Biden video a ‘godsend’ for Erdoğan’s embattled government - Aykan Erdemir

The resurfacing of a video of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden heavily criticising Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has very peculiar timing, Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey programme at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Ahval's editor-in-chief Yavuz Baydar during a video podcast.

In Dec. 16 footage from The Weekly, a documentary series covering the development of iconic headlines by the New York Times, Biden spoke of his vision for U.S. relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who he called an “autocrat”. The former U.S. vice president also said he would “embolden” Turkish opposition to defeat Turkey's strongman in elections if he became president.

The interview with New York Times editors sparked a backlash and public debate in Turkey after it resurfaced over the weekend.

This video allows for the administrations of Trump and Erdoğan, both of which are struggling with economy, polls and the coronavirus pandemic, to reframe their discourse, said Erdemir, a former deputy in Turkish parliament.

Arab media, namely Dubai-based Al Arabiya and the MENA Monitor, reported the video on Thursday, prompting some Kurdish-Arabic speakers to translate the reports into English and Turkish. Turkish social media users, especially pro-Erdoğan accounts, were then quick to circulate and respond to Biden’s video, which soon became the most popular topic on Twitter in Turkey.

According to Erdemir, the former U.S. vice president’s remarks in the footage are a godsend as they allow the Turkish government to re-frame the political discussion – not only with the opposition, but also with its own critical supporters.

Turkey's worsening economy, the devaluation of the Turkish lira and a potential “balance of payments crisis" are all major issues on the public’s mind, Erdemir said.  

Turkey’s central bank has spent tens of billions of dollars of its foreign currency reserves to support the lira this year, meaning such funds are now at low levels. The lira traded as weak as 7.3967 per dollar on Tuesday morning. Losses for the year total almost 20 percent.

These economic woes worsened after Turkey imposed lockdowns and other restrictive prevention measures to curb its COVID-19 outbreak.

"The Turkish government is so desperate that they even went to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque – but this action perhaps only added 2, 3 points. This will also wither away shortly," he said.

And, more recently, desperation has led the Erdoğan government to "turn to the eastern Mediterranean with a belligerent and irredentist policy and attitude” and use the dispute to rally the Turkish public around the flag, Erdemir said.

But these events still seem insufficient, with Ankara now turning to "anti-Biden” and “anti-Americanism” the analyst said, a move he called the most recent of the government’s blunders.

Turkish state officials have attacked Biden with ad hominem personal statements since the video resurfaced. Some of these responses have included the U.S. government – such as repeating old allegations on American involvement in the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

Erdemir, himself a former opposition deputy, criticised the Turkish opposition’s management of Biden’s remarks and the subsequent backlash from Ankara. 

"Every time the Erdoğan government frames a discussion of a foreign debate around an anti-Western or anti-NATO sentiment, the opposition remains in that framework, using the terminology the government uses," he said.

This willingness to remain in the confines of government-made discourse is a severe shortcoming, Erdemir added.

"One of the big successes of the Erdoğan government is that they have been able to reframe all foreign and security issues as existential issues, whereby any dissent is presented as treason, and faces criminalisation which leads to imprisonment," Erdemir said. 

Only a "very few people are able to speak up" on such important matters against the government, he noted.

The opposition continues toeing the government line in fear of imprisonment and being labelled traitors and knowing that Erdoğan's government can basically destroy any one of its figures overnight, the analyst said.

Erdemir compared the current pressure facing government critics in Turkey with Nazi Germany, saying that "many Germans were quiet and toeing the government line during The Third Reich, as well".