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Turkey’s Erdoğan is playing political poker

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Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is playing a high-stakes political poker game. It involves both the domestic and international arenas. Arguably, by declaring the diplomats from 10 Western countries — nine of them fellow NATO members — persona non grata, Erdoğan is diverting domestic attention away from Turkey’s political and economic turmoil. Western powers have pressed Turkey to release prisoner Osman Kavala, who took part in the Gezi Park protests.  Turkish authorities also allege that Kavala took part in the failed coup attempt in 2016. Turkey’s relations with Western Europe and the United States have been frayed for years. However, this move illustrates Erdoğan’s desperation. Many strongmen act out in global politics when they face troubles at home.

According to Reuters, “In a joint statement on Oct. 18, the ambassadors of Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand and the United States called for a just and speedy resolution to Kavala’s case, and for his ‘urgent release.’ They were summoned by the foreign ministry, which called the statement irresponsible.”

Erdoğan’s move manifests his temperament. He commented about the decision to expel the envoys: “They will know and understand Turkey. The day they do not know and understand Turkey, they will leave.” 

In the domestic arena, Erdoğan has tightened his grip on power in the 19 years of his rule.  Dissidents, human rights activists, journalists and protestors face fierce crackdowns and long detentions in prison without due process. Criticism of Erdoğan and his AKP Party is not tolerated. Turkey is second only to China in arresting journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The World Bank reports that while Turkey’s economic growth forecasts are somewhat positive, the macroeconomic outlook is “vulnerable” and “uncertain” because of inflation, high unemployment and considerable vulnerabilities. Most critically, the Turkish lira has fallen to a record low at 1.6 percent and continues to fluctuate.

In addition, the World Bank reports: “The COVID-19 crisis has deepened gender gaps and increased youth unemployment and the poverty rate. The risk of inequalities has also been increasing. The pandemic is expected to have severely negative consequences for Turkey, further weakening economic and social gains.”   

Regionally, Turkey has experienced geopolitical upheaval with a vicious civil war raging in its neighbor, Syria. Turkey has accepted an estimated 3.7 million refugees, which Erdoğan has used as pawns in his political disagreements with Western Europe. Erdoğan has threatened to open the floodgates of refugees into Europe if he does not get his way in foreign affairs. Erdoğan has been compelled to deal with Russia and Iran because of the war-related complexities in Syria. At the same time, Turkey has to assure the United States and NATO that it remains loyal and trustworthy when it comes to Western interests. However, many times Erdoğan has exhibited contempt towards Western powers — they have yet to allow Turkey entry into the European Union, although the United States consistently has supported Turkey’s admission. 

In the past decade, Turkey’s foreign relations have resembled a roller coaster with many highs and lows, especially involving the United States. Turkey finds itself in an extremely complex geopolitical position, straddling both Western and Middle Eastern contextual interests and impacts from political, economic, ideological and security crises.

Erdoğan’s latest move to expel 10 Western envoys illustrates his determination to show the world that he is in charge of what happens in Turkey and he will not tolerate any criticism or pressures, external or otherwise. Throughout the past two decades, Erdoğan has carefully — and so far, successfully — managed to consolidate his power and authority. He is determined not to allow anyone to shake the fault lines under his feet. That means the Western powers will likely get constant reminders that Erdoğan possesses the final say in Turkey. He will continue to do so, despite being a NATO member, because his domestic priority is to secure and maintain his authoritarian power. 

As such, expelling Western diplomats signifies that he is in charge and no one’s criticism will be tolerated. Again, Erdoğan is playing a high-stakes geopolitical poker game to illustrate his balancing act between Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies in terms of exerting his power and authority. The message is, “Don’t mess with Turkey.”

Although the latest reports indicate that Erdoğan is backtracking somewhat from his expulsion orders, Western powers should assure Turkey that no one intends to violate anyone’s sovereignty. Keeping diplomatic channels open on all sides would not be a bad idea — the irony of which might drive home the message to Erdoğan that everyone should keep talking. 

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Naval War College. She specializes in international relations, political economy and comparative politics with regional expertise in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, and Islamic studies. The opinions expressed here are solely her own. Follow her on Twitter @HayatAlvi.

Tags diplomats NATO Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Syria civil war Turkey

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