07.02.2023 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Symbolism in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Politics

In he practice of political figures symbolism frequently manifests itself as a commitment to certain historical traditions established in national society and as an expression of consistent steps toward the future. This is a practice that can be found in both Eastern and Western politics.

As the Ottoman Empire’s successor, modern Turkey holds the idea of reviving imperial status in the political consciousness of the ruling class, which naturally cannot be accepted by outside forces but finds support within its own society.

With the publication of Ahmet Davutoğlu’s seminal work “Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position” in 2001, which made public the strategy of “neo-Ottomanism” at the beginning of the 21st century, many experts saw not only another ambitious program of Turkish foreign policy, but a certain symbolism for the revival of the imperial origin of the Turkish state a century after its loss. This strategy has been the main source of Turkish foreign policy in the first quarter of the 21st century and perhaps even after the end of the Cold War, when President Turgut Özal said that after the fall of USSR there will be a “golden age of Turkey” in the new century, the age of pan-Turkish integration with Ankara as the leader.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in this sense, has become a consistent follower of the “dream” of the political elite of the Republic of Turkey and has brought new achievements on the road to the revival of a strong Turkey. Of course, the “Turkish dream” called “neo-Ottomanism” can hardly please the Western world (the United States, Britain, and EU countries), Iran, and China, as well as all of Turkey’s neighbors that were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire (Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, the Arab East, Armenia, and Georgia). Objectively, such a policy is “to say the least” undesirable for Russia as well, given the internal Turkic factor in the Russian Federation itself as well as the multiple contradictions that Turkey’s and Russia’s interests may encounter in such important post-Soviet regions as the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

The almost parallel transition of power in Russia and Turkey in the early 2000s and the arrival of charismatic leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan allowed the two countries to go through a series of trials, to find themselves on the brink of a rupture (especially in the situation following the downing of the Russian Su-24 by the Turkish Air Force in the skies over the Syrian-Turkish border and the killing of Lt. Col. Oleg Peshkov in November 2015 and then the assassination of Russian Ambassador to Ankara Andrei Karlov in December 2016 by Turkish radicals), but still to find a way to preserve relations and turn them into a strategic partnership. This does not mean that Moscow is interested in reviving a new Turkish empire. Still, the persistent tendencies of Turkish pragmatism are primarily due to Turkey’s own ambitions, regardless of who, where, and what Ankara’s plans are.

The preference for symbolism in the policy of President Erdoğan is reflected in the name “Sakarya” given to the new large gas field in the western part of the Turkish sector of the Black Sea, with a volume of more than 700 billion cubic meters of natural gas. Notoriously, the Turks were able to defeat the Greeks in the Battle of Sakarya in September 1921 and that this determined the further course of the history of the new Turkey. It is no coincidence that Recep Erdoğan, in his speech in Baku in November 2020, linked the success in Nagorno-Karabakh with the historical memory of the military minister of the Young Turk government Enver Paşa.

Another manifestation of symbolism is President Erdoğan’s decision to move the date of the next presidential election from June to May 14, 2023. In fact, on May 14, 1950, a new party and a new party leader were elected to power in Turkey, ending the nearly 30-year monopoly of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) founded by Kemal Atatürk himself (the architect of the Turkish Republic and the ideology of Kemalism). On that day, Ali Adnan Menderes, a Crimean Tatar who left the ranks of the CHP (because there were no other legal parties in Turkey at the time) and co-founded the Democrat Party (DP) with his partners (Jalal Bayar, Fuat Köprülü, and Refik Koraltan), was elected as the new leader of Turkey.

It is well known that the establishment of a multi-party political system in Turkey following World War II was one of the demands made by the United States and the United Kingdom as a condition for Turkey’s accession to NATO. Given the fierce competition with the USSR, the monopoly of one party in government could limit the West’s options in Turkey. The DP’s rise to power was largely due to the influence of Western-connected big capital, the Marshall Plan, and American patronage. As a result, Turkey made significant progress in economic development (transportation infrastructure, energy, banking system, real manufacturing sector) and foreign policy (it strengthened strategic alliance relations with the US, joined NATO, and stationed US intermediate-range missiles on its territory) under Adnan Menderes’ rule. Menderes’ fascination with authoritarianism, media despotism, Turkish nationalism, and the independent course, however, came to an end with the 1960 coup d’état, Cemal Gürsel’s seizure of power, and the prime minister’s personal tragedy (Menderes was hanged in the Imrali prison yard on September 19, 1961).

Of course, President Erdoğan has no intention of repeating Adnan Menderes’ tragic fate at the end of his career. He hopes that Menderes’ success on May 14 will be repeated as a symbol of Turkey’s new power, a country free and independent of external dictates and capable of announcing a new status and course for Turkey, a leader in the Turkic world and a pole in world politics, on the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic in September this year. In other words, Erdoğan seeks to emulate Atatürk in terms of historical contribution (if Kemal preserved Turkey as a regional state under conditions of westernization, then Erdoğan restores Turkey’s supra-regional and independent status after a century).

It is worth noting that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with the establishment on October 3, 2009 of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council), transformed into the international “Organization of Turkic States” (OTS) on November 12, 2021, has made an important contribution on this path. The policy of neo-Ottomanism and Neo Pan-Turkism with the motto “One Nation – Five States” (Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan) is positively perceived in the Turkic countries of the post-Soviet space, in addition to Turkey, and is based on the pragmatic approach of economic, communication, military-political unity.

Given all the circumstances, President Erdoğan understands that the “Turkish dream” will remain a “dream” if the maximalist approach in foreign policy is pursued with no consideration for the interests of the leading geographical neighbors, first and foremost Russia. Modern Turkey is experiencing a severe economic crisis, a devaluation of the national currency, rising unemployment, complicated relations with the United States, a great interest in foreign investment, and the implementation of major projects (such as the Akkuyu and possibly Sinop nuclear power plants, a gas hub from Russia, the new link to the East) on the eve of the next elections.

The patriotic propaganda and focus on the successes in Syria and Greece are undoubtedly important issues for the Turkish voter. However, given the traditional 10% of the electorate of the radical Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), supporters of pan-Turkism will not be able to play a key role in the upcoming elections. At the same time, stability on the external borders boosts voters’ confidence in the improvement of their later lives. And in this situation, the Turkish-Russian partnership in Syria is an advantage for President Erdoğan. In the South Caucasus, Armenia’s weakness and the success of the Turkish-Azerbaijani tandem also give the ruling AKP hope for mass support in the election campaign. Finally, Russia’s large-scale and feasible economic projects for its Turkish partner fuel hopes of stabilizing the local economy under Erdoğan’s high profile.

Aleksandr Svarants, Doctor of Political Science, Professor, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.