Turkish-U.S. relations

Erdogan's Machiavellian motives

The Turkish president and his AKP party are adept at switching sides. Now they're embracing Putin and damning the United States. Why? Because an up-coming trial in America could potentially compromise Erdogan. By Bulent Mumay

One of the key secrets behind the staying power of the AKP, which has been governing Turkey for 15 years, is the party's ability to quickly agree coalitions and as soon as the job has been done, to dissolve these just as rapidly. At every step, Erdogan succeeds in convincing both his cadre and his voters with a range of propaganda methods. Time and again, the dissolved coalition is successfully forgotten, as the new one is presented in glowing terms. Whether describing itself or forming coalitions, both internal and external, the AKP behaves in a similar manner.

Before the 2002 elections that swept the AKP to power, Erdogan had this to say about the Islamist approach pursued for years: "we have cast off the mantle of Milli Gorus (National Vision)." He knew that post 9/11, the West needed a moderate Islam with a democratic flavour. And so, following the example of the Christian Democrats in Europe, he entered the 2002 electoral race describing the AKP as "Muslim-Democratic". And after entering government and sitting down at the EU negotiating table, he donned the "liberal" mantle.

All forms of nationalism crushed?

In 2005, conservatism was concealed and the "democratic" attribution pushed into the foreground. When Erdogan saw himself at the pinnacle of his power in 2012, his conservatism took central stage once again. During his liberal years, he would say: "we've crushed all forms of nationalism," yet now he upended the negotiations with the Kurds he had himself initiated, becoming a "nationalist" once again. He is now embracing Kemalism, a ideology essentially very distant from his own.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan following the AKP election victory in 2002 (photo: picture-alliance)
Flip-flop politics: before the 2002 elections that swept the AKP to power, Erdogan had this to say about the Islamist approach pursued for years: "we have cast off the mantle of Milli Gorus (National Vision)." He knew that post 9/11, the West needed a moderate Islam with a democratic flavour. And so, following the example of the Christian Democrats in Europe, he entered the 2002 electoral race describing the AKP as "Muslim-Democratic"

Regardless of whether the context is foreign or domestic policy, Machiavellian coalitions present in the same way. During "liberal" and "democratic" eras, Turkish co-operation with the United States and Europe was common. There was talk of a "strategic partnership". Swinging back towards "conservatism" and "nationalism", the talk turned towards Eurasia, joining the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation and forming a regional alliance with Russia and Iran.

Until a couple of years ago, Russia was practically enemy country. Ankara had shot down a Russian fighter jet, claiming it had violated Turkish airspace. The jet was in the region to protect Assad, whom Erdogan had initially described as a friend, then declared an opponent. The Syrian-Kurdish PYD, classified as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, opened an office in Moscow.

On the anniversary of the shooting down of the Russian jet, a Syrian aircraft flown by a Russian pilot killed three soldiers involved in "Operation Euphrates Shield", the Turkish offensive in northern Syria. Just as a process of rapprochement with Russia was moving forward, three Turkish soldiers were "accidentally" killed by Russian forces. Russia prevented tourists from visiting Turkey and stopped the import of Turkish tomatoes.

A vehement response

Despite the tensions, Erdogan continued his rapprochement with Russia, the more he distanced himself from America and Europe. This year, he met Putin in person four times. The two leaders signed an agreement – in a hail of NATO criticism – to purchase Russian missiles and decided that Russia should build the first nuclear power station in Turkey.

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