By Marc Pierini*
Turkey is currently witnessing momentous developments both externally and internally. On the military side, the country is about to be excluded from the F-35 stealth fighter program due to the deployment of Russian S-400 missiles on its territory.
On the economic side, Turkey’s leadership can no longer hide the country’s dire situation. On the political side, the forthcoming rerun of the election for the mayor of Istanbul and a landmark trial will constitute litmus tests for Turkey’s wounded democracy. Upcoming developments on these three fronts will shape the image that the Turkish president will carry to the G20 summit in Osaka at the end of June.
After years of discussions about simultaneously deploying Russian S-400 missiles and the latest generation of U.S.-made stealth fighter aircraft, the F-35, a moment of truth has arrived for Turkey. Having seemingly ignored multiple warnings from Washington that S-400 missiles could not co-exist with U.S.-made aircraft, Ankara has now been told in no uncertain terms that the talking is over and Turkey will face dire consequences if the Russian weapons are effectively deployed.
A letter from acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to his Turkish counterpart on June 6 was excruciatingly precise: Washington will halt the training of Turkish pilots and maintainers, who must leave the United States by July 31. F-35s ordered by Ankara will not be delivered, and Turkey’s aerospace industry will be ousted from the F-35 industrial program, for which alternative suppliers have already been identified. In addition, says the letter, Washington could take further measures under existing U.S. legislation, as well as steps that could curtail future Turkish cooperation with the United States and NATO.
The reaction from the Turkish government has been a short statement from the defense ministry eerily stressing the “importance of continuing negotiations.” Pro-government media have been equally vague, essentially hiding to the public the implicit political reality conveyed by the June 6 letter: Ankara has excluded itself from cutting-edge cooperation with the United States and NATO and walked away from its commitment to participate in NATO’s missile defense system.
If, as the Turkish president has repeatedly stated, the S-400 deal is implemented, this will be a watershed moment in NATO’s history since Turkey joined the alliance in 1951. That is unless, of course, Ankara is banking on U.S. President Donald Trump upending his administration’s position on this strategic issue.
On the economic front, a second moment of truth is looming. A combination of structural vulnerabilities, a huge buildup of private-sector hard-currency debt, and ill-conceived interest-rate policies has put the Turkish economy in an intractable position. It is hard to see how any institution other than the International Monetary Fund (IMF) can cover the massive injection of funds the country needs to solve its debt crunch.
Ankara has consistently ruled out this option, mostly for electoral reasons. But the bare reality is that no other mechanism is available to Turkey: Russia doesn’t have cash to offer, the EU and the United States do not have applicable financial instruments, most Gulf countries have limited resources, while China and Saudi Arabia have important political differences with Ankara.
The international financial community now expects Turkey to take a number of crucial steps: enter a dialogue with the IMF, restore the much-dented independence of the Turkish central bank, scrap nonsensical theories about low interest rates, and vastly upgrade the country’s economic management team.
A third moment of truth concerns an area of vital importance for Turkey: the rule of law. The June 23 rerun of the election for the mayor of Istanbul has turned into a caricature. In four-part local elections on March 31, voters chose mayors, district administrators, municipal councillors, and local officials. In Istanbul, the election for the first of these four, which Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost, was declared legally invalid, while the other three, which the AKP won under the same conditions, were not challenged.
The message to Istanbul voters is blunt: elections are free as long as the AKP wins. The resulting outrage and the stakes for all political parties are so high that this do-over ballot is bound to take on nationwide importance.
The other symbol of Turkey’s vanishing democracy is the Gezi trial to begin in Istanbul on June 24, the day after the repeat election. The indictment in the hearing accuses the sixteen co-defendants of masterminding the Gezi Park protests, a 2013 wave of demonstrations and civil unrest. In the eyes of liberal Turks and Western observers, this is a political trial with no evidence that is meant to convey the message that free thinking and contacts with foreign cultural agencies—let alone dissent—are no longer permitted.
Notwithstanding the cruel consequences for thousands of families, Turkey’s democratic decline has a clear impact: the country’s political image has been degraded and foreign direct investment is staying away. More generally, by criminalizing European democratic values and painting them as instruments of terrorism, the leadership in Ankara has not only turned its back on its proclaimed European ambitions but also launched itself into a different political, legal, and ethical orbit.
Much will happen in the coming days and weeks. But it is already certain that the Turkish leader sitting at the G20 table in Osaka on June 28–29 will look more like the Chinese, Russian, Brazilian, and Saudi leaders than those from the West. This may look good in terms of handshakes on television. Yet, half of Turkey’s citizens disagree with their leader, and Turkey’s economy cannot survive without Western markets, capital, and technology. This is where strategic bipolarity, economic inconsistency, and a fierce autocracy hurt the most.
Ultimately, the course chosen by Turkey’s president may be solidly grounded in his belief that his political future is better secured by an alliance with Russia than with the United States and the EU. Among the “benefits” for their proponents, Ankara gets rid of human-rights considerations, while Moscow triggers a considerable reshuffling of NATO’s defense architecture for Europe. But will Turkish citizens see a Turkey estranged from the West as the best course for them?
*A visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
** First published in carnegieeurope.eu