Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan get along fine.
During the Russian president’s visit to Ankara on Monday, the political affinity between the two powerful leaders was clear to see.
But what binds them ever more closely is that neither have many friends in the West, and their countries are increasingly isolated.
In Russia, Mr. Erdogan sees more than just an energy provider that supplies two-thirds of Turkey’s gas and is currently building its first nuclear power plant. He also sees a much-needed friend to balance strained relations with neighbors in the Middle East and Europe.
Last year, the Turkish leader held a public dialogue with Mr. Putin about his country joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a political and economic pact that links Russia, China and four central Asian countries. That way, Mr. Erdogan said, Turkey could “spare itself all the bother with the European Union.”
How plausible this policy is, is open to question.
But being in touch with reality has never been a major tenet of Mr. Erdogan’s foreign policy. His philosophy is “no problems with the neighbors.” But the current situation could better be described as “constant problems with the neighbors.”
Mr. Erdogan's philosophy is “no problems with the neighbors.” But the current situation could better be described as “constant problems with the neighbors.”
Mr. Erdogan’s “New Turkey” is involved in disputes with almost all of the countries along its borders. The plan to establish Turkey as a leading power in the Middle East has failed.
Turkish diplomacy is stuck in the quicksand of the region’s ethnic and religious conflicts. With his support for radical Islamist groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as his ambivalent attitude toward the terrorist Islamic State, Mr. Erdogan has squandered any sympathies he might have had in the Arab world.
Wouldn’t it therefore make sense for him to make friends again with his allies in the West? Many people in Turkey seem to think so. In a recent survey, 53 percent favored joining the European Union, compared to 45 percent a year ago. And the Turkish economy remains committed to European ties, even if its goal of E.U. membership seems unrealistic in the near future.
From investors’ point of view, the negotiation process for admission to the E.U. is an important anchor of stability. This at least seems clear to the Turkish minister for European affairs, Volkan Bozkir, who recently announced a package of reforms in Berlin to reinvigorate the stalled talks.
At the beginning of the year, Mr. Erdogan proclaimed that 2014 was an “historical turning point” in relations with the European Union. But so far, this has not been the case. Instead, Mr. Erdogan slammed the door shut on Europe with his intolerance, by demonizing his critics, his medieval view of women and his ongoing attempt to gain power.
Then last week he unleashed a tirade against the West, which he accused of welcoming the bloodshed in the Middle East and of wanting Muslims to die.
Mr. Erdogan’s aggressive speeches are a problem and so are his politics. His brutal suppression of protests in Istanbul in the summer of 2013 marked the end of Turkey’s progress towards democracy.
The Turkish leader's brutal suppression of protests in Istanbul in the summer of 2013 marked the end of Turkey’s progress towards democracy.
The Turkish leader’s heavy-handed response to a corruption scandal involving his inner circle has also created doubts about the rule of law in Turkey. With new security laws being debated in parliament, the country is not moving toward Europe, it is moving away – and towards becoming a police state.
In its most recent report on Turkey, the European Commission listed its serious shortcomings as a democracy. The issues it cited included serious doubts about the independence of Turkey’s judicial system and separation of powers, violations of civil rights and religious freedom, problems in fighting corruption; excessive violence against demonstrators; Surveillance and intimidation of government critics; And Internet censorship.
Seldom has the evaluation of an E.U. candidate country been so devastating.
Precisely because of these drawbacks, the executive arm of the European Union concluded that the admission process should be continued, in order to induce Turkey to engage in reforms. One can in fact argue in favour of this policy. It is the hope of many oppressed citizens in Turkey.
But on the other hand, leniency cannot be a perpetual free pass. Upon entering negotiations for E.U. admission, Turkey agreed to respect such basic values as freedom of opinion and separation of powers. If the bloc took this obligation seriously, it would suspend negotiations with Ankara now.
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