No reason for Moscow to cheer a Turkish solo

The meeting between Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and his Turkish colleague Recep Tayyip Erdogan on August 10 did not turn into the big anti-Western show that many in Europe and the US feared in the run-up to the St Petersburg event.  The rethoric in the aftermath of the coup may suggest a shift to the East, but this is not in the long term interest of Turkey, says Joost Lagendijk, former member of the European Parliament, in response to Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov.

Erdogan support after coupCitizens show their support fort Erdogan after the failed coup

by Joost Lagendijk

True, both leaders were happy to bury the hatchet after relations between the two countries nosedived at the end of last year because of the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkey in November 2015. This week’s get-together showed how quickly an assessment by both sides of their long-term interests and a dose of personal chemistry between the two authoritarian leaders could overcome a crisis that, only a few months ago, seemed to drive the countries apart. Crucial items on the St Petersburg agenda were the restoration of economic ties and the restart of common energy projects, two areas where Turkey suffered a lot in the last couple of months as a result of tough Russian sanctions.

Agree to disagree on Syria

On other issues anxiously watched by Western observers there was not that much progress: despite a promise to keep looking for common ground, Putin and Erdogan basically agreed to disagree on Syria. There was hardly any talk at all about future security cooperation or a long-term alliance that would imply a Turkish distancing from its Western anchors.
In The Economist Fyodor Lukyanov of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy summarized the importance of the meeting by saying: 'the page has been turned'. At the moment it is, however, far from clear how the rest of the book will read.

In a piece for The Moscow Times, written before the Putin-Erdogan summit and republished at RaamopRusland, Lukyanov tried to draw some conclusions for future Russian-Turkish relations after the aborted coup in Turkey of July 15. That article is a good example of how in Russian thinking about Turkey accurate observations are often mixed with incorrect assessments and wishful thinking.
Lukyanov is definitively right when he states that the shock of the coup attempt will allow Erdogan to further backtrack from a neo-Ottoman and Islamist foreign policy that has isolated the country in the Middle East. The policy was designed and implemented by former Turkish Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. He was sidelined this spring for domestic political reasons.

But also because Erdogan had come to understand that Davutoglu’s policy on Syria and the rest of the region had only produced negative results. Turkey reestablishing ties with Russia and Israel just before the coup is an example of the new, more pragmatic and less ideological foreign policy in the making in Ankara. In the foreseeable future, part of that new orientation could be the acceptance of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a transitional actor in a future US-Russian peace deal. For the moment though, this is one step too far for Erdogan. Most probably, Lukyanov is right in thinking that Turkey, for the time being, will keep a low profile in Syria and will support joint initiatives against the Islamic State with more vigor.

Ties with the EU

Where Lukyanov gets it wrong is in some of Turkey’s domestic policies and especially in Ankara’s relation with Brussels and Washington. Yes, there is a lot of speculation these days in Turkey about reintroducing the death penalty. But I am sure it is not going to happen. For the moment, Erdogan is riding on the waves of popular anger about the coup and has said he will accept such a decision by the Turkish parliament.

But among the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) members of parliament there is little appetite to accept the ultimate consequences of such a radical step: stopping the accession negotiations with the European Union and run the risk of being forced out of the Council of Europe. One can already see senior AKP members pouring cold water on the idea and coming up with alternatives that are no less cruel (life long isolation for instance) but will keep Turkey’s links to the rest of Europe undamaged.

Merkel with Erdogan in IstanbulMerkel with Erdogan in Istanbul for talks on the refugee-crisis

It is also not correct to think, as Lukyanov does, that the EU is looking for a quick break with Turkey. There are indeed big problems with regard to the EU-Turkey agreement on refugees. Brussels has made it clear it will only stick to its part of that deal – lifting visa obligations for Turkish citizens who want to enter the EU for a short period – if Turkey changes its anti-terror laws that are now frequently used to label all opponents of the current government as terrorists. In Turkish eyes, that is a highly controversial demand, especially after the July 15 coup. But there is still time till October for Brussels and Ankara to calm down and try to come up with a formula that gives Turkey what it desperately wants – visa freedom – thereby saving the overall refugee deal for which nobody inside the EU has proposed a realistic alternative.

Wishful thinking

By the way, Lukyanov’s prediction that soon the EU will fall apart and Europe will return to a new version of the multipolar Europe of the 19th century is wide of the mark as well. Again, nobody will deny the EU is going through difficult times and has to cope with multiple crises: refugees, Brexit and economic stagnation. It is far from clear when and how these fundamental problems are going to be solved. But for Russia to dream about a fractured Europe with big states competing for supremacy and Russia returning to a strong rule-and-divide position is simply wishful thinking. The EU is not going to disappear into thin air, even if Putin puts more money and energy in supporting those political forces inside the EU that would welcome such a scenario.

Back to Turkey and its relations with the US and the EU. Lukyanov has a point when he predicts stormy weather for Turkey-US relations in the short term. Erdogan blames Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric living in exile in the US, for organizing and orchestrating the coup – and the US for supporting him - and wants the US to extradite him. At the moment, that seems highly unlikely for a whole set of formal legal reasons. Such a refusal will indeed worsen the already strained relations between Turkey and the US. But will Turkey severe its ties with NATO as some in Washington fear and many in Moscow hope?

Turkey needs NATO security

Let’s not jump to conclusions here. For more than 50 years, Turkey has been an integral part of the Western Alliance and its territorial defense fully depends on close cooperation with its NATO allies, especially the US. With the Turkish army badly beaten as a result of the failed coup, would it make sense for any Turkish government to put Turkey’s security at risk by slamming the door on the US and NATO? More obvious is a period of tension between Ankara and Washington, some poisonous rhetoric from Erdogan, followed by the silent acceptance of Turkey’s ongoing dependence on Western security guarantees.

As for the EU: at the moment neither Brussels nor Ankara is in a position to pull the plug on Turkey’s accession negotiations. It is true: There is a lot of shouting in some European capitals and many Turks are extremely unhappy with the EU for its lack of support after the coup and its perceived unwillingness to accept Turkey as full member. But hardly anybody in Berlin or Paris wants to take the blame for ruining a relationship that, albeit feeling growingly uncomfortably, still serves European long-term interests on issues such as refugees, energy and security. In Turkey, Erdogan the pragmatist realizes very well that the Turkey’s economy simply cannot afford a drastic break with the EU that would cause so many acute problems - less foreign investment just being the most tricky one.

Turkey needs some time to recover from the July 15 trauma. Breaking up with the EU is not going to help with that process. Nobody knows how this relation will develop in the long term and maybe a marriage of convenience based on new terms might be the ultimate result.

My advice to Lukyanov and other Russian analysts: do not bet on a Turkish solo effort in the foreseeable future from which Russia could profit.


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