With Turkey’s economy in crisis, Erdoğan opts for fighting abroad – POLITICO

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ISTANBUL — Restaurants have invested in washable menus so they can update their prices daily. Taxi drivers are asking passengers to raise their fares to meet rising fuel costs. A cappuccino that cost 20 lira earlier this year is now 30 lira.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Osman, who runs a local coffee shop and tries to keep up with runaway inflation in Turkey — officially at a 20-year high of 70 percent and, according to the independent Inflation Research Group, more than double. .

But as fear sweeps the country and elections in 2023 loom, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rhetoric has only become more uncompromising, dismissing calls to change monetary policy in the face of voters’ financial fears.

Instead, Erdoğan is looking abroad to solve his country’s problems, partly out of economic necessity and partly out of political expediency.

In Ukraine, Ankara has emerged as a major military supplier to Kiev, while also positioning itself as a diplomatic power broker and refusing to take Western sanctions against Moscow. An important reason: Turkey has a large financial interest in both countries that it wants to keep.

And at NATO’s Madrid summit this week, Erdoğan made sure he was at the forefront, threatening to block Sweden and Finland from joining the alliance before pulling out after they pledged to help Turkey thwart Kurdish groups — by giving him a photo on the central stage. †

Elsewhere, Erdoğan has fueled nationalist sentiment — a strategy that wins votes. By portraying Greece as an external threat to Turkey’s territory and Kurdish separatism as an internal one, he has created a sense that the country is facing attacks from which only he can protect it.

This movement pattern reflects Erdoğan’s increasing influence internationally. For geographical and geopolitical reasons, Western allies need Turkey’s cooperation. His presence in the Middle East and along the Black Sea makes him an indispensable partner, even if he is unreliable.

“For the West, Russia is the crisis, Putin is the big threat, and that suddenly makes Erdoğan more important, more acceptable and his excesses more bearable,” said Karabekir Akkoyunlu, a lecturer in politics and international relations at the London Congress. School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). “That gives him more freedom at home and gives him a sense of indispensability on the world stage, and he makes the most of that.”

electoral politics

Erdoğan faces economic strife at home at an important moment.

Before the end of June, he must ask voters to re-election him to a third term, while his party, the populist AKP, will also compete to increase its share of parliament after being deprived of an absolute majority. in 2015.

So far, polls have shown that Erdoğan is struggling to get more votes than his rivals, who are expected to rally behind one candidate. Meanwhile, the AKP retains only a small lead over the main opposition party, the Social Democratic CHP.

A parliamentary group meeting in the Turkish Grand National Assembly | Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

“Despite the government controlling much of the media and the judiciary, this is still an election where they cannot take victory for granted,” Akkoyunlu said.

And a faltering economy threatens to make Erdoğan’s position precarious.

Just along the Bosphorus Strait, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has turned the Black Sea into a war zone, threatening food imports and collapsing global energy markets. The slow recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and a large budget deficit have compounded the problem, sending inflation and the cost of living skyrocketing.

Rather than launching a charm offensive, however, Erdoğan has stuck to his long-standing monetary policy. While raising interest rates is the most orthodox approach to dealing with inflation, the Turkish leader has flatly refused to do so, arguing that interest rates conflict with Islamic principles.

“Unfortunately, in some parts of our country, a state of discontent and pessimism has taken its toll,” the president said last month. “First of all, we should be grateful for what we have.”

Global issues

While the Turkish leader is accused of inaction at home, he is taking an increasingly assertive role abroad, from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

Turkey’s advanced Bayraktar TB-2 attack drones have been credited with helping Ukraine destroy massive columns of Russian hardware and earned praise from Western allies.

Still, Ankara has stood firm in both camps.

Turkey has held talks between the belligerent countries about ending the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, which has left much of the world’s grain languishing in warehouses. It has even offered to bring about wider peace talks. But it has also kept economic avenues open for Russia, even at the expense of Ukraine, which accused Ankara of buying up grain Moscow stole from Ukraine.

“On the one hand, Turkey acts as a mediator and supports Ukraine in important ways,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lamented last month. “But on the other hand, we see them opening routes for Russian tourists at the same time.”

Turkey has followed a similarly complex strategy in other regional conflicts. The country recently doubled its support for Libya’s embattled government — and took on Russia, which has supported an uprising seeking to oust the government. And it supports a close ally, Azerbaijan, in an ongoing conflict with Armenia, a Russian partner, over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Some people will always argue that Turkey is more active abroad to distract from problems at home,” said Matthias Finger, an economist at Istanbul Technical University. “But in fact, the foreign policy priorities address real issues for the country’s development — things like food, industry and energy.”

With Russia and Ukraine, the economic interests are clear – both countries are top trading partners for Turkey. Grain and vegetable oil come from Ukraine. Oil and gas come from Russia. Tourists come from both. Analysts estimate that a drop in visitor numbers from Russia and Ukraine could ultimately cost Turkey $3-4 billion in lost revenue.

Turkey “is one of the most affected by the shock in Europe,” said Alper Üçok, a representative of the Turkish TÜSİAD industry group.

play politics

Some other foreign conflicts in Turkey seem to have more to do with politics than economics.

Erdoğan has warned that a new military operation against Kurdish forces in northern Syria could begin any time.

The offensive would play a dual role.

Ankara has long targeted pro-Kurdish independence groups on both sides of the border. It accuses the YPG militia, which controls much of Syrian Kurdistan, of close ties to bombings in Turkey. An offensive against his troops would both be popular domestically and destroy the idea of ​​a breakaway Kurdish state.

It would also help pave the way for Ankara to build nearly a quarter of a million homes in the region for Syrian Arabs displaced by the fighting. With economic pressures squeezing Turkish residents, anti-immigrant sentiment is rising to the point where migrant rights workers have warned of a potential “pogrom” against refugees.

With Turkey's economy in crisis, Erdoğan opts for fighting abroad - POLITICO
Leader of recently formed Turkish Nationalist Victory Party Ümit Özdağ | Adem Altan / AFP via Getty Images

In the run-up to the presidential election, one of Erdoğan’s fiercest critics has threatened to outflank him on the right. Ümit Özdağ of the Victory Party, which has campaigned to send Syrians back, now has more followers on Twitter than the president. And while his single-issue platform may not ultimately deliver a landslide at the ballot box, it is shifting the conversation between voters.

Likewise, the long-standing dispute between Turkey and Greece over the Aegean Sea reached a head this month, with Erdoğan appearing to threaten military action and accuse Athens of deploying weapons to islands in the disputed waters.

Akkoyunlu, the SOAS teacher, argues the feud is part of an effort to bolster the president’s support.

“Every election since 2014 has taken place in an environment of existential crisis — a story that says ‘dominate or die,’ and that gets more and more intense every time people vote,” he said.

“Looking at the economic situation and the short-term prospects of the war in Ukraine, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Their policies will keep inflation going up, life will become more expensive and desperate for the average Turkish citizen,” he predicted.

“It is more likely than ever that the electorate will want to punish Erdoğan,” he added, “and some of the crises we are now seeing to pressure the electorate are likely to be artificially amplified.”

For now, though, voters will have to decide whether Erdoğan’s policies are the answer to an increasingly uncertain world, or the cause of it.

With Turkey's economy in crisis, Erdoğan opts for fighting abroad - POLITICO

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