Turkey’s Erdogan strong abroad and weak at home

As Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepares to meet his US counterpart at the NATO summit on June 14, the leader might consider just how far his country has come since he came to power nearly two decades ago.

Initially booming through years of robust economic growth, Turkish foreign and security policy has also gone from defensive to assertive, Euro-centric to regionally engaged. Ankara has also put boots on the ground in Syria, Iraq, Libya and even Somalia, while Turkish military hardware is now coveted from Saudi Arabia to Poland.

Indeed, US President Joe Biden will also likely have to reflect that even the US is now looking to Turkey for military support, including to run Afghanistan’s Kabul airport to cover the ongoing US troop withdrawal.

Regarding another key power, too, “In three out of four theatres, Erdogan has fought against Russia and/or its proxies and defeated them,” Soner Cagaptay, author of A Sultan in Autumn and director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Asia Times.

Late last year, Turkish drones helped ally Azerbaijan recover the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh from traditional Russian ally Armenia. Turkish military muscle also helped the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) defeat Russian mercenary forces and their Libyan allies in 2019.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s own mercenaries – from Syria – have fought alongside Turkish troops to take control of large stretches of that country, despite opposition from the Russian-allied Bashar Al-Assad regime.

On a fourth front, too, Turkey has given its support to Ukraine, rejecting Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and offering to sell its combat drones to Kiev. Amazingly, Ankara has been able to do all this while Erdogan has maintained good relations with Russia’s autocratic president, Vladimir Putin.

Yet, for all these foreign policy successes, “If there were an election today, Erdogan would surely lose,” professor Muzaffer Senel from the Department of Politics and International Relations at Ankara Medipol University told Asia Times.

Indeed, while Erdogan may claim success abroad, his domestic record is less accomplished. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) has seen its support dwindle from 42.5% in the 2018 parliamentary elections to as low as 26.5% in an April Istanbul Economics poll.

One issue alone continues to drive that opinion poll descent. “The economy – it’s Erdogan’s Achilles heel,” says Cagaptay.

With the Turkish currency losing 26% of its value since this time last year, youth unemployment at 25% and major industries such as tourism and manufacturing impacted extra-negatively by the global pandemic, popular dissatisfaction with his government is growing.

To address these deepening economic challenges, Ankara will need the assistance of foreign lenders and investors. Yet many of these have shied away from Turkey due to Erdogan’s unconventional economic ideas.

Left unresolved, however, these problems at home may have an impact on Erdogan’s actions abroad.

“If the economy tanks – and it is showing signs of weakness,” adds Cagaptay, “Erdogan can’t continue playing off east against west and north against south.”

The US that could be vital in helping Turkey out of its economic morass, making Monday’s meeting with Biden all the more key to Erdogan’s political survival.

Indeed, “If that meeting doesn’t end up with another financial shock,” says Senel, “that alone will be a success.”

Drones and diplomats

Turkey suffered two successive financial and economic crashes at the start of the 21st century, with its old political elite seemingly having little idea how to turn things around.

This provided fertile grounds for the AKP, which swept to power in 2002, promising a fresh start free of the corruption and incompetence of its predecessors.

There then followed a remarkable economic boom with average annual economic growth of 7.2% from 2002 to 2007, when the AKP was re-elected with a sizeable majority.

Having reorganized its banking and financial sectors after the 2000 and 2001 crises, Turkey was also well placed to weather the global financial crash of 2007-2008, with GDP growth hitting 11.2% in 2011, according to World Bank figures.