There is only one president being capable to be at the same time offensive, out of line and arrogant, as well as needed and constantly courted. No, it is not Putin, as he has followers and admirers, but the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Nationwide protests against his policies in May 2013, led to police crackdown resulting in 22 deaths and the stalling of EU membership negotiations. Following a split with long-time ally Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan tried to curb judicial power and started purges against Gulen’s sympathisers. His figure is subject of different views: a populist president, an Islamic reactionary trying to end secular power in Turkey, an opportunist and arrogant politician trying to exploit Islamic religion and conservatory policies to cover corruption, a future despot, etc.
In reality Erdogan is all and none of that, surely is a skilled and ruthless politician who exploit the confusion and lack of direction that Turkey, the EU, and the world face in these turbulent years. However, what strikes more is the ability to stay afloat and find renewed interest around his figure despite the continuous diplomatic faux-pas and international outcry. It is undeniable that Turkey under Erdogan acquired a new status and returned to the spotlight as a key player in the international scenario.
Hungarian Empire to annex the Balkans. The French were interested only in keeping the North African colonies and put a foot into Middle East, while the Prussians were becoming the latest power stepping into the colonial scenario, and saw in the Empire an ally to counterbalance Britain. The Italians took away Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (Libya).
WWI, the imperialist war, brought to an end the life of the “sick man”, relegating Turkey to the actual position in the Anatolian Peninsula. With Kemal Ataturk, Turkey became a republic, and started a growth that put the country back into international spotlight after WWII, when the Cold War inevitably saw Turkey being at the centre of the competition between East and West, and not only for its geographical position.
Nevertheless, 20th Century Turkey was different from the Ottoman Empire, it was not a “sick man”, instead becoming a strong military ally of the US, a member of NATO, a powerful republic dominated by an army ready to intervene to stop any sliding towards socialism. The US and the Soviet Union regarded Turkey as their border, and any action in Anatolia was to be counterbalance elsewhere.
Today’s Turkey is something similar to the 20th Century status, but with a striking difference: today can flirt with any power, break with them, harass and humiliating them, and still be considered important and crucial for the geopolitical equilibrium. In few words, Turkey is a country that every power would prefer to avoid dealing with, but have to in order to avoid that someone else will step in. A love-hate relationship where Ankara has only to gain rather to lose, if not partially.
Back to President Erdogan, he has the merit to fully understand this new position acquired by Turkey, and he is milking it with no shame nor politeness. Few years back, what the EU had with Turkey was just a dialogue on access to the Union, on which the EU felt always stronger thanks to two main arguments: the death penalty and Cyprus status. The first was the anti-thesis of the Union Treaty and the second a remnant of the past century to be solved, as it also involved a member. That strong position has now been lost and Erdogan has been the first and most skilled in exploit the new scenario, created by the reckless US policy in Middle East.
The Syrian conflict destabilized the Middle East in the last few years, put Turkey back in the map and among the key players. Erdogan put his tactics at work in wooing and blackmailing every single power. At first, he was a strong US ally, as per tradition, siding for a change of regime in Damascus, threatening military intervention to protect Turkmen, but in reality was looking at the opportunity to wipe out the PKK Kurdish rebellion. In this position, he even followed the Obama’s administration in a strong anti-Russian policy, despite Turkey had strong economic ties with Moscow.
With the EU, he patiently used the open door policy on migration by letting millions of refugees into Europe through Greece and Bulgaria, and then blackmailing Bruxelles in renegotiating future access and obtaining financial support to face the humanitarian disaster. This first phase, however, was short lived, as Turkey committed a serious mistake: shot down a Russian MiG over the Syria-Turkey border. To the joy of the Americans (saw in it a point of no return in the relation between Ankara and Moscow), and to the embarrassment of Erdogan, Moscow adopted sanctions that hit Turkey very hard, as well as making clear remarks on avoiding future military actions by Ankara.
Nevertheless, when everyone was looking at a Turkey now in a straight and narrow, Erdogan restarted silently his contacts with Putin, started to adopt a low profile in the Syrian crisis, and especially mounted a strong campaign against EU. To this shift contributed the fact the Turkey suddenly found itself dragged into a spiral of violence, between the PKK and IS attacks, benefitting by EU open door policy to which Ankara at first agreed. The time for a new shift was coming, and was accelerated by the July 2016 coup. This military attempt resulted in an opportunity for Erdogan to change once again Turkey’s position on the international scenario. While Erdogan accused the US of supporting the coup by financing the Gulen Movement, considered a terrorist organization led by his former ally Fethullah Gulen, who lives now in Pennsylvania, United States, the EU and US accused Erdogan of staging a coup or using the coup to legitimate repression and extending his power. Whatever the reality, Erdogan used the coup to reset his international ties and officially opening his rapprochement with Putin. Turkey entered in Moscow sponsored peace talks, to which even the Iranian were invited and who never had idyllic relations with Ankara.
Erdogan’s erratic policies this time led to a war of words with the US over the extradition of Gulen, by irritating Washington for holding military talks over Syria with Putin, and by starting a series of accusations to his old friend in the EU. He accused Germany to use “Nazi practices” and the Netherlands to be a “Nazi remnants”, leading to a serious diplomatic row.
However, regardless of how irritating or arrogant could be, Erdogan continue to be sought by every single power to change alliance, to join again the western friends, while Russia tries to keep on its side as no Syrian solution can be achieved without Turkey’s participation. Between US sponsored intervention or Russian sponsored neutrality, Erdogan is enjoying a wealth of opportunities to obtain the most from all: silence on Cyprus, access to the EU, economic ties with Russia, military support from the US. To obtain this he uses the migrants issue, the US sponsored coup, the Russian relation with Iran, strong words against some European countries where Turkish expats resides.
In this Erdogan achieved what the Ottoman Sultans never did: be a power not for spoliation but for building a new world order where Turkey is at the centre stage. Only gullible and short-sighted politicians could not see that without Turkey any plan to solve the Syrian conflict, whether American or Russian sponsored, will be ineffective. Unfortunately for them, Turkey’s price is high and the presidents and prime ministers of many countries will have to digest more Erdogan’s Turkish Delights, although very different for the famous ones, to achieve their dreams.