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Jan 24 2019

Turkey set for continued tensions with West in 2019 - scholar

Turkey’s policies under Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule have in recent years raised serious doubts about its reliability among the country’s Western partners, and these are unlikely to be alleviated in 2019, said Marc Pierini, an analyst and former European Union diplomat, in a piece for Carnegie Europe.

The mutual agenda for Turkey and its Western allies is likely to be dominated by economic, defence and counterterrorism concerns throughout the year, with the economy an area of particular concern for the EU, Pierini said.

The country faced severe challenges in 2018 after years of economic growth under the AKP, with mounting inflation and lira devaluation that nearly became a currency crisis placing a severe strain on the economy.

While the country is highly dependent on Russia and Iran for its gas needs, its main reliance is on the EU, which provides the majority of its trade and foreign direct investment inflows.

“The country is therefore also heavily reliant on the EU’s economic health and the mutual political relationship,” Pierini said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s grip on Turkey’s economic policies was largely to blame for the country’s currency woes last year, and with his power over the economy reinforced by reforms granting him emergency powers and the creation of a Financial Stability and Development Committee headed by the president, the fragility is set to continue, Pierini said.

This is likely to be a significant source of concern for foreign investors, and since the majority of these are from EU countries, this will tie in with concerns over Turkey’s political direction.

“Therefore, endlessly dismantling Turkey’s rule-of-law architecture runs against boosting trade and investment with EU countries or revamping the mutually beneficial customs union,” said Pierini.

Defence, the second field noted as a major concern by the scholar, has reached a policy “dead end” thanks to the contradiction between Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missile defence systems from Russia and its deployment of new generation U.S.-made F-35 stealth fighters.

“Politically, the consequences of juggling military procurement from two antagonistic sources are huge. They will potentially affect the country’s operation of its U.S.-made existing and future aircraft inventory, the performance of its future maritime projection capabilities, and the development of its own defense industry,” Pierini said.

While Turkey has cast itself as a bulwark against the Islamic State in Syria, its domestic counterterrorism policies paint a different picture.

The focus of the Turkish government’s counterterrorism efforts on members of the Gülen movement, a religious organisation blamed for enacting the failed July 2016 coup attempt, have led to thousands of jailed citizens. “70 percent are held for alleged Gülenist links, 21 percent for alleged PKK links, and less than 3% for alleged (Islamic State) links,” Pierini said.

However, the AKP has failed to convince its Western partners of the validity of the fight against Gülenists, which Pierini says is viewed “as a self-engineered political fiasco.”

The second group mentioned, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has been the subject of Turkish security concerns since it launched a separatist insurgency in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish south eastern regions in the 1980s.

However, Pierini says, the current focus on the PKK is linked to Erdoğan’s desire to “keep control of the political scene” in partnership with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The AKP’s initiatives against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), an affiliate of the PKK, will be the “subject of complex international discussions in 2019,” Pierini said. Ankara is currently pushing for the creation of a “safe zone” in Syrian territories bordering Turkey that are currently under YPG control.

Finally, Turkey’s abject recent record on liberty and democracy, which has seen the AKP government adopt a policy of quashing dissent by “jailing opponents, muzzling the media, smothering civil society … and vote rigging,” appears to be irreversible “in the short to medium term,” Pierini said.

“Whether such developments amount to a ‘pivot away from the West’ or to a ‘power-in-the-middle strategy,’ the net result is a growing uncertainty about Turkey’s reliability. And 2019 won’t change that,” said the scholar.