Which side are you on?

It was with this song that Pete Seeger immortalised the Harlan County war between the coal miners and their bosses in the 1930s, and it has some relevance today. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine in an attempt to recreate the Soviet Union has backfired, for the time being militarily, but also politically.

The European Union, which until recently has behaved more like a flock of sheep, has together with the United States agreed on swingeing sanctions, which will surely have a long-term effect on Russia’s economy. That the Moscow Stock Exchange has suspended trading only conceals the damage Russia’s invasion has done.

Ratings agency Fitch has downgraded Russia’s sovereign rating to 'C', warning that a default is imminent. The long queues of Russians waiting outside ATMs to withdraw cash tell their own story.

But so far President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey has chosen to sit on the fence, feigning neutrality. In 1914, in support of Germany, the Ottoman sultan declared jihad on the Allies, which resulted in the empire’s collapse and Turkey’s occupation and partition. Turkey’s War of Independence and the Lausanne Treaty in 1923 created the Turkish republic, and Turkey stayed out of the Second World War.          

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s dictum of “peace at home and peace abroad” was solid and paved the way for Turkey’s role not just as a regional power, but an honest broker in crises. But Turkey’s present leader has, through aggressive policies and a search for personal aggrandisement, dissipated Turkey’s credibility.

The EU’s decision at the Helsinki summit in 1999 to admit Turkey as a candidate country was a major step forward. The country went on to introduce a raft of reforms to its penal and civil codes, which were continued by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002. This was rewarded by the start of accession talks in 2005, which, however, faltered, as it became clear this was a ploy to subdue the military and entrench the AKP. 

Erdoğan could have been a great Turkish leader - he is already a notable one - if he had followed through on what he had said in Diyarbakır in 2005, in the first admission by a Turkish leader that Turkey had a Kurdish problem.

The Dolmabahçe Agreement in February 2015 paved the way for a settlement of the problem, but the success of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the June elections blocked the way for Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions.  

In his campaign for the executive presidency in 2017, Erdoğan admitted that the new system would concentrate power in the hands of one person. He added that he had been planning for such a system since he had been mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s.

“The executive presidency has been a project of mine,” he said. 

So, it comes as no surprise that Erdoğan has chosen to ally himself with Putin, with both having revanchist dreams of redrawing their country’s borders.

Putin has secured his presidency until 2036 and China’s Xi Jinping can hold on to his for life, but Erdoğan’s grasp of economics can rock both his and the AKP’s hold on power in Turkey’s next elections scheduled for 2023.  

In a trenchant analysis of Putin and his elite, British author and journalist Anatol Lieven has noted that great power, mixed with great resentment, is one of the most dangerous mixtures in both domestic and international politics. Indeed, this has been the driving force behind both Putin and Erdoğan and can be the downfall of both.

Erdoğan’s resentment is nurtured by his sense of injustice over the way Turkey’s pious Muslims were suppressed by the Kemalist revolution and the way his political mentor, Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party (RP), was banned in 1997. In 1974, Erdoğan was president of the Istanbul Youth Group of Erbakan’s National Salvation Party (MSP), a protagonist of political Islam, which was closed after the 1980 military coup.

At that time, Erdoğan wrote, directed and starred in his own play, titled, “Maskomya”, which was directed at Masons, Communists and Jews.

Despite Erdoğan’s recent condemnation of anti-Semitism as a crime against humanity, this has been a recurrent theme in his political rhetoric, which should moderate enthusiasm over the recent meeting between Israel’s President Isaac Herzog and Erdoğan.   

Two years ago, Erdoğan’s Directorate of Communications made Turkey’s aggressive intentions clear in a four-minute video titled, “The Red Apple”, the aim of which was the liberation of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa from Israel. Without the support of the United States and  France, Greece and its Aegean islands would be the next for the chop.

Despite its NATO membership, Turkey refuses to endorse sanctions against Russia, and president Erdoğan’s spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalın, has explained why, saying, “We have commercial ties such as natural gas, tourism and agriculture. We do not want to make a harmful move for our country.”

This was the same Kalın, who in a keynote speech at the Istanbul Forum in 2012, declared that Turkey sought to pursue a value-based and principled foreign policy.

After Russia has annexed both the Crimea and the Donbas region and launched a full-scale assault on Turkey’s close trading partner, Ukraine, it is relevant to ask which values and principles Kalın refers to.

The way things stand, Turkey is cast in the role of Russia’s stooge and risks falling between two stools.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval

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