With a view to understanding how Erdogan’s Turkey thinks strategically, we need to analyse the recent evolution of Turkey’s political system, together with its historical geopolitical determinants, which are always defined.
As Napoleon used to say, you only need to look at a country’s map to define its foreign policy.
The first government of the AKP – an Islamist party that was reorganized and refounded after some of its members were not considered regular by the Constitutional Court – lasted from 2002 to 2010- and later, as we all know.
In 1970, however, the first truly Islamist party was established in Turkey, the “National Order Party” (MNP) led by Necmettin Erbakan.
As mentioned above, the MNP was disbanded by the Constitutional Court, but it re-emerged a year later under the name of “National Salvation Party”, which won as many as 48 Parliamentary seats in the 1973 election.
In 1981 it was again dissolved by the National Security Council, along with all the other political groups, none excluded, due to the military’s “constitutional” coup.
In 1983, when it was again allowed to form the various political parties, the “Welfare Party”, always led – behind the scenes – by Erbakan, was born from the ashes of the MNP and the “National Salvation Party”.
It was always Erdogan’s explicit and revered model.
Not even this party, however, had the military’s consent to participate in the 1983 election.
Throughout the 1980s, the “Welfare Party” did not exceed the 10% threshold and hence was not represented in Parliament. Nevertheless, it began to grow considerably and unexpectedly in the 1990s, until its victory in the 1997 election and the subsequent and then inevitable intervention of the Turkish Armed Forces.
In 1998 the Constitutional Court “disbanded” the Welfare Party again, which then re-emerged in 1999 as the “Virtue Party”, but it reached little consensus in the 1999 election and was anyway banned again as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court.
Later the “Happiness Party” emerged from a traditionalist split of the “modernist” wing – so to say – that would be found later in the AKP. It did not go much far.
The ideology was the Milli Gõruş, i.e. the “national perspective”, which saw a very clear separation between the Western materialist, colonialist and repressive civilization vis-à-vis “third” countries, all destined to a quick death, and the Islamic civilisation, based on an essential and typical factor, namely justice. That was an important feature.
Therefore, based on that ideology, not even the modernising reforms which, starting from Ataturk, had secularised Turkish society and politics, were good at all.
But the nationalism which also characterised the Turkish “secular” tradition in the early 20th century was fine.
No accession to the EU, of course, nor any relations with Israel, if not aggressive, at least in words.
However, the mainstay of the AKP’s new ideology we could generically define as “Islamism” was that only Turkey should lead the new united Islamic world.
Secularism was in fact accepted only because it allowed freedom of religion, but it was rejected in the name of Islam which was the only truth.
Another aspect of Islamist ideology, which was later encompassed almost entirely in the AKP, was the “just order” (adildűzen), a “third way” model superior to capitalism and Socialism.
No interest in trade, although the financial mechanism is often currently organised according to the Islamic banking system, modelled on the policy lines of Al Qaradawi, Al Jazeera’s major preacher and one of the most important personalities of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A figure that currently both Saudi Arabia and al-Sisi strongly question.
In January 2020, Moody’s verified that the Islamic banking transactions in Turkey now account for approximately 15% of total transactions.
Much more than in many Middle East countries, but less than in Saudi Arabia or even Malaysia.
Hence, again, massive hatred for the International Monetary Fund, the EU, even NATO, but we will talk about this later on.
The Turkish Islamic parties, however, are the only mass parties left today, after the post-modern political era has also infected the Middle East or even the Eastern countries.
“The AKP is the conservative democracy” Erdogan said when he won the 2002 election. But he also made explicit reference to free market, privatisation and foreign investment in Turkey and to the strong relationship between Turkey and the United States, and even with NATO and the central Asian Republics, sometimes of Turanian origin.
Democracy is mainly regarded as a shield against the secular State’s interference.
On the geopolitical level, Erdogan reaffirms – by mixing them – the pieces of the traditional Turkish global strategy: firstly, careful control of Mediterranean ports to avoid the sensitive areas of Ankara’s territory being the target of easy enemy operations; secondly- and this is the core of the issue – Cyprus.
It was Bulent Ecevit, the secular and centre-left Turkish Prime Minister, who ordered the invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
It is true that, shortly before, Greece had overthrown Archbishop Makarios and declared enosis, i.e. the union with Greece.
Now there is Turkey’s clear refusal to anyway accept an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Greek Cyprus, and then the agreement with Muslim Brotherhood’s Libya,i.e. that of Tripoli, for a Turkish EEZ stretching from the Libyan coast of Tripoli to the (Greek) island of Kastellorizo and the whole Cypriot sea, with parts of the possible future new Greek EEZ.
As is well-know, EEZs are areas spreading up to 200 nautical miles from the baseline of a coastal State and, from a legal viewpoint, they are the “territorialisation of the sea”, as they allow to exploit the seabed natural resources.
Italy and Greece have recently ratified an agreement, which is still to be signed by the Italian President of the Republic, although Italy already has a “quasi-EEZ” in the Tyrrhenian Sea, stretching from the Ligurian Sea to the above-mentioned Tyrrhenian Sea, especially for the protection of marine fauna.
Considering the great fear that Italy has of Turkey and the obsession – already certified by Cavour – for favouring anyone on a diplomatic level just to “be present and have a say in the matter”, Greece and Italy, however, have already established that in the future the Italian-Turkish EEZ will most probably be the one defined by the 1977 Treaty.
The agreement on the Greek side to allow 68 Italian fishing boats to have access to Greek territorial waters, pursuant to EU Regulation 1380/2013, is also valid for the future.
Italian politicians think only about fishing – which is certainly important – but they never think about Internet cables, remote defence positions of relevant areas of the Italian territory, commercial lines, first or second response channels to adverse operations. They are cabin boys, in essence. Or fish freezers.
Certainly Greece has silenced Italy, which deals only with mullets, mussels and tuna fish, with a favourable agreement, but it is looking above all at the proclamation of its “great EEZ”, which will spread as far as Egypt and most of Cyprus, as is well-known by Turkey.
Greece’s next move will be an arrangement with its neighbours, again for its “big” EEZ, particularly with Albania.
But also Egypt, which has the great gas field of Zohr, which was discovered the ENI but which I would not be surprised if it were “shifted” to Greece, for the typical generosity of the poor wretched people, since for the time being Italy has no effective EEZ negotiations in place with Egypt.
I would not want Italy to end up in the mire, as was the case with the Treaty of Caen in 2015.
With the “wrong maps” coincidentally spread by France, which were then declared false. I wonder why.
Certainly the Treaty of Caen is still a secret with seven seals. As far as we can read, the “median line” of waters and all the other UNCLOS’ legal nonsense are safe, but doubts remain about the effective protection of our economic, military, commercial, political and tax borders.
When it comes to EEZs and borders, there is always a backside available, namely Italy’s.
Hence this is the primary scenario: at the beginning of August – after Turkey conducted naval exercises throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, with the extension of its seismic analyses of the seabed and Greece considered these “observations” and military exercises totally illegal – clashes between Turkey, Greece, France and even Italy began, initially diplomatic ones and later also maritime military confrontation.
There have also been Italian and French ships operationally supporting the Greek ones, but Turkey has already placed all its pawns in the Eastern Mediterranean.
It should be noted that the 2019 agreement between Turkey and Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA) mainly concerns military cooperation and maritime jurisdiction.
Between the two countries, namely Tripoli’s GNA and Turkey, the EEZ already defined bilaterally overlaps with the Greek Exclusive Economic Zone both in the south and in the north and Turkey can make explorations – on an exclusive basis –in the sea in front of the very weak State of GNA and al-Sarraj.
As stated by the Turkish Defence Minister, the Turkish Mediterranean strategy, known as Mavi Vatan (the “Blue Homeland Doctrine”), is based on the fact that the great spreading of Greece’s Peloponnese islands” cannot have the effect of excluding Turkey from the rest of the Mediterranean, and with the agreement with GNA’s Libya we have shown that we cannot accept any fait accompli“.
Defending Turkey’s autonomy and “hands free” in the Eastern Mediterranean is an absolute strategic priority for Turkish strategists.
Let us see, however, how Turkey reacts to the U.S. and Russian gas policies, which is the real plot to understand what is currently happening.
On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Department of State developed a restrictive policy for companies operating in Nord Stream 2, the Russian pipeline, and also for Turk Stream 2.
The sanctions on Turk Stream 1 and 2 are essential to currently understand Turkey’s maritime reactions.
As already noted, TurkStream sends gas from Russia to Turkey, with minor sections to Bulgaria, Greece and North Macedonia. It is a pipeline that started operating in January 2020.
Gazprom, the well-known Russian company and BOTAŞ, the Turkish state-owned company, are still completing the final phase of TurkStream2.
The Turkish interests in the TurkStream 2 network, however, are currently marginal.
They are only rights-of-way, which do not solve the Turkish economic crisis and the sometimes colossal projects of Erdogan’s regime.
Turkey, however, has three real goals in the gas sector: firstly, the quick development of the gas field in Sakarya, Black Sea, accounting for 320 billion cubic metres. Secondly, Turkey also wants to stop gas competition from Russia and the Mediterranean and finally favour the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, which brings Azerbaijani gas through Turkey to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline towards Greece, a line that could be expanded also with gas from Israel, the Iraqi Kurdish country and Turkmenistan.
Turkey also favours the passage of ships containing LPG through the Istanbul Canal, a project consisting of the construction of an artificial canal connecting the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea for 28 miles towards Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine.
It is supposed to be completed in 2025, or maybe sooner.
The ships’ rights-of-way should be much more than those of the pipelines, and could even slowly change the Turkish State’s financial equilibria.
Therefore, Turkey has little interest in the U.S. sanctions against TurkStream2 – or probably it even likes them.
Coincidentally, it was precisely when the United States began to become a major exporter of liquefied gas everywhere that the legislation against Russian pipelines to Europe was developed.
NordStream2was hit by the United States in July 2018, but TurkStream was not sanctioned until June 2019.
The gas industry is now undergoing a very complex phase.
From January to May 2020 the EU demand for gas fell by 8%, also for the well-known pandemic reasons, but there is a real possibility that natural gas can fully participate in the next hydrogen race, considering that the methane extracted from natural gas can produce hydrogen, which can also be easily transported in the old pipelines.
Therefore, given the world market’s volatility, no more new gas explorations are made. This keeps the future of Mediterranean gas and, above all, of the Eastern Mediterranean on hold.
Turkey, however, has been reducing its dependence on Russian gas since 2018.
Turkey imports gas also from Qatar, the United States, Algeria and it is currently the third largest importer of U.S. natural gas in Europe after Spain and France.
Turkey has recently discovered a new underwater natural gas field in the Black Sea, namely the Tuna-1.
Hence Turkey is no longer dependent on gas from the old pipelines, but Israel has now won its geoeconomic battle with the agreements with Egypt and Jordan as stable importers of its new natural gas.
Only if Cyprus remains far from Turkish influence in the newly-prospected gas area, it will remain a reserve that cannot be banned – except in special cases – by Turkey’s hegemonism, even vis-à-vis Egypt or the Lebanon.
A leaderless ship: The Bulgaria’s political crisis and the storm to come
Internal and international tensions
Politics tends to develop in a complex conundrum in all Balkan countries. Thus, never can observers take their eyes off the ball, investors feel completely safe or international partners express enduring satisfaction. In effect, this is the case also for bits of the region that have joined the European Union in the last decade. Recently, Bulgaria has been the most interesting hearth of, popular outrage, institutional instability and international tensions amongst the latter countries.
Actually, the atmosphere began simmering back in Summer 2020, when thousands of people took to the streets for several weeks. Arguably, the combination of the umpteenth high-echelon corruption scandal involving andthe pandemic-induced recession was only the most immediate cause. Swiftly, dissatisfaction led to vigorous calls for the Prime Minister’s and the Attorney General’s resignation and early election. Even the President of the Republic, Rumen Radev, broke with his supposed non-partisanship and joined the protestors gathering vast support. However, the winter suppressed street protests and Boyko Borisov, the Prime Minister, exploited the pandemic to justify his indifference.
In the meantime, the cabinet embroiled Bulgaria in a dispute which the country had refrained from ever since 1991. The so-called ‘Macedonian question’predates the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s independence, but only then turned into a crisis. Indeed, the hardest-fought issue was that surrounding the use of the name ‘Macedonia’, which Greece opposed until the Prespa Agreement. But the newly named Republic of North Macedonia has failed to acknowledge the deep historical and cultural connection with Bulgaria. Eventually, the former’s lack of real cooperation led Sofia to veto the opening of negotiations on EU membership. Thence, scholars have criticised the country’s government while foreign politicians tried to persuade Borisov to lift his veto.
Against the background of such a delicate, multifaceted domestic and international circumstances Bulgaria celebrated regular election on April 4. The country needed everything but being left leaderless, but this is exactly what happened.
Election results: Who to form a cabinet?
The most recent elections speak volume about the difficulty in understanding Bulgarian politics and understanding what the popular sentiment is. For a start, GERB, Borisov’s party, lost about 300,000 votes falling from 33.65%in 2017, to 26.18% this year. Moreover, the nationalist collation United Patriots, GERB’s reliable allies, split up and failed to clear the 4% threshold. Thus, with his 75 MPs in the 240-seat Parliament Borisov had no more a majority and desperately needed a partner.
At the same time, the elections produced an unusually hostile environment for GERB. In fact, a number of new leaders and formations emerged — all of which declared GERB a “most toxic party”. Still, opposing Borisov’s “model”, as they use to say, was not enough to form a government. Neither the protest party There is such a people (ITN) nor the establishment Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) even tried. Therefore, the two smaller protest parties – Democratic Bulgaria (DB) and Stand Up! Bastards Out (ISMV) – and the Muslim Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) had to accept new elections in July.
In effect, once the elections results became clear, no one nurtured many hopes for a stable government. The BSP had offered it external, conditional support to an ITN cabinet as the DPS and even GERB did. Perhaps, members of DB and ISMV could have joined the project to ensure wider representation. But all attempts failed in front of ITN’s leader, the showman-turned-politician SlaviTrifonov, display of “political fearfulness”. The ultimate result of these developments was the shortest parliamentin Bulgaria’s two-century history.
What the parliament produced
Without a fully-functioning political government and with a lame-duck Parliament, Bulgaria is traversing a difficult period. The legislature has yet to approve the Recovery and sustainability plan towards which the EU has granted €6bln ($7.3bln). Without these funds, it will be harder for the country’s economy to rebound after the last recession. At the same time, no one is in charge of managing the ongoing feud with the Republic of North Macedonia. Hence, Sofia can neither substantiate its claims and pretences vis-à-vis Skopje nor backtrack and let membership negotiations start. Finally, in the last weeks tensions between Bulgaria and Russia have risen with mutual expulsion of several high-ranking diplomats. In fact, Czech authorities have found out about a “Bulgarian connection” in the incidents allegedly blamed on Russian security services.
On the offense: ITN, DB and ISMV against GERB
Yet, the parliament has found not time to address any of these really pressing issues. As it often happens after the elections, foreign policy has disappearedfrom the order of the day. There was no discussion of either the bilateral relations with Russia nor the North Macedonian issue.
Representative from ITN, DB and ISMV wrapped up the Recovery plan into their wider attempt to publicly discredit GERB. Thus, they refused to let the competent executive official introducing the bill and pretended Borisov himself did it.
Meanwhile, the three parties and the BSP also forced a vote on the cabinet’s resignation. Hence, the government is officially in charge only of managing current affairs: it cannot update the budget or adopt new economic measures. The opposition also blocked the automatic renewal of key concession for Sofia’s airport and some highways to Borisov’s closest allies.
So-called ‘Protest parties’ also formed a parliamentary commission to investigate Borisov governments’ misdeed. However, the legislature will soon dissolve, so nothing will come out of it besides some gossipy kompromat. The only real change is a new electoral law,remedying to some of the previous legal framework’s most evident fallacies. The hope is that it will curb the purchase of votes and other instances of fraud.
Wait-and-see: Borisov’s unkind defence
Borisov’s loyalists in the government, in the Parliament and, more importantly, in the media are repelling this frontal assault vehemently.
Figure 1 Acting Prime Minister Boyko Borissov called the Parliament “a show” in a video on his Facebook page.
Acting foreign minister Ekaterina Zakharieva has spoken out against the supposed attempt to make 850,000 GERB voters ‘disappear’. The chair of GERB’s parliamentary group, Desislava Atanasova, accused other parties of having “failed to fulfil society’s interests”. Borisov himself went out for the biggest prey: President Radev.On Facebook he declared
I hope that Radev is not proud [of the result of last year’s protests …]: This parliamentary show costs 19 million [leva, €9.5mln] a day. It is better that they closed it because we would have gone bankrupt.
The opposition motto offers no way forward behind the idea that “What GERB did must be cancelled”. Yet, GERB is not less destructive in its agenda. Currently, Borisov’s clique is challenging both the moratorium of concessionsand the electoral reformin front of the constitutional court. According to many experts, the justices could strike down or rescale at least one of these two measures. Hence, all hopes for a real democratic change will likely evaporate as long as GERB holds the levers of power.
Forecast: A leaderless ship in a stormy sea
Some have been talking about the rebirth of parliamentarism. But partisanship, anger and personal hatred currently dominate Bulgaria’s politics. Thus, a disenchanted observer could only see the dismaying polarisationand personalisation of the mainstream political discourse. At this time, Bulgaria is like a ship whose crew has mutinied, but whose captain refuses to jump off. Fortunately, the peaks of the economic and sanitary crisis seem over — for now. But the international setting conspires against the vessel. A storm is mounting from the East and the West. Winds of reprisal spire from Russia, whereas the EU is increasingly discontent with Bulgaria’s management of the North Macedonian issue. Assuming that the next elections will produce a working government, either the mutineers or the old captain will be just in time to manage the gale. But should this not happen, the country may soon regret the current lull.
Geopolitics of Europe and the Third Wave
With hospitals filling up across the continent, new variants of the virus proliferating and vaccine shortages biting back, Europe can be seen to be under the third wave of the COVID crisis. This wave has been a confused sea across Europe in which some national epidemics are worsening, some are reaching their peak and some are declining. Although lockdowns have eased as vaccine drives make headway, the end of state emergency does not undermine the inevitable long-term consequences of the crisis. COVID has brought to the forefront new geopolitical dynamics and created risks for the foreign policy of the European Union on several fronts. Beyond the epidemiological challenge of the impending health calamity, economic, political and geopolitical challenges are also plenty.
The crisis has held up a mirror to the Western countries as their effectiveness in managing the pandemic has been distorted and has brought about de-Westernisation of the world. As globalisation is under strain, the crisis is bound to redraw the borders between the state and the markets in democracies such as the Member States of the EU. Such an environment is likely to emphasise on national initiatives to the detriment of international cooperation. In a post-COVID world, the EU may have to deal with its geopolitical problems with less external credibility as well as internal solidarity among its member states.
The potential geopolitical consequences of the virus can be identified by extrapolating those trends that were taking place before the onset of the virus. Amidst evolving global scenarios, there has been a constant push from the EU to establish itself as a relevant geopolitical actor to realise its global power aspirations. In this context, it becomes important to note the two areas of concern raised by the crisis consist of questions on the internal cohesion of the EU and Europe’s ability to adapt to the increasing rivalry and competition among other global powers.
The EU as a player derives its identity from its supranationalism. However, with COVID wreaking havoc on the already unequal economy of the Northern and Southern Europe, the downslides of globalisation are being highlighted. This is likely to further embolden nationalist narratives, rather than European solutions. This will lead to the fragmentation of the region into its component member-states part, threatening the very identity if the Union. This has been a challenge to the EU as the Union recognizes solidarity as a fundamental principle as per Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. With the EU is facing the increasingly centrifugal ‘member states first’ approach put forward by the European capitals, the European integration project is under threat.
Further, with the pre-existing tensions between US and China, the European Union has been facing heat from both the sides of the Pacific. While the EU has put forward its own Indo-Pacific Strategy in order to constructively engage with the region, it continues to be challenged by America’s confrontational foreign policies and also being apprehensive of China’s refusal to open up their markets at a time of dwindling global economies, China’s assault on Hong Kong’s independence as well as China’s growing support towards the populist parties of Europe. The EU has come to perceive China as a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance with this perception largely being shaped by China’s revisionist challenge and its alarming nationalist narrative.
It is important to understand that coronavirus is not here to kill geopolitics. However, the European Union will have to strengthen their efforts towards ensuring that the pandemic does not kill the EU as a geopolitical force. The European Commission must step up its efforts to broker the Multilateral Financial Framework (MFF) among member states which was long pending even before the pandemic struck the continent. It would enable the Union to act collectively in funding recovery efforts in a post-COVID reconstruction of the economies. Further, the EU should focus on shortening their supply chains pursuing a policy of strategic autonomy such that EU’s external dependencies are diversified. The need of the hour is to rebuild an economically sound healthcare Europe while at the same time working towards a more geopolitical Europe. This will require EU to continue investment as a full-spectrum power in military as well as other security capabilities along with assistance and aid to the neighboring countries to rebuild their resilience in a geopolitically volatile environment.
The EU needs to defend and promote the European model which is struggling to stand amidst the global battle of narratives along with maintaining its strategic autonomy in health, economic and other sectors. At the same time, the Union needs to bolster existing and forge new alliances in order to fill the gap on multilateralism. It needs to locate a strategic edge to resist the external pressures and protect its presence in the global scene and continue being relevant in the changing global order with its extraordinary transcontinental presence of soft power.
How a Democracy Can Be Undermined: Some Lessons
Democracies have an inbuilt flaw when their own processes can be employed to undermine them. It is what has happened in Hungary in the last decade, and Hungary is not alone.
In his youth the current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, was an ardent dissident leading a youth movement, Fidesz, and in 1989 he was calling for the removal of Soviet troops and free democratic elections. Opposition to single-party socialist rule was eventually successful, and he was elected a Fidesz member of the National Assembly in 1990.
In 1998, his party won a plurality, and he served his first term as prime minister until 2002 when the socialists returned to power. However, a landslide victory in 2010 gave Orban a two-thirds supermajority, and with it the power to amend constitutional laws.
Shortly thereafter in 2011 a new constitution was promulgated which gave the Fidesz control of the judiciary, and administrative commissions responsible for elections, media and the budget. Hence Orban’s ubiquitous presence on billboards around Budapest — a consequence of a law regulating billboards that he passed driving his supporter’s competitors out of business. Opposition flyers may now be found posted on poles and trees … and good luck seeing them at a distance.
With the opposition weakened, Hungary became a democracy backsliding to authoritarianism. In 2020, the parliament passed laws that allow Orban to declare an emergency at will and then rule by decree.
All of which poses a conundrum: Anti-democratic laws passed by an elected government undermine democracy yet at the same time can be considered the will of the people, even if they infringe their rights.
If one believes the U.S. is immune, consider elected politicians gerrymandering districts to remain in power. And if we believe for an instant that all of this is a right-wing phenomenon, we just have to glance at Venezuela and Nicolas Maduro.
Freedom House’s classifications of freedom in 210 countries note that Venezuela is not free. Orban’s Hungary is now only partly free in contrast with, say, the Czech Republic, another former communist East European state which is classified free.
In their book How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Z. Huq argue that forces of democratic decay often accompany the appearance on stage of a charismatic leader holding the populace in thrall. They also note three pillars supporting democracy: free and fair elections, freedom of expression and association, and the bureaucratic rule of law. The latter implies the independent functioning of bodies like the election commission, the Federal Reserve, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Administration and so on. This limits the power of the central executive unlike in Mr. Orban’s case.
Fortunately from the Ginsburg and Huq analysis the U.S. appears to be well insulated and employs freedom of association in particular to great effect. There can be chinks in the armor, however, as is happening in Georgia with new voter suppression laws.
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