Longtime Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month won re-election and yet another term in office. This will bring new headaches for Brussels, but Turkey will remain an indispensable part of NATO and a key player in Ukraine and beyond.
On May 28, incumbent Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan beat opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in the second round run-off of the country’s presidential election. The election was widely described as the last chance to save Turkey’s democracy.
During Erdoğan’s 20 years as the leader of Turkey, his government has consolidated power and imprisoned critics. His government has also persecuted and disenfranchised the country’s Kurdish minority by overturning the results of local elections won by pro-Kurdish parties, killing hundreds of Kurdish civilians in the city of Cizre in 2016, and imprisoning and beating pro-Kurdish members of parliament.
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Turkey has been in an economic crisis since 2018 that is largely the result of Erdoğan’s unorthodox policies. He has refused to raise interest rates to rein in inflation, leading the Turkish lira to lose 44 per cent of its value in 2021.
Inflation surged to over 85 per cent last year while rents in some cities rose more than 100 per cent. Poor construction practices and a lack of government oversight amid a building boom worsened the devastation of the February earthquakes that killed 50,000. Georgia and Armenia now have higher per capita incomes than neighbouring provinces of Turkey and could surpass the Turkish average within five years.
When it comes to foreign policy, Erdoğan has pursued an interventionist approach, making Turkey a key actor in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Kosovo, Ukraine, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Even as he causes headaches for Brussels, Turkey remains an indispensable partner for NATO.
The EU and NATO
Turkey applied to join the then European Economic Community in 1987, and the European Council granted European Union candidate status to Turkey in 1999. Accession negotiations began in 2005, but in 2018, the Council said they had reached a standstill in light of “continuing and deeply worrying backsliding on the rule of law and on fundamental rights” under Erdoğan.
Unlike other EU candidates, Turkey was never granted visa liberalisation with the Schengen Area—a source of continued frustration within the country. Kılıçdaroğlu campaigned on securing visa-free travel for Turkish citizens.
Relations with Turkey remain vital for the EU, however, as two member states (Greece and Bulgaria) share borders with Turkey. Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and largely controls the flow of many refugees and migrants from the Middle East to the EU.
Most of the EU is also an ally of Turkey in NATO, and Turkey has the second largest armed forces in the alliance after only the United States. However, in recent years, major schisms have emerged within the alliance as Erdoğan has broken with the rest of the bloc over admitting new members and military interventions.
The US and many other NATO members support a coalition of ethnic militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). The SDF played a major role in defeating the Islamic State (IS) and a component Kurdish militia (YPG) helped save Yezidis in Iraq from genocide by IS.
Turkey, however, claims the YPG, and thus the SDF, is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is classifies as a terrorist organisation. Erdoğan has supported the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamist rebel groups sanctioned by the US for war crimes as proxies in Syria. The Turkish military and its proxies have launched incursions into the AANES that have allegedly seen widespread war crimes and the ethnic cleansing of Kurds and other minorities. Turkish airstrikes on the SDF in Syria have come within 300 metres of US troops, and the US and other NATO members have condemned the incursions and warned they threaten the ability of the SDF to keep 10,000 captured IS fighters in detention.
After Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, EU members Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO. Erdoğan, however, stonewalled the accession of both countries over demands that they stop Quran burnings and deport Kurdish rights activists with ties to the YPG, including those who are Swedish citizens and asylum seekers.
Officials in Helsinki and Stockholm have said the deportation of their citizens and asylum-seekers violate their laws and that Quran burning is protected as free speech. Erdoğan eventually let Finland join the alliance after he said it addressed Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish groups, but he has still refused to allow Sweden to join.
In Ukraine, the same Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones used by the Turkish government to kill Kurds are celebrated for their role helping to repel Russian forces. Baykar Defence, the Turkish defence contractor led by Erdoğan’s son-in-law, donated drones to Ukraine that have subsequently become the subject of songs and memes as a symbol of resistance.
Erdoğan has voiced support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the rights of Crimean Tatars—a Muslim Turkic indigenous group in Crimea that has faced discrimination since Russia illegally annexed the peninsula. Turkey, however, maintains better relations with Moscow than most of NATO and has continued to welcome Russian business even as the rest of the bloc sanctioned it. Turkey used its relative neutrality to secure a deal that allowed Ukraine to export its grain.
Despite its rights violations and the headaches it gives even its closest allies, it is unlikely to withdraw from NATO anytime soon. Erdoğan will continue to project Turkish power to maintain his country’s status as a regional power with sway around the Mediterranean and Eurasia in hopes of securing concessions from the EU on visa liberalisation and from NATO on the sale of coveted F-16 fighter aircraft from Washington.
Erdoğan is likely to eventually allow Sweden to join NATO in exchange for more good behaviour in Ukraine and F-16s, which will almost certainly be used by Turkey to strike Kurdish areas of Syria and Iraq. Brussels and Ankara will continue to see what concessions may be extracted from each other as new challenges arise during Erdoğan’s next term.
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