Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin – the man to whom the Turkish president has long been compared as a popular, grandstanding, belligerent strongman. Everyone worried when the two declared hostilities in November over Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military jet near the Syrian border. Now everyone appears even more worried that they are, publicly at least, not only reconciled but international BFFs (Best Friends Forever, for those who don’t have young daughters).
Even before the coup attempt that nearly claimed Erdogan’s scalp in July, the pair were heading for rapprochement after Turkey backed down from its initial bravado as its economy began to suffer from Russia’s trade and tourism boycott.
There is also a feeling that they were pushed together by a disdainful West – Erdogan, certainly, made much of his shock at the perceived lack of sympathy for him from Western capitals after Turkey averted near catastrophe. It was telling, he said, that Putin was one of the first to offer him support in the face of the attempted overthrow. Where was Europe? Where was the US? Officials of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK) suggested that both would be happy if the coup had succeeded, getting rid of Erdogan and killing Turkey’s controversial EU ambitions in one fell swoop. As a result of these lukewarm reactions, anti-Western sentiment in Turkey is rising.
The West is certainly not guiltless in Erdogan’s erratic behavior – it is almost as if it is letting its distaste for the man colour too much its attitudes towards an important country that, still, has a pivotal role to play on the edge of Europe and Nato. From Angela Merkel’s outspoken early views that Turkey should never join the EU to Brussels’ admission of a divided Cyprus, Western leaders have not always been entirely helpful to Turkey’s attempts to become more Western.
Cornered by evident hostility from many capitals, and after multiple failures in foreign policy, as well as economic fears, Erdogan even went as far as saying “sorry” to Putin, against whom he had railed mightily for months.
You’d think it must have been tough for such a thin-skinned, proud man, and surprising for someone who gives the impression of obstinacy. But for Erdogan, a volte-face is not so unusual. In fact, these days he is constantly rewriting history as he veers from one crisis to the next.
Regardless of whether any secularist anti-Erdogan soldiers took part or not, the coup attempt has been firmly and entirely blamed on supporters of the exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen – amusingly called FETO (an acronym for the Fethullah-ist Terrorist Organisation but also an irreverent diminutive of the name Fethullah). Gulen supporters were no doubt heavily involved in the coup and had tentacles throughout the organs of state. Yet it makes one uneasy that FETO has become such a catch-all baddie that suddenly everyone turns out to have belonged to it, including the men who shot down the Russian jet, of whom Erdogan has previously been so openly proud.
It wasn’t me, he is now able to say to Putin. It was FETO wot done it.
There are telling parallels here with the way he disowned the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, against the Deep State and military coup plotters respectively, which crumbled after turning into witch hunts. Where he once announced that he was the trials’ chief prosecutor, he now invites us instead to despair not at his guilt but his gullibility. Forgive me, he told the Turks, for not realizing the danger of this “cult”. Sorry is not the hardest word.
This usual suspects attitude, coupled with the odd mea culpa, is helping the government to paper over concerns, such as: if Ergenekon wasn’t the Deep State, what is, and who is using it now? Or: are you saying that no coup plots were hatched by a military that clearly wanted to oust you all through the noughties?
Another major and damaging Erdogan turnaround was his disavowal last year of the Kurdish peace process – bizarrely, in some ways, since he was at the same time breaking away from Gulen, partly over the cleric’s opposition to the peace talks.
Erdogan’s continued determination to cold shoulder the Kurds – perhaps because he found that when he gave them rights they gave their votes elsewhere, to the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – has dented the sense that the recent mass “democracy” rallies will lead to a real improvement in Turkish democracy. So have the lynch-mob demands for a return to the death penalty.
How to lose friends and alienate people
As the state goes about “cleansing” – and what a chilling phrase that is – its offices of Gulenists, the speed and number of arrests has become mindboggling. To be fair, parts of these lists are bound to be accurate since AK was complicit in placing the Gulenists’ there, but the whiff of the witch hunt is definitely present.
So, it’s no wonder that Western capitals, which should by rights be defending an elected leader against a secretive cult, are uneasy. Many leaders clearly don’t like Erdogan. And the Kurds, who once tolerated him for his efforts to find peace, don’t like him now either. The secularists, despite the current show of unity, never liked him. Now the Gulenists don’t like him. Moderate liberals no longer like him. Many of those who helped co-found the AK Party but have since been sidelined don’t like him.
When the post-coup unity starts to shatter, and it will, who will be left? The soldiers and journalists released after the show trials were abandoned? Hardly. And what if, the government decides to allow the Gulenists to be replaced by, say, graduates of Imam Hatip religious schools? How long would it be before they turn on him for not being sufficiently “Islamic” and then need purging in their turn? That’s the trouble with serial cronyism.
Erdogan has alienated so many people both inside and outside the country, and surrounded himself with such unimpressive advisers, that you almost feel sorry for him. As one columnist asked: Mr President, do you not have any real friends to give you some friendly, critical advice?
Probably not, which is why, counterintuitively, the West could do well to back off for a bit and find an effective way of dealing with a wounded, friendless Erdogan. He might be inconsistent, contradictory and dangerous, but he won 50% of the vote and without a viable alternative in Turkey, Erdogan stays.
Turkey mustn’t bring back the death penalty and kill off its EU hopes – and the way to stop this isn’t public hectoring from international leaders, but backroom diplomacy. This should be the case with the extradition request for Gulen as with all other contentious issues. And let’s not forget that Turkey isn’t just about Erdogan – aggressive isolation doesn’t help Turkey’s people or improve its democracy. The best reforms were made when Ankara thought it had a chance of joining the EU.
A measured, responsible Western approach just may tip the balance and temper Erdogan. The opposite could help push Turkey over the edge.