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Dimitar Bechev: “Europe Remains the Center of Gravity for Turkey”

Relations between Turkey and the West have been eroded by years of crises, and Turkish President Erdogan’s recent attempts at rapprochement have their limits. Still, while Turkey may be drifting further away from the US, European-Turkish relations have remained remarkably resilient.
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In his recent interview with FeniksPolitik, Dimitar Bechev, a research fellow at the Atlantic Council and Futures Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, argued that Turkey is pursuing rapprochement with its Western allies as it is out of options after years of foreign policy turmoil and more recent economic crisis at home. Bechev, who is also a visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford, further posited that Europe will remain the center of gravity for Turkey and will continue to play an important role in the Balkans.


Hamdi Firat Buyuk (HFB): Why is Erdogan just now trying to revitalize troubled relations with the West?

Dimitar Bechev (DB): There are several reasons for this. Some have to do with the international environment and others with Turkey’s domestic situation. Internationally, many have highlighted the change at the White House. With the transfer to the Biden administration, Erdogan has lost his main ally in Washington, DC. Erdogan and Trump had built a partnership through which the two could do business and through which Erdogan could be shielded from US sanctions. Biden changed this approach. Still, this doesn’t mean that Biden has given up on Turkey. Erdogan and Biden’s meeting on the margins of the NATO Summit in Brussels suggests that Turkey and the US can work together, but at the same time the US seems to be giving Turkey “tough love”. The US has its conditions and it isn’t cutting Erdogan any slack. Also, the notion that Turkey could play off Russia against the US and maybe reach out to China is still a possibility. These potentials will continue to inform Turkish foreign policy, but they have their limits.

At the regional level, especially in the Middle East but also in the Eastern Mediterranean, we see that Turkey is running out of options as it is being cornered by coalitions of various countries ranging from France to Cyprus all the way to United Arab Emirates. This has made it difficult for Turkey to maneuver. Lastly, domestic dynamics are increasingly important because at the end of the day Turkey still operates as a competitive political system despite authoritarian drift. Anti-Western rhetoric isn’t animating voters anymore, especially during these times of economic distress made worse by COVID-19.

HFB: Do you think that Turkey’s rapprochement with the West will be successful considering the years of crises and the deterioration of trust?

DB: We have to distinguish the varying rapprochements occurring at the same time. We see one with the US, a second with the EU, and a third with regional rivals like Egypt and Israel. I am a bit skeptical of Turkey’s rapprochement with the US because there are a myriad of controversial issues to unpack. Expectations on both sides aren’t very high. In the old days of the 1990s, US voices were constantly arguing Turkey’s case, especially within the foreign policy establishment, the Pentagon, and Congress. Now both the right and the left have reasons to be skeptical of Turkey. The right points to the AKP’s Islamic tendencies, Islamist roots, and its standoff with Israel, while the left scrutinizes the Erdogan-Trump connection. US Congress is packed with Turkey skeptics. Many issues are still unresolved, including those revolving around US and Turkish involvement in Syria, and the US’s alliance with the YPG (Kurdish militants in Syria).

When it comes to Turkey’s rapprochement with the EU, despite the harsh words and acrimony of 2017 and 2018, geographic proximity and economic factors continue to play an important part in EU-Turkish relations. Even if it wouldn’t seem so based on its foreign policy, Turkey is still a part of the Euro-sphere in terms of trade and human linkages. Europe remains the center of gravity for Turkey. Turkey and the EU renewed their agreement on the refugee issue and will continue to discuss updating the Customs Union. Many issues still need to be addressed, but there is genuine interest from both sides in making headway. So, even though the US and Turkey may be drifting apart, it is very remarkable that Turkey-EU relations have proven so resilient. When it comes to Egypt, this rapprochement is still new and we have not seen much progress despite the will of both sides.

HFB: What role will democracy and human rights play as the West also seeks to mend relations with Turkey?

DB: This will remain on the agenda, but I think European and US policy makers are being realistic. They have lost leverage. This is very obvious in the case of the EU. 20 years ago, it had significant influence over Turkish domestic affairs, but now it has become clear that Erdogan cannot be persuaded. There might be cosmetic changes here and there but the EU cannot force Turkey to make a U-turn. Unfortunately, this probably means that relations will operate on a business-like, pragmatic level. However, this doesn’t mean that criticism from European governments and the European Parliament will cease to exist. After all, human rights and democracy are part of the European Parliament’s DNA. But here, Turkey is continuing to look inward and is remaining rather self-contained; these criticisms won’t affect the balance.

HFB: Seeing that both of us also work on the Balkans, I would like to ask you about Turkey’s future role in the Balkans when considering recent developments in Turkish domestic and foreign affairs?

DB: I think it is a function of Turkey-Europe affairs, because at the end of the day the Balkans are Turkey’s link to the EU. Currently there is much speculation that Turkey is trying to challenge Western supremacy in the Balkans as part of a new consort of emerging powers including Russia and China. This line of argument is observed in the rhetoric coming from Ankara to some degree, but essentially Turkey is different from Russia and China because Turkey itself is a part of the region. People in the West who see Turkey as an external actor in the Balkans often forget that Turkey is actually a Balkan country as much as it is a Middle Eastern or Caucasus country. Even though Turkey doesn’t have the resources, soft power, and influence to play first fiddle in the Balkans, it is and will always be a part of the region due to societal and economic ties, regardless of who is in power in Ankara. Still, this doesn’t mean that Turkey is able to affect Balkan countries’ domestic processes in terms of elections and business dealings, for example. There are limits to Turkey’s influence on the ground in the region.