Erdoğan’s problem is not with Sweden and Finland, but with Turkey’s western calling

At a landmark summit this week, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will adopt a new Strategic Concept, the first in 12 years, to guide alliance policies in an increasingly uncertain European security environment. But above all, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s objection to Sweden’s and Finland’s membership looms. Early expectations that Erdoğan would allow himself to be “talked, persuaded and ultimately rewarded for his cooperation” have not materialized. A final attempt to negotiate a breakthrough last week also failed, forcing NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to pin his hopes on an “as soon as possible” resolution to the post-summit deadlock.

Erdoğan’s intransigence has been widely attributed to domestic political considerations, including a desperate need to divert attention from the dire state of Turkey’s economy and to falling opinion polls by playing on unbridled nationalist and anti-Western feelings. As plausible as these statements are, Erdoğan’s own unease underlies Turkey’s longstanding Western vocation, symbolized by its membership in both NATO and the Council of Europe. He takes advantage of the issue of Sweden’s and Finland’s membership to weaken, if not break, this calling, to lift the remaining institutional controls on his one-man rule.

It is important that the United States and its NATO allies avoid policies that would play into Erdoğan’s agenda until the national elections – in June 2023 – before completely writing off a Western-oriented Turkey. This could keep alive the prospects of a Turkey able to reconstruct its democracy and economy, and better serve its own security interests and those of the transatlantic alliance, in volatile times.

What is behind Erdoğan’s opposition to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership?

Erdoğan first announced that he did not favor Finland or Sweden’s bids for NATO membership, as they had become “safe houses” for terrorists. This was in reference to the presence and activities of individuals and organizations associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and with Gülenists, who are widely recognized as the perpetrators of the coup attempt against him in July 2016. The announcement came on May 13 and may have initially been an attempt to divert attention from two events around that time: a political ban on opposition politician Canan Kaftancıoğlu, widely credited with fabricating the defeat of Erdoğan’s preferred candidate in the 2019 mayoral elections in Istanbul, and the violent intervention by Israeli police at the funeral of slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, about which Erdoğan chose to be unusually silent. He then reinforced his objections, adding that “all forms of arms embargoes”, especially by Sweden, against Turkey’s defense industry go against “the spirit of military partnership under the NATO umbrella”.

Erdoğan has since made it clear that he will not easily give up his veto unless these objections are allayed. A wave of diplomatic activity followed to address what Stoltenberg defined on numerous occasions as Turkey’s “legitimate” concerns, with no concrete results. The deadlock appears to be the result of differing definitions of “terrorism” and Erdoğan’s insistence on the extradition of individuals, including Swedish citizens and a member of the Swedish parliament. It goes without saying that direct material support, as highlighted by several experts and former Turkish diplomats, to the PKK – recognized by Turkey, the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization – is indeed problematic and needs to be resolved. The complication stems from a definition of terrorism in Turkish law that goes beyond criminalizing participation in violent acts and encroaches on fundamental freedom of expression. This loose and often aggressive formulation of the terms terrorist and terrorism is regularly used by Erdoğan and members of his government to silence and suppress their critics and opponents.

Erdoğan’s uncompromising stance is in stark contrast to the earlier years of his leadership in Turkey, when he appeared to be committed to liberal-democratic values ​​and when Ankara – with significant support from the US, Finland and Sweden – embarked on its accession process to EU countries. membership. Turkey has achieved its greatest integration with the transatlantic community, sharing peacekeeping responsibilities on behalf of NATO in its neighbourhood, and has continuously supported NATO’s expansion, including its “open door” policy.

Erdoğan has since transformed the Turkish parliamentary system into a presidential system with virtually no checks and balances on his power. Rising authoritarianism and increasing repression of critics and opponents has become a defining face of the country, with the conviction of civil society activist Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş, former leader of the main Kurdish political party, along with the likelihood that Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu, who enjoys higher opinion polls than Erdoğan, can also face a political ban.

NATO has become another target of Erdoğan’s vitriol as he blames the West for Turkey’s growing economic problems and political isolation. This dates back to the aftermath of the coup attempt in 2016, when MPs from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) claimed NATO involvement without providing a shred of evidence, even calling it a “terror organization.” This claim has been periodically nurtured by the government, even though Erdoğan has personally avoided it. Yet Erdoğan’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the decision to buy S-400 missiles from Russia, and a brutal diplomatic battle with Washington over them have seriously damaged Turkey’s credibility as a NATO ally. Skepticism about Turkey’s place in the alliance was compounded by Erdoğan’s threat to expel ten Western ambassadors, seven of them from allies, for asking him to issue a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and release Kavala. Instead, Erdoğan chose to categorically reject both the ECHR’s decision and the imposition of disciplinary measures against Turkey by the Council of Europe.

This persistently anti-Western and anti-American narrative has found a receptive mood among a Turkish citizen who has no access to alternative discourses. Not surprisingly, in recent years the Turkish public has perceived a greater security threat from the United States than from Russia (see slides 81-83 here). According to Metropoll, a public opinion research firm, 65% of respondents in April 2022 did not trust NATO† in January, 39.4% preferred closer relationships with China and Russia compared to 37.5% who prefer closer relations with the EU and the US

The geopolitical realities limiting Erdoğan and NATO

But despite the anti-Western sentiment that Erdoğan has fueled, he remains spectacularly reluctant to cut ties with NATO. His intermittent clashes in recent years have not reached a point where he can afford to announce that Turkey is leaving the alliance. The loudest he can speak at home is when he is silent on suggestions that Turkey should leave NATO, as his political ally Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party, boldly advocated last month. In fact, in a recent piece in The Economist, to Western audiences, he reiterated his commitment to NATO and its expansion. Erdoğan’s ambiguity about whether he is willing or able to break Turkey from NATO and the wider West shows the limits of his power and provides an opening for policy considerations.

The Turkish president is in a place where he has to negotiate his discomfort with the West and everything it represents with the reality on the ground. The geopolitical situation surrounding Turkey – and in particular Russia’s war against Ukraine – is exacerbating the country’s economic problems and negatively impacting national security. almost 58% of the Turkish public still believe that NATO is necessary for Turkey’s security. Erdoğan’s objection to the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO is a symptom of his aversion to the values ​​represented by Turkey’s own membership in the alliance and other Western institutions, notably the Council of Europe and the European Court of Justice. Human rights. These values ​​and institutions are an obstacle to his one-man rule and to his ideological goal of ultimately breaking through Turkey’s traditional Western vocation.

But NATO also needs Turkey, as emphasized by a former commander of US forces in Europe who noted, “I don’t even want to think about NATO without Turkey.” Turkey’s future in NATO will largely depend on the results of next year’s elections. The opposition has repeatedly expressed its commitment to reviving Turkish democracy, even though so far they have either remained out of sight or felt obliged to follow Erdoğan’s nationalist line. Until then, it is important not to write Turkey off.

In case of the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, one can expect that both sides will eventually meet in a pragmatic solution. In the event of a failure, key NATO members such as the US and the UK seem willing to extend bilateral security guarantees to Sweden and Finland. Ultimately, keeping Turkey in NATO – just as it did 70 years ago when it first joined the alliance – could serve as a conduit for mutual reinforcement of Turkey’s Western vocation and democracy, while enhancing transatlantic security. for the better, especially in such challenging times when the new NATO Strategic Concept is intended to address.