Turkey, under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has for some time been presenting an increasingly disturbing picture that is causing great concern in the country’s neighbourhood: rampant repression at home and aggressive rhetorics, even provocative military action, on the outside. The power-opportunistic politics with Russia’s President Putin is also worrying. This is straining relations with the EU and NATO even further.

Turkey under Erdogan – the transition from a bearer of hope to an autocrat

Turkey’s internal situation is characterised by a far-reaching abolition of democratic freedom, a politicized judiciary as well as the extensive elimination of freedom of the press and an existential intimidation of civil society.

Foreign policy is dominated by inflammatory rhetorics, gunboat policy vis-à-vis Greece in the Aegean, the bizarre unilateral drawing of maritime borders in violation of the international Convention on the Law of the Sea in the Eastern Mediterranean, and internationally condemned exploratory drilling for fossil fuels not only in the territorial waters of Cyprus. The list can be extended: keywords are Syria and Libya.

In the early years of the new millennium, as a bearer of hope AKP (Justice and Development Party) founder Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister of the emerging country Turkey, was pampered by large parts of the left-wing European establishment. From those days onwards, almost textbook-like, along the timeline of the past decade, today’s constitutional autocrat and president has gradually emerged. He is endowed with almost unlimited powers and his only goal is to secure his personal power.

In retrospect, the first ten years of the Erdogan system until 2013 can be seen as a period of exemplary modernisation of Turkey, with spurts of expanded rule of law, social liberalization conforming to EU standards and infrastructure development that did not have to shy away from European comparison and produced growth rates of 8% p.a. and more.

The first fault line was the previously unprecedented uprising against the regime in 2013, the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, which lasted several weeks, attracted considerable international attention, and led to a bulk of repressive measures on the part of the system. For the first time, the Republic of Erdogan showed the entire world its dark side aimed at maintaining power.

The second fault line up to the present, was the failed coup attempt of July 2016, which has led the country step by step into the constitutional autocracy described above, with multiple forms of repression.

Turkey as a regional anchor of stability

The candidate status granted to Turkey by the EU in 2004 and the accession negotiations starting in 2005 de facto imploded in 2018: the country under the Erdogan system has moved too far away from the Copenhagen Criteria, which have marked the political guidelines for all accession processes since 1993.

At the same time, EU capitals and Brussels fully recognise Turkey as an important anchor of stability, located between Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, despite the restrictions and continuous violations of the rule-based accession process by the Erdogan regime. In recent years, moreover, the country has moved further away than ever, and significantly further than in 2004, from the EU acquis communautaire. Accession seems impossible for decades to come.

The response to these given circumstances can only be to look ahead, beyond the short horizon of the remaining period of the Erdogan system, to manage its adversities and impositions, and to do everything possible to moderate further escalations out of the way.

Today, Europe’s strategic attention must be focused on the “day after,” namely the day when Turkey’s current leadership runs out of steam. There is no explicit date for this, but for some time now, the erosion and decay of the current power structure have been tangible. This is evidenced by the founding of new parties from within the AKP and the numerous resignations of Erdogan’s long-time political fellow travellers .

For even after D-day, Turkey is and will remain an indispensable and irreplaceable neighbour, partner and factor of stability in a region shattered by crises, conflicts and wars.

Turkey and Russia: never a tension-free relationship

For centuries, the Russian/Soviet/Russian-Turkish relationship has been characterized by animosities, competition for spheres of influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and issues of power expansion and ideology during the Ottoman era. Turkey’s NATO accession in 1952 was largely due to its role as a “frontline state” and direct neighbour of the Soviet Union. For decades, Turkey was considered as the south-eastern pillar of NATO, with a U.S. airbase in Incirlik in the southeast of the country near the Syrian border that remains strategically important and capable of nuclear sharing to this day.

Yet both states and societies are fundamentally different: despite repeated autocratic/authoritarian periods, Turkish society is fundamentally democratic, and democratic reflexes are functioning. The local elections of 2018 can be taken as evidence, when in many cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, the long-term AKP mayors loyal to Erdogan were virtually swept away by the will of the people.

Unlike Russia, which is rich in fossil energy (the world’s largest gas station), Turkey, like Germany, is poor in raw materials in this area. Yet the age of renewable energies could allow Turkey, a country rich in wind, sun and uninhabited space, to grow into a major energy producer. Lack of legal certainty for foreign investors is currently the biggest obstacle.

In the past twenty years, the country lived mainly on European direct investment in the expectation of further rapprochement with the EU. Due to the internal constitution and an aggressive foreign policy, investor confidence has dwindled, which has also been reflected in the dramatic decline of the Turkish lira since 2015. In this respect, the situation in Turkey and Russia is similar, as Russia’s economy has also suffered massively from the sanctions introduced since 2014 due to the Russian-backed war in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. This is complemented by the drop in prices for fossil fuels.

In terms of foreign policy, the differences are obvious: Turkey is an important regional power, even in today’s politics marked by manifold phantom pains as a former Ottoman superpower. In this respect it is not unlike Russia as the successor to the Soviet Union. However, Turkey is not a nuclear power, albeit a founding member of the United Nations in 1945, yet not a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Its military power projection capabilities are limited. Unlike Russia, Turkey is not an actor who could globally assert national interests.

Putin and Erdogan close ranks against the EU

The shooting down of a Russian fighter jet over Turkish territory by Turkish air raid defences in the Syrian-Turkish border area in December 2015 marked the all time low in bilateral relations for the time being. Moscow then brought its multiple bilateral torture tools to bear, such as halting tomato imports and tourist exports, which eventually forced the Turkish president to apologise for the shootdown, as per Russia’s request.

Since then, the Russian president has courted his Turkish colleague mainly in an effort to alienate Turkey from the U.S., NATO and the EU, which Erdogan misinterprets as a sign of national and his own personal significance. Thus, against Washington’s declared will, Putin cleverly equipped NATO member Turkey with the Russian S400 defence missile system, intensified cooperation in Syria seemingly on an equal footing with Turkey, or supported the construction of a new nuclear power plant. The ostensibly improved relationship with Russia allows the Turkish president to play this as his trump card vis-à-vis Washington, Brussels and some EU capitals such as Berlin whenever blackmail by Ankara is the means of choice to enforce its own interests. In particular, the EU felt this in the refugee issue.