How do you simultaneously offer sunshine and throw some shade? The Turkish government can give some advice on that.
Within hours of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump’s win last week — there were congratulations, a phone call and even an invitation to visit Turkey from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Then, over the weekend, came a U.S. travel warning from the Foreign Ministry: “Due to recent events and social tensions … we urge our citizens to be cautious,” Turkish officials wrote, pointing to violence at anti-Trump protests in cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Portland, Ore.
- U.S. orders Istanbul consulate staff home
It was standard fare for a travel warning — but a clear stroke of strategy, too.
Turkey takes issue with the travel warnings it has faced from Western countries after protests and terror attacks. And while this one won’t likely affect U.S. tourism in the same way warnings against Turkey have, Ankara is saying: “Two can play this game.”
We can expect more of both of these kinds of tactics from both sides, as the Trump administration settles in. Both Trump and Erdogan are leaders who rarely filter their words, populist politicians with success built on the deep-rooted discontent in their respective countries.
Trump — at the moment — appears to have been the Erdogan government’s preferred choice for U.S. president.
Part of the reason for the early love-in is that there’s “an understanding that democracy and rule of law issues in foreign lands will not be a high priority for the new U.S. president,” Sinan Ulgen and Doruk Ergun write in their latest paper for the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy.
And so, they write, Washington may not interfere on matters of “human rights and rule of law.”
Still, with Trump’s position on Muslims and support of Israel, just to name two potential sticking points, the potential trouble spots are hardly tiny.
Breaking up is hard to do
While Turkey is flirting its way into a new U.S. courtship, its decades-old unsteady relationship with the European Union is disintegrating quickly — and that’s dangerous.
Europe continues to criticize Turkey’s crackdown after the July 15 coup attempt and its talk of reinstating the death penalty. Many Turks believe Europe simply isn’t sincere.
‘If they don’t want us, they should be clear about this, they should make a decision. Our patience is not endless.’– President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
As Turkish TV host Hakan Celik mused on his show last week, if Europe had welcomed Turkey with open arms a decade ago, as it did other countries, matters would be much different today.
The EU has had decades to accept Turkey, and didn’t do that under much more liberal governments. Now, when it perhaps has enough reason to reject it outright, it won’t.
Turkey holds a trump card: refugees, millions of them, and Europe wants them to stay in Turkey.
The more Turkey drifts — or is pushed — away from the West, the more power the Erdogan government can assert.
What the EU seems to be missing or ignoring is that the denouncements and disdain are fuel for nationalist sentiment in Turkey. Criticism in pithy columns, social media hashtags and outrage from human rights organizations may anger Turkey’s leaders, but won’t bring the change many want.
Just this weekend, the Turkish government suspended the activities of 370 non-governmental organizations, saying there is evidence they are linked to terror organizations. It also detained another member of the Cumhuriyet newspaper team, this time its chairman.
Erdogan recently declared “I don’t care if they call me a dictator.” He is now essentially daring the EU to make up its mind.
“If they don’t want us, they should be clear about this, they should make a decision,” Erdogan told the Turkish daily Hurriyet this weekend. “Our patience is not endless.”
Erdogan put a clock on that patience Monday afternoon, saying in a speech that Turkey would wait until the end of the year before turning the decision to join the EU over to the Turkish people.
Ankara feels it has the moral high ground here, accusing some EU countries of harbouring members of the PKK, the militant Kurdish group Turkey and others label a terror organization. Conflict between Turkey and the PKK has claimed 40,000 lives since the mid-1980s.
Emboldened by its strategic role and its president’s growing power, Ankara is playing its hand forcefully with the U.S. and Europe. It may be starting to feel like it has nothing to lose from severing ties with the West.
Stuck in the middle of regional powder keg, still dealing with post-attempted coup realities, whether they are pro or anti-Erdogan, Turks do.