Frustration is the byword for the Turkish regime these days. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to play defiant and boast achievements and victories at home and abroad. But the punches have kept coming from afar for the past few weeks and have been translated into hard economic realities for the vast majority of the Turkish people.
On Friday, the EU prolonged the sanctions framework it adopted last year to penalise Ankara for its unauthorised gas exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. The framework, extended to November 2021, permits asset freezes and visa bans on individuals and asset freezes on entities involved in these activities. It also prohibits EU persons and entities from making funds available to those on the sanctions list. The step augurs further venting of European anger in the EU summit in Brussels in December and further blows to the reeling Turkish economy.
The following day brought adverse winds from Washington. The Erdogan regime had a lot riding on a second term for the Donald Trump administration, but it was Joe Biden who was declared victor. This will soon eliminate the foremost obstacle to the implementation of Congressional sanctions related to Turkey’s purchase and deployment of the Russian S-400 missile defence system. With Trump’s defeat, the Turkish strongman also lost a powerful moral and political backer who had lauded his “good friend” Erdogan as a “brilliant leader” and had given him the green lights he needed to further his expansionist ambitions in Syria, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Although officials in Ankara may have seen the Biden victory coming, as evidenced by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s statement that his government would be open to dealing with whomever the American people elected, the Turkish president was personally convinced that Trump would remain in power. According to people from the narrow circle of power in Ankara, Erdogan had dismissed the opinion polls that had given Biden up to a 10-point lead over Trump. To Erdogan’s mind, the polls in the US were as “tendentious” as the “hostile” polls back home that showed his own declining popularity and some of which even predicted that his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would be defeated in the event of an early election.
As congratulatory messages poured in for President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris from the heads-of-state of Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Arab countries and other Middle Eastern countries, and countries in Africa and Asia, the Turkish president joined the handful of leaders who remained silent and left it to his media and underlings to issue statements he could not bring himself to say. Naturally, Turkish social media was quick to pick up on a number of ironies.
For example, many note how Muslim Brotherhood media based in Turkey cheered the Biden victory whereas the pro-AKP media had never had a kind word for Barack Obama, whose administration had promoted the Islamist trend over which Erdogan is the self-appointed leader, and the state run Anadolu News Agency, when reporting the Biden victory, echoed the Republican line that the US elections are not over yet.
Only on Sunday did Ankara issue its first “impassive” reaction, as Reuters described it, to Joe Biden’s presidential win. It would not change relations between the two countries, and Turkey would continue to press Washington on Syria and other policy differences, said Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay. The friendship between Erdogan and his US counterpart Donald Trump had helped the countries tackle several of issues, he added. Nevertheless, “nothing will change for Turkey.
The channels of communication will work as before, but of course there will be a transition period.” Oktay added that his government would monitor the Biden administration’s foreign policy approach and continue to pressure Washington to extradite Fethullah Gülen, who Ankara claims masterminded the 15 July 2016 failed coup attempt, and to cease working with Kurdish groups in Syria, which he referred to as “terrorist organisations”. Oktay made no mention of US policies towards Turkey’s military interventions in the Middle East, North Africa and the Caucasus, or the Turkish regime’s suppression of opposition voices and the deteriorating state of human rights in Turkey, although all are aware that such concerns will be high on the Biden agenda when dealing with Turkey.
The first major Turkish political figure to congratulate the US president-elect was Turkey’s main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP). “I would like to congratulate Joe Biden for his election as the 46th president of the United States of America and Kamala Harris as vice president. I look forward to strengthening Turkish-American relations and our strategic alliance,” he wrote on his Twitter account 7 November. This naturally elicited the wrath of the government-controlled press, and for an obvious reason. Fresh in Turkish minds are the comments that Biden made in a New York Times interview in January but that were not given press in Turkey until August.
Calling Erdogan an “autocrat”, Biden said that the US should encourage the opposition in Turkey.
“I’m still of the view that if we were to engage more directly, like I was doing with them, that we can support those elements of the Turkish leadership that still exist and get more from them and embolden them to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan. Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process,” Biden had said.
Worse yet, Biden in that interview voiced support for the political rights of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. He called for a “different approach”, one that made it clear that “we are in a position where we have a way, which was working for a while, to integrate the Kurdish population who wanted to participate in the process in their parliament, etc.” The anti-pluralistic AKP and its ally, the ultra-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), saw red and presidential adviser Ibrahim Kalin was tasked with leading the charge. Accusing the former vice president of ignorance, arrogance and hypocrisy, Kalin tweeted: “The days of ordering Turkey around are over. But if you still think you can, be our guest. You will pay the price.”
Biden’s victory is more than just another headache for Turkey. It is one that will compound all the problems that have been closing in on the Erdogan regime, from reactions to its pivot towards Russia and the spectre of sanctions over the S-400 purchase to international opposition to its provocative behaviour in the Eastern Mediterranean and its military adventures in Libya, Syria, Iraq and, more recently, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. The Biden administration is also certain to take a tougher stance on the erosion of democracy and human rights in Turkey and it may lend its weight to European voices that have come to question Erdogan’s commitment as a NATO ally.
All this will have painful repercussions on the ailing Turkish economy, the downward spiralling lira and the dwindling foreign currency reserves needed to pay the country’s crippling foreign debt. So, when the AKP mouthpiece, Yeni Safak, tells Europeans or US congressmen to take their sanctions and go to hell, many Turks join the opposition in wondering who might precede them.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly