Sir Dominick Chilcott KCMG served as Britain's ambassador to Turkey from 2018-22, Ireland 2012-16 and (briefly) Iran 2011. He was the UK's High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and The Maldives in 2006-7 and deputy head of mission at the British embassy in Washington (2008-11). His previous postings were to the UK's Permanent Representation to the EU, Lisbon and Ankara. Sir Dominick now works as an independent consultant and as a member of the Ambassador Partnership, making use of his network of commercial, administration and other contacts in Turkey, Ireland and Sri Lanka. He is also the President of the British Institute of Archeology in Ankara.
This month President Recep Tayip Erdogan reaches the milestone of twenty years as the head of Turkey’s government (among G20 leaders, only Mr Putin has been in power for longer).
Such longevity brings certain advantages: familiarity with the issues, personal relations with other world leaders and greater self-confidence in one’s judgement.
Mr Erdogan has had plenty of time to implement his long-term strategy of putting Turkey back on the map, best summed up in his oft-repeated refrain that ‘the world is bigger than five’, the five being the permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5). Mr Erdogan is far from being the only Turk to believe the international community has, for too long, ignored Turkey’s perspective.
As a G20 economy, the NATO ally with the second largest armed forces, a founder member of the Council of Europe, a candidate for membership of the EU, a former imperial power with historic links in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Balkans and North Africa, Mr Erdogan’s Turkey believes its voice should be better respected.
Turkey has other heavy weight foreign policy assets. It has the sixth largest foreign service in the world (measured by number of posts). It has well disciplined, capable armed forces and has shown the political will to deploy them to dangerous places. Turkey’s considerable soft power includes Turkish airlines, which flies to more foreign destinations than any other airline.
Mr Erdogan’s harder-headed pursuit of the national interest has made Turkey’s foreign policy more independent.
Although Turkey makes a significant contribution to Europe’s collective security as a powerful NATO ally, that hasn’t stopped it developing good working relations with Russia. Turkey has decided that holding Moscow close better protects its equities than keeping the Russians at arm’s length. At the same time, Turkish troops confront the Russians in north west Syria and Libya.
Mr Erdogan has led Turkey’s diplomatic efforts from the front. Over the past twenty years, he has made nearly 500 international visits. The Turkish president speaks on the phone to other world leaders on a daily basis. The pattern of relationships the country has built up over the last twenty years has the president’s stamp clearly on it.
On 14 May, Turkey goes to the polls.
Before February’s devastating earthquakes, the election looked too close to call. A new alliance of six opposition parties presents a credible challenge to the coalition Mr Erdogan leads. It is uncertain how the disaster has affected people’s voting intentions. The election result is anyone’s guess.
As the election has neared, President Erdogan has made doing whatever it takes to stay in power the organising principle of government. That has meant, firstly, trying to fix the economy and Turkey’s cost of living crisis.
Following the resolution in January 2021 of the standoff between Qatar, a strong economic supporter of Turkey, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other, Mr Erdogan has been mending fences with Arab countries in the expectation that better relations would bring much needed investment to Turkey.
The West, however, seems unlikely to come to Turkey’s economic aid before the election, despite its generosity with earthquake rescue and relief. Most European businesses are waiting to see what happens at the election before deciding whether to invest. Turkey’s very high inflation, idiosyncratic monetary policy-making and uncertain decarbonisation policies have also had a cooling effect on inward investment.
The creeping authoritarianism of Mr Erdogan’s government and its abandonment of the goal of meeting the EU’s standards on democracy and the rule of law (the so-called Copenhagen criteria) have undermined Turkey’s status as an EU candidate, which, in turn, has led to a significant reduction in the EU’s financial support for Turkey.
It is no coincidence that Turkey’s strongest economic growth occurred in the first decade of Mr Erdogan’s rule when Turkey was adopting reforms in line with EU norms.
In the last ten years, Mr Erdogan has seemed comfortable with Turkey drifting away from the West. That drift would likely continue were he to win again on 14 May. An opposition victory would provide the chance for a reset in relations. The political atmosphere would dramatically improve. But many substantial problems would remain.
For example, some in the West have been pushing Turkey away from themselves. France and Germany make no secret of their opposition to Turkey ever becoming an EU member state. The Republic of Cyprus and Greece have made their bilateral problems with Turkey the determining factor in EU-Turkey relations.
President Erdogan’s procurement of Russian S400 anti-aircraft missiles led to Turkey being expelled from the F35 programme, an understandable response on security grounds but one that made Russia appear to the Turkish citizen as more sympathetic to Turkey’s security needs than the US.
Turkey’s military action in north east Syria in 2019 against the Syrian Democratic Forces (which Turkey sees as a front for the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist organisation that has fought an insurgency against the Turkish state for 40 years) prompted some Western countries to stop the sale of military equipment to Turkey.
Against that background, it is not surprising that standing up to powerful Western countries generally plays well on the Turkish street. Turkey’s current demands that Sweden should cooperate on Turkish terms in the fight against the PKK and its affiliates are not a confected excuse to block Sweden and Finland joining NATO. For once, Turkey has some leverage and appears determined to use it.
In contrast, Turkey’s relations with Russia are benefiting Turkey’s economy. Turkish law requires UN Security Council authorisation in order to adopt economic sanctions. The absence of any such authorisation has allowed trade to flourish. Millions of Russian tourists sustain the service economy along the Mediterranean. In 2021, Turkey imported 45% of its domestically used gas from Russia, which is also a significant oil supplier and involved in developing Turkey’s civil nuclear energy.
Moreover, Mr Putin holds the whip hand in the relationship with his Turkish counterpart since, at any time, he might authorise the Damascus regime to launch an assault on Idlib in north west Syria. Were an attempt to capture the last region of Syria in opposition hands be made, another huge wave of refugees would break over the border with Turkey, creating severe social, economic and political problems for Ankara. After the economy, the 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey is the issue the Turkish electorate feel most strongly about.
The war in Ukraine is not a major issue in the Turkish election. As Soner Cagaptay (the director of the Turkish programme at the Washington Institute) has noted, while Ankara is pro-Ukrainian in the conflict, it is not anti-Russian. Mr Putin is pleased with the economic lifeline Turkey offers just as Mr Zelenskyy is grateful for the military assistance Turkey provides.
Of course, were circumstances to arise in which Mr Erdogan was able to broker a peace deal between Kyiv and Moscow, as he hopes to position himself to do, that would show that Turkish diplomacy really had arrived. There was a flavour of this in last July’s grain deal that Turkey facilitated. But until Mr Putin decides to withdraw his troops from Ukraine, the opportunity for a successful mediation to end the war looks remote.