At the NATO summit held in Vilnius over July 11-12, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan finally announced that his government will agree to Sweden joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The announcement followed a prolonged period of heated opposition from Ankara with respect to the NATO accession of Finland and Sweden. Turkey agreed to Finland’s accession on the sidelines of the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting held over April 4-5 in Brussels. Sweden at the time was sidelined. Erdoğan and his Foreign Minister at the time, Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, insisted that Stockholm had not taken sufficient action against those Swedish citizens whom Ankara believed to be “terrorists”. There was also repeated reference to the public protests in Sweden in the last few months, criticizing the authoritarian regime that has been ruling Turkey for over two decades, or to anti-Islam demonstrations with public burnings of the Qur’an. Ankara constantly accused Stockholm of deliberately turning a blind eye to such actions which it considered an insult to Turkey and Islam as a whole.
Opposing Erdoğan makes you a “terrorist”
The notion of terrorism however remains the big bone of contention. The Turkish legislation in this field is extremely vague, enabling the authorities to classify as terrorist anyone who opposes the current regime. It is not by chance that the issue has been a sensitive point on the agenda of Turkey’s relations with its Western partners for many years, particularly impacting this country’s European Union accession process. The “terrorists” the AKP-Erdoğan regime has locked horns with make up a much broader category today compared to a decade ago. The PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party) as well as many other radical left-wing organizations have been labeled terrorist and treated as such by the Turkish state ever since the 1970s and 1980s. Starting 2013, Ankara has been calling “terrorist” those who supported or took part in the May-June 2013 protests. As of May 2016, which was two months before the failed coup of July 2016, followers of the cleric Fethullah Gülen, now residing in the USA, have also been added to the list of terrorists. Many of these have taken refuge in Europe, and part of them live in Sweden too.
Why Stockholm wouldn’t accept Ankara’s terms
Probably the biggest thorn in Ankara’s side have been journalists working for publications such as Zaman, controlled by the Gülen movement prior to March 2016, when it was taken over the Turkish state. Zaman then became a pro-government publication, and the journalists who had been critical of the regime took refuge in Sweden for their most part. Here, some of them joined efforts to create Nordic Monitor, which has been publishing some pieces that are highly critical of the foreign and domestic policies of the AKP-Erdoğan regime, such as investigations revealing elements that don’t sit well with Turkish leaders. This also explains why their general attitude towards Sweden is not favorable.
Moreover, Swedish courts of law have systematically refused to extradite people Ankara has accused of being terrorists, for the simple reason that Turkish authorities failed to produce admissible evidence for the Swedish justice system to take into account. Therefore, the stake for Sweden is not just NATO accession, but safeguarding the very independence and ethical standards of its justice system, without which liberal democracy, an ideology that runs deep in this country’s history, would not survive.
The EU has presented Turkey with an alternative to EU accession
President Erdoğan eventually accepted Sweden should join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, however naming certain terms. The strangest of these was announced on Monday, July 10, a day ahead of the official opening of the NATO summit in Vilnius. At the time, Erdoğan said: “We want the promises made to us to be kept. First, clear the way for Turkey joining the European Union, and then we’ll clear the way for Sweden [to join NATO]”. Although the statement has populist overtones and was addressed to a domestic audience, it caused quite a buzz in international media, precisely due to it being very strange. In the end, the far-fetched connection the Turkish president made between the two matters was firmly dismissed in public by both NATO (Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg) as well as several EU officials. The European Parliament, which has been gaining a growing influence in decision-making at EU level, has published a report of the Foreign Affairs Committee addressing all EU decision makers with regard to EU enlargement and relations with Turkey. In this report, the Committee highlights that NATO and the EU are two separate entities, which makes Erdoğan’s connection meaningless. The European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee used the report as an opportunity to call Turkey’s bluffs and address the heart of the problem. The report urges European institutions to find “a parallel and realistic framework” for EU-Turkey relations, as an alternative to accepting this country into the European Union. It is the first time such an option has been formulated in an official document drafted by a high-ranking European institution.
Erdoğan’s conditional statement sounds not just strange, but outright unprofessional too. Turkey’s European Union accession process officially started in 2005, after the European Commission itself pressured some of the Member States that voiced opposition. As part of the accession process, it is the Commission that submits the accession criteria to candidate states on behalf of the EU, not the other way round. Candidate states must fulfill these criteria in order to become members of the largest economic community in the world, administered by the Commission itself (the European single market). In Turkey’s case, the accession process reached a deadlock after 2005, precisely due to obstacles raised by the candidate state itself.
Most importantly, Ankara refused to officially recognize the Republic of Cyprus, which led to progress reaching a gridlock in a significant number of the total of 35 accession negotiation chapters. Secondly, the AKP-Erdoğan regime turned into an autocracy after 2013, subordinating the justice system and persecuting a growing number of Turkish citizens. Turkey’s authoritarian drive took off particularly after the country switched to the presidential governing system, voted by the population at the April 16, 2017 referendum. Adding to the already existing laws dramatically infringing on freedom of speech, including online, were police state practices that disregarded existing legislation and seriously impeded citizens’ rights and freedoms.
Nor should we overlook Turkey’s aggressive regional policy, which opened up conflicts with Greece and Cyprus. Ankara is still far from developing good neighborly relations with a number of EU Member States. Therefore, it was no surprise when in 2018, the EU General Affairs Council announced that Turkey took a step back from the Union, de facto ceasing all negotiations for joining the EU or modernizing the EU-Turkey Customs Union, which had been in place since 1995. Therefore, the only achievement of the Turkish president’s July 10 speech was to bring the burning question of the last decade back into the public limelight: will Erdoğan’s Turkey shift back to normal relations with the West or not?
Turkey’s economy needs Europe and the USA
Turkey’s policies in recent years are what prompted pundits to distinguish between the West represented by the European Union and the West represented by NATO and the USA. In its relations with the European Union, Turkey’s position is crystal clear. President Erdoğan along with other Turkish leaders have in the last years been promoting a very aggressive rhetoric and position, oftentimes insulting to the EU and its representatives. The same aggressive tone was often displayed with regard to other Member States. Such an attitude, which is quite typical of Moscow or Budapest, disregarded the fact that half of Turkey’s trade targets European markets, specifically the EU single market. The result is a crucial drop in EU investment in Turkey over the last decade, one of the reasons being tied to the unprecedented deterioration of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in this country. Today, when Turkish economy is struggling particularly due to the faulty decisions of the Turkish government, Ankara feels the need for a reset of relations with the West, a sentiment that has become all the more obvious after president Erdoğan’s recent tour of Gulf countries in search of investment produced little results. The reasons have to do with the rampant growth of the current account deficit for this year, the fact that the tour was little belated and not exactly cost-free in economic and political terms. Much like Chinese investment, Gulf countries seek to take control of certain economic assets under Turkey’s control, although Ankara has so far avoided outlining the specifics of these deals. Nevertheless, Turkey’s deep-going deficits require more investments to cover the holes in Ankara’s budget, which only the West could provide.
Bringing relations with the EU back on track and resuming the accession process could spell major benefits for the Turkish economy, much like in the 2005-2010 period, but the success of this endeavor falls entirely on Turkey’s shoulders. The return to comprehensive reforms, the reinstatement of the rule of law, the state’s observance of citizen rights and the restoration of a functional market economy are not on the government’s current agenda. On the contrary, every day we hear of ramped up media censorship and new arrests among journalists, some of them detained for posting on social media. We see new violations of court rulings and judges who are persecuted, as well as an unprecedented exodus of people who want to live and work in countries where their rights are observed, where they can freely voice their opinions and make a decent living. The total number of people, both foreign and Turkish nationals, who left Turkey in 2022 went up by 62% compared to 2021. And there are clear signs the numbers will continue to grow in 2023 as well. To Turkish emigrants, Europe is the favorite destination. The conditions the EU has named for resuming accession negotiations under the 35 chapters deal specifically with these problems.
With regard to relations with the other West, represented by NATO and the USA, Ankara shows no signs it might be willing to review its actions and policies outside the transactional terms that have very negatively shaped up relations in the last decade. President Erdoğan is yet to receive an official invitation from the US president to visit Washington, a situation never before seen in the last three or four decades. Turkey continues to preserve Russian S-400 missile systems in its arsenal and was voted out of the F-35 programme. Turkey also maintains an aggressive stance in northern Syria, fighting off Kurdish militias, the USA’s number one partner in its fight against the Islamic State. Despite the perceived goodwill extended by Joe Biden’s administration, Turkey still has a number of staunch opponents in the US Congress. US Congressmen are adamant about Ankara’s relentless hostility towards Greece and Cyprus and the country’s military aggression in northern Syria and Iraq. Influent members of the US Congress are also wary of the aforementioned elements that affect Turkey’s relationship with the EU, namely the operating standards of Turkish democracy. In the absence of profound reforms that should reinstate the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the observance of human rights, American democracy and businesses will never revert to normal relations with Turkey. And the current regime in Ankara delays the adoption of these corrective measures, toeing the party’s authoritarian, nationalist and conservative line that became the country’s dominant ideology after the 2015 elections.
Turkey should recognize the rights of the very people it deems “terrorists”
The cornerstone of any fundamental change in Turkey remains the country’s policy on national minorities, in particular the millions of Kurds and Alevis living in Turkey. After the regime declared war on the PKK nearly four decades ago, the state got caught in the toils of turning Turkey’s relation with the Kurdish community into a matter of national security, instead of treating it as a political question that might be settled easily through political dialogue. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people on both sides. After a period of apparent calm over 2002-2015, which culminated with the so-called “peace process” in the 2009-2015 period, the conflict resumed. The main effect of this evolution is that millions of Kurds are still not officially recognized by the Turkish state as an ethnic minority other than the Turkish majority. In the same vein, millions of Alevis are not recognized by the state as a distinct religious minority against the Muslim Sunni majority. Turkey’s refusal makes political dialogue impossible, which is the only thing that could help make these identities part of democratic processes in Turkey. Therefore, Turkish democracy remains exclusive, dominated by Conservative nationalism and for its most part built on anti-Kurdish and anti-Alevi society-wide attitudes.
Abandoning this policy by formally recognizing the existence of these minorities and engaging in a constructive dialogue with their representatives could usher in a process of comprehensive democratic reforms, to the benefit of all Turkish citizens. It would be the first, indispensable and probably crucial step towards turning the country from an exclusive democracy, with elections and democratic processes controlled by an authoritarian regime, into a liberal democracy. Only then would Turkey be capable of engaging in a dialogue with Western states and organizations from an equal footing, to the benefit of its own citizens. However, there are currently no signs of such a “westward shift”.
Could Turkey’s dire need of Western investment might turn this shift into a genuine possibility? Although the AKP-Erdoğan regime has previously displayed radical shifts of attitude, I doubt we can expect any of the sort in the current context. A 180-degree shift would entail democratic and economic reforms that would critically undermine the authoritarian logic of the regime that has dominated Turkish politics in the last decade. Most likely, a new government and new leaders would be capable of implementing radical reforms, yet the possibility of a peaceful political transition in this direction was wasted with the outcome of the May election, when Turkish citizens voted for continuity, preserving the same conservative-national logic of the current regime.
As a result, Erdoğan’s “gesture” to acknowledge Sweden’s NATO accession on the sidelines of the summit in Vilnius can only be interpreted in the quid pro quo logic, whereby Turkey hopes to make headway in its relations with the West, the USA in particular. Given that Turkey’s air forces are in desperate need of a technological upgrade, Erdoğan called on the US government as early as October 2021 to greenlight the purchase of F-16 multirole aircraft from Lockheed Martin, the total worth of the deal standing at 20 billion USD. Turkey also asked for Viper modernization kits for the 80 F-16 fighter jets in its existing air fleet. Shortly after Vilnius, the US government, led by president Joe Biden, made clear its support for this deal. However, this is Congress’s call, not the government’s. And Erdoğan’s Turkey lost Congress’s support many years ago. Its staunchest opponent is Bob Menedez, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and a senior member of the Democratic Party. Menedez continues to delay a final decision regarding the transfer of F-16 jets to Ankara, invoking Turkey’s aggressiveness regarding its neighbors, Greece in particular. The same Committee greenlit the purchase of multiple multirole aircraft by Athens, including several F-35s.
In the meantime, Erdoğan too postponed a decision regarding Sweden’s NATO accession, claiming the Parliament recess is expected to end on October 1. Only then will the Turkish Parliament be able to vote on Sweden’s accession, and similarly, only then will the US Congress start considering a more favorable decision with respect to Ankara’s F-16 deal. Beyond this purely transactional relationship, there is no solid basis allowing us to consider that possibility that Turkey might “shift back” to the community of liberal-democratic values we call “the West”, which Romania too is a part of.