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Why is Turkey torn between the United States and Russia?

In the last five years, the majority of Turkish society has embraced anti-western discourses probably at the deepest level since NATO membership in 1952.

Ahmet T. Kuru
11 June 2019
Erdogan welcomes Putin to Ankara, Turkey, April, 2018.
Erdogan welcomes Putin to Ankara, Turkey, April, 2018.
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Depo Photos/PA. All rights reserved.

On May 21, 2019, Turkey’s defense minister declared that it was preparing for US sanctions. This was an unusual declaration for a NATO member. The reason was Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems. Yet this debate is only the tip of the iceberg. Turkish policymakers led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are seriously considering the possibility of shifting Turkey’s geopolitical position by ending its NATO membership. Although the political decision on such a shift is unlikely given Turkey’s fragile economic conditions, a demand for it already exists in certain segments of Turkish society. In the last five years, the majority of Turkish society has embraced anti-western discourses probably at the deepest level since Turkey’s NATO membership in 1952.

The international media has covered various anti-western statements of Erdogan. Erdogan’s discourse does not simply reflect his personal taste; instead, it is shared by two large socio-political groups in Turkey. These groups, the Islamists and ultranationalist Kemalists, are now the two main pillars of the Erdogan regime. Erdogan himself is extremely pragmatic. He will risk losing the support of these groups if he decides to go back to the pro-western attitudes he cultivated between 2002 and 2012. For now, anti-westernism is the glue that brings Islamist and ultranationalist Kemalist elements of the current regime together. That is why analyzing these groups and their connections to anti-westernism is crucial to understanding current Turkish politics.

Before examining Islamists and ultranationalist Kemalists separately, it is worth pointing out that these groups’ anti-westernism is not a simple criticism of problematic US policies toward the Middle East, such as the invasion of Iraq. Instead, it is a sweeping reaction against the West as if western countries constitute a monolithic and homogenous entity.

Islamists

In Turkey, Islamists are politically organized around Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), and many of them are socially organized in various Islamic communities and tariqas. Islamists are generally unaware of intellectual, social, and religious diversity in western countries and perceive these countries as hostile against Islam en masse.

For Islamists, the westernizing reforms in the late Ottoman and the early Republican periods betrayed Islamic civilization; they meant a deviation from Turks’ true culture and tradition. Islamists argue that western civilization is doomed to fail and that Islamic civilization promises to flourish in the future. In short, the philosophical basis of Islamists’ anti-westernism is a utopian notion of Islamic civilization, as something providing authentic solutions to all sorts of political and socio-economic problems. Thus they define “Islamic civilization” as inherently different from and even the opposite of “Western civilization.”

From a geopolitical point of view, Islamists’ anti-westernism is associated with their utopian notion of Muslim umma (global community). For them, Turkey should lead an Islamic union, rather than being a member of the European Union or NATO. If we simply look at the antagonistic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia; the Saudi air bombings in Yemen; oppressive policies of Turkish, Iraqi, and Iranian governments against Kurds; and the tension between Sunnis and Shias throughout the Muslim word; the Islamists’ idea of an Islamic union, similar to their notion of Islamic civilization, appears to be a mere fiction.

Ultranationalist Kemalists

The second major group defending anti-westernism in Turkey is the ultranationalist Kemalists, who primarily flourish in the AKP’s coalition partner – the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). The ultranationalist Kemalists are also very influential in bar associations and they have a certain level of collaboration with the Erdogan regime at this capacity as well. Obviously, Kemalists are not monolithic; there exists a pro-western type of Kemalist, who opposes ultranationalism and anti-westernism. The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), includes both types of Kemalists.

Unlike Islamists, Ultranationalist Kemalists do not believe in the existence of an Islamic civilization as an alternative to western civilization. For decades, ultranationalist Kemalists defended assertive secularist policies, such as banning female students’ headscarves in universities. France was the source of inspiration for their assertive secularism, in general, and the headscarf ban, in particular. Additionally, ultranationalist Kemalists love western dress as part of a western life-style governing other aspects of their daily life. Last but not least, Ataturk pinpointed western civilization as the goal to reach for Turkey. But this anti-westernism of the ultranationalist Kemalists reflects a deep internal contradiction in three ways.

Geopolitically, ultranationalist Kemalists are fundamentally opposed to the idea of an Islamic union. For them, Russia and China should be Turkey’s strategic partners in world politics. With such an Eurasianist policy, they claim, Turkey can balance the power and imperial ambitions of the West and it can become a truly independent state. In this regard, ultranationalist Kemalists have supported the Erdogan regime for its unprecedented success in distancing Turkey from the West, particularly the United States.

This Eurasianist perspective brings various problems with it. From Bosnia to Ukraine, from Crimea to Caucasus, and from Central Asia to Syria, Russia’s geopolitical interests have contradicted those of Turkey. Historical experiences, including Ottoman-Russian wars and Stalin’s territorial demands from Turkey, and recent experiences, such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support to the Assad regime in Syria, confirm the contradictory interests between the two countries. Moreover, Russia has defended its interests by often violating international law and Turkey is militarily too weak to stop Russian intrusions.

China also pursues various policies that are unacceptable from a Turkish point of view. China is now brainwashing more than one million Muslim Uighurs in internment camps. It was the western media who alerted international attention to this scandal. In short, regarding Turkey’s geopolitical interests, Russia and China are not likely to become strategic partners. Instead, they appear to be geopolitical rivals, against whom Turkey needs the support of NATO and other western institutions.

The future of Turkish democracy and the West

Turkey is now facing the challenge of rebuilding its democracy. If Turkey cuts its institutional ties with western countries and moves to ally with Russia and China, authoritarianism will be further solidified in Turkish politics. In 1950, Turkey’s initial shift to multiparty democracy was directly linked to its decision to be part of “the free world” against the “communist bloc.” Today, the conditions are fairly similar: strong, rational, and critical relations with western countries will help Turkey reinstitute its democracy.

Moreover, good relations with western countries are crucial for Turkey to develop its scientific and educational infrastructure and to solve its economic problems. On these issues, neither Russia nor China can provide sufficient alternative solutions for Turkey. Russia has a fragile economy dependent on natural gas and the military industry. Although China has a much more diversified and dynamic economy, its financial relations with Turkey are negligeable when compared with those of western countries and institutions. Western countries are still providing Turkey with the best available opportunities in terms of geopolitical, democratic, scientific, and financial cooperation.

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