Last week, on the eve of NATO’s summit in Vilnius, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan finally ended his opposition to Sweden’s membership. After months of brinkmanship and threats, he realized that his poker hand was relatively weak. Except for Hungary, other NATO states had become exasperated with his theatrics.
Erdoğan parlayed his resistance – first to the membership bids of both Finland and Sweden, and later just to Sweden’s – to re-election this spring. Erdogan controls domestic sources of information in Turkey; appearing to strongarm the West is a popular political ploy.
But Erdoğan is also interested in playing a larger role in global politics. He has an inflated view of himself and of Turkey; imagines that he can singlehandedly remake the global balance of power; and believes that forcing others to negotiate with him will enhance his credentials.
In rationalizing his opposition, Erdoğan accused the Swedes of harboring “terrorists” who sought asylum from his authoritarian regime. The problem is that for Erdogan, every opponent of his government is a terrorist. He has eviscerated the notion of the rule of law in Turkey – from finance and human rights to freedom of the press and day-to-day societal choices.
Without an independent judicial system, it’s impossible to determine whether Turkey’s extradition requests have legal merit. At one point, the Turks even demanded that a sitting member of the Swedish parliament, who happens to be of Iranian-Kurdish origin, be handed over.
Most of Erdoğan’s requests were those no democratic country could agree to. Rather than heed his demands, the Swedes agreed only to extradite a drug dealer and tighten rules regarding fundraising for Kurdish groups directly affiliated with counterparts in Turkey.
Erdoğan doesn’t understand that Turkey’s position is hypocritical when it comes to requesting the extradition of criminals.
Sweden had made several requests to Ankara to arrest and start extradition procedures for fugitives, drug dealers, and suspected murderers who have sought refuge in Turkey. Turkey refused these entreaties on account that the suspects now were Turkish citizens – having achieved this feat by literally buying their residency status.
Turkey wasn’t always the troublemaker of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Erdoğan was influential in the early years of his presidency when he sought to establish a moderate, liberal order at home and improve relations with allies and neighbors alike.
But as he consolidated power he became a populist-authoritarian leader with no tolerance for dissent. Surrounded by sycophants, he has gotten accustomed to getting his way at home, no matter the issue.
His real problem, and the reason he had to end his opposition to Sweden’s NATO membership, is that he’s facing an enormous economic crisis, much of it his own doing. He espouses unorthodox policies that have sent inflation through the roof.
To avoid calamity, Turkey will need vast amounts of financial help, aid with its current-account deficit, direct foreign investment, and improved market access for its manufacturing-sector exports. This is the kind of support only Turkey’s allies can provide.
Before consenting to Sweden’s NATO membership, Erdoğan tried to turn the tables: He set as a precondition that the European Union agree to reopen accession negotiations of its own with Turkey.
This is a non-starter, and he knows it. But posing the question could prompt the EU to consider deepening its customs agreement with Ankara, a move that would undoubtedly help Turkish exports.
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, did express support for Turkey’s EU accession. Of course, the endorsement is in essence meaningless, given that Stoltenberg isn’t an EU official. Yet Erdoğan will still seek to spin this as a concession to Turkish demands.
Erdoğan also wants US President Joe Biden’s administration to approve the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Ankara.
The administration, which supports the idea in principle, made it clear that as long as Erdogan blocked Sweden’s NATO bid, the sale wouldn’t fly in the US Congress, where some leaders were already upset at Turkey’s threatening overflights of Greek islands in the Aegean and other abrasive tactics in the region.
The Turkish Air Force needs F-16s because it lost its chance of acquiring more advanced F-35s on account of another case of obstinate Erdogan decision-making: the purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems.
The president authorized this move despite warnings from Washington and NATO that the systems rendered the F-35 susceptible to Russian espionage and are incompatible with alliance equipment.
The Biden administration managed this crisis exceptionally well; it was patient and kept its powder dry. It probably bemoans the many hours it wasted dealing with this issue when other, more pressing ones got short shrift.
Unfortunately, this is the world of dealing with populist authoritarians; Erdoğan isn’t the only one, and he will be back. He indicated that he would submit the Swedish accession legislation to the Turkish parliament in October after the end of the summer recess.
In other words, the Turkish president has plenty of time to try to up the ante, make other demands, or complain that the rest of Turkey’s allies aren’t living up to the deal’s conditions.
The debate over Sweden’s accession to NATO may be over, but Erdoğan’s self-serving brinkmanship will only continue.
This article was originally published in the Asia Times.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Free Turkish Press.