An important week for Turkey
This week is important for Turkey not only for its economy and the prosperity of the people but for its key political relations with the United States.
Relations between the two countries have been stuck in a bottleneck over the release of an American evangelical pastor, Andrew Brunson, who has been under arrest since 20 months over charges of helping terrorist organizations in Turkey, where he has been living for 20 years.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration considers the immediate release of Brunson as a must in order for relations with Turkey to go back on track, ignoring the ongoing court procedure, possibly due to Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s earlier suggestion to “Deliver the priest and take the priest.” The priest Erdoğan demands is Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania resident Islamic preacher, who is accused of masterminding the June 15, 2016 coup attempt using his illegal network in the state apparatus.
Erdoğan revealed on Aug. 11 that during a meeting at the U.S. Department of State on Aug. 8, American diplomats told Turkish counterparts the White House wanted the immediate release of Brunson by 6 p.m. that day. That was rejected on the spot. Now, word in the diplomatic backstage says Americans asked for his release in a week, which allegedly expires on Wednesday, Aug. 15. This has not yet been confirmed by any official source.
Erdoğan also said Trump sacrificing its longtime NATO ally Turkey “for a priest” was a threat and unacceptable. He said Turkey was not without alternatives and could be in search of other allies, implying partnerships with Russia and China. Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government highlights the role of Trump and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s recent statements as a part of their domestic political ambitions to speculate on evangelical votes before the November midterm elections as the sole reason of the ongoing currency fever in Turkey.
It is true that recent tweets by Trump and Pence have had a damaging effect on the Turkish Lira against the United States dollar with their timing and content. On the other hand, the depreciation of the lira is not something new and for the last few years, even before the coup attempt and the arrest of Brunson, there were warnings by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that there was “overheating” in the economy, with rising inflation and interest rates.
When the AK Parti was elected in 2002, the value of the dollar was 1.57 against the lira. When the dollar had risen from 1.80 to 1.90 during the Gezi protests in June 2013, Erdoğan had accused the demonstrators of being the puppets of the “interest rate lobby,” which tries to ruin the Turkish economy. Even after the graft probes of Dec. 17-25, 2013, which were closed down because of being plots of Gülenist police officers, prosecutors and judges, the rate was 2.04.
In May 2018, the loss of the lira against the dollar was 22 percent in a year. In August, the annual loss was 44 percent. Güven Sak, a prominent economist who is the head of the Turkish Economic Policies Foundation (TEPAV) said the loss of the lira against the dollar has dipped to 70 percent in the last decade. He pointed out that what is more worrying is 90 percent of this loss has been since 2014. Sak added that the depreciation had started in 2007 when Turkey stopped its structural reform program.
So, the rift with the U.S. is not the only reason for the currency fever, but interventions by the Trump administration have been used as a weapon to further weaken lira, with the purpose of putting political pressure on Erdoğan.
Secondly, Erdoğan has a point when he said Turkey is not without alternatives. The remark is similar to that of İsmet İnönü, the Turkish Prime minister of 1964, who in reply to a threatening letter by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson (because of a crisis in Cyprus) said, “A new world could be found and Turkey can take its place in it.”
Turkey was not established with the help of the U.S. and will not cease to exist without its help.
On the other hand, Turkey’s alternatives are to be examined carefully.
The first question is, would Turkey still be a part of NATO, the Western defense alliance, while being at odds with the U.S.? If Turkey is out of NATO, that would be a tremendous gain for Russia for example, and a loss for EU countries, which heavily depend on NATO for their defense, especially when considering their fear of Russia.
The second question is about the EU economies. If the Turkish economy goes down, in which way would it influence the EU banking system, imports and exports?
The third question: Turkey is still a candidate for the EU, but only on paper. Their political relations are not good at all. If alliance relations between Turkey and the U.S. will be damaged, what could be the political implications of that to Turkish-EU relations?
Would Russia, China, and perhaps Iran be reliable partners for Turkey? Both Russia and Iran have been historical rivals in the region for centuries, even before the U.S. was even a dream. In a way, the near history of Turkey is wars with Russia and alliances with the Western powers against it, and vice versa, alliances with Russia against the Western powers, then the United Kingdom and France. And China is the rising power in global geopolitics but Turkey may not be an indispensable partner for it in Beijing’s relations with the U.S. and the EU.
If Trump and Pence think that when they threaten Erdoğan with economic and military sanctions they could instigate a popular uprising against him, that means they and their advisers do not even have a clue about the psyche of societies in the old world, including Turkey. It is more likely to serve a rally-around-the-flag factor in this part of the world.
There is not only one opposition party slamming Erdoğan for challenging Trump. For example, Meral Akşener of the Good (İYİ) Party said, “We will not leave punishing our boy to strangers.” On the other hand, Trump, as the leader of world’s biggest economic and military power, has put himself in an unnecessary impasse by linking the preferences of a voter base to the collective anger of a nation, allowing a pastor to squeeze in between them.
There is a lot to be lost in both parties if the brinkmanship-like rift continues. I am not sure whether a call for all to be calm will work at this point.