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[OPINION] Time to play hardball with Turkey’s Erdoğan

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Abdullah Bozkurt

An engagement with Turkey as long as its autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remains in full control of all the levers of power would serve nothing but to advance an appeasement that will bring no substantial change in the policies and behavior of the Turkish government, as we have already seen in a series of failures to that effect in the last three years.

The only way Erdoğan and his cronies would respond in any meaningful way to pressure is to have a policy of disengagement, coupled with targeted sanctions to dismantle the system of economic and political patronage he had built to sustain his authoritarian regime. Statements of concern, condemnation and responding in kind to his vitriolic diatribes and harsh remarks will not make a dent in Erdoğan’s approach as he will use them to further agitate issues for domestic and foreign audiences, and fan xenophobic feelings in the Turkish populace.

Russian strongman Vladimir Putin discovered the magic formula of how to deal with Erdoğan. Although it was blunt, comprehensive and targeted the whole of Turkey, Russia’s policy toward Turkey in the aftermath of the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey on the Turkish-Syrian border on Nov. 24, 2015, forced Erdoğan to change his behavior as well his narrative towards Russia. Moscow’s harsh response both in terms of economic and political measures forced Erdoğan to issue a written and oral apology and roll back clandestine activities threatening Russian interests. The Turkish economy, especially the tourism and hospitality industry, has still not fully recovered from that blowback.

In contrast to Russia, the European Union has much more leverage over the Turkish economy and can very well put Erdoğan in a jam if it really wants to. According to last month’s trade data, the EU’s share of Turkey’s exports was 50.2 percent, with Germany, the UK and Italy becoming the top three market destinations. The EU remained the largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) flows into Turkey, with 57.6 percent in 2015. Most tourists visiting Turkey also came from the EU. The September data show 42.42 percent of all visitors to Turkey came from European countries, although there was a decline of 31.28 percent year-on-year, reflecting an overall decline across the board.

The EU can very well implement sanctions in stages, escalating the pressure to bring about a change in Erdoğan’s behavior, starting by targeting entities and individuals that Erdoğan relies on the most to ensure tight control of the political and economic powerbase. Every effort to minimize negative repercussions that could hurt the average person in Turkey must be made to send a message that the EU is not punishing the whole country but rather is going after crooks and cronies of President Erdoğan and his family members. Asset freezes and travel bans, among other restrictions, may play a significant role here. If the US were to launch its own sanctions through the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to complement the EU’s measures, Erdoğan would be terrified.

I think Erdoğan is aware of such risks and is pushing a series of bills through Parliament to grant amnesty to those who bring cash and other undeclared assets home from abroad. One such bill was secretly rushed through the legislature by Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak right after a failed military coup bid, which provided perfect cover for Erdoğan’s cronies to hide their real intentions. The bill stated that no prosecution, investigation, auditing or tax provisions would apply to these cash and asset transfers. Another amnesty bill is on the way according to Finance Minister Naci Ağbal, Erdoğan’s key operative in controlling Turkey’s finances. Therefore, Erdoğan is preparing for the day of reckoning with the EU, minimizing exposure by moving his multi-billion-dollar wealth home from abroad.

In the meantime, the symbiotic relationship between Erdoğan and corrupt companies that receive lucrative government contracts and tenders in exchange for support and kickbacks has taken on a new form with unlawful seizures of companies that are not seen as supportive of this patronage system. By taking over firms on trumped-up charges of terror by abusing the criminal justice system, Erdoğan has created new opportunities for his raiding party of plunderers who now steal the assets and wealth of critics and opponents. In other words, not just the state coffers but also private property and personal wealth are considered war spoils for Erdoğan’s jihadist-minded business cronies. The EU may very well declare such moves to be unlawful and come after operatives who steal others’ assets and wealth by including them on sanction lists.

From what we have seen so far from Turkey’s approach to joint venture investments in oil, banking, communication and other industries, Erdoğan is clearly trying to force these businesses to work with his cronies. He has recently done this in several companies including mobile operator Türkcell and a business enterprise owned by the Turkish Armed Forces Assistance Center (OYAK). By using tax levies, fines, changes in regulations and bills, Erdoğan is bent on redistributing the wealth in Turkey so that he can keep fueling this economic patronage. Many multinational companies are aware of this pattern and have started to disengage from Turkey either by scaling back their operations or exiting the Turkish market completely. Foreign firms were often asked for under-the-table cash deals in return for favors, protection and special concessions if they would explore opportunities in the Turkish market. Even Turkish investors are now moving out because they feel their assets are no longer safe in a Turkey under Erdoğan’s leadership.

In expectation of such possible measures from the West, Erdoğan has engaged various diplomatic initiatives to thwart or otherwise minimize the adverse impact of sanctions. With a rapprochement with Russia, overtures to China and reaching out to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, he hopes to counter such measures by tapping into their resources if sanctions are to be invoked against him. These diplomatic initiatives must be challenged head-on, and Erdoğan’s project of a divisive Islamist campaign that threatens Russia, China and the Gulf first and foremost must be exposed, and the danger his policies present to world peace must be clearly explained to the global audience. Delivering yet another xenophobic speech in the Pakistani parliament on Thursday, Erdoğan openly said Islam’s dialogue with other faiths is impossible, fueling radicalization even further. He declared the interfaith champion Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, who met with the pope in 1998, an infidel from the podium. He went as far as to claim that the West is behind the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), is arming it and aims to divide the Islamic world.

This man, full of rage, hatred and anger toward Turkey’s traditional allies and partners, is determined to export overseas the unprecedented polarization and radicalization he created in Turkey in order to survive through such visits, speeches and diplomatic maneuvers. He will keep investing in radical militant networks abroad, especially among Turkish expatriates in Europe, which is home to the largest group of Turkish migrants in the world, funding clandestine networks and even terrorizing and assassinating critics and opponents who are forced to live in self-exile.

It will be too late if this 21st century version of Hitler is not stopped and is instead given more leeway and flexibility by entertaining manifestly ill-advised engagement-turned-into-appeasement policies.

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