Prince Michael of Liechtenstein: Erdogan’s leadership is based on pragmatism

In Turkey’s municipal election of March 31, 2024, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party recorded setbacks at the ballot box. For the first time, the opposition Republican People’s Party emerged as the strongest force. Observers considered this election not only a municipal matter but also a test of national policy.

It is typical for a democracy that even successful leaders, having been in power for a long time, lose elections. For instance, Winston Churchill was voted out of office very shortly after War II, in which he had led his nation to a historic triumph. 

Turkey’s difficult economic situation did not help. However, President Erdogan had sensed that his stay in power should have a defined endpoint. Already weeks before the election, he announced that he would not seek another term as Turkey’s president after the end of his current term in 2028, when he will be 74 years old. This defies the caricature of him so frequently propagated in the Western world, that of an aging autocrat seeking lifelong rule.

Mr. Erdogan has always been a Turkish patriot, a devout Muslim, but never a radical Islamist. Since his accession in 2003 as prime minister and then as president since 2014, he has spearheaded a critical transition in his country’s international posture.

After the end of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, and the eviction of British, French, Italian and Greek occupation forces from the territory of today’s Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (1881-1938), later dubbed Ataturk (Father of the Turks), created a republic fashioned on the European model. It was a secular – almost anti-religious – nation-state that allowed only the Turkish language and introduced the Gregorian calendar and Latin alphabet. Women were prohibited from veiling their faces in public. The capital was moved from Istanbul to Ankara. The new state disavowed political ambitions outside its territory and coastal waters. 

The Turkish army, which remained strong after the liberation, received the constitutional mandate to protect the secular character of the Republic of Turkey.

There are exceptions to the policies listed above. With Ataturk’s victory over the occupants, the new republic became the guardian of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles and, therefore, of access to the Black Sea. Under the Montreux Convention, Ankara is obliged to monitor all naval vessel access to that sea. Responding to the threat from the Soviet Union, Turkey joined NATO in the early 1950s and has been one of the alliance’s most reliable members since then. Its standing army is NATO’s second strongest after that of the United States. Both are crucial for Europe’s defense.

New challenges

This general state of affairs lasted throughout the rest of the 20th century. But when the winds of change hit Turkey, Mr. Erdogan understood the need to respond to new circumstances and acted accordingly. In part because of that, he is frequently described as unpredictable. This perception misses the mark. He is a pragmatist endlessly in pursuit of strategies and tactical shifts in the interest of his country. 

When global geopolitical developments in the 1990s necessitated a more active regional policy, the Turkish leader responded. As prime minister, he tried hard to revive the accession negotiations with the European Union (the talks had begun before his time, in 1999). His government addressed the wishes of the Kurdish minority for more autonomy, such as schooling in the Kurdish language. Ankara even started negotiations with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), recognized as a terrorist organization by the EU, as well as the U.S. and several other countries. These talks eventually failed. To a significant extent, the PKK’s persistence in resorting to terrorism frustrated Ankara’s efforts to make more room for Kurdish aspirations.

The role of the Turkish army as the guardian of the constitution was ended, as demanded by Brussels in the EU accession negotiations. With the rise of Islam, Ankara recognized that the republic’s strict secular character could benefit radical movements in the country. As a result, a gradual relaxation of the Ataturk-era religion-restricting rules was introduced on Mr. Erdogan’s watch. At the same time, economic liberalization opened the country more widely to foreign direct investment and energized its business sector. 

Strong headwinds

Not long after the start of Turkey’s EU accession talks, it became rather apparent that several EU member states were not ready to welcome Turkey. That was humiliating for Ankara: Turkey kept meeting Brussels’ conditions, including changing the role of its military, but the entry bar for its invitation to the European club was continuously pushed higher.

Then, global economic shock occurred. After the 2008 financial crisis struck, foreign direct investment in emerging markets decreased sharply. Turkey was hit hard, even though the local banks were solid. Admittedly, navigating economic crises and monetary policy dilemmas were not among Mr. Erdogan’s greatest strengths.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the occupation that followed and the outbreak of the so-called “Arab Spring” in the early 2010s pushed the Middle East, on Turkey’s doorstep, into extended turmoil. Ankara had to act. The situation in Syria, especially, became highly challenging, as did the emergence and rise of the Islamic State terror organization. Another dilemma for Ankara was the U.S. support for Kurdish military groups in Syria, most of which were closely linked with the PKK. New terrorist attacks were taking place in Turkey.

As civil war raged in Syria, Turkey gave shelter to some 3 million refugees. It entered an agreement with the EU, which promised payments for Turkey’s accommodation of the refugees and Ankara’s commitment not to let them move north into Europe. Under various pretexts, Brussels reneged on some of the promised payments.

The coup attempt

A former ally of President Erdogan, Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen created an influential religious, social and educational movement in Turkey. However, Mr. Gulen turned against the president and sought refuge in the U.S. His movement allegedly launched a military coup against the government in 2016. It failed, giving President Erdogan an opportunity to purge the administration, the military and the country’s education system of opponents of his policies. Overreactions by security forces did take place, and the already limited freedom of the media was curbed further. 

Important regional power

The regional instability surrounding Turkey stemmed from numerous hotspots. At the top of the list were the wars in Syria and Iraq, but Ankara also had to deal with the long-standing tensions with Greece over Cyprus as well as Russia’s expansionary ambitions in the Caucasus and the Black Sea. The Turkish army began to intervene in the border area of Syria, where the People’s Defense Units (YPG), the dominant Syrian-Kurdish group supporting the KKK in Turkey, operated. 

Over time, Ankara has increased its footprint in the Middle East. It has aligned with Qatar and established its military presence around the Red Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf. Most recently, it announced a naval defense deal with Somalia in the Horn of Africa. Turkish economic endeavors are also successful in this area and radiate to much of the African continent. Turkish Airlines, the country’s flag carrier, is the largest air operator in Africa. 

Ups and downs with Israel

Ankara’s relationship with Israel has fluctuated over the years. Currently it is at a low ebb due to the conflict in Gaza, in which Turkey supports the Palestinians. Relations had gradually improved over the last half-decade, but nearly broke down after Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel in October 2023 and the inevitable response from the Israel Defense Forces. 

Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia also soured over the 2018 murder of a dissident Saudi journalist in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, but have been rebuilt of late. 

To overcome the limitations imposed on Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean – mainly in the form of perceived disproportionate territorial waters claims made by Greece – Ankara intervened in the Libyan civil war, defeating the insurrection of self-appointed “field marshal” Khalifa Haftar and tipping the scales in favor of the government recognized by the West. That, for a time at least, had tamed Russia’s encroachment in North Africa. 

The Russian conundrum

Turkey’s relationship with Russia is highly complex. There is no love lost between President Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but they meet and talk regularly to avoid an escalation of conflicts. For centuries, Russia has been Turkey’s most dangerous opponent, handing the Ottoman Empire some historic defeats. These days, the interests of the two powers clash in the Balkans, the Black Sea region, the Caucasus, Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, but pragmatism helps both parties avoid direct confrontations.

Russia occupied a large part of the Caucasus from the early 19th century, which remains a significant concern for Turkey. After the Soviet Union imploded, new independent countries emerged, including Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Ankara is invested in Georgia’s future. And, in the recent Azerbaijan-Armenia war, Russia supported the latter while Turkey took the victorious Azerbaijani side. Finally, Moscow and Ankara opted for a settlement.

Crimea and the war in Ukraine 

Turkey’s ties to Ukraine have been close. Crimea is a centuries-old issue for Ankara, which considered Russia’s takeover of the peninsula in 2014 a geopolitical threat and intervened diplomatically to protect the ethnic Turkic population there. 

President Erdogan has supported Ukraine’s bid for independence and helped in arming it. In the early phase of the Russian 2022 invasion, Turkish-made Bayraktar drones played a critical role in Kyiv’s defense. By keeping open relations with both sides of the conflict, President Erdogan enabled prisoner-of-war exchanges and helped unblock Ukrainian grain shipments from Odesa – the loaded ships sail under the protection of the Turkish Navy. Per its international obligations, Ankara does not let warships traverse the Dardanelles-Bosporus passage, thereby preventing Russia from strengthening its naval presence in the Black Sea. The Turkish Navy is clearly in the dominant position in the chokepoint. 

Friction inside NATO

President Erdogan was heavily criticized in NATO capitals, and Washington sanctioned Turkey’s defense industry, as a result Ankara’s 2019 acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. Washington considered it a breach of trust, arguing that the advanced system posed a risk to the newest generation of U.S. warplanes. From Ankara’s perspective, the purchase was a logical step. 

Turkey’s location in a dangerous area of geopolitical crosswinds means that its national interests are not always identical to those of its partners in Europe or North America. A degree of foreign policy independence is critical for Ankara. As part of its national strategy, Turkey has been building a highly capable defense industry, as attested by its successful exports.

Washington and most European capitals often fall somewhat short of grasping Turkey’s challenging circumstances. As a result, Ankara feels it needs to be assertive (occasionally bordering on heavy-handed) in pursuing Turkey’s legitimate national interests. Aside from the Russian missiles issue, it received a barrage of criticism for blocking Finland’s and Sweden’s accessions to NATO (accepting new members must be approved by all states in the alliance).

Few seemed to appreciate that the PKK makes Turkey the most terrorism-challenged NATO state. Sweden and Finland sheltered many PKK members, including some of the leading figures, despite the EU’s designation of the organization as terrorist. Repeated diplomatic efforts by Ankara to end this Nordic hospitality came to naught. When an opportunity to exert pressure on Stockholm and Helsinki on the matter presented itself, President Erdogan grasped it.

What might history’s verdict be?

Looking at the president’s record, one can see a clear pattern of pragmatic and, in most cases, successful foreign policy lines stretching over the last 20 years. When the president retires in 2028, he will likely go down in history as a down-to-earth realist recognizing the necessities of the time, the man who restored Turkey to its natural place as a leading regional power by playing a crucial, stabilizing role in the entire area.

Prince Michael of Liechtenstein is the founder of Geopolitical Intelligence Services AG

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