«The breeze of change»: does Turkey turn towards the West?01.02.2021
Author: Stanislav Zhelikhovskyi, PhD in Political Science, top specialist at Hennadii Udovenko Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine.
In 2023, the Republic of Turkey will celebrate the centenary of its becoming as an independent state. Throughout modern history, Ankara has sought to become a strategic transit hub between Europe and Asia through the control of both sea and land routes.
The Turkish leadership has set a task to enter the top ten most developed countries in the world and become a regional leader in technological modernization by the 100th anniversary of the Republic. However, right now, it is up for discussion, whether this will really be the case.
For a long time, Turkish foreign policy was based on two principles of the concept of «the strategic depth», which is «zero problem with neighbors» and «establishing a zone of stability and security around Turkey». Ankara also declares the multi-vector foreign policy focusing on preserving the role of the United Nations, Euro-Atlantic security, loyalty to the bloc policy and alliance with the West, while maintaining and developing good relations with the Russian Federation.
However, the wave of revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East (this year is the tenth anniversary) urged the country’s leadership to seriously recalibrate its policy towards the states in the region, and shift away from the traditional role of mediator to the supporter of some specific party (sometimes, even the anti-regime forces). Moreover, the attempted coup in Turkey itself and the beginning of the migration crisis in Europe had caused relations between the republic and the West (in particular, the United States and the European Union) to cool considerably, delivering a serious blow to Ankara.
Recently, though, the breeze of change seems to have blown. After all, Turkey expects 2021, which has already been labeled as the «year of democratic and economic reforms», to be better than the previous one. In terms of the country’s foreign policy, the coming months are projected to produce substantial gains.
Thus, in late December, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking to parliamentarians from the ruling Justice and Development Party, said that in 2020, the «artificial agenda items» checked Turkey’s ties with the EU and the US, but he expressed hope that the situation would improve. In his speech, the Turkish leader stressed that Turkey hoped to «turn a new page» in its relations with the United States and the European Union, stressing that Ankara had suffered double standards from both the NATO ally Washington and the Alliance as such.
Erdogan’s message is clear. He meant, firstly, the imposition of sanctions by the United States on Turkey due to its acquisition of the second batch of Russian S-400 missile defense and, secondly, the European Union preparation of penal measures in response to Turkey’s dispute with Greece and Cyprus regarding the right over the shelf in the Mediterranean Sea.
In general, 2020 proved to be exceptionally complex for the Turkey-EU relations, and especially with France, when the President Tayyip Erdogan publicly expressed hope that protests in French cities would help overthrow the President Emmanuel Macron. Greece and Cyprus, being strongly supported by France, wish to punish Turkey for its ships’ exploration in the disputed Mediterranean waters in search of oil and gas.
Both cases are obviously not good for Ankara. It appears so, that the Turkish economy, affected by the lira’s decline and rapid change in prices, is pushing the republic to reconcile with the West. And Erdogan himself admits that economic problems of the republic are the consequence of the «targeted foreign attacks» on the Turkish economy.
«We do not consider our multilateral political, economic and military cooperation as an alternative to our deep-rooted ties with the United States. And we want the EU to get rid of the strategic blindness that distances Turkey from it», Erdogan said.
It should be noted that the US sanctions came at that sensitive moment in tense relations between Ankara and Washington, when the newly elected President Joseph Biden replaced Donald Trump. And it seems that the Turkish authorities have decided to take advantage of the situation and be the first to extend a branch of peace to the Western partners.
For example, the official Ankara, judging the US sanctions as a «serious mistake», stated that it expected Biden to be more constructive in resolving issues between allies, from disputes over Syrian policy to the S-400 issues. The need to lift the US sanctions in Turkey is explained by the fact that they are doing nothing but deepen the anti-Western and anti-American sentiments among the Turkish public and Ankara hopes that the Biden administration will realize this fact.
As for relations with Brussels, Ankara has been doing its best to iron out the disagreements and to reconcile with the European Union since the beginning of the year. The goal is to make it before March, when the EU leaders decide to impose sanctions on Turkey. And the first steps have already been taken, which is confirmed by the example of Turkey’s withdrawal of its exploration vessels and its intentions to resume negotiations with Greece.
We can also observe the enhanced dialogue between Ankara and Brussels. Thus, on January 9, a video conference was held between the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, during which the parties stressed the importance of bilateral relations. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met with the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrel in Brussels on January 21 in order to take concrete measures to improve relations affected by the disputes over energy, migration and human rights in Turkey.
However, it is too early to say how the relations with the West have improved, despite Ankara’s efforts to establish them. And there are certain reasons for this.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Turkish authorities hope for a new administration in Washington, it is far from certain that relations between the United States and the Turkish Republic will improve in the near future. After all, despite the growing tension between the countries, many potential hotspots have been smoothed out only due to the friendly relations between Trump and Erdogan. Everything is different with Biden.
For example, in an interview Biden gave a year ago, the potential US candidate called Erdogan an «autocrat», and criticized his actions toward the Kurds, and said that the Turkish leader «must pay the price». He suggested the United States to support the Turkish opposition leaders «so that they can defeat and beat Erdogan. Not by means of a coup, but through the electoral process». He also promised to recognize the Armenian Genocide, which is an extremely controversial issue for Turkey and which American leaders have avoided for a whole century.
Nonetheless, Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin declared that Turkey believes it can have a «good and positive agenda» with the Biden administration. He labeled any punishment for the acquisition of the S-400 as «counterproductive».
There is a lack of confidence also about improving the EU-Turkey relations. After all, even though Ankara has recalled its ships and is going to resume talks with Athens, the EU has accused the Turkish authorities of playing the «cat-and-mouse» game in the form of provocations and reconciliation. Brussels also accuses Erdogan of undermining the economy, destroying democracy and eliminating independent courts and the media.
«As before, we remain concerned about the situation (with human rights) in Turkey», said Josep Borrell.
As in the case with Washington, the Kurdish issue is a major obstacle to improving relations with Brussels. For example, the European Parliament has supported the resolution calling to release Selagatin Demirtas, the leading Kurdish politician imprisoned in 2016 on terrorism charges.
Nevertheless, Turkey remains a major destination for the EU trade and investment. It also accepts about 4 million Syrian refugees, which makes Brussels seek an agreement with Ankara on new funds for the refugees (from 2022) to prevent them from entering its territory.
To crown it all, it can be noted that after a long period of cooling, there have been some recent improvements in relations between the Republic of Turkey and the West. However, it is too early to talk about positive results, as the presence of controversial issues and the lack of trust on the part of the United States and the European Union create obstacles to this process.
Only the passage of time will judge how that will work. However, it is very likely that Ankara will do everything possible to take a significant place on the international arena by 2023, and good relations with the Western world is the ultimate prerequisite for it.
Публікація здійснюється в рамках співробітництва Newssky Media Group із Інститутом демократизації та розвитку.