Many were surprised when the president unexpectedly created headaches in NATO by saying that he does not want Sweden and Finland as members of the alliance.
However, the move is not surprising to those who know Turkey and President Erdogan well.
– Have been waiting for this
Nilas Johnsen has lived in Turkey for three years, and has, among other things, been VG’s correspondent in the Middle East. He has also written the book “Erdogan: Turkey’s New Sultan”
“Ever since the war in Ukraine began, I have been waiting for a proposal from Erdogan that can be perceived as a form of support for the Putin regime, but disguised as Turkey’s own agenda,” Johnsen told TV 2.
Erdogan and Putin have stood on opposite sides during the civil war in Syria, but in recent years they have been well reconciled.
For the past five years, they have forged close ties through the purchase of gas and weapons. During state visits, they have appeared almost like friends, says Johnsen.
– I certainly do not think that hidden support for Putin is the main reason why Erdogan has come up with these proposals, but it is a bonus for him, Johnsen believes.
– What is the main reason for the initiatives?
– The main reason is that Erdogan believes that this makes him appear as a strong leader who takes conflict with the West, which strikes a chord with his core voters, Johnsen explains.
Presidential election next year
In 2023, there are elections and therefore it is extra important for Erdogan to appear as a strong leader for his own population. Building a conflict with NATO can help overshadow the country’s economic crisis.
– Is this a political strategy that has been seen from him before?
– Several similar examples of this have been seen. In Europe, a controversial referendum in 2017 ahead of the election is best known. Then Erdogan created a violent conflict with Germany and the Netherlands because Turkish politicians were not allowed to campaign in the two countries ahead of the referendum.
– Erdogan probably won a lot of votes on this at the time. Johnsen thinks.
Fakta om Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Erdogan’s political career began early, and he has held the roles of prime minister and president since 2003. Prior to that, he was a recognized mayor of Istanbul.
The party he was part of was banned from politics in 1998. It was declared unconstitutional by the Turkish Constitutional Court, which ruled that the party threatened Turkey’s secularism.
He later co-founded the Islamic Party for Justice and Development in 2001 and was thus back in politics.
Erdogan was prime minister from 2003. In August 2014, he won Turkey’s first direct election of a new president with 52.2 percent of the vote.
His party won a clear majority in the National Assembly in 2002, 2007 and 2011. In June 2015, the party lost its clear majority. Erdogan called new elections, and it ended again with a clear majority.
In July 2015, the ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurdish PKK guerrillas broke down. A major military operation that has driven hundreds of thousands into exile was launched in the Kurdish-populated areas of the southeast of the country.
In July 2016, a faction in the Turkish defense tried to carry out a military coup, but it was repulsed after a few hours. Erdogan accused his former ally, Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen, of the attack. In retrospect, hundreds of thousands have either been arrested, lost their jobs or persecuted in other ways.
Turkey has been hit by a series of terrorist attacks for which IS and the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) have claimed responsibility.
Einar Wigen, associate professor of Turkey studies at UiO, also believes that Erdogan’s proposal is mostly about domestic political considerations.
According to him, the president also has a need to appear as something other than the running mate of the United States and NATO allies.
– For Erdogan, it is definitely a political game. He tries to take advantage of most situations for his own gain. His policy is instrumental, and he has a goal he wants to achieve, Wigen tells TV 2.
– He knows that these are schemes that make many allies angry, but the possibility of political gain for himself in the short and medium term is too tempting, he says.
– Opportunistic and pragmatic
Johnsen describes Erdogan as a politician who can be both opportunistic and pragmatic.
– He is an opportunist who seizes every opportunity to promote his own and Turkey’s agenda. Here he has received a means of pressure against the rest of NATO and he uses it for what it is worth, says Johnsen.
He further explains that Erdogan often goes hard, then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs comes after and negotiates a solution. That way, Erdogan can cash in on a partial victory.
We see this pattern in the NATO problem now. Erdogan says he will not accept Sweden and Finland into NATO, while the foreign minister is not so firm.
This is a golden opportunity for Turkey to put pressure on Western countries in two specific cases: the PKK and arms purchases.
PKK and weapons requirements
In order to get through a Swedish NATO application, Turkey demands that Sweden cut ties with the PKK and other Kurdish organizations
– There is a perception in the Turkish state apparatus that Sweden and Finland – and by the way also Norway – allow Kurdish organizations to conduct political activities here. From a Turkish point of view, this is support for the PKK, which is marked by terrorism, says Johnsen.
Turkey has demanded that some 30 people whom the president calls terrorists be extradited to Turkey. These are people with connections to the PKK and the Gülen movement, who are accused of being behind the coup attempt in 2016.
Johnsen does not think Erdogan expects to get through for such extradition demands, because Turkey has tried several times before without success.
Another requirement is to have the ban on arms exports to Turkey lifted.
– It is also important for Turkey to get through for Sweden to lift the self-imposed arms embargo they have against Turkey, and for the US to allow the sale of F16 aircraft to them. This has been an important issue for a long time, says Johnsen.
These are well-known requirements from the past, and issues that are not limited to Sweden and Finland and their NATO application. But it is a new opportunity for Erdogan to put pressure to win Turkey’s cause.
– A bully
Director of Fridtjof Nansen’s institute, Iver Neumann, points to the refugee crisis in 2015. Then Erdogan used a strategy that is reminiscent of today.
– He used it for everything it had been, and appeared like a bully. The same thing happened when EU leader Ursula von der Leyen visited him in Turkey, and he did not even put up a chair. She was standing all the time. It is an extremely uneducated and confrontational way of conducting diplomacy, Neumann says to TV 2.
He threatened the EU that Turkey would open its borders to the west if they did not turn up more money through the migration agreement.
– He takes pleasure in humiliating his opponents, but there is no way to build relationships, Neumann points out.
In 2020, he again threatened to open the borders. Several thousand refugees tried to get to Greece from Turkey, and police forces on the Turkish side prevented the refugees from being sent back.
The French Foreign Minister then said that it was really about Erdogan’s desire for European support in the fight against Kurdish forces in Syria.
Serious for NATO
Johnsen believes Erdogan’s pragmatic side gives hope that the locked situation will be resolved.
– He has previously proved to be someone who agrees to a compromise, as long as he can collect a partial victory, he says.
– You never know, but I think it will be a solution. Ultimately, NATO is too important for the Turkish military to want a lasting conflict, says Johnsen.
The conflict has already delayed the process of applying for NATO, and it could also lead to other countries making their demands.
Turkey has the second largest army in NATO and is geographically and strategically very important. Should the conflict escalate, it could be dramatic for the alliance. That is the opinion of all the experts TV 2 has spoken to.
– Turkey is extremely important to NATO because it is the link to the Middle East, both geographically, politically and culturally. It is very important, says Neumann.
– If this conflict is not resolved, the entire NATO cooperation will face a deep and serious crisis, Johnsen agrees.