President Erdogan’s recent international openings are likely to improve Turkey’s relations with Russia and Israel and support the country’s economy. However, Ankara will remain in a challenging global position due to the threats it is facing internally and externally.
The 21st century has been a wild ride for Turkey, rising to one of the investment world’s most valuable countries in the late 2000’s to a hub of militant nationalism and prickly international relationships in the 2010’s. Terrorist attacks have skyrocketed across the country, stemming from both the Islamic State and Kurdish separatists. It seemed, after Turkey shot down a Russian jet near the Syrian border, that Turkey had no intentions of increasing its global friendliness. Taking the world by surprise last week, however, Recep Tayyip Erdogan made two mammoth strides to strengthen partnerships.
Firstly, Erdogan renewed diplomatic ties with Israel after 6 years of absence. They had broken relations after Israel’s attack of a flotilla headed to Gaza. Secondly, Erdogan personally issued a written apology to Vladimir Putin and Russia for a November 2015 incident where Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian border. Fault for the incident was never clearly placed until Erdogan’s apology last week. After the downing of the jet, language between the two world leaders escalated, and Moscow imposed sanctions on Ankara.
Erdogan’s support for the West and the U.S. has also been less than that of his predecessors, as Erdogan consistently breaks from traditional democratic rules, claiming that democracy is a bus, and one he will get off when he reaches his stop. Quotes like this do not necessarily encourage foreign direct investment, which dropped from 22 billion USD to 16 billion between 2007 and 2016. So, if democracy and globalism is not Erdogan’s goal for his rapprochement tour, what is?
Turkey global position challenged by domestic and international crisis
If democracy is a bus, then Erdogan may use it to get wherever he needs to go. Right now what Erdogan needs is to get to safety. Turkey has seen tragic terrorist attacks in 2016, escalating with the most recent Istanbul airport bombing in June 2016. The country has also been shaken by the failed coup attempt that saw rogue military units try to oust the elected government. Turkey shares a border with Syria, and the conflict led to several cross-border incidents and an overall destabilisation of southern provinces. Europe to its West has begun to develop fundamental cracks, and Turkey is looking more and lonelier as its relationships fall off one by one, leaving it devastatingly vulnerable to an increasingly unstable Middle East. Turkey is now looking for friends.
Erdogan’s choices in renewed friendships reflect its grand strategy for protection in the Middle East. Alignment with Russia will open up its possibilities for defense across its Eastern border with Syria, and rapprochement with Israel aligns it with the one of the most well-supported governments and most skillful militaries in the region. These are two wise moves from a Turkish standpoint, and will be very instrumental in its own border protection. What it does not do, however, is change Turkey’s motives or Erdogan’s methodology.
A continuation of Erdogan’s realpolitik
There should be no expectation of a Turkish shift back towards globalism. This current state of apologies and agreements, while a good thing, most likely do not whisper of investments and opportunities in Turkey. Erdogan’s version of realpolitik will allow him to rebuild relationships around the world, even reaching Europe and the U.S. if he so chooses. But it will most likely not, in the end, lead to a more stable or trustworthy economy.
One area that may be viewed with positivity, however, is ironically and likely one of Turkey’s goals for rapprochement with Russia: energy. Turkey’s move towards Russia could very likely see the revival of the Turkstream project, flowing more gas across the Black Sea from Russia into Turkey. The Turkstream project was recently abandoned, but could be a major source of investment and business opportunity in the region. With little doubt, Turkey will at the very least seek to revive the project.
Though key opportunities such as these will remain, the possibility for Turkey to again reach its 2007 “beacon of Middle East opportunity” status is unlikely. It sits on the edge of too much turmoil, and has yet to show the prowess or dedication to weeding out its internal issues of terrorism, much less fully integrate into the global and regional economy. However, perhaps these last two steps of diplomacycould set Turkey back on a pathway to greater friendships.