent summit, EU heads of state and government agreed a two-pronged strategy for Turkey: more sanctions in December accompanied by an offer to further develop the customs union. Does such an approach make an impression on Erdoğan?

Turkey takes the threat of new sanctions very seriously. The regime is nervous because additional sanctions would exacerbate the already difficult economic situation. The Turkish government harshly criticised the EU resolutions. At the same time, everyone knows that many regional conflicts require Turkey's involvement.

In such circumstances, it's quite reasonable to use the carrot and the stick.

While Turkey's membership in the EU is out of the question, conducting a transactional dialogue based on the interests of individual countries - or ideally, the EU as a whole - would be more useful than simply turning away from our troublesome neighbour.

We should remember the refugee agreement which, despite legitimate criticism of its individual parts, has kept lots of problems at bay for the entire EU.

(A version of this interview was originally published by International Politics and Society and reproduced with permission.)