06.02.2023 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

It’s Turkey vs NATO – once again

Turkey’s decision to block Sweden’s NATO membership has sparked a new controversy in the alliance at a time when the alliance is desperately looking to expand. Tukey’s Erdogan thinks that Sweden has failed to take the action that it was supposed to take i.e., act against “terrorists” living in Sweden and expel others involved in the 2016 military coup controversy. Turkey’s decision to block Sweden’s membership has, however, produced something else: a new military pact between Sweden and the US. Called a bilateral “Defence Cooperation Agreement”, the pact will allow the US to deploy its forces immediately to Sweden. The pact has been announced at a time when the US – and its allies in Europe – are already intensifying their war on Russia by supplying tanks. But the question that merits attention is: why is Turkey blocking this membership even though Sweden claims to have all it could do to fulfil Turkey’s conditions?

At it appears, the underlying reasons for this blockade have more to do with the Erdogan government’s own interests rather than any real annoyance with Sweden’s non-compliance with the 2022 agreement with Ankara, in which Stockholm had agreed to act upon Turkey’s demands.

There are political and geo-political factors. That Russia opposes Sweden’s (and Finland’s) NATO membership is a well-known fact. But why does it matter for Erdogan? Today, Erdogan is leading a country whose economy is sinking fast. The Erdogan government is sitting on the country’s worst inflation rates in over two decades. In November 2022, the inflation rate was 84.4 per cent according to the data released by the Turkish Statistical Institute. (It dropped to 64 per cent in December.) In this context, Turkey’s ties with Russia matter and Ankara calculates this might not be the best time to support a western decision that is targeted at Russia. Why does Russia matter to Turkey?

Since the start of this conflict in Ukraine, Turkey’s export of (cheap) energy (oil and gas) from Russia has increased manifold. This supply of cheap energy is helping Erdogan keep the country’s economy afloat. Not only is it buying discounted gas, but it is also paying for the gas in roubles rather than USD. Paying in roubles helps the Russian currency and it helps the Turkish economy as well. Turkey is not only importing from Russia. Turkish exports to Russia, in fact, rose by 45 per cent in 2022. In short, the way Turkey’s ties are constituted with Russia at the moment leaves little room for Turkey’s support for NATO’s expansion.

What will happen if Turkey’s economy were to sink further? In Turkey, this is elections year. With the Erdogan regime sitting on a sinking economy, it could face a startling defeat. As polls show, Erdogan and his party are already behind the opposition. For sure, for the Erdogan government what’s more important at this stage is not the question of NATO’s expansion but that of its own future as survival.

In this broad context, opposing Sweden’s NATO membership serves two distinct yet interrelated objectives for the Erdogan government.

First, it will obviously keep the flow of energy intact. Secondly, by demonstrating to its voters its government’s ability to follow an ‘independent’ foreign policy vis-à-vis the West, Erdogan hopes to boost its dwindling political position vis-a-vis a vibrant opposition. In other words, by keeping the economy afloat and by projecting an autonomous foreign policy, the Erdogan regime is trying to limit the space for the opposition and win back its popularity.

Blocking Sweden’s membership is a matter for Erdogan that is not simply a geo-political question. The recent burning of the Holy Quran has allowed him to add a religious fervour as well, as he said that “Those who allow such blasphemy in front of our embassy [in Stockholm] can no longer expect our support for their NATO membership”, adding that “if you do not show respect to the religious beliefs of the Republic of Turkiye or Muslims, you will not receive any support for NATO [membership] from us.”

While Swedish authorities defended the incident as an expression of ‘freedom of expression’, it is obvious that Erdogan has a different political view of this so-called ‘freedom of expression.’ As it stands, he sees in it an opportunity to galvanise its supporters i.e., 85 million Turkish citizens, around his brand of Turkish nationalism, infused deeply and directly with religion (as opposed to a secular approach that its NATO allies cherish).

What might change this scenario? As mentioned above, the decision to block Sweden’s membership has not had a real, qualitative impact on the country’s shift away from non-alignment to alignment with the West. The pact with the US has practically ended the era of Sweden’s non-alignment, but it is still short of a full NATO membership.

Erdogan’s opposition is not permanent. Given the fact that this opposition is tied to elections – both presidential and parliamentary – means that Turkey’s official position might change soon after the elections, especially if the opposition wins, which is expected to take a more pro-West, pro-Ukraine foreign policy approach.

Even if Erdogan wins, the position can still change, since the threat of losing power would no longer be there and Erdogan will be more confident in dealing with his western counterparts in NATO and with Russia as well. The West might itself come to the conclusion that meaningful economic support – including enhanced trade – could ‘convince’ Erdogan to change its stance.

For now, however, things are unlikely to change for the next few months. Depending on how the conflict unfolds in Ukraine, the international geo-political scenario could possibly change in the next few months in ways leaving little to no room for sea changes.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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