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[OPINION] EU and NATO should not let Erdoğan become a second Putin

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Ahmet Yılmaz*

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is fighting for his survival. Turkey will hold parliamentary and presidential elections in June 2023, and Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its election partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), are declining in popularity. Although Erdoğan currently has control of the judiciary, if he loses power, he could be prosecuted for a number of crimes including corruption, misconduct and even war crimes. Therefore, he has started to make political choices inside and outside the country for the sole purpose of remaining in power.

Turkey was among the top five jailers of journalists worldwide in 2022, after Iran, China and Myanmar, according to data released Dec. 14 by the New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey ranks 149th out of 180 countries in terms of freedom of the press. Jails in Turkey are full of political prisoners. Despite this, Erdoğan managed to consolidate his power by exploiting conflicts of interest between world power centers outside the country and political controversies among opposition parties inside Turkey. The severe effects of the pandemic contributed to the worsening of a financial crisis in Turkey due to poor management of the economy, while the Russian war on Ukraine started to lead to demands of Turkey from both Russia and Ukraine, which limits Erdoğan’s ability to maneuver. Behind closed doors, Russia seems to be demanding that Turkey act against Western sanctions imposed on it due to its war on Ukraine. On the other hand, the US fired a warning shot at Erdoğan by imposing sanctions on Erdoğan confidant and businessman Sıtkı Ayan on the grounds that his network facilitated the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of oil for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

For example, the Turkish Maritime Authority’s recent insurance regulation resulting in the blockage of oil tankers bound for the EU from transiting the Turkish Straits under the pretext of navigational safety has been found unreasonable. The justification for such a regulation was not convincing because, for instance, despite repeated warnings from its own maritime sector, the Turkish Maritime Authority did not take necessary measures to increase the competence of sea pilots, which directly affects navigational safety. Moreover, it did not produce an automated navigational aid system for the Bosporus, which it said it would do for a project known as Kanal Istanbul. Therefore, I believe that the new regulation was most likely designed as a response to the EU and G7 price cap on Russian oil. It was as if Turkey had started to impose sanctions on the West while the West attempts to do the same thing to Russia. So the West insisted on the revocation of this regulation, and Erdoğan had to take a step back.

In addition, Western countries, which have not been very critical about Turkey’s non-participation in the sanctions on Russia, have begun to speak out more loudly now, saying Turkish companies are offering a temporary solution for the supply of some dual-use products to Russia that it needs for its defense industry, a consequence of the prolongation of the war. If, as expected, Russia had been able to defeat Ukraine in a short period of time, Russia would not have needed spare parts for its military and Erdoğan would not have faced problems that pose such a risk to his power.

The West, especially the EU, and more specifically Germany, must take lessons from its energy relations with Putin’s Russia. Their energy dependence on Russia has put them into a very bad situation. Putin has been leading an authoritarian regime that has become more aggressive since the invasion of Georgia in 2008. German authorities should have predicted that they would one day pay the price for buying cheap energy from an autocrat. Instead of realizing their hope of helping in the democratization of Russia, their economic ties with Russia have strengthened Putin’s war machine. I hope they won’t make such a mistake with Erdoğan. The Turkish president had long ago made his irreversible choice to participate in the league of corrupt, authoritarian regimes, and Turkey cannot reverse this course unless the Erdoğan government falls from power. He will try to convince the West to lend their support, sometimes with threats and sometimes with attractive offers. The more the West tolerates him, the more likely he is to become a small Putin.

Erdoğan recently offered to bring Turkmen gas to Europe, a project that will probably take years to realize. He knows that energy is a chink in Europe’s armor and wants to use Turkey’s geographical position to bargain. He is asking the West to close its eyes to his illegal actions inside and outside Turkey. He is now struggling to stay in power and is making some illegal or ill-founded moves to achieve this goal. For example, Erdoğan has full control of the judiciary in Turkey, as evidenced by a prison sentence and political ban imposed on İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu in a politically charged trial last week. As a result, Turkey ranks 116th out of 140 countries in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index. İmamoğlu is considered to be the strongest rival to Erdoğan in the upcoming election if he is fielded as a presidential candidate, and as a result, Erdoğan is apparently trying to block his candidacy. Another example is his attempt to invade northern Syria to divert public attention in Turkey from the poor economy and to silence the opposition. After a bomb attackin İstanbul, the Erdoğan government was quick to blame the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for the attack, which claimed the lives of six people, and then conducted airstrikes in northern Syria on militant Kurdish groups in retaliation. Turkey is even threatening a ground offensive in northern Syria. But then the suspect in the İstanbul bombing was found to have ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Free Syrian Army, the main enemies of militant Kurdish groups in Syria. She was also claimed to have ties to an official in the MHP. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) denied having any role in the İstanbul attack.

Erdoğan wants the West to change its approach to Turkey, which in my opinion means turning a blind eye to the actions of his corrupt regime. He delivered this message literally in the opening speech at the TRT World Forum 2022 on Dec. 11: “The recent crises have revealed how fragile the architecture of security and prosperity on which Europe has been built is. Turkey has the potential to play a key role in solving the problems Europe is facing. But first, Europe needs to change its approach to Turkey, from diplomatic and economic relations to the fight against terrorism, in line with the spirit of alliance and partnership.” And at the end of his speech, he emphasized the same point and threatened, “There is no solution to global and regional issues without the contribution of Turkey.”

Since closing its eyes to the actions of Putin’s authoritarian regime did not work out for the West, doing the same for another dictator would not yield different results. And it has not. Let me give a few examples of the dozens of issues where the West has not responded effectively to Erdoğan. First of all, Turkish government officials have been known to be involved in violating US sanctions on Iran for almost nine years. During this same week in 2013, the biggest corruption scandal in the history of Turkey concerning the evasion of sanctions on Iran was revealed. Erdoğan called two corruption investigations at the time a “coup d’état” against him and jailed the police officers and prosecutors involved in the investigations. The probes were eventually dropped by judges appointed by Erdoğan. There was a chance of reviving those cases in the US; however, this opportunity was squandered. The state-run Halkbank case related to the corruption scandal was shelved during the Trump era, something for which Erdoğan was said to have worked hard. Beyond that, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) refuses to accept thousands of potential applications from the victims of a post-coup purge in Turkey due to the non-exhaustion of domestic remedies. However, the courts in Turkey have lost their independence, which became obvious during a two-year state of emergency declared in the aftermath of the coup attempt in July 2016, when the Turkish government purged more than 130,000 civil servants from their jobs under the pretext of an anti-coup fight. The ECtHR could have chosen to accept applications from purge victims in Turkey because the domestic remedies in the country are ineffective, but it has declined to do so.

Moreover, Russia revealed in 2015 that Erdoğan and his family members were directly involved in the illegal ISIL oil trade in Syria. Their press briefing is still online. But the West turned a blind eye to it. Last but not least, illegal arms transport from Turkey to ISIL and other al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organizations in Syria has been exposed. The military and police officers as well as the prosecutors who revealed the illegal transfer of arms to Syria have been in jail since 2014.

Has turning a blind eye to all these things made Erdoğan a democrat, or has it allowed him to go rogue? Is he not preventing Finland and Sweden from joining NATO? Are his arguments for objecting to the NATO membership of these two countries really worthy of note?

It is frustrating when the EU and NATO don’t effectively deal with Erdoğan’s illegalities and instead just use them as means of blackmailing him on some occasions and thanking him and giving him undeserved praise when he does something he is actually supposed to do. For example, when Erdoğan blocked the oil tankers bound for the EU, the US acted to impose sanctions on businessman Ayan. Turkey has stepped back from blocking the oil tankers for now, but Erdoğan is sure to continue supporting Russia somehow unless he gets a very strong warning from the West. On the other hand, many Western leaders thanked Turkey for its decision to close the Turkish Straits to Ukrainian and Russian warships. They gave him praise he didn’t deserve because according to Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, Turkey is obliged to close the straits to the warships of countries that are at war.

All in all, a more determined approach needs to be taken not only against Erdoğan but against all dictators. I hope the EU and NATO learn their lesson from the Putin case and no longer repeat the same mistakes with Erdoğan. Otherwise, Erdoğan will cause trouble for them in the same way that Putin has.

*Ahmet Yılmaz has a master’s degree in international security strategies. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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