by Vassilis Kostoulas
The disputes with Greece will be useful ammunition for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should he decide to manufacture a crisis that would divert attention away from his country’s economic disintegration. He is, after all, quite capable of burning his bridges with the West if it wins him the election, which has become a serious matter of survival for the Turkish strongman. The fact, however, is that no one knows exactly what he’s thinking and planning.
One thing they all seem to agree on is that the Turkish president is trapped in a tricky situation, is unpredictable and is ready to pull out all the stops to make sure he stays in power.
Kathimerini reached out to 10 analysts, journalists and experts with excellent knowledge of the situation in Turkey and asked them where they see the country and its leader a year from now after voters go to the polls in June 2023. One thing they all seem to agree on is that the Turkish president is trapped in a tricky situation, is unpredictable and is ready to pull out all the stops to make sure he stays in power.
Their assessments send a warning bell to Greece, which is an important part of the Turkish president’s calculations for the way ahead.
Experts on Turkey are now openly discussing the question: smooth transition of power via elections or a battle to the death to maintain power? This is based on fears that Erdogan is capable of a) challenging the election result and calling a do-over if the margin is slim or, b) ignoring the result altogether and thrusting Turkey onto a completely different path. “A civil war is not beyond imagining,” argues Jenny White.
Based on public opinion polls and overriding sentiment in Turkey – so far – Erdogan is headed to defeat by the opposition coalition, which comprises the Kemalists and other parties. This time around, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), appears to be conducting a much more effective campaign and is an adversary who knows Erdogan very well and is, therefore, in a position to do what he does best: stoke populist sentiment. This is also why Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas is viewed as a candidate who has the potential to surprise Erdogan by tapping into his incredible popularity, in contrast to Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who is seen as not being quite ready for the role yet.
Yet even if there is a smooth changing of the guard in the Turkish government, it is unlikely to change the country’s foreign policy line, and especially with regard to the Eastern Mediterranean. That means Greece will basically face two scenarios: a) a new government that chooses to focus its energies on managing the economic chaos and sets the Aegean aside for a while, or b) a new government that exploits the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Lausanne Treaty and of Turkish democracy – in the summer and the fall of 2023 respectively – in order to maintain or even ratchet up the tension in the Aegean, regardless of the challenges at home.
The notion that Turkey gave up the islands to Greece by handling negotiations poorly is quite prevalent in public opinion, often to the point of obsession.
Just recently, the mayor of Bolu Province said that he would be prepared to put on a military uniform and blow himself up in the middle of a unit of Greek soldiers. Tanju Ozcan’s mentality forms the basis of an even worse scenario, whereby Erdogan would trigger an artificial crisis with Greece that could even stop the elections taking place in Turkey.
Several Turkish analysts declined Kathimerini’s request for their take on the situation, believing that Turkey and Greece are locked in a vicious cycle of rivalry. Mainly, though, they believe that Erdogan is so unpredictable that there is no point in trying to estimate where the cornered leader or the troubled country will be in a year’s time. They say that the Turkish president is capable of anything and even refuses to take the given date for the elections for granted.
A victim of Erdoganomics, the Turkish economy, meanwhile, is in a tailspin that is having a profound impact on the very foundations of society. It is also suffering from a profound lack of confidence under an administration that manipulates the justice system to harm political rivals, flirts with authoritarian regimes, tramples on civil rights and is pulling Turkey away from its European prospects and its Western ties.
This confluence of factors has pushed aggressive Turkish rhetoric against Greece into unprecedented territory, and while it may be designed for domestic consumption, it also entails the risk of triggering unexpected developments.
As for the Turkish opposition? The assessment is not bright, as most analysts agree that it is almost entirely focused on overthrowing Erdogan rather than on a way ahead for the country. And until that happens? Erdogan’s Turkey will rally support, and perhaps even foreign exchange, from Vladimir Putin and Russia on the back of Gazprom’s European revenues.