Game of fortunes
Erdoğan is trying to divert attention from his shambolic handling of the economy by picking all manner of foreign fights. Esen Uslu reports
Before the Nato summit held in Madrid on June 28, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, declared his intention to oppose any membership invitation to Sweden and Finland. He stated that those two countries ‘supported terrorism’ by welcoming fugitives from Turkey’s ‘justice’ system, aiding Kurdish people living in northern Syria and imposing a ban on selling armaments to Istanbul.
As Finland and Sweden were desperate to join Nato, and Nato was desperate to expand, it was an opportune moment for Erdoğan to put his foot down. And domestically he desperately needed something to boost his prospects in next year’s elections - the dismal performance of his government in almost every field has put his party and its coalition partner in an untenable position.
Turkey is fast moving towards the presidential elections in June 2023, and at the moment the bad news that comes Erdoğan’s way almost daily seems to be demolishing his prospects. According to opinion polls that are widely accepted, he and his party will lose the race unless something drastically changes his fortunes.
One of his traditional trump cards in this game of fortunes is being viewed as the champion of the national interest - defending the ‘honour and dignity’ of Turks through Erdoğan-style Islamist politics and bombast against the Kurds, Greeks and Cypriots, Armenians, Arabs, Iranians … as well as the USA and the west (Russia used to be on the top of that list, but Erdoğan’s close cooperation with the Eurasianists in the state apparatus - necessary to stay in power - has removed that card from the deck at present).
The card of anti-US bombast may be useful in domestic politics, but, when overused, it puts Turkey’s international relations on a dangerous collision course with the west - especially when supplemented with erratic moves, such as purchasing air defence systems from that arch-enemy, Russia.
And then there are poor Arabs and rich Arabs. Bombast against poor Arabs touches a sensitive string with nationalists, who were brought up to believe that our former colonies betrayed us by rebelling after World War I and becoming independent states. However, when it is the rich Arabs who are targeted, everything changes.
Turkey claimed to be furious when Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 (his body dismembered and packaged in small containers, to be ‘repatriated’). The Saudis attempted to veil things behind a display of shambolic diplomatic theatre, while Erdoğan said in his opinion piece in The Washington Post: “As responsible members of the international community, we must reveal the identities of the puppet-masters behind Khashoggi’s killing and discover those in whom Saudi officials - still trying to cover up the murder - have placed their trust.”1
As everything seemed to be pointing towards crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, relations with the Saudis soured dramatically. As the Turkish economy started to flounder in the turmoil caused by the infamous ‘interest rates cause inflation’ theory of ‘Erdoğanomics’, keeping things afloat required the injection of hot money. So, when ingenious measures such as ‘default swaps’ started to come to an end, it was Erdoğan’s turn to go cup-in-hand to the Saudis. The sound and fury over Khashoggi quickly came to an end.
Meanwhile, the safer trump cards were those cross-border operations into Kurdish lands in Syria and Iraq. Turkey was poised to make an incursion into the Tell Rifaat area of Syria, but getting the green light from the US, Russia and to an extent Iran was problematic. But then Swedish and Finnish Nato membership provided a godsend. The Turkish veto and negotiations with various countries took place in the open, but behind the scenes there was extensive bargaining with the USA.
Joe Biden was keeping Erdoğan at arm’s length, and did not even find time to meet him face to face when the Turkish president was in the US for the UN general assembly meeting in New York last year. Since then, relations have not improved.
Following the US arm-twisting exercises going on behind the scenes, a face-to-face meeting between Biden and Erdoğan was finally agreed, and the US president gave his support to the selling of F-16 fighters to Turkey. Kurds and many other observers believe that among the concessions is US acceptance of a limited Turkish operation in the Kurdish regions of Syria.
Donning the mantle of nationalism and presenting himself as a statesman of international reckoning may have increased Erdoğan’s chances in the presidential elections, so he has attempted to make as much hay as possible while the sun is still shining.
However, the state of the economy continues to drag on his fortunes, and all his efforts to whip up an international hubbub has not yet translated into any opinion poll improvement - at the moment all this crisis-mongering seems more like whipping a dead donkey.
After the monthly inflation figures for June were released by the State Statistical Institute, as always there was both domestic and international ridicule. But even these doctored statistics failed to conceal the actual state of the Turkish economy: the downward spiral is clearly continuing, with inflation officially rampant at 80%. While some independent economists calculated that the actual rate was 170%, others argued that those two figures represented opposite and extreme views, and their guess was that something approaching their average (around 125%) was the reality.
The Statistical Institute’s figures provide the basis upon which state salaries and pensions are adjusted, so keeping it low slightly reduces the pressure on the government from making large adjustments to salaries and pensions, with the consequent hefty increase in budget spending. But, despite all the efforts of the institute, the government was forced to announce a supplementary budget at the end of June, with increases in salaries, pensions and certain benefits of over 40%. But now even this supplementary budget seems destined for the trash basket in the face of new developments.
Erdoğan was also forced to make concessions to workers. The minimum wage had been increased by almost 50% at the beginning of the year and it was supposed to remain unchanged until next year. However, with prices soaring, the government grudgingly agreed to make an additional midterm increase of almost 30%. While these concessions reduced some of the pressure of steam gathering in workplaces, the trade union movement continues to raise demands for additional wage increases to meet the reality of hyperinflation.
This shambolic state of affairs meant that Erdoğan needed to find scapegoats, and his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, the former disgraced finance minister, might be recalled to replace the current occupant. A slow turning back towards classical anti-inflationary politics is also on the cards, but it requires the input of fresh money. The prospect of finding such finance in the current state of topsy-turvy world markets seems very difficult.
Going cup-in-hand to the International Monetary Fund seems one of the remaining options. However, after all his rhetoric over the last 20 years, if Erdoğan is forced to do that, it would surely spell the end of his re-election prospects. But, hey, what is a president in the face of a collapsing economy? A new head of state would make no difference and the vicious circle would continue.
As well as Turkey’s disastrous economy, there are other matters to bear in mind. For example, its Syrian adventures are facing more difficulties. There have been increased clashes within the Sunni Islamist Syrian opposition - especially between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army - in Turkish-controlled parts of Syria. Turkey has so far managed to avoid a larger conflict, but expect new eruptions.
In June US special forces made two operations in areas adjacent to the Turkish border controlled by Sunni Islamists - a direct challenge to Turkish control. A prominent Islamist leader was taken prisoner following an airborne operation on June 16. Then a drone strike killed another leader on June 28. Were those operations part of the arm-twisting to prevent Turkey’s vetoing of Sweden and Finland, or are they indications of the Biden administration’s rekindled interest in Syrian affairs? We will have to wait and see.
Meanwhile Syrian Kurds tried to garner support from among the Arab tribes in the Manbij area. They managed to organise a march of tribal elders against any further Turkish incursion on June 14. However, since then the deployment of Turkish forces has continued, with at least five convoys of tank transporters, artillery rockets, ammunition stores and personnel entering the city of Afrin and the Aleppo countryside, and shelling directed at three villages near Manbij.
Erdoğan has warned that ‘we could come one night unannounced’, but at the same time called for patience - which indicates that he does not have the green light from Washington. However, we should nevertheless expect further Turkish incursions into Rojava. In addition, Erdoğan refused to meet the Greek prime minister during the Nato summit, and he has continued his rhetoric about Greek arms supplies to the Aegean Islands being against international agreements. This rhetoric has been supplemented by fighter jets and drones flying over the disputed air space and confronting Greek planes. The ongoing mini-arms race between the two states has been fanned by the obnoxious rhetoric of rival politicians.
Furthermore, on Israel’s instigation, Turkish security forces arrested eight people - four of them Iranians - who were allegedly planning to assassinate Israeli tourists. Then there is the rivalry with Iran, which may come out into the open once more if Turkey further disrupts Iranian influence in the region. Tehran’s warnings against any further operations in Syria is bound to stir up more silt in the troubled waters of the region.