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TM, ®, Copyright © 2021 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

TM, ®, Copyright © 2021 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Nations in Crisis: Turkey
Articles on Turkey before 2021

  • (july 2021) Nations in crisis: Turkey
    (Part of a series on "Nations in Crisis")

    Not many countries in the world can claim what Turkey'd defense minister Hulusi Akar said on July 19: "The heroic members of the Turkish Armed Forces protect our rights and interests at home, in the north of Iraq and Syria, and in our "blue homeland", including Cyprus, while maintaining peace and stability in friendly and brotherly countries such as Azerbaijan, Libya, Qatar, Somalia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina". Those are all the places where Turkey has deployed its army. Not bad for a country that ranks 20th for GDP (and 88th in GDP per capita). No wonder that president Recep Erdogan remains popular among many Turks, especially the more nationalist ones. In two years Turkey will celebrate its centenary (the Turkish Republic was established in 1923 on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire) and coincidentally in the same year Turkey will hold presidential elections. That year will also mark Erdogan's 20 years in power. Turkey is currently in the middle of multiple crises: an authoritarian crackdown on dissidents, the collapse of its currency, and the covid pandemic. When he came to power in 2003, Erdogan engineered an economic boom (largely fueled by Chinese-style infrastructure and construction), which resuled in a decade of prosperity, and Turkey stood with other emerging markets as an appealing investment. The 2008 global financial crisis benefited Turkey because scared Western investors rushed to invest in emerging markets, away from the major Western economies. In 2013 Turkey was rocked by anti-government protests at the same time that the Western economies recovered and money flowed back to the big financial centers. The per capita income in Turkey has been constantly declining since 2013. Since 2013, the Turkish lira has shed 75% of its value against the US dollar. In 2016 Erdogan survived an attempted coup (15 July 2016) and retaliated with the arrest of thousands of people across the layers of Turkish society. Whether related or not to his anti-democratic program, the Turkish economy has kept deteriorating. In 2016 one US dollar was worth 3 Turkish liras: now it is 8.5 liras The US dollar has appreciated 16.8% against the Turkish lira just in the first few months of 2021. Inflation was 16.33% in 2018, 15.18% in 2019 and 14.6% in 2020. Erdogan has fired three central bank chiefs, blaming them for the economic troubles.

    One can argue that Turkey's economic miracle was largely due to the West. Turkey was instrumental in NATO, and in the 2000s it was instrumental in helping the West in Iraq and Afghanistan. The economic boom was its reward. The main export markets for Turkey are Germany, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and United States, in that order. Turkey imports from China, Germany, Russia, United States and Italy. Without the West, Turkey would be dependent on imports from China and Russia, and exporting only to the Islamic world. Basically, it would be Kazakhstan without the oil/gas, and with a much bigger population. Now that Turkey is less important to the West, and even rebellious, the West doesn't value it anymore and Turkey is finding out the hard way that its economy was not robust at all.

    Since Erdogan has jailed or silenced most of his opponents, he has had little to fear politically, and his core constituency in Anatolia is stronger than ever because of those achievements in foreign policy (i.e. national pride). Nonetheless, in 2019 his party suffered a humiliating loss in Istanbul, where his rival Ekrem Imamoglu was elected mayor. Turkey is increasingly three or four different countries: the European Turkey centered around Istanbul, the coastal Turkey (the homeland of Greek civilization), rural Anatolia (where the capital Ankara lies) and the restive Kurdish region.

    In 2021 the real protagonist of Turkey's politics has been Turkish mafia boss Sedat Peker, who lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates. Peker has quickly become a YouTube phenomenon with his videos that describe corruption and amorality within Erdogan's government. At the same time the USA was investigating for fraud and money laundering the Turkish businessman Sezgin Baran Korkmaz, who has close ties to Erdogan's government. The man was finally arrested in Austria and now he could reveal Turkey's suspected involvement with Islamic extremists and some illicit financial schemes. There are rumors that Korkmaz was protected by Erdogan while Trump was president, but Biden is not as willing to save him from jail.

    Relations between Turkey and the USA, and between Turkey and the European Union, have rarely been so tense. Turkey has been testing the USA's patience in Syria (where it attacked the USA's main allies, who happen to be ethnic Kurds) and has purchased Russia's S-400 anti-aircraft system. Turkey is a member of NATO, an organization born to defend the West from Soviet aggression. While Russia is not the Soviet Union, it is no secret that Russia is the main fear of all eastern European countries. The USA retaliated by suspending the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey. The main source of contention between the USA and Erdogan's Turkey has been the exile Fetullah Gulen, whom Erdogan considers a terrorist and the USA refuses to extradite. Erdogan has blamed Gulen for the attempted 2016 coup and seems to be getting more paranoid about Gulen: in April 2021 his prosecutors ordered the arrest of 532 suspected members of Fethullah Gulen's network (mostly military personnel) and in May 2021 Turkish secret agents kidnapped a nephew of such Fethullah Gulen in an overseas operation (presumably in Kenya where he was living).

    The strangest aspect of Erdogan's rule is his love for China. It is ironic that the USA (not exactly a Muslim country) has slapped sanctions on Chinese officials and companies complicit in the abuse of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, whereas Turkey (a Muslim country which is so vocal about defending Muslims from Israel to India) has been completely silent about China's treatment of Muslims. In fact, Erdogan used to be vocal about China's harassment of the Turkic-speaking Muslim group in Xinjiang. In 2009 he was quoted as saying: "The incidents in China are, simply put, a genocide". He quickly changed his tune to appease China. In 2016 Turkey arrested Abdulkadir Yapcan, a prominent Uighur political activist who had been living in Turkey as a persecuted exile, and in 2017 Turkey and China signed an extradition treaty that two years later resulted in the more or less secret arrest and deportation of hundreds of Uighurs wanted by China. In July 2019 a group of 22 nations issued a joint letter to condemn China's "mass arbitrary detentions and related violations" of Uyghurs: Turkey refused to sign the letter. When Turkey's opposition party introduced a motion to investigate China's atrocities against the Uyghurs, Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) voted unanimously to kill the idea. In March 2020 NPR reported on Turkey's intimidation and censorship of Uyghur activists In July 2020 the Telegraph discovered documents proving Turkey's secret pact with China to extradite Uyghur dissidents. In August 2020 Axios published Chinese documents proving the secret negotiation between China and Turkey for the extradition of Uyghur dissident Enver Turdi. No current Muslim country has betrayed fellow Muslims to this extent and on this scale.

    The fact is that Erdogan is presiding over a deteriorating economy and desperately needs financial help. The West is not willing to provide it. Western governments and firms have fled from Turkish bonds and equities China is eager to provide help. In 2012 China and Turkey signed a yuan-lira swap deal that for seven years lay dormant. In 2019 China for the first time transferred funds to Ankara under the terms of that deal. China's interest is obvious: since immemorial time Turkey has been a natural bridge between the Far East and Europe, and therefore could constitute an important piece in China's One Belt One Road initiative. China has therefore invested significantly in Turkey's infrastructure development. In 2015 a Chinese consortium bought 65% of Kumport Terminal (Turkey's third largest container terminal and a strategic link to Europe). In 2017 Turkey completed a railroad from Kars in eastern Turkey to Georgia and Azerbaijan where it links to transportation networks of Central Asia that connect with China, and in November 2019 the first freight train from Xian reached Turkey via the Chinese-built Marmaray Tunnel, and in December the first train reached Xian from Istanbul. In January 2020 another Chinese consortium bought 51% of the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge connecting Europe and Asia across the Bosporus. Alibaba acquired Turkey's largest e-commerce platform, Trendyol. Chinese smartphones dominate the Turkish market: Xiaomi has 14.28% of the market and Huawei 13.16%. Turkey and China even signed a bilateral defense cooperation that resulted in 2017 in the deployment of Turkey's Bora ballistic missile (derived from the Chinese B-611 missile). Foreign Policy titled an article "Erdogan is turning Turkey into a Chinese client state".

    Meanwhile, Erdogan has continued his foreign "adventures". Turkey invaded eastern Syria and expelled the Syrian Kurds from the area, afraid that they might inspire or even join with the Turkish Kurds who demand independence from Turkey. Turkey has been exploiting any pretext to bomb the Syrian Kurds since 2015. Turkey has also dispatched military aid (and Syrian mercenaries) to Libya to defend the unity government from eastern commander Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (supported by Russia's Wagner group). Erdogan, a devout Sunni Muslim who is a staunch enemy of Syria's dictator Assad, an Alawite, and less than friendly to Iraq's Shiite government, bears huge responsibilities for the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The USA tolerated it because Muslim Fundamentalists were initially fighting alongside the anti-Assad pro-democracy Sunni rebels, but clearly Erdogan played a dirty game that ended up dividing Syria into a Russian-controlled area, an Iranian-controlled area and a Turkish-controlled area. Erdogan was therefore partially responsible for the mass exodus of Syrians but was also clever enough to turn it to his advantage: he let about one million Syrians flow through Turkey towards Europe causing the the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, and then in 2016 asked the European Union to pay for Turkey to stop the flow of refugees. Today Turkey is by far the world's biggest refugee host nation: 3.7 million Syrians have settled in Turkey. The city of Gaziantep alone hosts about half a million Syrians, almost 25% of its population. Erdogan periodically blackmails the EU with the threat of letting Syrian refugees through to Europe. One wonders what is going to happen with the migrants that are certainly to swell out of Afghanistan as the country falls to the Taliban. In July 2021 Turkey detained 1,500 Afghan migrants near the southeastern border with Iran.

    Another source of friction with the EU is Cyprus. The island of Cyprus was controlled by the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I, then it became a British possession until 1960 when it became independent. Half of its population is Christian and ethnically Greek, the other half is Muslim and ethnically Turkish. In 1974 Turkey invaded the Muslim north of Cyprus in response to a Greek-sponsored coup, and since then Cyprus has been divided in two. The southern Greek side joined the EU in 2004, and the EU has never recognized the partition. Erdogan supports a two-state solution for Cyprus, but in 2021 European Commission's president Ursula von der Leyen repeated that the EU would never accept a two-state solution for Cyprus. (Personally opinion: i don't see what's wrong with letting the Turkish Cypriot decide their own fate, and i suspect they would choose to unite with Turkey).

    Turkey's role in the Islamic world has been mainly of defender of the Sunnis. Iran (the only Shiite-majority country in the world) is therefore an obvious rival, although so far this has shown only in Syria, where Iran supported Assad and Turkey supported the rebels. On the other hand Turkey has had much bigger issues with Saudi Arabia, the other Sunni superpower. Saudi Arabia seems generally worried about Erdogan's imperial neo-Ottoman ambitions. Before Erdogan, Turkey was more interested in European affairs than in Arab affairs. Erdogan turned Turkey towards the Arab world like it was during the Ottoman Empire. Trouble began in 2012 when the Muslim Brotherhood seized power in Egypt and in 2013 when its leader Mohamed Morsi was deposed by a military coup engineered by general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, backed by Saudi Arabia. Erdogan openly supported Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and about 5,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood took refuge in Turkey, including several leaders of the movement (Mahmoud Hussein, Mithad al Haddad, Sabir Abu al Futuh, Ahmed Shusha and Mohammed al Jazzar). In 2017 Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates severed ties with tiny (but rich) Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and even instituted a blockade of tiny Qatar. Erdogan's Turkey came to the rescue of Qatar with both military and humanitarian aid. Turkey even maintains a military base in Qatar, one of the reasons why Saudi Arabia wouldn't even think of launching a military attack against Qatar. Relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia further deteriorated in October 2018 when Saudi assassins murdered the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Turkey openly denounced the Saudi government, directly implicating crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler (the USA reached the same conclusions but at the time Trump, a close friend of the corrupt Saudi regime, avoided any condemnation despite the fact that Khashoggi worked for a US newspaper). The confrontation has spilled over into Libya where Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt support Khalifa Haftar while Turkey backs the Tripoli-based government of national unity. The trio (Saudi Arabia, the Emiratis and Egypt) boycotts Turkish goods, and, comically, they are even banning popular Turkish soap operas from their TV channels.

    A fact of life is that Turkey is surrounded by countries that don't trust it: Syria (Assad is back in power and he hates Erdogan), Iran (Shiite Islam and a historican rival in the region), Iraq (Shiite Islam, a sort of Iranian protectorate), Greece (another historical enemy), Armenia (the survivors of the Armenian genocide), and the Arab countries (remnants of the old Ottoman Empire) that are generally wary of Erdogan's neo-Ottoman ambitions. Arab historians routinely blame Ottoman domination for their backwardness compared with Europe: the Arab world was way ahead of Europe and way richer than Europe before the Ottomans invaded the Middle East and North Africa. It is hard to find another country that is so surrounded by unfriendly neighbors. Even Israel seems to have more friends these days.

    Then there's Russia. The Turks and the Russians have fought endless wars over the centuries for control of the Balkans and of the Caucasus. Turkey joined NATO not so much because of ideological affinity but quite simply because Russia is its natural rival. Now that Putin's Russia is spreading again its military influence over the Caucasus and the Arab world, Erdogan's Turkey is countering Russia's each and every move. Russia invaded Syria to save its dictator Assad, and Turkey first helped the Sunni fundamentalists (who later became ISIS) and then personally invaded eastern Syria. Russia supports Khalifa Haftar in Libya, and Turkey supports the government in Tripoli. Russia supported Armenia (a Christian country) and Turkey supported Azerbaijan (a Muslim country). It is not a coincidence that Turkey and Russia tend to be on opposite sides of every conflict.

    Turkey was widely seen as the winner in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan: the Armenian army, which was trained and armed by Russia, was defeated by an Azerbaijani army trained and armed by the Turks; and at the end Russia agreed to military observers from Turkey (a NATO country) stationed in the Caucasus to monitor the ceasefire.

    The new dimension of this rivalry could be developing in Ukraine. Ukraine is basically at war with Russia over eastern Ukraine (currently occupied by Russian militias) and Crimea (annexed by Russia in 2014). Ukraine and Turkey found a common interest in countering Russia in the Black Sea. Putin probably underestimated the impact on Turkey when it annexed Crimea. Russia's presence in Crimea is viewed by Turkey as a military threat: Russia used to control only an eastern shore of the Black Sea, and now it has a natural giant outpost right in the middle of the Black Sea, right across the northern coast of Turkey. Turkey has been providing Ukraine with NATO-grade defense equipment, like the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones, and is scheduled to provide warships. This is a blossoming relationship.

    The withdrawal of the USA from Afghanistan offers Turkey another international opportunity. One country that is not afraid of confronting the Taliban is Turkey: it has plenty of experience in fighting guerrilla movements. For the last six years Turkey has been in charge of the military and logistic operations of the Kabul airport. Turkey is now likely to take over full defense of the airport in the face of the Taliban advance. It could be the beginning of another Erdogan "adventure", the beginning of a Turkish-protected enclave around Kabul, surrounded by Taliban territory.

    The Kurds will remain the intractable problem of Turkey for as long as Turkey remains a united country. The Turkish people (right or left) approve the oppression of the Kurds, even if they understand that the Kurds never wanted to be Turkish. The Syrian operations against the Syrian Kurds were supported by Erdogan's opposition (the "Kemalists"). A sort of "imperial" feeling unites Turks of the right and of the left, a psychological remnant of the Ottoman era.

    Erdogan's Islamic fundamentalism, on the other hand, is a lost cause. The younger generations are as "americanized" as any kid in the USA. They get their real education on US social media. When Erdogan's generation is gone, Turkey will become as secular as Germany. It is hard to predict how that secular Turkey will deal with the legacy of Erdogan's "adventures" outside Turkey. I suspect that they will want closer ties to the European Union and will be less interested in the Arab world.

    There is one thing that we have to respect about Erdogan: he is disliked by virtually every country in the world: Europeans dislike him (the right dislikes him for the refugees that he pushed into Europe and the left dislikes him for his neofascist manners, and both dislike him for his covert support of jihadists), the USA dislikes him (for the conservatives he is an unreliable NATO ally, for the liberals he is a neofascist like Trump, plus he has been cozy with the Taliban and more than cozy with ISIS, and he has sided too often with the Palestinians against Israel), Iran dislikes him (he is a devout Sunni and it is no mystery that he supported ISIS in Syria/Iraq), Israel dislikes him (Erdogan often sides with the Palestinians), the Arabs don't trust him (they fear he wants to recreate the Ottoman empire), Russia dislikes him (he helped Azerbaijan, he opposes Assad in Syria and he opposes Khalifa Haftar in Libya, he supported the independence movement in Chechnya and Turkey hosts the largest Chechen diaspora, with the city of Korfez even naming a park after Dzhokhar Dudayev, Chechnya's legendary pro-independence rebel of the 1990s), and China dislikes him (in 2009 Erdogan was the first state leader who accused China of "genocide" against the Uyghur Muslims). I don't think Turkey has ever been so isolated in its history.

    TM, ®, Copyright © 2021 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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