Will Erdoganism survive Erdogan?

In the days leading up to the recent NATO Summit in Vilnius, all the major players in this event nervously watched the moves of one of the Alliance’s members. In particular, the Secretariat, the reference shareholder, the United States, together with three stone guests: Sweden, candidate to join the Alliance; poor Ukraine, which fifteen years after the NATO Summit in Bucharest in 2008 where its future entry into the organization was announced, had to settle for a conclusion substantially identical to that of fifteen years ago, and even the European Union which, in an ideal world where autonomy was valued, even if it were strategic, would clearly distinguish itself from NATO.

At the origin of the tension on the shores of the Baltic was Turkish President Recep Tayypp Erdogan. For a few days he held everyone’s breath before offering his assent to Sweden’s entry into the Atlantic Alliance, but was quick to add that the Turkish Parliament will have the final word as part of a relaunch of Turkey’s accession process to the European Union, suspended since 2007.

This situation must have also generated a lot of confusion with reversals of roles that were nothing short of tragicomic. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Sweden’s entry into NATO was a “historic milestone”, while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said “Turkey is closer to the EU”. Nothing better than these two cross-statements illustrates how the two organizations are now overlapping and their respective leaders interchangeable.

Leaving aside the supporting actors, or the current leaders of NATO and the EU Commission, it is more appropriate to focus on the protagonists, those who – for better or for worse – have made and are making history. In this first part of the twenty-first century, the Turkish President seems to be at ease in the latter role.

It is difficult to find in the last two decades a leader more unpredictable, unscrupulous, but at the same time charismatic than the current President of Turkey. It is perhaps still premature to imagine whether the latter will have an impact on his country equal to or greater than Mustafa Kemal, the father of modern Turkey; but there is no doubt that before the international importance that Erdogan has been able to impress on his country, that of Kemal Ataturk, frankly, pales.

There has been no international dossier in these two decades in which Turkey has not played a role: NATO, EU, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Ukraine, conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kurdish question, terrorism, Arab Spring, political Islam, migration flows, energy dossiers, food security. The list is certainly approximated by default.

Of course, Turkish foreign policy has known successes and failures, among the latter, the most important one has taken place in Syria. The attempt to overthrow Bashar Al Assad so stubbornly carried out by Erdogan has failed and the collateral damage – that is, the support for Islamic fundamentalism and fringes close to Al Qaeda with all the related episodes of terrorism – has been very high. Among these collateral damages, we must certainly not forget the surge in migratory flows to Europe in 2015.

Erdogan, however, never lost heart and continued to play on multiple tables. Bellicous in Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan, crucial in bringing Azerbaijan to victory in the recent conflict with Armenia, very close to a spectacular success in brokering in spring 2022 a possible truce between Russia and Ukraine, fundamental in concluding the agreement for grain exports from Ukraine that have prevented – for some time – a global food crisis.

In Vilnius, Erdogan played his cards well. No one now believes that Turkey will be able to join the EU but the Turkish leader would still have obtained a whole series of concessions: a more open EU visa regime for Turkish citizens, always with the EU an improvement of the current Customs Agreement, and, finally, the green light from the United States to the supply of new F16 aircraft. Potentially destabilizing situations such as the provocative public burning of the Koran, clumsily and incomprehensibly authorized by the Swedish authorities, have not influenced, confirming the great pragmatism that Erdogan – if necessary – is able to manifest.

One of the EU’s main priorities, the management of migration flows from the Middle East and North Africa, remains conditional on the will of Ankara, which hosts millions of Syrian refugees and plays a leading role in Libya, from where a large percentage of migration flows from Africa originate.

Ankara, therefore, continues to adopt a variable geometry policy: it is a member of NATO but does not subscribe to Western sanctions against Russia, plays the mediating role in the conflict but then supports Kiev’s aspiration to join NATO and frees 4 prominent members of the Azov brigade captured in Mariupol breaking the agreements signed with Moscow for the exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine.

After years and resources spent supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, now Turkey, thirsty for capital, opens to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who see the organization as smoke and mirrors, and has just re-established diplomatic relations with Egypt. There are even rumors of President El Sissi’s upcoming trip to Ankara.

Erdogan always seems ready to change his positions according to the convenience of the moment, he could soon become the first NATO member to join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) the group that is increasingly emerging as the alter ego of the G7 on the international scene and that would seem oriented to create its own currency for trade alternative to the dollar: a real finger in the eye against the United States, whose potential consequences are still to be assessed

This nonchalance begins to be labeled with an ad hoc term: “Erdoganism”, that is, a set of ideology, use of force, persistence and pragmatism.

The ideology has its roots in political Islam that allows Erdogan to still benefit from a vast area of consensus in deep Anatolia, the real hard core of his many years of political success. Pragmatism is pursued in the pure interest of the country and above all its personal interest with a simple slogan “yesterday is yesterday and today is today”, that is, everything and the opposite of everything is possible. In his conduct, the Turkish President uses a skillful dose of intimidation and hope. To complete the salient features of Erdoganism contribute a strong dose of populism on the basis of a sort of “spirit of doing”. Many grandiose infrastructural works carried out by Erdogan in the past twenty years have suffered strong criticism from secular parties, but the fact remains that a substantial part of the Turkish population finds in these achievements reasons for strong national pride. Erdogan’s top adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, who has just been appointed head of intelligence in place of Hakan Fidan, who moves to the foreign ministry after more than a decade in office, coined the term “precious solitude” in 2013 to identify and justify Turkish populist choices, especially in the crucial period between the Arab Spring of 2010 and the failed coup of 2016. The “precious solitude” was, for a long time, a power multiplier for the Turkish leader.

The synthesis of all this set of political choices and slogans flows into a synthesis “Turkish Islam” that plays a leading role both in the domestic and foreign policy of Turkey with evident offshoots towards Central Asia where the Turkish linguistic strain is quite widespread.

Erdogan’s main problem, of course, is Erdogan, especially his stubbornness. On the economic side, where the situation in Turkey is far from rosy also due to the recent terrible earthquake, it has in recent years adopted some economic choices that openly conflict with the fundamentals of macroeconomics; For example, the claim to combat the very high level of inflation in the country by lowering rather than raising the level of interest rates. With the number of finance ministers and central bank governors fired by Erdogan in recent years, a football club could be formed.

It is no coincidence, however, that, in the aftermath of the Vilnius Summit, the doyen of US investigative journalists (one of the few remaining in the camp) Seymour Hersh, and who still boasts excellent sources in the ganglia of Washington’s power, revealed that in exchange for Sweden’s access to NATO, President Biden promised Erdogan a credit line of $ 11-13 billion that would be made available by the International Monetary Fund. See.

A financial crisis, in fact, could be the main threat looming for Turkey but in the future it is likely that even in this last unfortunate eventuality Erdogan has some rabbits to pull out of the hat. After all, he holds the keys to part of Europe’s energy supplies at a very critical time and, above all, if he were cornered, he could once again open the banks to a migratory flow of millions of people heading towards the old continent.

While in the complex Turkish affair no one seems to have trump cards, the main question remains: will Erdoganism survive Erdogan?