Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ratings in the world, and especially Europe, are at all-time low with signs that they could only get worse after he openly insulted French President Emmanuel Macron and waited 10 days to condemn the brutal murder of a French teacher by an Islamist terrorist.
Samuel Paty, 47, was beheaded for showing cartoons of the Mohammad to his students as part of a discussion on freedom of expression. His killer, an 18-year-old Chechen, was shot dead by the police, but the public outrage forced the authorities to ramp up their attitude towards extremists and those propagating radicalism. Seven people, including two students and a parent of one of Paty’s pupils, were detained in the days following the killing.
Macron defended Paty’s action as an exercise of freedom of speech in France, but Erdogan said the French leader had attacked Islam and religious freedom. He then went on to even question Macron’s mental health and said he ought to be examined.
That remark prompted France to withdraw its ambassador in Ankara and described Erdogan’s comments as an “insult”. The leaders of key EU countries quickly sided with Macron and warned of punitive actions against Turkey.
European Council President Charles Michel tweeted: “Rather than a positive agenda, Turkey chooses provocations, unilateral actions in the Mediterranean and now insults. It’s intolerable.”
This verbal exchange took a turn for much worse after a series of terrorist attacks in France that left several people dead on October 29. Three people were killed in a knife attack at a church in Nice, in what Macron said was an “Islamist terrorist attack”.
One elderly victim was “virtually beheaded”, officials said, and another woman and a man also died. A male suspect was shot and detained. Two other attacks took place on the same day, one in France and the other in Saudi Arabia. A man was shot dead in Montfavet near the southern French city of Avignon after threatening police with a handgun.
No one is connecting Erdogan with the terrorist spree, but analysts have been warning for years that populist leaders have a special responsibility for their words: “Power implies responsibility, something that dictators seldom understand. A word said in passing, let alone loud in public, may become a mantra or a fatwa to a weirdo or a flunky”.
So how, after decades of cooperation and special ties with the EU, did the relations with Turkey, formerly a staunch NATO member and now a liability, sour and sink to such a low that even an armed conflict is no longer out of the realm of imagination?
Apart from a lot of blustering, posturing, wild accusations and trading insults, ratcheting up tensions in the region, making enemies of world leaders, deploying tens of thousands of troops in harm’s way, self-appointing himself as the protector of the Islamic faith, converting Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia museum into a mosque and generally making a nuisance of himself, a key question begs an answer – what has Erdogan actually accomplished for Turkey over the past couple of years?
The answer is abjectly sobering for Turkey – Erdogan has managed to destroy what could have easily become a top-10 economy in the world and has jailed some 500,000 of his countrymen for something most analysts now agree was very fishy – their alleged involvement in a botched coup in July 2016.
For this, he got punished at the last local elections in 2019 having lost the three biggest cities to the opposition, including the grand prize – Istanbul, nee Constantinople, the historical seat of the Ottoman Empire that Erdogan seems so keen to resurrect. That pipe dream is likely to be his downfall, according to most experts and Turkey watchers.
Erdogan’s list of things-to-do this year included engaging his troops in Libya, which culminated in a stern warning from Egypt that it will send its own army to help the rival side, a war of increasingly nasty verbal exchanges with the Eastern Mediterranean’s sole superpower – Israel, a political tantrum over the UAE-Israel treaty, raising tensions in the Aegean where he was violating prospecting rights in Greek territorial waters, scrambling the two countries’ air force and navies onto a war footing that also involved other EU countries and the United States and provoking the international community into issuing a unanimous warning and admonition to desist.
If that were not enough, Erdogan then lent open military support to the dictatorial leader of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, in his fight with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. This prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to voice serious concern over the presence of Islamic militant rebel fighters from Syria that Erdogan imported into the three-decade-old Caucasus conflict. This, in turn, brought back memories of Turkey’s close ties with ISIS in Syria where Erdogan continues to dabble to this day. Sources speaking deeply off the record said that there is a chance Russia will soon send game-changing military support to its close ally Armenia unless Turkey curtails its behavior and ends its involvement in Karabakh.
The real issue is what the above is meant to conceal from the Turkish public and voters – that the state of the economy is spiraling out of control with the lira down by almost 50% and the National Bank close to running on fumes.
Turkey’s banks borrowed billions from abroad in previous years. Pressed for currency, Turkey’s central bank began borrowing dollars from the country’s own banks. The central bank owes $54 billion to Turkey’s banks, but it spent even more than that, around $65 billion already this year, according to estimates from Goldman Sachs. This was on top of an additional $40 billion in 2019. According to the most recent data released by Turkey’s government, the central bank is facing a shortfall of around $25 billion.
Moody’s cut the country’s credit rating deeper into junk from B1 to B2 on September 14, citing increasing risks of a balance of payments crisis. It also said Turkey’s reserves were at a 20-year low.
Bloomberg noted that politics has played a key role in the country’s fiscal woes. Erdogan urged the central bank not to raise interest rates, which would help the economy, but make him look weak, he appointed his son-in-law as finance minister, which again made people wonder where the country’s economic policy is heading to, and also decided to turn down the IMF’s offer for assistance, again because it would make him look like he is losing his grip and eventually lead to him losing control over the situation.
Turkey’s GDP is tumbling this year at the sharpest pace since the 2008-09 global financial crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions have taken their toll. It’s a matter of dispute whether the economy will be able to recover adequately next year. One of Turkey’s main branches of industry – tourism, took a 75% hit from the pandemic in the first half of the year.
Erdogan circled the wagons and blamed foreign powers for destabilizing the country. He has described this period as equal to that of the 2016 attempted coup and rallied the people to austerity, but obfuscated it as patriotism. He has asked his followers to “change euros, dollars, and the gold that you are keeping beneath your pillows into lira in our banks,” calling it a patriotic national struggle to preserve Turkey.
Given the bleak future and absolutely no successes in sight, the ultimate question is whether Erdogan can afford to run regular elections in three years’ time. Is that enough time for Erdogan to score any kind of victory which would fend off his serious archrivals that include Ali Babacan, a former minister, who is seen by many as the architect of Turkey’s economic revival and boom years ago? After arresting thousands of his own, not to mention his ongoing persecution of the Kurds, after all the allegations of nepotism and corruption, can Erdogan afford to lose his immunity from justice and persecution?
Analysts and diplomats worry that when all this fails, the usual avenue down that steep and slippery road to political oblivion is war. The fight for natural gas in the Aegean or Cyprus might seem like a good opportunity – if one forgets that the entire EU, US, Israel, much of the Middle East and even Russia would rally against such an adventure. It would be a desperate card to play just like counting on the millions of Turks living in the diaspora, or the millions of migrants in camps in Turkey, to be used as a human weapon against the EU.
Playing on patriotism is never a long-term game, because at the end no one likes being a patsy and back a loser.