Erdogan's Machiavellian motives

The Turkish president and his AKP party are adept at switching sides. Now they're embracing Putin and damning the United States. Why? Because an up-coming trial in America could potentially compromise Erdogan. By Bulent Mumay

By Bülent Mumay

One of the key secrets behind the staying power of the AKP, which has been governing Turkey for 15 years, is the party's ability to quickly agree coalitions and as soon as the job has been done, to dissolve these just as rapidly. At every step, Erdogan succeeds in convincing both his cadre and his voters with a range of propaganda methods. Time and again, the dissolved coalition is successfully forgotten, as the new one is presented in glowing terms. Whether describing itself or forming coalitions, both internal and external, the AKP behaves in a similar manner.

Before the 2002 elections that swept the AKP to power, Erdogan had this to say about the Islamist approach pursued for years: "we have cast off the mantle of Milli Gorus (National Vision)." He knew that post 9/11, the West needed a moderate Islam with a democratic flavour. And so, following the example of the Christian Democrats in Europe, he entered the 2002 electoral race describing the AKP as "Muslim-Democratic". And after entering government and sitting down at the EU negotiating table, he donned the "liberal" mantle.

All forms of nationalism crushed?

In 2005, conservatism was concealed and the "democratic" attribution pushed into the foreground. When Erdogan saw himself at the pinnacle of his power in 2012, his conservatism took central stage once again. During his liberal years, he would say: "we've crushed all forms of nationalism," yet now he upended the negotiations with the Kurds he had himself initiated, becoming a "nationalist" once again. He is now embracing Kemalism, a ideology essentially very distant from his own.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan following the AKP election victory in 2002 (photo: picture-alliance)
Flip-flop politics: before the 2002 elections that swept the AKP to power, Erdogan had this to say about the Islamist approach pursued for years: "we have cast off the mantle of Milli Gorus (National Vision)." He knew that post 9/11, the West needed a moderate Islam with a democratic flavour. And so, following the example of the Christian Democrats in Europe, he entered the 2002 electoral race describing the AKP as "Muslim-Democratic"

Regardless of whether the context is foreign or domestic policy, Machiavellian coalitions present in the same way. During "liberal" and "democratic" eras, Turkish co-operation with the United States and Europe was common. There was talk of a "strategic partnership". Swinging back towards "conservatism" and "nationalism", the talk turned towards Eurasia, joining the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation and forming a regional alliance with Russia and Iran.

Until a couple of years ago, Russia was practically enemy country. Ankara had shot down a Russian fighter jet, claiming it had violated Turkish airspace. The jet was in the region to protect Assad, whom Erdogan had initially described as a friend, then declared an opponent. The Syrian-Kurdish PYD, classified as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, opened an office in Moscow.

On the anniversary of the shooting down of the Russian jet, a Syrian aircraft flown by a Russian pilot killed three soldiers involved in "Operation Euphrates Shield", the Turkish offensive in northern Syria. Just as a process of rapprochement with Russia was moving forward, three Turkish soldiers were "accidentally" killed by Russian forces. Russia prevented tourists from visiting Turkey and stopped the import of Turkish tomatoes.

A vehement response

Despite the tensions, Erdogan continued his rapprochement with Russia, the more he distanced himself from America and Europe. This year, he met Putin in person four times. The two leaders signed an agreement – in a hail of NATO criticism – to purchase Russian missiles and decided that Russia should build the first nuclear power station in Turkey. Estrangement from the West and rapprochement with Russia did not happen without reason. Protests from the United States and the EU against Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian behaviour played a role, but also that the EU did not keep its promise.

Instead of listening to criticism from the club he believed didn't even want him, Erdogan turned to Russia. Tensions were further exacerbated when he received no support from the West following the 15 July coup attempt. The United States and European nations refused to deport Gulenists suspected of being behind the coup and Erdogan ramped up the anti-western discourse. America's support for the PYD, which is linked to the terrorist PKK, was the last straw.

Nevertheless, no event of the past 15 years has fuelled anti-American sentiment within the AKP to the same extent as the arrest of the businessman Reza Zarrab. The Turkish-Iranian dual national was arrested last year while on holiday in Miami. The Americans accuse him of violating the Iran embargo "with the knowledge of the Turkish government".

The background is complex: in late 2013, Gulenist police officers and public prosecutors conducted a large-scale anti-corruption operation affecting four of Erdogan's ministers. Telephone calls from Erdogan and members of his family were made public, Erdogan's response was vehement. The sons of the ministers and the businessman Zarrab, who had been detained in connection with this matter, were immediately released, the Gulenist cadre responsible for the operation was dismissed and several of them put behind bars themselves for a "civil coup against the government".

Past master of political point-scoring

This anti-corruption operation, the first open clash between Erdogan and his former partner Gulen, is now back on the agenda again. Following Zarrab, the vice chairman of a state bank travelling to America for a meeting was arrested there.

Reza Zarrab arrested in Istanbul on 17 December 2013 (photo: picture-alliance/AA./S. Coskun)
A court case with potentially explosive political consequences: facing trial in the U.S., millionaire businessman Reza Zarrab is accused, among other things, of circumventing U.S. sanctions against Iran and money laundering. Also accused are Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla and the former Turkish minister for the economy, Zafer Caglayan (the latter in absentia). Caglayan′s son and the sons of two other Turkish ministers were investigated during a corruption scandal in 2013. The current president, Erdogan, formerly the prime minister, also faced accusations of corruption

A warrant has also been issued in the U.S. for the arrest of a former minister from Erdogan's cabinet involved in the 2013 operation. The trial is set to begin in early December. U.S. media are reporting that Zarrab will dish the dirt and name the "collaborators in Ankara".

As the hearing date approaches, government and loyal media are indulging in anti-Americanism. They claim that America is planning a "new conspiracy". State prosecutors were able to make use of the evidence and tap recordings presented by Gulenist police officers in the 2013 operation. Ankara is beside itself with rage.

When Zarrab was arrested in March 2016 in Miami, Erdogan's first reaction was: "we're not interested, the matter has nothing to do with our country." But now it has emerged that Zarrab, who is facing demands for a 95-year sentence, is ready to co-operate with public prosecutors and Erdogan is furious: "they want to make our citizen a key witness? We'll make sure there′s a global outcry – by exposing everything."Hostility towards America has been further fuelled by a scandal during NATO's cyber manoeuvre last week. The fact that two officers used Erdogan and Ataturk as virtual targets during the cyber manoeuvre now apparently provides "the final evidence of the posturing against Turkey". Of course, the Turkish government knows how to transform tensions with foreign nations into votes at home.

The crisis ahead of the April referendum – intentionally stoked by preventing politicians from speaking in Germany and The Netherlands – increased Erdogan's share of the vote by two percentage points. It should be noted that he won the referendum with just 51.4 percent of the vote.

Erdogan supporters celebrate the adoption of the Turkish presidential system (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
An extremely narrow victory: on 16 April Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the referendum to introduce a presidential system with just 51.4 percent of the vote. The referendum included changes to the constitution that have extended the powers of the presidency

Erdogan knows that wranglings with the outside world are useful to him domestically and his response to the NATO manoeuvre was predictably dramatic: "we've demolished the bridges, burned the boats. Whatever the price, we won't stop striving to achieve our goals. With Allah's help we'll tear up your plans and maps."

Turkey should go nuclear

In no time at all of course, the government media discourse changed its tone, having previously vaunted the businessman Zarrab as "heroic entrepreneur who reduced Turkey's budget deficit".

In his column in a newspaper loyal to the government, AKP deputy Mehmet Metiner wrote: "to hell with Zarrab! This is not someone of any importance to us." Headlines that just a few months ago had the tenor "we were never closer to the United States", began singing a different tune. Now we're reading: "cut our ties with the Americans", "leave NATO", "let's shut down the bases". The headers of some columns read: "NATO is now our opponent", "Turkey and its leader (Erdogan) are the focus of the imperialists", "get ready for the battle for independence".

Others are going even further and writing that we should declare war on America. The well-known author Ardan Zenturk titled his piece with the words: "let's fight against this USA, those who say 'without me' better leave now" and ended it thus: "there is no longer any point to 'reconciliation initiatives'. It's clear that we will we one day fight (against the U.S.). My recommendation to all those who say: 'without me – my property and my comforts are more important to me than my country' is that you should leave Turkey today."

Ibrahim Karagul, editor-in-chief of the newspaper "Yeni Safak", has even set a date, recommending that Turkey acquire nuclear arms: "it is now crucial to take extraordinary defence measures in 2018, even nuclear armaments if necessary."

Turkey′s public prosecutors have even waded in, declaring "judicial war" on America. The Istanbul Public Prosecutor's Office recently launched a probe into the New York prosecutors who ordered Zarrab's arrest. If they set foot on Turkish soil, they will be arrested. So they'd better watch out!

Bulent Mumay

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon