Has ‘the West’ crossed out Erdoğan’s name?
This time a year ago, Turkey was experiencing its largest ever wave of civil protests, following the government’s strong reaction to protesters who did not want a shopping mall to be built over one of the last remaining green spots at the heart of Istanbul: Gezi Park in Taksim Square.
Erdoğan’s reactions - first to the Gezi protests and then to the corruption probe in December 2013 - quickly eroded his image in the West as a conservative reformer. Ordering the police to not hesitate to crush demonstrators (which has resulted in the death of eight young people up to now) and putting pressure on the media, including restricting access to social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube, led to criticism in the U.S. and European media that Erdoğan was turning into an Islamist autocrat, (with caricatures portraying him as a sultan with a gas mask in his hand), when combined with his strong stance regarding Syria, Egypt and Israel.
It is a fact that U.S. President Barack Obama is not on as good terms with Erdoğan as he used to be. Following a six month break, the two leaders had their first telephone conversation in February 2014, and Obama’s call to President Abdullah Gül to convey his condolences over the death of 301 coal miners, rather than to Erdoğan, was noted by the prime minister.
It is a fact that Erdoğan’s meeting with his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) supporters in Europe in the German city of Cologne - as Turkey heads towards the August presidential elections where Turks living abroad will also cast their vote for the first time - has also created tension between the German and Turkish governments. Turkey’s relations with the European Union are not at their best stage, and a number of parties in Europe are asking for membership negotiations with Turkey to be cut after the European Parliament elections.
It is a fact that from voices - ranging from Freedom House to the International Press Institute, from the U.S. State Department to EU progress reports - have started to write about deterioration in Turkey when it comes to rights.
But does all this mean the West has crossed out Erdoğan’s name? And if so, does Erdoğan care?
The answers to both questions could be the same: No, not likely.
First of all, Turkey’s geography and Turkey’s size in terms of its military, economic growth, and political positioning make it almost indispensable for Western interests.
Secondly, Erdoğan won the March 30 local elections with a clear margin, demonstrating the popular support behind him, despite the major wave of corruption claims against his government and even family members.
Western leaders may not like Erdoğan, may not like to socialize with him (and the feelings might be reciprocal), but it would be against their national interests to cut their relations with Turkey. That is more or less what Erdoğan thinks.
As former British Prime Minister Lord Henry Palmerstone said in 1848, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
The point is that when a government has credibility issues abroad because of what is happening inside the country, it usually makes it more vulnerable to extra demands being made by countries or companies. Some might think about taking the opportunity to ask for diplomatic, economic, security related agreements that they would hesitate to ask for at times when things are normal.
This doesn’t mean that Erdoğan would accept possible additional demands from Western countries or big companies who want to try their chances at a difficult time. But it does mean that, despite all the public fuss, the West has not crossed out Erdoğan’s name. On the contrary, some might think that this is the perfect time to do more business.