Turkey may ratchet up tensions with Greece as economic woes intensify

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may seek to entrench a political standoff with Turkey’s historic rival Greece to detract from economic travails at home, which are threatening to undercut his popularity.

Industrial output data for April, published on Friday, showed production in the economy slumping by a record 31 percent on an annual basis. Retail sales slid by 33 percent, excluding essential items such as food and fuel, the nation’s statistical institute said.

Erdoğan’s government is seeking to spare its voter base from the worst effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which erupted in the country in mid-March. His government has dished out cheap loans via state-run banks and announced economic rescue pledges worth 250 billion liras ($37 billion). But, just as in many other nations, the measures have not been enough to prevent a painful economic downturn.

With the country’s economic travails now starkly evident, Erdoğan “needs to pull a few rabbits out of the hat”, Tim Ash, a veteran Turkey-watcher and senior emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management in London, said on Friday.

Greece, which occupied parts of Turkey before the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, may present Erdoğan with an ideal means to distract his voter base without incurring significant political or financial cost. The foundations to ratchet up diplomatic tensions have already been laid.

Late in March, Turkey announced that it would allow refugees who have sought a temporary home in Turkey to cross over its northwestern border into Greece. Thousands of the migrants were bussed over to the region and Turkish police reportedly encouraged some of them to cross into Greek territory and throw stones and petrol bombs at Greek border police. The decision sparked a war of words with Athens and prompted politicians in Brussels to go into crisis mode.

The seeds for further political tensions between Ankara and Athens have also been sown by an announcement by Turkey last week that it would tender for drilling rights for natural gas and oil in the Mediterranean. The government published a map showing the proposed exploration zones surrounding Cyprus – an international-recognised Greek Cypriot administration governs the south of the divided island - and extending around several Greek islands to Libya, with which Turkey signed a controversial maritime accord in December.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan has incrreased tensions with the Greek government in the past few weeks by speaking of re-opening Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, an historic Greek cathedral turned World Heritage Site and museum, to Islamic prayer. He has reportedly instructed officials of his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) to prepare possible plans for its transformation to a mosque ahead of a court decision in early July.

Many of Erdoğan’s core Islamist supporters have long called for Hagia Sophia, which sits across from the Blue Mosque in the historic Istanbul neighbourhood of Sultanahmet, to be converted into a mosque. On May 29, officials of Turkey’s religious affairs directorate, which receives more state money than any other public institution or ministry, recited an Islamic text at Hagia Sophia to mark Conquest of Istanbul Day. Greece responded, labelling the ceremony as an “unacceptable attempt to alter the site’s designation as a monument”.

Elevated political tensions with Greece were reflected this week in statements by the country’s two defence ministers. Both spoke of scoring possible military victories against the other should things boil over. One Greek publication published a poll saying 53 percent of the country would support a military response should Turkey encroach on Greek territory in the Aegean Sea. Meanwhile, Greece has reported an increase in violations of its airspace over the Aegean by Turkish military jets.

Erdoğan could also seek to distract public attention away from the economy by sending more troops into neighbouring Syria to battle Kurdish groups allied with the United States against Islamic State (ISIS).

Turkey may also increase its military presence in the last rebel enclave of Idlib, where Islamic militants are battling the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is supported by Russia. Turkey launched a land invasion into the northeast of the country in October last year, provoking a diplomatic crisis with Washington. It keeps several thousand soldiers in Idlib, much to Russian ire.

In Libya, Erdoğan could increase the supply of military hardware and expertise to the United Nations-recognised government in Tripoli in its battle with forces loyal to an opposition administration in the country’s east led by General Khalifa Haftar and supported by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Russia has already sent its latest MiG-29 fighter jets to support Haftar as he loses ground in the war. Egypt has reportedly started a build-up of its military forces at its western border with Libya.

While Libya and Syria present opportunities for Erdoğan to display his political strength to voters and detract from troubles at home, both would involve significant military, political and financial costs at a time when Turkey’s budget deficit is widening alarmingly and the lira trades near record lows. It is also questionable to what degree the Turkish public would support an intensification of Turkish involvement in either country.

The Greek option, and the dispute over Hagia Sophia in particular, may appear to Erdoğan as a far more attractive proposition where he can stir up nationalist and religious feeling at little comparative cost. The Turkish president is a master of rhetoric and posturing. He may need to do very little other than that.    

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.