Russia and democracy factors in Turkish-US relations

Russia and democracy factors in Turkish-US relations

It was April 2009 when new U.S. President Barack Obama paid his first overseas visit to Turkey and delivered a speech in the Turkish parliament.

Hopes were high. Turkey looked like a perfect example in its region for American eyes looking from some 10 thousand kilometers away. The economic figures were better than many European countries. The democratically-elected moderate Islamic government led by Tayyip Erdoğan was curbing the enthusiasm of the military in politics. The “Zero problems with its neighbors” slogan in foreign policy was seemingly working. Turkey was mediating between world powers and Iran on its nuclear program, beginning to talk with Armenian and Kurds in Iraq, had excellent relations with Syria and Egypt; yes, there was this “One minute” problem with Israel, but that seemed recoverable, too. The Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government was like a cure for cancer to Middle East ideologues in Washington D.C.; it was Islamic, democratic and economically successful.

The picture in April 2015, seven years after Obama’s speech, is quite different as the Turkish foreign minister is about to talk to his host, John Kerry.

First of all, the Turkish economy is no longer a success story with rising unemployment, inflation and a decrease in growth and the value of the Turkish Lira. The Turkish economy has been idling for the last three years according to President Erdoğan, who tends to put the blame on an international interest rate lobby working against Turkey’s success. As Turkey became the chair for the G-20 group, Turkey’s rank among them fell from 17 to 19 last year.

Secondly, Erdoğan and his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, publicly regret the trials against members of the military and accuses their former close ally, Fethullah Gülen (an Islamist scholar living in the U.S.), of framing the soldiers by cheating the government. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu now enjoy when there is a statement from the military supporting government policies, especially on the Kurdish issue, something they used to criticize strongly up until recently. And military-to-military relations are again about to be the main axis of Turkish-U.S. relations. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said she would not answer a question on the use of the İncirlik air base because it was a military matter. 

Thirdly, Turkey’s foreign policy is far from having zero problems with its neighbors, as was the case of 2009. Erdoğan and the Turkish government are trying hard to topple the president of Syria amid the civil war there, to learn the details of the nuclear agreement with Iran from the Americans, are worried about Iran’s rising influence in Iraq, do not recognize the current regime in Egypt, have no political relations with Israel (they even have no ambassadors in Israel, Egypt and Syria) and have been subject to accusations of underestimating rising radical terrorism by Islamist groups in Iraq and Syria. Turkey’s relations with Armenia are at their lowest point amid rows about the 100th year of the tragic Armenian deportation by the Ottoman government.

And there have been two new factors in seven years.

President Erdoğan’s desire to bring a super-presidency system to Turkey with a vague separation of powers and even lesser checks-and-balances began to raise questions about the quality of Turkish democracy. A decrease of that quality could decrease the exemplary value of Turkey to the Middle East and Central Asian countries; that is of strategic value for the U.S., who again started to worry about Russia’s rising influence, especially after the crisis in Ukraine.

It is true that Erdoğan has approved the installation of a strategic early warning radar for the NATO-operated U.S. Missile Shield system with missiles based in Poland. But it is also true that the U.S. is not very comfortable with the Turkish government and Erdoğan being in such close terms with Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. A NATO country being dependent on Russia for energy is seemingly another matter.
In addition to a lower country profile, the quality of democracy and strategic relations with Russia are two factors which have the potential to influence Turkish-U.S. relations.