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Sweden, Finland, and NATO: Pawns in Erdogan’s Bid for Re-election Amid a Tattered Domestic Economy?

Erdogan’s goal is to send a message to the Western world that he can change the direction of Turkey and lean toward Russia when tensions arise.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed world politics and is reminiscent of the tense international relations between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The ongoing conflict has increased the popularity of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO), and now two non-NATO countries – Finland and Sweden – have decided that the time has come to set aside their history of neutrality and pursue membership in and the protection of the alliance.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the invasion of Ukraine has been a response to NATO’s expansion to include countries that had been part of the former Soviet Union and a message to the United States that such expansion is not welcome. Putin, however, made a serious miscalculation when he chose to implement a weak plan and believe that his forces would immediately take over Ukraine. Putin’s move against Ukraine also is a message for non-NATO countries bordering Russia. Undeterred, Finland and Sweden have gone ahead with their plans to apply for NATO membership. Both countries, however, have faced an unexpected obstacle. Turkey’s leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has voiced strong opposition to allowing Finland and Sweden to join NATO, claiming that both countries are safe havens for terrorist organizations that flee Turkey.

The world is quite familiar with Erdogan’s politics, which are based on seeking leverage to protect his own interests rather than the interests of the country as a whole and to maintain his position in the government. Erdogan has strategic goals within and outside of Turkey and aims to accomplish several objectives with one deed. Before interpreting Erdogan’s move in terms of his plan for coming elections in 2023 in Turkey and a message to the European Union (EU), the United States, and Russia, it is important to understand the effect that the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) terrorist organization in Turkey and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria have on domestic politics in Turkey.

How Threatening Are the PKK and the PYD for Turkey?

The PKK is a separatist terrorist organization that operates in the Kurdish regions of Turkey and northern Iraq. The group has been active since the early 1980s, and Turkey has lost more than 40,000 people in its fight against the PKK. The group was officially designated as a terrorist organization by the United States in 1997. The PKK has followers in Turkey and in EU countries. The PKK, however, has recently been the perpetrator of several small-scale attacks in Turkey. The terrorist organization has not been listed as a top-10 terrorist organization in terms of the most incidents in the U.S. Department of State’s Annex of Statistical Information report since 2017. The group has not been the perpetrator of any notable attack for the past decade. On the other hand, Turkey reports thousands of terrorist incidents yearly, most of which Erdogan attributes to followers of Fethullah Gulen, an individual whom Erdogan continues to accuse of attempting to overthrow his regime. Erdogan, for example, has claimed that Gulen was somehow responsible for the December 17-25, 2013, corruption and bribery scandals that unearthed solid evidence against the Turkish president, his family, and his inner circle. Erdogan further claims that Gulen was involved in the suspicious July 15, 2016, coup attempt. Enraged at both events as a potential threat to his power, Erdogan relentlessly retaliated against Gulen and his followers by declaring the group a terrorist organization, using weak terrorism charges with scant evidence against every member of the group, and jailing nearly all of them.

The PYD is a pro-Kurdish group that operates in northern Syria, where the United States has focused on fighting the ISIS terrorist organization and sees Kurdish groups as the only reliable U.S ally. Therefore, the U.S. supports the PYD-affiliated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and provides the group with logistical support. The United States and Turkey, however, have engaged in confrontations about the presence of armed Kurdish forces in northern Syria because Turkey sees Kurdish groups as the military wing of PKK and therefore a threat for the security of Turkey. Turkey justifies its stance with claims that Kurdish groups seek to establish a separate Kurdish state. Turkish leaders cite as evidence multiple attacks each year in which Kurdish groups have directly targeted Turkey by launching rockets from northern Syria and several attacks on Turkish military forces stationed north of the Turkish border in Syria.

Clearly, the PKK is not as strong or as much of a threat to Turkey as it once was, and the PYD poses only a limited threat to Turkey. Those facts lead to a puzzling question about Turkey’s relations with the EU and the U.S.: What does Erdogan aim to achieve by blocking bids by Finland and Sweden to become members of NATO?

The European Union

Erdogan’s approach to politics vis-à-vis the EU has, at times, yielded the results the Turkish leader wanted: dumping the problem of Syrian and Afghan refugees residing in Turkey on neighboring EU countries with which Turkey happens to have developed tense relations. Through various means of blackmail, Erdogan has been able to “persuade” these countries to open their borders to and accept the refugees. The tactic has not been as Erdogan perhaps would like. Most EU leaders have locked their doors to Erdogan and have refrained from being on the same stage with him; however, given the relationship that Erdogan has with both Ukraine and Russia, the leaders of several EU countries have been motivated to talk to Erdogan about getting Putin to end the war in Ukraine. Erdogan is agreeable to such talks because he wants the EU leaders to see him as an important world leader who champions the interests of EU countries. Additionally, Erdogan has called upon Sweden to lift the defensive-weapons export restrictions it imposed on Turkey in response to Turkey’s 2019 incursion into northern Syria. Erdogan’s strategy of blackmail and swagger, if successful with one EU country, is likely to be applied to get what he wants from other EU countries.

The United States

The United States also appears to be a target of Erdogan’s manipulative behavior aimed at squeezing concessions from other countries and serving his own self-interests. When Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in mid-May to discuss bilateral relations, Cavusoglu presented Erdogan’s agenda: “persuade” the United States to follow through on the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, end its support for Kurdish groups in northern Syria, lift the sanctions imposed on Turkey under Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, and end the ongoing Halk Bank investigation. Erdogan’s demands are rooted in his unhappiness with the Biden administration and his inability to melt the ice between two countries. Erdogan is particularly annoyed about the Biden administration’s refusal to end the Halk Bank investigation. Under the Trump administration, Erdogan was allowed to exert at least some measure of influence over the case. Erdogan, however, understands the value in repairing relations with the United States. Doing so could create for Erdogan the momentum needed to mend his country’s relations with the Western world. That momentum and mended relations, however, may not materialize. To date, the Western world has been harshly critical of Erdogan’s authoritarian regime and actions such as jailing journalists and destroying democratic constitution of the country. A smiling face from the Western world, Erdogan likely knows, could boost his chances of victory in the coming presidential elections.

Russia

Russia has been another trump card for Erdogan to use against the Western world. Erdogan’s goal is to send a message to the Western world that he can change the direction of Turkey and lean toward Russia when tensions arise between Turkey and the United States. Erdogan knows well that his authoritarian regime will not find a comfortable place in the Western world and will instead be criticized for destroying democracy. Erdogan’s response to such criticism typically is to visit Russia, where he is certain to find solace. To date, Erdogan has used the Russia card effectively. Erdogan knows that his attitude toward blocking Sweden and Finland’s admittance to the NATO makes Putin happy, and that if Putin is happy Erdogan will be viewed more favorably in the eyes of Putin.

Domestic Politics

When Turkish voters go to the polls in coming elections in 2023, Erdogan’s political future will be decided. It is a critical election for a man who loathes losing an election and despairs of what the future holds for him if the voters reject his bid for re-election. A relaxing life in retirement would not await him after having violated the human rights of thousands of Turkish citizens, been the subject of the anti-corruption investigations based on solid evidence, and been responsible for financing and sponsoring jihadist groups operating in conflict zones.

Erdogan’s domestic politics are based on the consolidation of power into himself through three distinct actions. First, Erdogan works to send a strong message to the people that his leadership of the country is an insurance of Islamic freedom for his followers who for many years have complained about the pressures of a secular system. The people who fall for this message strongly believe that, under Erdogan’s rule, mosques will be open and women will be allowed to wear headscarves in schools and in state institutions. Second, Erdogan used economic-development projects during the early years of his presidency to send a message that Turkey and its citizens are prospering financially thanks to his leadership. Third, Erdogan works to craft a foreign policy message that portrays him as a powerful leader who can defy all of Turkey’s “Western enemies.” An example of this message in practice is Erdogan’s stance on the expansion of NATO. To win the support of Turkey’s nationalistic voters, Erdogan stresses his opposition to allowing Finland and Sweden to join NATO.

In the face of an uncertain outcome in the coming elections in 2023, Erdogan knows that with the financial situation in Turkey he cannot play the economy-is-booming card to rally voter support for his re-election. All Erdogan has left is his political Islamist identity and a rowdy attitude toward the world. Erdogan’s strategy of not focusing on the economy may serve him well in his bid for a return to office because Turkey’s nationalist voters increasingly tend to agree with Erdogan’s approach to foreign politics.

To conclude, the world will be watching to see whether Erdogan can succeed by openly playing his trump cards in the arena of international politics. Putin’s threat to veto NATO expansion most likely will force Finland and Sweden to knock even louder on NATO’s door, which in turn will create more leverage for Erdogan to get what he wants from EU and U.S. The world also will be watching to see how much the EU and U.S. will surrender to Erdogan’s self-interest wishes. If Erdogan succeeds at striking several pigeons with one bean, then other authoritarian leaders around the world will emulate the Turkish leader’s strategy and usher in a new playbook for international politics with instructions on how authoritarian leaders can achieve their goals at the expense of the country and the people who live there.

Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He also has been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, a number of articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in illicit economy. Dr. Cengiz holds two masters and two doctorate degrees from Turkey and the United States. His Turkish graduate degrees are in sociology. He has a master's degree from the School of International Service Program of American University and a Ph.D. from the School of Public Policy program of George Mason University. He is teaching Terrorism, American Security Policy and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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