Erdoğan gambles on a greater Turkey

Looking for a green light

We may be seeing an economic meltdown, says Esen Uslu, but there is no mass opposition movement and Erdoğan knows how to create domestic and foreign diversions

While we were encouraged by the recent popular uprising in Sri Lanka, which swept the president out of office, we should not be disheartened by the fact that there is no such mass opposition in Turkey as of yet. As the economist, Rudiger Dornbusch, once remarked, “The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, and then it happens much faster than you would have thought.”

The explosive material has continued to accumulate in Turkey’s economic and political life without an end in sight. Rampant inflation has reached such a stage that the country’s inflation figures, according to the International Monetary Fund, do not even fit into any graphics showing the global rates and are regarded as separate freak figures.

And everything has seemed to pile up on top of each other. The slide in the euro/dollar rate came as a new blow, since Turkey’s foreign currency earnings are mostly in euros, but most of its overseas spending and liabilities are in US dollars. Turkish exports invoiced in euros and dollars are almost equal (45% and 48% respectively), while Turkey pays only 28% of its imports in euros and 71% in dollars. And the tourism industry - a key hard-currency earner - also stands to suffer from the euro’s fall, since 70% of the sector’s revenues are in euros. As a result of all this, the Turkish lira has continued to fall sharply against the US dollar.

The annual increase in producer prices has already risen to 138%, while consumer inflation stands at a 24-year high of 79%. The rise in the compulsory minimum wage announced in early July, which determines the median wage in the private sector, is no cure for the deteriorating cost of living.

As a result there have been various working class protests across Turkey, but state control over the trade union movement is preventing effective, coordinated action. Such independent action is severely repressed by the state security apparatus. Even summer concerts were deemed dangerous and prohibited by the governors of many provinces, and their decisions were implemented through the use of brute force.

How the state maintains such control is not a mystery. Let me give a couple of examples of its attempts to placate public anger and reduce the pressure.

State loans to university students have now replaced grants, but in the late 90s interest began to be charged. It was linked to the producers’ price index (PPI), which was seemingly more beneficial to the students than the consumer price index (CPI). However, the rampant inflation created an unexpected turn, and the PPI is now greater than the CPI. As a result no graduate is now able to repay both the student loan and the interest.

The number of students receiving loans is now about 1.2 million, but the number that received them in the past and are now unable to repay them is about 5.5 million. As things stand, more than 400,000 students are facing debt enforcement proceedings in court. Considering the number of family members who are in dire straits, the explosive material being accumulated is obvious.

The main parliamentary opposition has been asking the government to forego the interest and penalty for late repayments, but such a move was considered a sign of weakness and surrender to the opposition by president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. However, under the instigation of the state bureaucracy, which seemed to have seen the impending implications better than he did, he made an about-turn and removed the interest and penalty payments. Now the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is bent on presenting this decision as a gift from the government to students.

Istanbul Convention

Another example of maintaining control over the rising discontent is the way Turkey quit the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, which it had signed up to in 2011. But now suddenly Turkey has abandoned the convention via a decree from Erdoğan. (Subsequently, it was explained that the LGBT+ issues contained in the convention were hampering the ‘sanctity of the family’).

Long before the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, it had become the focus of the conservative rightwing parties, religious sects, etc. LGBT+ individuals were targeted by political and religious figures, such as the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, the interior minister and other members of parliament, as well as Islamist media outlets. Since then, the state’s anti-LBGT+ and anti-feminist policing and suppression have risen dramatically.

As the withdrawal was enacted by decree, there were law suits in the Council of State, the highest administrative court. Even the prosecutor agreed that withdrawing from a convention, which was ratified by parliament, through a presidential decree was against the spirit and letter of the constitution. But the council upheld the decree by a 3-2 majority decision a couple of days ago (members of the council appointed by Erdoğan must follow his orders, no matter what).

Although the LBGT+ and feminist movements are facing another uphill struggle with Turkey’s constitutional court and then the European Court of Human Rights, they have been unable to mobilise any mass movement, as demonstrations and marches are brutally supressed. Considering that Turkey is not implementing any other decisions of the ECHR, such as the immediate release of Selahattin Demirtaş, former president of the leftwing, pro-Kurdish HDP, and Osman Kavala, a philanthropist opposition figure, the ongoing fight at the courts is clearly a tactic that will drag the movement into a dead end.

Meanwhile, the ministry of foreign affairs wrote to Antonio Gutters, secretary general of the United Nations, on June 1, demanding that the country’s name should be changed to ‘Türkiye’ and a spokeswoman for the secretary general declared that this would be implemented forthwith. The problem has been in the minds of the Turkish elite since they started to learn English (rather than French or German, in earlier periods of Turkish history). How could our glorious country’s name be mixed up with that of American poultry?! Thanks to the vigour of diplomats, and the energetic campaign via pro-Erdoğan media channels, this issue has been driven repeatedly into our minds.

Imperial dreams

Erdoğan decided to increase the brand value of ‘Türkiye’ by using it in English documents in international diplomatic usage. It was also a show of force to the loyal as well as wavering supporters in Turkey that Erdoğan, a statesman of international stature, is extending the country’s powers all over the world! For the Islamists it is also a rebuke to the Americans for not supporting Erdoğan’s policies in the Middle East.

When we say ‘Middle East’, the first thing that comes into the mind of Turkish state officials is the Kurds - and the anathema of autonomous Kurdish rule in northern Syria. Invasion, occupation and annexation of further parts of Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan have been the never-changing aims of the Turkish state. This is so pervasive that loyal parliamentary opposition parties agree with it and support every foreign adventure of Erdoğan.

After the Nato summit in Madrid, where Turkey churned the water by claiming that it would veto Finnish and Swedish membership, it then let itself be persuaded at the last moment after getting some nice photo-shoots and attention-grabbing news items in the international press. However, its main target was getting the green light for its long-prepared invasion into Kurdish-controlled territories of Manbij and Tell Rifat.

US statements that there was no such ‘green light’ have been reinforced by the Biden administration’s various utterances. The US president’s recent visit to the Middle East once more reiterated the fact that the US is at present trying to mend fences with the Gulf states through hardening its anti-Iranian stance, and it does not want to undertake any action that may tip the delicate balance of power in the wrong way.

On top of that, the tripartite meeting between the heads of state of Iran, Russia and Turkey was held in Iran. There were bilateral talks between them as well. Erdoğan met Iran’s supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and then president Ebrahim Raisi. Khamenei unequivocally told him that any further Turkish military action in Syria would further destabilise the region and benefit the ‘terrorists’.

Later Raisi said the same thing at a joint press conference, and called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces east of the Euphrates. The joint communique released at the end of the tripartite meeting stressed the same message. So there was no green light from Iran for Turkish adventures in Syria. Similarly, after the bilateral meeting with Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin stressed the importance of Turkey acting as a go-between for resolving the blockage of Ukrainian grain exports, but insisted that no action should be taken in Syria.

In the final communique Iran and Russia stated their well-known position that foreign troops should be withdrawn from Syria, and that Syrian territorial integrity should be respected. There was also a sop to Turkey’s undefined security interests, but, despite Erdoğan’s ferocious opening salvo, stating his intentions to attack Manbij and Tell Rifat, there was no reference to Kurdish organisations in the final communique.

So Turkey could still move unilaterally and continue its preparations for an attack in order to utilise the muddy waters created by the Ukrainian war, which would be pricy for Erdoğan. But he is known as a risk-taker, if the expected benefit is considered to be worth it.