Of Marc Pierini
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine leaves a strong imprint on Turkey’s foreign policy. Ankara’s attempt to balance between Russia and Ukraine makes the issue even more difficult to manage. Despite many attempts at peace mediation, successes so far have been limited in scope: a prisoner exchange and a grain deal allowing grain to be transported from Odessa and neighboring ports under a monitoring mechanism set up in Istanbul jointly with the United Nations .
Even after Russia said it was pulling out of the deal, Turkey continued the activity, possibly on the condition that Ukraine would not use the shipping lanes to launch attacks on Russia’s Black Sea fleet. These efforts are laudable, but as such they do not lead to peace.
If they do not happen in the medium term, peace talks between Russia and Ukraine will likely be initiated by the United States rather than Turkey, simply because the United States provides critical military supplies and guidance to the brave Ukrainian forces.
Moreover, the truth is that Moscow would probably not want Ankara to facilitate peace talks, while NATO members would not necessarily trust the only country that has damaged the alliance’s defense architecture by buying Russian missiles and, as a consequence the expected US sanctions on F-35 stealth fighters, as it has itself caused a loss of strength in its own air force.
However, in election times, publicity matters. When CIA Director William Burns met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Naryskin, in Ankara on November 14, the Turkish intelligence service was careful to clarify that the meeting took place at its headquarters.
Furthermore, when Ankara delayed the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO for domestic reasons, it also hurt Turkey’s image within the alliance at a historic moment for the European continent and the Western world. It is unlikely that this impasse will be resolved soon, since Turkey’s accusations against Sweden are exclusively related to Kurdish activism in the latter.
The tragic bombing on a busy pedestrian street in the heart of Istanbul on November 13 showed once again that no political cause can justify the indiscriminate killing of families and children. Although the tragedy was condemned by the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the leadership of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) itself and the Syrian People’s Defense Units (YPG), the security apparatus immediately revealed links between the arrested suspect and PKK, as well as its confession. In short, the authorities have made Kurdish terrorism a prominent issue in the 2023 election campaign.
Next steps could include more military action against PKK militias in northern Iraq and, if Russia allows, possibly in Syria’s Kobani region; a possible ban on the HDP before the election; the silencing of its parties opposition and media on the issue (a media ban on the bombing was immediately imposed); and renewed accusations against the United States for its support for Syrian Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State ( ISIS). More generally, the struggle of “us” and “them” will inevitably become a key narrative of the election campaign.
Where does this complex set of issues – and their electoral consequences – leave European countries and NATO?
Domestic politics comes first, as always.
With inflation officially at 80% and a utopian interest rate policy, the Turkish economy is in bad shape, but generous measures to help the poor, teachers, students and other subsets of voters are announced with fanfare and little detail as to their funding. . This is where the incumbent leadership aims to win the votes it needs. Meanwhile, tight control over the media and civil society will ensure that the true state of the country’s economy is not discussed too strongly. The new misinformation law will help.
Turkey’s foreign policy will be placed at the service of domestic political imperatives in order to demonstrate that in difficult times the country needs a leadership capable of resisting pressure from external forces and imposing its own independent course.
A few cases will be used to rally the nation around the flag and thereby silence the opposition coalition: maritime border disputes with Greece (if not the reference to the Treaty of Lausanne itself), the case for a two-state solution for Cyprus and additional military operations in Northern Syria.
The irony is that increased bellicose rhetoric against Greece, more talk of direct or indirect recognition of the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” and the battalions sent to Kobani, will directly harm Turkey’s international standing, both politically and economically.
It remains to be seen what the coalition of six opposition parties will have to propose as an electoral platform. This coalition has so far been held together mainly because of its opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Her domestic ambitions are clear – a return to the parliamentary system, the restoration of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms, and a move towards a sounder economic policy – but her foreign policy proposals are far less well-known and coherent. A complete platform is expected to be published.
Whether the opposition coalition will manage to stay united will be a litmus test for them, but also for Turkey’s democracy.
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