More than a month after the failed coup against the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey and the world are trying the grasp what actually happened in Turkey on the night of July 15th, 2016. Very few analysts in Turkey and elsewhere are braving to forecast which direction Turkey will take after this unexpected event. The situation in Turkey is very important not only for its nearly 75 million Turkish citizens but also for Turkey’s neighbors, for the European Union (EU), Russia and the United States of America (US). All actors are interested in a stable and predictable Turkey, not only because of its strategic position – it controls the straights of Bosphorus and Dardanelles, it borders the war ravaged Syria, it is a member of NATO, and it hosts more than three million migrants and refugees, with which it can exploit and manipulate other actors, mainly the European countries, in order to advance its own goals. While it is very difficult to predict what will happen in Turkey in the next few months, some trends are becoming clearer. Turkey is emerging more consolidated, more politically centralized, more authoritarian, and more religious. These general trends cannot be ignored, no matter the nuances and the internal rhetoric inside the country. Let us see at how these internal trends will develop and affect Turkey’s main foreign military, economic and political partners.
Political centralization and consolidation of power
After the failed coup of July 15th, all four parties in the Turkish parliament stood united with Erdoğan’s government against it. Members of the ruling and opposition parties have attended each other’s rallies, where only the Turkish flag – no party or organization flags – were allowed, something that has not been seen in Turkey for a long time[i]. Prior to the coup, the polarization in Turkish society had reached its peak but the failed attempt to overthrow Regep Erdoğan, served, at least temporarily, as a unifying element between otherwise opposing elements in the Turkish elite and the divided Turkish society[ii]. While this moment of unity will not last long, Erdoğan will cleverly use it to push the transition from a parliamentary to a presidential republic. This will give him extraordinary power to control the military, the police and crack down on the opposition. The purge of the military, policy and intelligence services is already under way. Already, some opposition parties voiced concerns[iii] that, under the implemented state of emergency, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is enforcing drastic changes in the political system without consultation with them. For instance, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) protested that they have not been invited to meetings for a joint constitutional committee[iv]p. . The Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım responded that they would not be invited until the HDP clearly condemns the terrorist acts by the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In another instance, the head of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahçeli, criticized the government’s move to radically modify the military with a decree, which in effect weakens the army[v].
However, the majority of the Turkish population inside and in some cases outside of Turkey (i.e. Austria, Germany) rallied around Erdoğan and showed its unprecedented support for him[vi] [vii]. It will be safe to say that judging from Erdoğan’s past actions, his current support and popularity in Turkey, he will press quickly and forcefully to replace the parliamentary system with an executive presidential system. The presidential system will give him sweeping decision-making powers. He will also continue to prosecute the members of the outlawed Gülen movement, led by exiled in the United States Fethullah Gülen; he will purge the military and Turkey’s intelligence service (MIT); the civil war in Turkish Kurdistan will intensify and the vigorous fight against PKK will increase in order to prevent any secession attempts. We can expect the government to continue to monitor and censor the media, the press and the social networks. However, as time passes and the new policies settle in, the political capital Erdoğan currently enjoys will decrease as the increased repressive measures will begin to chafe sectors of Turkish society. The secular elite, Kamalists, and opposition parties, who presently may support him, will realize that most of their liberties have been stripped away. AKP’s constituency, the religious poor and the conservative middle class, which had been enjoying gradual improvement of their living standards until late 2014 and has seen them quickly falter, will become disillusioned as the economic prospects for Turkey, at least for the foreseeable future, do not show signs of major improvements.
Erdoğan continue to maintain his popularity by creating and supporting the idea of an existential external threat for Turkey, which plots to undermine its territorial integrity, i.e. creation of an independent Kurdish state carving away Southeastern Turkey. The actors, to which Turkey would point the finger, are mainly the European Union, and the United States.
Turkey’s foreign policy after the failed coup d’etat
Turkey’s most important partners are the EU, Russia and the US. Turkey has not spared any criticisms and accusations of the West and to a much lesser extent Russia for meddling in its internal affairs and even plotting the coup of July 15. This critique has been directed mainly for internal consumption and has consolidation of an already largely anti-Western sentiment in Turkey. Nevertheless, Turkey is dependent on these three actors as much as they are dependent on Turkey for trade, energy, immigration and military considerations.
Recep Erdoğan and his government have been harshly criticized by the EU bodies and certain European countries for Turkey’s poor human rights record, its complicity with some Syrian terrorist groups, the squelching of the press and most recently for planning to reintroduce the death penalty[viii]. The negotiations for the visa-free regime for the EU Schengen area for Turkish tourists have been stalled[ix]. There have been calls from politicians from some EU countries to halt Turkey’s EU membership accession talks. As retaliation, Turkey has threatened to send millions of refugees and migrants to Europe, something the European continent fears the most. While the stream of illegal migrants undeniably continues, it is unlikely that Turkey will flood Europe with millions of refugees and migrants. 65% of Turkey’s export goes to Europe. The European leadership maybe lacking determination but should the “gates of hell” open, it would first employ armies along the Greek and Bulgarian borders and second, it would introduce economic sanctions on Turkey. Yet neither the EU nor Turkey can afford economic sanctions, both already economically buckling from the Russian sanctions. However, in such a scenario Turkey would lose the most as its economy is already in a dismal state. Additional economic losses would lead to internal destabilization. Such a situation could be readily exploited by Erdoğan’s enemies outside and inside Turkey. Even so, it is most likely that the blame, the accusations, and the recall of ambassadors, the probable stalling of the EU membership talks and suspension of the visa-free regime for Turkish tourists will continue but in the end, Turkey and Europe will have to live and work with each other.
While the relations with Russia are presently on an upswing, there is no guarantee that they will remain as such. Much has been decided during the meeting on August 9th in St. Petersburg between Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdoğan. For Russia, it is extremely important that Turkey completely closes its porous southern border with Syria through which terrorists enter the southern borders of Russia. Until recently, Turkey has been playing with fire, supporting various terrorist organizations in Syria. As a result, terrorist attacks have manifested in its territory. While it is very doubtful that Turkey will abandon its ambitions in Syria, it appears to be willing to close its southern borders. In exchange, Russia already showed willingness to relax and gradually remove the economic sanctions on Turkey. On the other hand, Turkey and Russia agreed to move forward with two important energy projects: the Turkish Stream gas pipeline and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant[x]. The Turkish stream is an opportunity for the Russian energy companies to bypass Ukraine. Despite the unstable political situation in Turkey, the ongoing civil unrest with the Kurds in the south, the migrant crisis and last but not least, Turkey’s often changing position, Russia accepted to go forward with the first two out of four gas pipelines in the Turkish Stream project as well as to resume the construction of the first nuclear power plant in Turkey — Akkuyu, a 4,800 megawatt, $20 billion project in which Russia has already invested $3 billion[xi]. At the same time, Turkey and Russia remain deeply divided on their positions on Syria, namely the departure of Assad, on which Turkey continues to insist and labeling Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization, something Turkey claims is wrong[xii]. Nevertheless, the two countries agreed to cooperate and share military and intelligence information on Syria in order to avoid future incidents[xiii]. Pending the fulfillment of the August 9th agreements and concessions, Russia and Turkey may find themselves working closely together, sometimes playing each other off the West. However, because of their at times opposing interests and a long, occasionally violent history between the two, Turkey and Russia will hardly be able to achieve full trust and partnership.
Turkey is an important strategic partner for the United States, too. It is a vital NATO member with whom relations have not always been easy. After July 15th, 2016, the Turkey-US relations reached a new low following accusations from Ankara that the US exiled Turkish cleric and former Erdoğan partner Fethullah Gülen was behind the failed coup. The US refusal to extradite Gülen to Turkey and Ankara’s anger over the US administration’s criticism over the harsh treatment of tens of thousands of presumptive coup accomplices or Gülen supporters has been met by Ankara with mistrust and open treason accusations. These ranged from lack of understanding and meddling into the Turkish internal affairs to accusations that the US was behind the failed coup. Turkey is vital for the US, because as of July 29, 2015, Turkey has allowed the United States to use its Incirlik air base for the U.S.-led coalition’s campaign against the Islamic State. The US also stores an estimated 50 hydrogen nuclear bombs[xiv] at that base. On July 30, 2016, about 7000 Turkish military, citizens and police surrounded the Incirlik air base blocking all entrances with heavy vehicles[xv]. Security forces were sent to secure its perimeter and while access was allowed the next day, tensions between the two countries remain high. The upcoming visit of the US Vice President Joe Biden on August 24th[xvi] will aim to mend ties with Turkey. Nonetheless, the strain and mistrust will remain as long as Fethullah Gülen remains in the United States and Erdoğan is in power.
Foreseeing exactly which way Turkey will go after the failed coup is never an easy task. However, some signs can clearly be seen already as noted above. The current Turkish leadership, led by Erdoğan will strive for a strong power consolidation leading to an authoritarian state and most likely a presidential republic. The purges in the military, police, intelligence services, judiciary and civil service systems will continue. The country will become even more religious and less tolerant of other religious faiths and minorities. Externally, Turkey will, for the time being, abandon its New-Ottoman ambitions. It will continue the détente with Russia and will pivot towards the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Nevertheless, despite the prevailing anti-western rhetoric, Ankara will have to work with the European Union and the United States in order to maintain its military and economic power. However, on the world scene, its actions will become even more complex and less predictable.
[i] Mustafa Akyol. (2016). A rally that gave some hope. Available: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/a-rally-that-gave-some-hope.aspx?pageID=449&nID=102665&NewsCatID=411. Last accessed on August 20, 2016.
[iii] Hariyett Daily News (2016). Gov’t, opposition to begin work on small-scale charter changes. Available: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/govt-opposition-to-begin-work-on-small-scale-charter-changes.aspx?pageID=238&nID=102352&NewsCatID=338. Last accessed on August 2, 2016.
[iv] Hariyett Daily News (2016). Erdoğan invites ruling AKP, opposition CHP, MHP leaders to rally. Available: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/erdogan-invites-ruling-akp-opposition-chp-mhp-leaders-to-rally.aspx?pageID=238&nID=102371&NewsCatID=338. Last accessed on August 1, 2016.
[v] Hariyett Daily News (2016). Changes in the army were made hastily: Bahçeli. Available: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/changes-in-the-army-were-made-hastily-bahceli-.aspx?pageID=238&nID=102385&NewsCatID=338. Last accessed on August 2, 2016.
[viii] Harry Cockburn (2016). Turkey coup: President Erdogan backs reintroduction of death penalty. Available: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/turkey-death-penalty-erdogan-coup-president-backs-capital-punishment-a7178371.html. Last accessed on August 8, 2016.
[ix] The Guardian. (2016). Turkey fails to meet criteria for visa-free EU travel. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/15/turkey-misses-deadline-visa-free-travel-eu-ambassador-withdraw. Last accessed June 20, 2016.
[x] Al Monitor (2016). Have Putin and Erdogan found common ground?. Available: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/08/putin-erdogan-meeting.html. Last accessed August 10, 2016.
[xiv] The Guardian (2016). Turkey coup attempt raises fears over safety of US nuclear stockpile. Available on: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jul/17/turkey-coup-attempt-raises-fears-over-safety-of-us-nuclear-stockpile. Last accessed on July 25, 2016.
[xv] Common Dreams (2016). Turkey: US Air Base, Nuclear Bombs Surrounded By Citizens, Troops & Trucks. Available on: http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/07/31/turkey-us-air-base-nuclear-bombs-surrounded-citizens-troops-trucks. Last accessed August 2, 2016.
[xvi] Nahal Toosi (2016). Biden to visit Turkey as tensions soar. Available on: http://www.politico.com/story/2016/08/joe-biden-turkey-226982. Last accessed on August 14, 2016.
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