How Erdogan Destabilized Turkey
Vijay Prashad explains how the Turkish pivot towards Russia is propelled by the failure of relationship building with Europe and the war with Syria
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
Turkish President Erdogan recently shut down over 130 media outlets. Apparently this is in connection with the ongoing crackdown on dissent following the July 15 failed coup d’etat. The crackdown has led to the dismissal of tens of thousands of university professors, teachers, soldiers, police officers, and other government employees. Meanwhile, Erdogan also announced that he will be meeting with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, in St. Petersburg in early August. Erdogan also has been under increasing pressure from Western allies because of the post-coup crackdown. Further, some of President Erdogan’s allies in Turkey are even suggesting the U.S. was behind the coup attempt, increasing tensions with the U.S. and Europe. Erdogan is looking for a new ally in Russia. If so, this would represent a major shift in regional alliances since Turkey has been a member of NATO ever since its founding.
With us to discuss the latest developments in Turkey and how they relate to the region is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College. One of his latest books is Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation. He joins us today from Northampton, Massachusetts. Good to have you with us, Vijay.
VIJAY PRASHAD: [Very good, thanks.]
PERIES: So, Vijay, much has happened since the coup, and of course particularly the allegations and some of Erdogan’s political allies coming out and blaming the U.S. for the coup. Is there any merit to that?
PRASHAD: Well, it’s hard to say what’s going on. Mr. Gulen, who used to be Erdogan’s partner, a very close ally, in fact, is in sort of exile in the United States. And Erdogan has blamed Gulen for the coup.
Now, it’s not unlikely that the Gulen[ists] have been involved in this. It’s very possible that they have played a part in it. But you know, it’s very hard to say if the United States government has been involved. The Erdogan government has taken a strong position vis-a-vis the United States. For, I think, some hours the power was shut off at the [inaud.] air base, from which the United States bombs ISIS targets in Syria, as a way of saying, look, we’re not interested in niceties here. We’re worried about the situation. They wanted to put some pressure on the United States to extradite Mr. Gulen back to Turkey.
So Sharmini, it’s hard to say, really, why this coup happened, who was responsible. And one of the reasons it’s particularly difficult is that Mr. Erdogan has used this coup to clean up all his opponents. He’s blaming, essentially, everybody for the coup, and is closing down media outlets, has decided to arrest as many people as possible. Because he has cast such a wide net against his opponents, it’s in a sense obfuscated the actual coup that took place and the reasons for that coup.
PERIES: And give us a sense of some of the reasons.
PRASHAD: Well, there are many people who would have reason to be upset with Mr. Erdogan. There are sections of the military that have republican pretensions, that believe that Mr. Erdogan has gone too far with the Islamization of Turkey. There are other sections of the military that are indeed close to Mr. Gulen. In fact, Mr. Erdogan himself colluded with Gulen a decade ago to put these people into positions of importance in the military, in the judiciary, in other institutions, in order to in a sense box in the republicans, those who were [inaud.] or who had affinity to a secular Turkish state.
So it could very well be the Gulenists who have felt that Mr. Erdogan, as his power has increased, has basically pushed for his own agenda rather than their combined agenda. It could be sections of the military that have been unhappy with the way in which they’ve been utilized in the war against the Kurds in the southeastern part of Turkey, as well as in the way they’ve been asked to manage the border with Syria. The head of the [second] army in Turkey has been arrested. He is one of the most important people in managing that border. And if he had, indeed, been a part of this coup, it’s likely that those frustrations might have played a role here.
So as I said, there’s many reasons why people in the military might have gone after Mr. Erdogan. It’s hard to specify exactly which of these reasons played a role, because Erdogan is going after everybody.
PERIES: Now, how agitated, aggravated, is he? And what is this new alliance or reestablishing relations with Russia all about, that he’s risking being a part of NATO and possibly entry into the European Union as well?
PRASHAD: Well, you know, if you look back at the Erdogan, you know, history since 2003 at least, there was a very important attempt to remove Turkey towards Europe, to utilize the proximity to Europe to insulate Erdogan’s attempt to create an Islamic government in Turkey from the military. You know, he had hoped, essentially, that the link with Europe would put military coups off the table. It would be Europeans, of course, would not look kindly towards a military coup.
So Erdogan essentially became a so-called NATO’s [Islamist]. In the early years in power, he was very eager to turn Turkey into an aircraft carrier against Iraq in 2003. So in the early years, he had very close fealty to the Europeans and NATO. Of course, Turkey’s own economic expansion in the 2000s had not [inaud.] that much to do with Europe. It had much more to do with the Arab world, where the Turks were able to enter as real estate developers, that is, in construction, selling consumer goods, entering into financial markets and so on. And Turkey made, essentially, a huge amount of money as Syria liberalized its economy in the 2000s.
So Turkey played an interesting role between Europe and the Arab world with Erdogan trying to hedge his position so as to protect himself from the military. When the Syrian uprising took place in 2011, Erdogan took the most advanced position against the Assad government, calling very early for his removal, essentially going beyond the Gulf Arabs and the West, but then quickly harmonizing with them, hoping that a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood regime come to power in Damascus. That attempt at going so far ahead of everybody else has led to the destabilization of Turkey. It has once again restarted its war against the Kurds that’s entirely a consequence of this forward policy in Syria. It has led to a lot of pressure on the military which is not keen to enter into a conflict inside Syria.
So Turkey, essentially, has seen the unraveling of everything that Erdogan has tried to stitch together. Whether it’s the proximity to Europe, using that to its advantage, or using the new markets in the Arab world to its economic advantage. And I think having gone so far in it’s had a very hard time extricating itself from its politics in Syria. You remember that last year, it was Turkish planes that shot down a Russian plane, you know, that had apparently strayed into Turkish airspace. This was a very, very dangerous destabilizing event. It could have led to some catastrophic escalation on the border. But fortunately, the Russians and the Turks backed down.
And I think since then, the reality has struck Ankara that there is going to be no real regime change in Syria. The Syrian war is not going to deliver the kind of result that Turkey wants because Turkey has sought a new equation with the Russians. You know, two years ago in the middle of this major tension with Russia, with Syria, the Russians and the Turks signed an agreement for moving natural gas from Russia into Turkey. The so-called Turk [stream] pipeline. This was to go around Ukraine. As Europe blocked the passage of Russian natural gas through central Eastern Europe, it was hoped that this Turkish pipeline would pick up the slack. Also, the Russians promised to build a nuclear reactor inside Turkey.
So these things, negotiations which are helping while the conflict was going on, had to be set aside when tensions rose to a high pitch. And now I think as Turkey has come to understand, or as Erdogan has come to understand, the great destabilized position of Turkey is trying to rebalance with the Russians, which is why he’s going to Moscow on August 9. The Turks have openly said now that the Turk [stream] pipeline is back on the table. The nuclear reactor is back on the table. This partly might be to put some pressure on the United States, but it’s also got, I think, very serious economic consequences for Turkey, which it has, you know–in a sense, the politics of the war in Syria had set aside the economics. And now there’s a little bit of rebalancing taking place.
PERIES: Vijay, you mentioned the economy. Now, the political crisis is taking a real toll on the economy. For example, the shooting of the Russian jet you mentioned led to an embargo and Russian tourism has declined by 92 percent. The Turkish economy is, 50 percent of it is tourism. So that’s one example. But what else is happening in Turkey that’s causing this stress on the economy?
PRASHAD: It’s been an enormous economic crisis. I mean, let’s make the two major aspects tourism and energy. When the detritus of the Syrian war entered inside Turkey, which was inevitable, you know. How could you have such a long border with Syria, see the destabilization in Syria, and not expect it to cross the border? You know, there were attacks inside very important tourist centers of Turkey. [Inaud.] for instance, one of the main tourist drags in Istanbul, there was an attack in Istanbul airport.
These attacks had a very chilling effect in general, for two reasons. Turkey had [inaud.] its airline, Turkish Airways, as a major international carrier. That began to suffer, because after all, most flights on Turkish airlines go through Istanbul. The attack on the airport, I think, had a chilling effect on customers wanting to use Turkish Airlines. So there was an in general crackdown, or rather there was an in general sense that tourism had declined inside Turkey.
Well, the Russian tourists are major, have had a very long and deep affection for Turkey, for Egypt, for other parts of the region. The flight from Moscow to Turkey is not very long. It was a very good way to escape the Russian winter, to come to the Mediterranean Sea on the Turkish coast. And with the tension rising to a fever pitch between Turkey and Russia, most of these tourists simply skipped Turkey.
So Turkey not only lost in general in terms of tourism, but it lost the important Russian tourists. In terms of energy, you know, Turkey of course is a net importer of energy. Having this nuclear power plant built by the Russians, allowing the natural gas to enter Turkey, and as well transit into Europe, is going to be very important for Turkey’s energy security. But also it will receive rent for the natural gas that will go into Europe.
These are important economic parameters for Turkey, and I think it’s important to understand that as far as the Erdogan government is concerned, the economics have played a role. But the politics is playing an equal role here. Being isolated increasingly from Europe because of the crackdown after this coup, and also before the coup, there had been a great sense of trepidation about what was happening in Turkey in terms of press freedom, in terms of the arrests of editors, shutting down of newspapers, et cetera. This predated the coup. But there’s been a sharp increase in the restrictions on the press since the coup. This has isolated Turkey from Europe. Turkey has sought now to break out of its isolation. Russia is one avenue, but so too will be the Shanghai [cooperation] organization, which Turkey, I think, is going to increase its role in.
It’s important to remember that the bridging between Turkey and Russia took place because of Armenia and Kazakhstan. And Kazakhstan in particular played an important role here. I think it has wanted to draw Turkey into the Shanghai [cooperation] organization, the so-called SCO, into this whole [central] project in a much deeper political way, not just an economic way. And we’re seeing that happen now.
PERIES: All right. Vijay, a lot there. And we’re hoping to have you back very soon, because I think we have to do another project here, which is to unpack the situation with the refugees, which you have written about in Alternet today. But let’s do that another time. Thank you for joining us.
PRASHAD: Okay, thanks.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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