Turkey’s budget deficit in April widened 197% from a year earlier, Bloomberg reported on May 16, as government spending soared. A number of other foreign agencies in recent reports are increasingly focusing on the clearly intensifying socio-political crisis in this country, and the Turkish economy is experiencing a truly rocky period. Another fall of the Turkish lira by 9% and dangerous indicators of the debt market to those levels seen in the global crash of 2008 have caused, according to Reuters, fears among investors that a new financial crisis could be brewing in the country. Foreign exchange reserves are shrinking, while external debt and unemployment are skyrocketing.
Market tensions are exacerbating the problems of ordinary Turks, who are preparing the ground for an unpredictable reaction to the upcoming elections, due to take place no later than June 2023. Although polls show Erdogan is regaining ground lost in winter, and his ruling party (AKP) remains ahead of the competition, the government’s approval ratings are close to multi-year lows.
Under these conditions, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is actively seeking to provide the country’s population with convincing evidence that he is able to stabilize the economy and the socio-political situation in the country, and can maintain his leading position not only in Turkey itself, but also in the region. It is for these purposes that the Turkish president is focusing on the use of foreign policy. In the national media, he launched an intensified propaganda campaign about his steps to revise Turkey’s foreign policy and start “a new era based on peace, stability and diplomatic security with the countries of the region.”
He tried to confirm this with the Turkey-Africa media summit held in Istanbul on May 25-26, and organized by the Liaison Office under the Presidential Administration of Turkey and timed to coincide with Africa Day. The event was meant to strengthen cooperation and policy coordination between media representatives from Turkey and African countries, sharing experiences and developing partnerships, raising public awareness in African countries about Turkey, and the opportunities for trade and economic cooperation with it. The summit was attended by media representatives from 45 African countries, as well as diplomats, representatives of government agencies, scientists, entrepreneurs, and non-governmental organizations. Head of the Communications Department under the Presidential Administration of Turkey Fahrettin Altun spoke at the opening of the meeting.
The international crisis associated with the conflict in Ukraine has also begun to be used by the Turkish leader in demonstrating the strengthening of not only his authority as the main international diplomat. But also in the realization of his long-standing dream to obtain the status of the leading Middle East-Eurasian fuel and energy hub. The problem of the East Mediterranean pipeline project EastMed has clearly begun to be resolved in Erdogan’s favor. An important role here was played by a statement from Victoria Nuland, US Deputy Secretary of State, in an April interview with the Greek TV channel ERT, which, despite the ongoing conflict between Ankara and Athens, put the question of the fate of the project in the context of the need for Europe to promptly replace Russian gas. A similar opinion is gradually growing among those countries participating in this EastMed project, especially after a meeting of the foreign ministers of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel in early April.
Relations between Turkey and Israel, long very tense, have begun to improve. In early March, Isaac Herzog, Israeli President, visited Turkey, and at the end of the same month it became known that due to this visit, discussions began on the construction of a gas pipeline from the large Israeli field “Leviathan” via Turkey to southern Europe. In addition, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Foreign Minister, announced the possibility of signing an agreement with Egypt on the division of maritime spaces on more favorable terms than the Greek vision of the Mediterranean’s borders.
With this in mind, on May 16, Erdogan’s press secretary İbrahim Kalın confirmed Ankara’s desire and willingness to become a substitute for Russian hydrocarbons for Europe.
Against the backdrop of the absence of any progress on the issue of Turkey’s admission to the EU (for many years), as well as the aggravation of the conflict between NATO and its southern member due to the latter blocking the expansion of the alliance by admitting Sweden and Finland, Ankara has stepped up its efforts to create and use its own alliances and associations. On May 24 in Baku, the deputies of Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia agreed to establish a joint parliamentary assembly.
It was proposed that a “summit” of religious leaders from Turkic-speaking countries be convened in late September- early October of this year in Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city, Shusha. The latter came under the control of the Azerbaijani Army in the fall of 2020, not without Ankara’s aid. In mid-May, Allahshukur Pashazadeh, chairman of the Caucasian Muslims Office, told journalists that the religious leaders of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Turkey are expected to attend the event. From his statements, one can also gather that he intends to use this measure against Armenia, which is not part of the union of Turkic-speaking states.
At the same time, attention is drawn to Ankara having previously developed a project to create a “spiritual center of the Turkic world” in Kazakhstan, and even the “father of the nation” Nursultan Nazarbayev oversaw large-scale construction for it in the city of Turkestan on the basis of the “Hazrat Sultan” reserve. The events in Kazakhstan in January of this year, however, clearly forced Ankara to make adjustments to the hypothetical map of the “Great Turan” project in favor of giving preferences to Azerbaijan as the “center of the Turkic world” in it.
Ankara’s outreach to the states of Central Asia (CA) and, in particular, Kazakhstan by the “Great Turan” has by no means stopped. And this was confirmed by the results of the first state visit of Kazak President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to Turkey on May 11, which ended with the signing of investment agreements worth $1 billion, as well as a package of documents on the development of economic cooperation against the backdrop of sanctions pressure on Russia by the West. In terms of the defense industry, the Turkish aerospace company TUSAS will produce ANKA strike unmanned aerial vehicles in Kazakhstan.
During this visit, a meeting was also held in Ankara between the heads of the defense departments of the two countries – Ruslan Jaqsylyqov and Hulusi Akar in which a number of documents to regulate bilateral military cooperation were signed. “In the event of a real threat, the Turkish military can come to the aid of Kazakhstan. Nur-Sultan, in turn, can, if necessary, ask for help from Turkey,“ Kazakh Deputy Minister of Defense Sultan Kamaletdinov explained to journalists on the sidelines of the Kazakh Parliament.
Considering that the integration of the former Soviet Transcaucasian and Central Asian republics around Istanbul and the Organization of Turkic States is considered by the West as the most effective alternative to the EAEU and the Silk Road, Washington and London openly and actively support such activities by Turkey. The White House has long shown the ruling elites of Central Asia that a “reliable way” to maintain the status of unlimited rulers could supposedly be their quick reorientation towards Erdogan. That is why not only the Deputy Minister of Defense of Kazakhstan Sultan Kamaletdinov, but also a number of other representatives of the current Central Asian political elite, sometimes demonstrate their readiness to hide under the Turkish umbrella, and, therefore, under the cover of NATO, to get away from the integration proposals by Moscow and Beijing.
According to regional experts, despite the aforementioned activation of Ankara in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia, Turkey should be aware that it will be difficult for it to compete with Russia and China in this region. It is important for Turkey to take into consideration the nature of Russia’s relations with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and other post-Soviet states in the region, which are so complex and comprehensive in terms of the economy, energy, and security that they are in many ways a model of allied relations. With a clear interest in the development of multilateral cooperation between Turkey and Russia, Moscow’s interests should also, of course, be taken into account by Ankara when playing the card of Turkic-speaking states in the region.
Valery Kulikov, political expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.