Sinan Ülgen: The economy is likely to shift the political landscape in Turkey
Sinan Ülgen

Sinan Ülgen: The economy is likely to shift the political landscape in Turkey

Whether as a diplomat or as a scholar and think-tanker, Sinan Ülgen has been analyzing Turkish foreign policy for decades. He talks to about the challenges arising in light of the COVID-19 pandemic

Whether as a diplomat or as a scholar and think-tanker (Carnegie Europe, EDAM), Sinan Ülgen has been analyzing Turkish policy for decades. He talks to charting a possibly shifting political landscape in light of the current developments. “The question is whether under this type of governance of an executive presidential system with very weak checks and balances, Turkey can deliver the type of economic performance that would be needed for Erdogan to strengthen his political position in a way to win elections in 2023», he claims.

It has been claimed time and again that the Turkish economy is on the brink of collapse or going bankrupt. Is the pandemic making things worse in real tangible terms? Could this crisis cost Erdogan dearly in political terms?

Erdogan has certainly been the most successful politician in recent memory in Turkey. He has been in power uninterrupted since 2002. The next electoral cycle is in 2023, so still three years down the road. When we look at the Turkish political landscape, the situation has now become more difficult. Firstly as a result of the emergence of new political actors, primarily here because of Ali Babacan, former Economics minister, but also Ahmet Davutoglu, former Foreign Affairs minister. So, there are new actors who can possibly cannibalize the AKP vote and convince the AKP grassroots to vote for them. But the second major element which is likely to shift the political landscape is the economy. Turkish economy has now entered a period of recession. It was recovering but then of course with all the other countries around, Turkey will start to feel the pain of the impact related to the coronavirus. Fundamentally, there are questions about the sustainability of Turkey’s economic performance which has certainly been even more pronounced since the transition to a presidential system where power is very much centralized in the presidency. The negative impact of that has been the weakening of institutions also in the area of economic governance. The independence of the Central Bank has certainly been affected. So the question is whether under this type of governance of an executive presidential system with very weak checks and balances Turkey can deliver the type of economic performance that would be needed for Erdogan to strengthen his political position in a way to win elections in 2023.

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 Ankara really aiming for in the Mediterranean?

On Turkish policy in the Eastern Mediterranean I think the main thing to understand is the messaging and the symbolic significance of this policy. By engaging in bilateral agreements with a country like Libya, but also by demonstrating its strength in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey wants to state clearly that it would not accept an outcome which essentially precludes it from an eventual agreement that is geared towards the exploration and utilization of offshore resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. So, it is essentially a message to the four countries: Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and to some extent Israel that this project will not be economically feasible if they continue to preclude Turkey from this scope. The main idea there is to convince those countries and particularly Greece that there needs to be an equitable and fair distribution of these resources based on a bilateral negotiated agreement over the distribution of those resources and of issues such as the EEZ and the continental shelf. So, what Ankara wants to accomplish here is essentially convince Athens that this is the type of negotiated outcome that is needed for the situation to be stabilized. What Turkey would not accept is for those four countries to go ahead with their plans by excluding Turkey. The messaging part is that Turkey will do everything to prevent that from happening.

It is clear to most observers that Erdogan has taken a series of risks when it comes to foreign policy. Do you see any of those risks backfiring?

Turkish president Erdogan has indeed taken a number of risks on foreign policy. The risks that are worth mentioning are related to the foreign policy in Syria, in Libya, on the S-400 issue, and in terms of relations with regional countries. The Turkish position in Syria is obviously related to Turkey want being part of an international effort really at the beginning of the crisis to accelerate regime change in Syria. Turkey’s exposure today is very much linked to that initial behavior. That was due to the fact that many countries around the world including the United States did support the position that president Assad had lost its legitimacy. Turkey is in a different position because it is a neighboring country. But nonetheless it has decided to adopt an ambitious attitude towards the Syrian regime and backed the Syrian opposition, both the civilian opposition and the military opposition. Yet, overtime two things happened: The western states that initially backed the position of regime change did not have the appetite it seems to invest militarily in Syria to force an outcome of regime change. While Assad’s allies, Iran and Russia, did invest militarily. So, in the end, the balance of power shifted to the advantage of the Syrian regime and therefore Turkey’s objective of regime change did not come true. Turkey now finds itself in a position where it has to mitigate the negative consequences of that calculation.  Turkey became exposed to the security spillovers from Syria, in particular to the humanitarian disaster that was unfolding. So today Turkey has ended up with 3,6 million refugees on its soil from Syria as a result of its open border policy.

Is there still room for compromise?

On many of these foreign policy areas that I discussed, there is the possibility of compromise. In Libya for instance the compromise would be that Turkey would back the Tripoli government to sit and negotiate with Haftar towards a political settlement that would be inclusive for Libya and therefore would take under consideration and embrace the different segments of the Libyan society (political, tribal). On the Eastern Mediterranean, as I have tried to underline, the compromise would be that Turkey and Greece would negotiate an agreement that would allow for a fair distribution of the offshore resources. In Syria there has already been quite a degree of compromise to the extent that Turkey has jettisoned its goal of regime change and is now in partnership, since 2015 really, with two countries, Russia and Iran, that have had very different objectives in Syria essentially to protect the regime. So, there has been a degree of compromise . In Syria the outcome was not advantageous to Turkey. But in Libya and also on the Eastern Mediterranean it could be. I think the Turkish government is open to such trade-offs.


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