Erdoğan’s sell-by date in the international arena has long passed, says Esen Uslu. But be warned - that is exactly why he will be looking to stoke up conflicts
Naciye Hanim - a Turkish delegate to the first congress of the Peoples of the East, held in Baku in September 1920 - stated in her speech: “To see the dawn, one has to pass through the dark night.” She was presenting a five-point programme for women and her speech was greeted by the Turkic chant, “Yashasun sarqin azad hanumlari!” (‘Long live the free women of the east!’). Soon after, together with 15 other communists returning home, she was killed in a horrific atrocity carried out secretly by a covert Kemalist organisation in January 1921.
Today Iranian women are leading the passage through those dark nights, setting alight their headscarves that illuminate the way ahead to all. Their brave actions revived the old slogan of the 1979 revolution, Merg ber shah (‘Death to Shah’) in a new form: Merg ber diktatur (‘Death to the dictator’). Our hearts and minds are with them. We hope they will see the dawn after passing through the darkness following all their sacrifices.
Meanwhile, the Caucasus never stops catching people unawares. Following the Russian-imposed truce at the end of the short war fought over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, there were hopes for a new peaceful period of reconstruction.
Leaders of both sides came together at a meeting hosted by European Council president Charles Michel in Brussels last month. They seemed to agree on holding further talks on the border issue, as well as the ‘Lachin Corridor’, which is the route providing access between Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh which passes through Azerbaijan-controlled territory.
While returning control of the Lachin Corridor to Azerbaijan was a difficult thing to agree for the Armenian government, Azerbaijan was insisting on the opening of the railroad between Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan, passing through the Zangezur region of Armenia. The so-called ‘Zangezur Corridor’ is another disputed provision of the truce agreement arranged by Russia. The land connection between Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan would create a direct link between Turkey and Azerbaijan proper, and in effect create a barrier between Armenia and Iran.
The dispute suddenly erupted into a shooting war and in a couple of days more than 200 soldiers from both sides were killed. For the first time Armenia sought the military intervention of Russia as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Russia refused to oblige, and the other members - the former Soviet countries - were not willing to do anything either. A ceasefire agreement was reached, according to Armenian sources, but the Azerbaijani side did not make any comment on the issue.
After the ceasefire, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited Armenia as an unofficial US envoy to the disputed territories. She stated that the recent fighting was initiated by the Azeris, and made utterances supporting the ‘territorial security’ and sovereignty of Armenia. While she had one eye on the approaching US elections, her visit also served as a means of showing the US flag in the region. She was the most senior US official ever to visit Armenia. While Russia is bogged down in Ukraine, it was yet another poke in the eye.
However. in the Caucuses a poke in the eye is not a clever move. A few days later Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin met in Uzbekistan during the summit of heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Erdoğan’s buddy-buddy photographs with Putin and other leaders were circulated in the Turkish press to bolster his image for the approaching elections. However, the outcome of the summit was not very promising. The reality was that, like many other leaders, he felt obliged to flatter Putin in order to get some kind of discount on gas prices.
At the end of the summit, the joint declaration contained a rebuff to Erdoğan:
Member-states note the inadmissibility of interference in the internal affairs of states under the pretext of countering terrorism and extremism, as well as the inadmissibility of the use of terrorist, extremist and radical groups for selfish ends.
While the leaders were meeting there was a shooting conflict going on along the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border. At the same time, China’s Uyghur problem is ongoing, while the border dispute between China and India is on ice, and the problems of both Iran and Russia were apparent. Under those conditions, everybody on the summit table was eying others with suspicion.
Since the early 2000s there has apparently been an ‘Eurasianist’ trend within Turkey’s state apparatus: that is, the military and security services, as well as the top bureaucrats. They seem to want to counter the overwhelming American influence in Turkey’s social and political life by looking towards the east. After all the ups and downs of recent political upheavals in Turkey, Erdoğan seemed to comply with this trend, together with other policies forced upon him by the state apparatus. Today it is presented as some kind of multi-faceted foreign policy and praised by his supporters.
However, it is a tightrope to balance on, and there are consequences. The US snubbed Erdoğan’s policies, and started taking up others, aimed at shifting the balance of forces in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean seas. Turkey’s traditional trump card of geostrategic location was starting to be undermined.
The port of Alexandroupolis in Greece near the Turkish border was selected as the supply base for the US military in its operations in the Balkans and eastern Europe. A rapid expansion of the port’s facilities followed, including a substantial Greek army barracks as part of the military build-up. Now the port is being expanded further in order to berth US destroyers. Similar schemes are ongoing in the naval and air bases in Crete.
The Turkish participation in the F-35 fighter programme was terminated unceremoniously after Turkey opted to buy air defence missiles from Russia. Turkey did not receive a response to its request for the upgrading of its existing F-16 fighters, at the same time as French Dassault Rafale fighters were being sold to the Greek airforce. And, to add insult to injury, Greece’s own F-16 jets were being upgraded, while Athens has begun the process of purchasing F-35 jets through a formal application. Greece has also proceeded to purchase three frigates from France, to be delivered in 2025‑26.
When Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited the US, he was feted and invited to address the Congress, where he received a standing ovation. On the day of the British queen’s funeral, Erdoğan was in New York, preparing for a meeting of the UN general assembly. While all the world’s prominent leaders were in London, he was not invited to the funeral and passed the time feeding the animals in Central Park.
Turkey has always been a country renowned for its bizarre behaviour, but this time the lackey press overdid itself: the minister of foreign affairs’ departure for the queen’s funeral was reported in one newspaper with the headline, “He is off to bury the queen”!
Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s much anticipated address to the general assembly was nothing but a list of Turkey’s trump cards in international politics: the Ukraine grain corridor, the refugee issue, its ‘multi-faceted’ foreign policy, acting as a mediator in relations with Russia, etc. The Turkish press claimed it made a big impact, but, in reality, it is obvious that the president’s sell-by date in the international arena has passed.
In this context, the only remaining option for him, along with his supporters within the state, is to consider flaring up a conflict to fan nationalist and xenophobic fervour. That is a real danger that we should not ignore.