Dimitar Bechev (Center for the Study of Europe Boston University)

Dimitar Bechev: “Turkey is using COVID-19 to project soft power, rather than scale down commitments abroad”

The renowned Bulgarian academic, Dimitar Bechev, talks to Ethnos about the geopolitical race gathering pace during the pandemic

Dimitar Bechev talks to Ethnos about the geopolitical race gathering pace during the pandemic, from Syria to Libya and from the Balkans to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey joined the soft power race taking place around the COVID-19 crisis by sending “help” to a number of countries. Is this “help” enough to boost Turkey’s image abroad or restore Turkey’s ties with countries such as Israel?

I don’t think the aid will make a difference in Israel’s case. Relations remain in poor shape, despite the gradual normalization occurring under Obama. Netanyahu is back as PM and I don’t see him cutting Ankara some slack - e.g. with regard to the hydrocarbon disputes in the Eastern Med. COVID-19 assistance works in countries which are already well-disposed to Turkey, such as in former Yugoslavia.

Turkey’s influence in the Balkans, particularly in countries such as Albania (where there is a sizeable Greek ethnic minority), is a matter of concern here in Greece. Should we be concerned?

Turkey’s links to Albania date back to the early 1990s. I don’t see a major change, apart from the fact that Edi Rama courts Erdogan. Albania is unlikely to use Turkey as leverage against Greece, nor is Turkey could use Albania against its neighbor. After all, Tirana’s priority is the EU membership talks and Greece holds influence on that matter. Greek trade, investment as well as Albanians in Greece give Athens even further leverage. However, Rama will likely balance between EU and Turkey to get the best deal from each side. Other Balkan countries are less of an issue for Greece. The rapprochement between Serbia and Turkey for instance hardly jeopardizes Belgrade’s ties with Athens. The same is true of Bulgaria-Turkey. Since the 1990s, Sofia avoids taking side in Greek-Turkish disputes.

Are Turkey and Serbia closer than what many would like to accept?

Yes. Largely thanks to President Vucic. He is carrying out a multi-vector policy which is not unlike Turkey’s. Works with Russia, China too - e.g. COVID-19. At the same time, Serbia is cooperating with NATO as well.

Will the COVID-19 pandemic bring about changes in Turkish foreign policy?

I don’t think it will. Turkey is using the crisis to project soft power, rather than scale down commitments abroad.

It is clear to most observers that Erdogan has taken a series of risks these past years, from Syria and Libya to S-400 and his relations with most of the surrounding countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Israel). Do you see any of those risks backfiring? Are there risks that are more likely to backfire than others?

These are for the most part calculated risks. Putin has saved the day in Idlib, arbitering between Erdogan and Assad. But without the Russians, Turkey could easily destroy the regime’s forces. In Libya, Haftar is on backfoot and Turkey-backed GNA is gaining ground. S-400 sanctions by the US are postponed because of the COVID crisis. However, Turkey has a price to pay. It now “owns” parts of northern Syria and has to take care of governance there. Might not be popular in times of economic distress, even if Erdogan tells citizens the purpose is to keep Syrian migrants in their country. Libya is not likely to yield huge economic or political dividends either. GNA and LNA in deadlock.  Turkey could make life difficult for rivals in Eastern Med but won’t be able to unilaterally exploit oil and gas deposits. Low oil prices make it unprofitable too.

Are there compromises that Erdogan would be capable of? Would he compromise with Assad or Haftar or Netanyahu? Is Syria different to Libya?

He will compromise with Assad eventually with Russia’s mediation. Turkey has been backchanneling to the regime for years. Devil is in the details. What will Turkey get in return? Also, Assad is not trustworthy from Ankara’s perspective. That’s why Turkish policy is to drive a wedge between him and Russia. I don’t see a compromise with Netanyahu - or Ganz once they rotate. Not with Haftar either for that matter. Haftar is a proxy of UAE and al-Sisi and Erdogan would be interested in talking directly to them.

The collapse in the price of oil has forced conglomerates such as ExxonMobil to postpone their drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey, on the other hand, is sending Yazuz, Oruc Reis and Barbaros back to Cyprus, regardless of the fact that all its offshore drilling attempts have so far been fruitless. What is Turkey really aiming for in the Mediterranean?

Turkey wants to maximize its leverage as it sees itself being encircled by Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt. US and France are gravitating to this alliance too. That’s why Turkey is acting as a spoiler. But oil price collapse makes this geopolitical race pointless.

What about Turkey and Russia and their relations? What do you reckon will be the future of S-400 in Turkey? Are there issues that could cause rifts between Moscow and Ankara?

More of the same. They focus on cooperation in areas where interests overlap and manage conflict in areas where they are at odds with one another.  Idlib was a rigorous test. Russia likely carried an air strike against Turkish troops but Putin and Erdogan found way to de-escalate and work together. S-400 is part of the equation. Erdogan thinks he can have the cake and eat it. Work with Russia and use Trump as a shield against the US Congress. So far it works.

Another big concern here in Greece is the extent to which Turkey is willing to use migrants as a tool in order to put pressure on Greece and the EU. Do you see this trend continuing? 

Last time Erdogan tried it, he didn’t win much. He could do it again, no doubt. But the bottom-line is he needs EU financial support to deal with millions of refugees in Turkey. What Erdogan really wants as well is involving Europeans in Idlib. EU money to pay for reconstruction and welfare, boost Turkey’s power and construction companies’ profits, help alleviate the migration challenge. The EU on the other hand doesn’t like paying money with no strings attached (Greece knows that well). COVID strains EU resources too as funds are directed for econ stimulus.

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