Erdoğan betting on ‘cooperation abroad and authoritarianism at home’ - columnist

Ahead of his Monday meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “is ready to concede in many areas so long as it helps him to stay in power,” wrote columnist İlhan Uzgel for Duvar English on Friday. 

Uzgel began his article by arguing that Erdoğan faces trouble on all fronts. His party is divided. He is struggling to combat COVID-19 in the country, and both inflation and unemployment are extremely high. This has all led to growing dissatisfaction, even among his loyal constituency.

In the face of all this, Uzgel argues, Erdoğan doesn’t have “many tools left to prevent this fall from grace and is desperately holding on to the Biden administration as a last resort.” 

Erdoğan’s government, in his view, has gone from aspiring to regional hegemony just a couple of years ago to presently “looking for ways to become a ‘useful ally’ of the United States.” 

Uzgel also contends that the YouTube videos made by Sedat Peker that were viewed by millions, in which the mafia boss made numerous sensational allegations of corruption, “revealed some of the vulnerabilities of the seemingly strong Erdoğan government.” 

This all comes as Turkey is presently enduring what Uzgel described as “the most fragile period in its history.” 

He pointed out that the Turkish government is still heavily dependent on the West. During its 19 years in power, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government “deepened” Turkey’s dependency on the capitalist system to the extent that even if it were replaced, Uzgel doubts it would be possible to transform Turkey from a consumer-based economy reliant on foreign investment into “an economy based on production.” 

Consequently, he believes Turkey lost an opportunity to specialise in “certain high-tech domains over the two decades, and it is becoming too late to catch up with the global competition.” 

Aside from declining in value, the Turkish Lira has become entirely dependent on statements from U.S. officials or monetary decision by the U.S. Federal Reserve. 

Given these internal weaknesses and vulnerabilities to outside pressure, Uzgel predicts that Erdoğan’s government “is poised to make every possible compromise to gain U.S. support and already made some concessions in the Eastern Mediterranean to avoid EU sanctions.”

He writes that Turkey has already “agreed to be a key pillar of the U.S. strategy by normalising its relations with Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, and Georgia, Ukraine and Poland in Eastern Europe.”

From the get-go, Biden has not hesitated to show his disapproval of Erdoğan. During the 2020 U.S. presidential election, he called the Turkish leader an autocrat. Uzgel notes that until Biden, there “has never been a presidential candidate who expressed his dissatisfaction with a Turkish leader before he came to power.” 

Biden has not changed his view since entering the Oval Office. He waited three months until calling Erdoğan, and that was to inform him that the U.S. was about to recognise the 1915 Armenian Genocide. 

Uzgel believes it is “evident” that the Biden administration is fully aware of the weaknesses in the Erdoğan government and that it would, therefore, not be easy for Turkey to push back against the U.S. for recognising the Armenian Genocide, which Uzgel points out was “the very red line Turkey has been trying to prevent for decades.” 

In his view, it also showed that Biden won’t back down from the stance he has taken on Erdoğan, unlike former presidents who had “softened their tone towards Ankara while adjusting to the realities on the ground.” 

Uzgel also argues that it has become clear that Biden will neither have a strictly transactional relationship or the kind of personal relationship between the two leaders that characterised the Trump presidency when dealing with Turkey. 

Also, the Turkish president’s attempts to tilt toward the U.S. will have consequences for Turkey-Russia relations. “Erdoğan should have learned that it is not the same thing to shift alliances at home when it comes to deal(ing) with global powers,” Uzgel wrote. 

The Turkish president is trying to convince Washington that “he is a precious ally of the U.S. in the region” since he believes that is “a key policy for his political survival.” 

While Turkey had a tradition of cooperating with the U.S., especially during the Cold War, that gradually changed under AKP. Now, Erdoğan is trying to promote Turkey’s strategically valuable location as an indispensable asset for the U.S. in the region. By doing so, in Uzgel’s view, “Turkey seems to concede to the demands of the U.S., and play a staunch ally to ensure U.S. support.” 

Uzgel goes on to opine that this is “a miserable position for a government that boasted that it dominates the regional developments, that it defines the course of events in the region.” 

To retain his hold on power, Erdoğan is prepared to agree and compromise with the U.S. on “all issues except human rights,” which he is saving “as a last bargaining chip against the U.S.” 

This is because, unlike negotiations over other contentious issues such as Turkey’s possession of Russian S-400 missiles, Erdoğan knows that “steps on human rights and democratisation will directly affect his own political future domestically.” 

What Erdoğan is trying to do is return Turkey to something resembling the days of its Cold War relationship with the U.S., when Washington “turned a blind eye to a flawed democratic system in return for strategic cooperation.”

However, a lot has changed since that era. 

Uzgel contends that even if Erdoğan can successfully engineer a “reset” in relations between Turkey and the U.S. under Biden, “it will be a much more asymmetrical relationship than before.” 

Erdoğan’s primary strategy is to win cooperation abroad while maintaining his authoritarian grip on rule at home, Uzgel concluded.

If he can achieve this, that could give him enough time before elections to fix some of Turkey’s many problems, from the economy to his alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Either way, for Turkey in Uzgel’s view, it’s “a lose-lose situation.”