Panelists discuss the results of Turkey’s May 28 runoff election and what the outcome signals for the future of the country.
ROBBINS: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on “Turkey After the Elections.” I’m Carla Anne Robbins, a senior fellow at the Council. I’m also co-host of CFR’s The World Next Week podcast and faculty director of the Master of International Affairs Program at Baruch College’s Marxe School.
We’re joined today by three top experts on the region, and you all know who they are but just a quick reminder.
Merve Tahiroğlu is Turkey Program director for the Project on Middle East Democracy, where she conducts research on and advocates for democracy and human rights in Turkey. She’s also an advisory board member at the Washington-based think tank Kurdish Peace Initiative—sorry—Kurdish Peace Institute and was a fellow with the National Endowment for Democracy Penn Kemble Forum on Democracy in 2021. She’s also authored several monographs on Turkey and published articles in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, NBC, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and Politico.
Henri Barkey is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he works on the strategic future of the Kurds and as the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen chair in international relations at Lehigh University. Previously he was the director of the Middle East Center at the Woodrow Wilson Center, chair of the Department of International Relations at Lehigh, and a member of the State Department policy planning staff working on the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and intelligence-related issues.
God, I hate reading these things, although you all are incredibly accomplished.
Steven Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR. He is an expert on Arab and Turkish politics, as well as U.S.-Middle East policy. Steven is also a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine. And I always recommend his column to everyone. It’s very good. And the author of several books, including The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East, which will be published in February by the Oxford University Press.
So one note on format. This conversation is on the record. We’re going to chat for about thirty minutes among us, and then open up the conversation for questions. And you will be reminded once again about how to do this. But everyone’s a great expert on this. So with that, let’s get started.
Despite high inflation, the destruction wrought by February’s earthquakes in southern Turkey, and pre-runup polls, Turkey’s Erdoğan won the runup election handily, and his AK Party had also a very strong showing in the parliamentary vote. So the question now that we’re going to talk about this afternoon is how is Erdoğan going to rule after, what was despite those numbers, a pretty tough election fight?
So, Merve, can we start with your take on the implications of Erdoğan’s reelection for Turkey’s democracy and civil society? What does it mean for Turkish media, for the future of the opposition, and for the electoral process in Turkey?
TAHIROĞLU: Yes. Thank you. (Laughs.) This is, I think, probably the worst question I will have to answer over the course of this night, because the worst implications I think are—of the election—are in terms of Turkey’s democracy and human rights record.
So the election showed us a few things that I think are relatively new. We always knew that the elections and, you know, the electoral process over the past, you know, ten years has been pretty unfair. A lot of people say we can’t really consider an unfair electoral process a free election either. So is there a point in talking about this distinction between unfair but mostly free elections? This is what international observers have been calling Turkey’s elections in the last—since really 2013. They’re really unfair, but they are largely free, meaning that the votes actually end up counting. There isn’t, you know, like, mass levels of ballot stuffing or incidents of fraud, like that.
But I think after this election, most people are, you know, changing the way they approach this question itself, and instead of focusing on this, oh, but even with this very unfair structural process, the fact that the elections are still free really, really matters for Turkey. I think there is a big questioning around does it really mean that these elections matter if the level—if the playing field is so unlevel and so tilted towards Erdoğan and the government? Can we really say that the opposition has a—has a chance of defeating the incumbent in Turkey? I think this is a major question among Turkish voters and analysts alike. So this is a new theme moving forward.
We saw in this election by the second round more than two hundred thousand people had signed up to become election monitors. They were really trying to focus. There was a big mobilization among civil society to try to secure the vote. This is a very positive thing, of course, but also it shows us, you know, how little trust people have left in Turkey in the electoral process itself. So this is my, you know, more cynical, negative reading of it. I think there was so much hope, giving that opinion polls were overwhelmingly showing that the opposition could really defeat Erdoğan this time. There was so much hope among civil society and so much mobilization, so much organization around this election.
I think the fact that the opposition failed even under—you know, given the status of the economic crisis, given how united the opposition was, everyone thought if there’s any point in time that the opposition can defeat Erdoğan, or Erdoğan can be removed from power democratically in Turkey through elections, it was this time around. And the fact that that failed, that attempt failed, I think has seriously demoralized about half of the population. Turkey seems very, very split between people who want Erdoğan and people who don’t want Erdoğan. I think that other half that doesn’t want Erdoğan is so demoralized at this point. And that very united opposition is completely in disarray right now.
I’m really worried about what this means for future elections in Turkey. In nine months, there’s going to be municipal elections. So that will be the first test. And then in five years, there will be presidential and parliamentary elections again. And I’m really worried that we might see something new, unprecedented, where maybe—you know, Turkey has always had, even with all of its problems with human rights and democracy, more than 80 percent participation rates in elections. I’m, for example, very worried that that might not be the case. That we might have—next time around—that we might have historically low participation rates in elections because people have simply lost faith in bringing about change in Turkey through democratic means.
There is also a lot of anger around the opposition for constantly bringing the same people. (Laughs.) So this really doesn’t look good for the opposition. Many people are expecting that in the municipal elections in nine months that the AKP, or Erdoğan, will take back Istanbul and Ankara, big cities like that. So overall, I think the public sentiment around the integrity of these elections and faith in the democratic process in Turkey, I think, has been lost. And this is probably the worst thing that’s going to happen beyond, you know, what we expect in terms of more politically motivated detentions, you know, more people in jail, more fines against independent media companies that are trying to do a fair, independent coverage, as opposed to just propagating what the regime is saying.
So I think, you know, we will likely see a much more authoritarian Erdoğan government moving forward. The main reason for that is just how split Turkey is. You know, he’s not moving with a very, very comfortable majority. He’s moving Turkey and has a lot that he wants to change in Turkey, but only has, you know, 50 percent of the public support. Which, to me, means he has to rule autocratically if he wants to make massive changes. And so I only see a dark period moving forward. Whether that will matter for Turkish foreign policy is a different question.
ROBBINS: Thanks for that, although grim. But thank you. I wanted to go over to Steven about this. One could imagine with an authoritarian, who seemed to pull this election off—to the point that nobody internationally is denouncing it—that maybe he could listen up a little bit. But Merve’s saying no, that he’s going to, if anything, become more autocratic. We were talking about this beforehand, and you noted that, you know, Turkey’s 2017 constitutional amendments gave him considerable powers, but now he seems interested in writing a new constitution? Is that to seize even more power? I mean, what are you predicting here, Steven?
COOK: Well, thanks very much, Carla. It’s a great pleasure to be with everybody this afternoon, and welcome my old pal Henri Barkey, who’s in Greece. So it’s late at night for him. So glad to see you, Henri.
Yeah. I think—look, just pivoting off of something that Merve had said, which is that Erdoğan—only about 50 percent of the country supports him. And that’s been the case throughout his entire tenure. And he governs that half, and he intimidates the other half. And that’s why we’re likely to see the continuation of repression in all the manifestations that Merve just eloquently pointed out.
What strikes me that’s going to be different about this Erdoğan term than what we’ve seen, we’re going to see a lot of what we’ve already seen. But what I think we’ll see is an effort to finally write a new constitution. This has been a long-term goal of Erdoğan’s. He first mentioned it publicly in 2007, and then tried again over 2011-2012. And then finally, by the time 2017 rolled around, he had to settle for constitutional amendments and a referendum that, by the way, was riddled with all kinds of irregularities.
And that gave him what Turks refer to as the executive presidency, which again really—it abolished the post of the prime minister and really flowed all of the executive power to Erdoğan. And it had a number of interesting crinkles that if the party with the majority in the parliament and the president are of the same party, that means very little parliamentary oversight. And this has really empowered Erdoğan over the course of his last five years or so.
I think what he wants to do is, of course, enshrine those amendments into a new constitution. But that the constitution would essentially protect the changes that he and Justice and Development Party have wrought over the last twenty years from being undone. If you look carefully at what the opposition has been promising to do had it won the election, it was to undo those twenty years of changes.
And I think that Erdoğan, although he’s not quite old—he’s only sixty-nine—he’s quite frail in comparison to the guy in the carpet on the wall over there, that he is thinking about a legacy and thinking about the transformation of Turkey in the image of the Justice and Development Party. And I think we will start seeing this on the hundredth anniversary of the republic coming up this October, a real emphasis on writing a new charter that reflects the AKP’s Turkey and that, importantly, protects the AKP’s Turkey. This is not going to be a more open, just, and democratic Turkey.
You asked the question, Carla, you know, you would think that maybe he might open up. Well, again, Turkey’s quite polarized. And Erdoğan’s never been magnanimous in victory. He is looking—to him, magnanimous in victory would open him up to those who would like to undo his leadership. So like Merve said before me, the repression will continue. And then those changes will—that the AKP has accomplished over twenty years—will be enshrined in a new constitution, if they can get it.
ROBBINS: So thanks for that. And we can come back some more to that. But, Henri, I wanted to talk about the implications for the Turkish economy, something you’ve just written about. The value of the Turkish lira dropped today by more than 7 percent. And that’s a new record low. And we had this Twitter Space last week with Steven. And at the time—of course, I’d like to point out that you were right and Steven was wrong—you predicted—
COOK: I should always listen to my teacher.
ROBBINS: Right. (Laughs.) That Erdoğan has appointed a new finance minister who is a proponent of more orthodox economic policies. Is this one area an area where Erdoğan is going to be different and more, quote, “acceptable” to Western democracies?
BARKEY: Thanks, Carla. And thanks for pointing out that Steven was wrong. (Laughter.) That’s music to my ears.
COOK: I’m always willing to admit when I’m wrong. I’m not sure why I’m getting the pile on here, but please, proceed.
ROBBINS: Any opportunity. Any opportunity. (Laughter.)
BARKEY: Look, you know, Turkey is on the precipice of a really very, very serious crisis. They have a little bit if time this summer, and then after that they need to take very serious action. It’s very interesting. He won the election, and then the first phone call he made was to Mehmet Simsek and spent two and a half hours trying to convince him to take the job. My understanding is that Simsek did not want to take the job, so he had to use a lot of, shall we say, political art to convince him.
And that shows that Erdoğan understands that the economy and the policies he pursued until today, low interest rates, et cetera, will not work. This is not something that Western democracies—will not make him more acceptable. I mean, he needs to do this. To make himself more acceptable to Western democracies, he’s going to have to change foreign policy. He’s going to have to become, shall we say, not necessarily pro-Western, but do fewer things that antagonize the West. But let me just say a couple things about the economy.
You will see very quickly interest rates go up from 8 ½ percent, where they are now, to probably 25 percent, within a month. This is an incredible increase. Very rarely have we seen. The problem is, everybody here in Greece—where I am, in Greece, and I talk about Simsek, the first question people ask me is: Well, will Erdoğan leave Simsek alone to make policy, because he has this tendency of intervening? And the answer is—there is no necessary definitive answer. I suspect yes, because the Turkish central bank has almost no money left. Its reserves are minus $16 billion.
The reason the Turkish lira fell is because the Erdoğan government used all kinds of weird measures before the elections to prevent people from changing Turkish liras into dollars or euros to keep the value of the lira high. Once the election’s over, then those measures have lifted. Of course, people will—the first thing they will do is dump the Turkish lira, because they know what is—what’s coming down the pike. The kind of policies that Mr. Simsek will impose will create a recession, unemployment. It’s going to be very hard for the next couple of years, right? And during this time, Mr. Erdoğan needs desperately two things. He needs market access and direct foreign investment.
Direct foreign investment is a difficult one, because people don’t trust Erdoğan and don’t trust the lack of rule of law in Turkey. So Simsek has to convince outsiders that people should invest in Turkey again. And investment is important, because you need to restart factories, you need to start new factories, you need to revamp the Turkish economy. But for that to happen, he has to say to the rest of the world: Erdoğan backs me.
Now, in answer to the question whether or not Erdoğan will play around with Simsek, one way to prevent that is to go for an IMF package. An IMF package is a straitjacket. You put it on, you can’t move. If the economy does improve, if Erdoğan plays around with Simsek, then they may go for—be forced to go for an IMF package. But the price he’s going to have to pay for this, as I said, is a foreign policy that is more acceptable. He’s going to let Sweden into NATO. He’s not going to fly over the Greek islands. Maybe he’s not going to bomb American allies in Syria. And there’s a whole series of other things, but we can come back.
I mean, but the rule of law is very critical. Simsek today tweeted that Turkey has changed, and the rules matter, he said, in his—one of his first tweets. So he’s already trying to send a message that there’s going to be return to rule of law. That’s very difficult, given what Merve and Steve said. Turkey’s going to be more authoritarian. More authoritarian means less rule of law. So that’s where the conflict is going to be.
ROBBINS: So, Merve, you mentioned foreign policy. We have only ten minutes away from—I’ve got seven more rounds of questions, but let’s get into foreign policy. It’s the Council on Foreign Relations here. There’s this tradeoff here. Don’t pay attention to what’s going on inside as long as I’m dealing with my economy and I satisfy you internationally. We’ve seen the good Erdoğan. We’ve seen the bad Erdoğan. The good Erdoğan who
negotiated the grain deal. He called Zelensky today and suggested that they could come up with a similar, you know, international commission to take a look at what’s happened to this dam in Ukraine. You know, what are you expecting from Erdoğan internationally?
TAHIROĞLU: So I think, actually, you know, in response to your question around, you know, just given—does maybe the fact that the elections are now over allow Erdoğan to ease his hand in terms of the domestic policy, and we all seem to agree that not really, not so much. But I think in terms of foreign policy, it does a little bit. So in the same what that he appointed Mehmet Simsek, who’s a very reasonable person, to his Cabinet, he’s also made some other changes, I think, in terms of foreign policy. The more interesting one is, of course, the former head of the Turkish intelligence, who has been wanting to be foreign minister as I understand it for many years now but Erdoğan wouldn’t allow him to be, was now appointed foreign minister. Which means former Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is gone.
I think what’s interesting about that is I think it’s part of this little trend that we’re seeing now where Erdoğan is trying to project an image with the new Cabinet that he has designed. Mehmet Simsek there, he’s trying to project this idea, as Henri said, that there will be more rational economic policies moving forward and we should trust in—investors should trust in the Turkish market. I think similarly, Hakan Fidan could be a more—a better interlocutor to have with Turkey’s Western partners than Mevlut Cavusoglu was. I think it might project, you know, a serious person as leading Turkey’s foreign ministry.
But I think all of this is just—I don’t see any substantial change happening in Turkey moving forward. It’s all window dressing. I mean, it’s all about projecting this image of, like, look we have a new Cabinet now. We have all these new faces that you can deal with. And, you know, Mevlut Cavusoglu was just a horribly racist person, for example. I mean, he was just on a personal level not easy to deal with for transatlantic allies of Turkey. That might change. So there might be a little bit of change in terms of who you actually have at the other end of the table when you’re Turkey’s NATO allies and you need to deal with Turkey, but I don’t think there’s going to be any substantial change moving forward, in the same way that I don’t think so with the economy.
Maybe Mehmet Simsek will do some things in the next few months, but I can’t see in the long term Erdoğan letting him govern, or, you know, letting even go for an IMF package. I just can’t see it really happening. And with foreign policy too, I think we’ll have more of the same. But where I think we could have more positive developments now that the elections are gone is Sweden’s accession into NATO. On that part, for example, I think Erdoğan is going to use his transactional approach and he’s going to—as long as he gets some concessions out of NATO allies. Maybe F-16s from the U.S. could be one of these things. I think he will—I think he might be—he’s more likely to let Sweden into NATO now than he was a month ago. And so that’s the one silver lining.
But in the long term, of course, having a transactional—such a transactional relationship with a country like Turkey, with a leader like Erdoğan is not a good thing. It’s not a strategically good policy, I think, for the United States and other NATO allies. But it seems to be where we’re at.
ROBBINS: So, Steven, Sweden, F-16s? Is that basically the—that’s the big silver lining internationally? Or do you expect other Erdoğan—
COOK: I have so much to say on everything, particularly this. I will get to Sweden and F-16s. I just want to revisit a couple things that Henri and Merve mentioned. First, you know, I don’t see—now that Simsek is in place, I still don’t see Erdoğan surrendering to the interest rate lobby as quickly as perhaps Henri would suggest. And I do that with great trepidation, because I was wrong during our Twitter Spaces. But they do—you have to look ahead to local elections in Turkey, which are coming up. And the goal has already been set, is to retake Istanbul and Ankara. I’m not sure that Erdoğan is going to want to throw the country into a recession before voters have to go out to the polls again. Yes, I know that the question of identity and culture mattered more than pocketbook issues in this election, but that doesn’t mean that pocketbook issues didn’t matter at all.
So I wonder about that. And I lean towards Merve on this window dressing thing, as I do on this question on of Hakan Fidan. And there’s been this kind of spirited thing about, you know, what this Cabinet’s more moderate and so on. I’ll just point out to people that Hakan Fidan, as the spymaster, was Erdoğan’s conduit to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and extremist groups in northern Syria. Now, maybe that’s what you want your spymaster to do, but I’m not actually sure as a result he’s the best interlocutor for the West and the best person to instill among your traditional allies in Europe that you’re—you know, you’re going to be straight now, and what’s past is past, and we’re looking to something forward.
I’m not saying that Erdoğan isn’t capable of recalibrating. He’s done that with the Gulf. He’s done that with Israel. He’s in the process of doing that with Egypt. But Hakan Fidan seems to me like not the best person, especially since also as the head of the Turkish national intelligence organization he is the one who spearheaded the disappearance of opponents of the Turkish regime around the world, and the harassment of these people. This is not necessarily the greatest guy.
I think when it comes to Sweden and F-16s, I am of the view that there’s going to be drama around Sweden going forward. We may get ultimately an Erdoğan thumbs-up to Sweden, but the runup to Vilnius and even during Vilnius, I think we’re going to see drama. There’s no possible way that he’s not going to go and not want to demonstrate to Turks, his constituency and others, that Turkey’s a big dog in NATO. And I suspect it won’t be as smooth as people would like for it to be. And that brings up this question of F-16s, which is largely an academic question because even if everybody was on board for F-16s, the Turks wouldn’t get these planes until 2025-2026, and the world will look very, very different at that point.
But I think that the administration has been very careful about this and saying they support it. Jake Sullivan was on TV on Sunday morning. And he said that the president would like to do it. But there are other factors here. And one of those is Congress. And it’s—Congress isn’t a known no, but I think that there are different views in Congress. Some believe that Sweden is enough, and others believe that Sweden isn’t enough. And that I wonder whether Turkey would then accept the senior senator from New Jersey dictating their calculation of threat or their—or the way in which they use their weapons, whether they get them from the United States or not.
So I think there’s a lot of—a lot of question whether the F-16 thing is actually going to happen. Especially also what might happen in Turkish domestic politics, which may raise the ire of Congress. So expect drama—continued drama over both, which I think accrue to Erdoğan’s political benefit. One of the real advantages that he has is that there’s a vast reservoir of anti-Americanism in Turkey. So if he gets F-16s, he’s a hero. He started down President Biden and Senator Menendez, and he got F-16s. If he doesn’t get that, he can always blame the United States for wanting to bring Turkey to its knees. So either way in a situation like this, when Erdoğan wins, he wins. And when he loses, he also wins. So like I said, I think there’s going to be some drama. Though I do expect Sweden will get in. Maybe not at Vilnius.
ROBBINS: So, Henri, we just have a couple minutes before, and we do already have two questions queued up. Sweden, F-16s, other major changes in foreign policy?
BARKEY: Well, I think for the U.S. government to kind of wink and say Turkey is a reliable partner, that people can invest in Turkey, we have to remember at the moment the issue is economics and economics first. Steven said that identity issues clearly much more important in the elections. I think economics did more. The problem was that the opposition never had a coherent economic policy. I could not figure out what their position was going to do economically. So for most people, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. And Erdoğan had the phone until now.
And Erdoğan is going to look at—the measures that will be taken now will create a recession, but not before the March—not significantly enough before the March election that will endanger his strategy in a major way. But the critical thing is to convince that Turkey is open for business. And yet it will never happen unless Sweden is in, Erdoğan stops flying over Greek islands—he already—by the way, he’s not doing it since February
because—since the earthquake—and also doesn’t bomb Americans and American allies. These are the three minimum conditions, right? And because Congress will not—as Steven said, Congress will not allow it.
And so I do expect that there will be a change. That doesn’t mean that he’s doing it because he really believes in it. He’s doing it because he has to. We have essentially eighteen months to twenty-four months ahead of us where Erdoğan is in a place where the United States and Europe together have a huge amount of influence over him. And that’s—we need to come up with a strategy as to how to manage it. He’s a very, very difficult leader, difficult client. Turkey’s an important country. But we have to come up with a different strategy than we’ve had until now.
So I’m not—I’m not worried that the policy’s—the foreign policy is not going to change. The question is, does it mean much in the long run? We need to make sure that it means more, and that Turkey is more than Erdoğan. And so from that perspective, I think we will see changes. The problem here is that Erdoğan can do other things that will send a message that he’s changing. One is he can release, for instance, Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş two—one is a civil society leader, the other is formerly head of the Kurdish political party—who are in jail despite the European Court of Human Rights—the edict that they should be released. That shows you that there’s no rule of law.
If Mehmet Simsek is now facing a very different international situation than he had when he was finance minister earlier, because now people are going to ask him: You’re talking about rule of law. Why are these people in jail, right? So he’s going to be asked behind closed doors, he’s going to be asked in public. He’s going to find the situation quite difficult for him, and unpleasant. So he might actually start telling Erdoğan, look, we need to do certain things that are symbolic, at least. Let’s release those people and let’s please the Europeans. So we will see changes, but in the long run Erdoğan is Erdoğan. He’s not going to change in terms of ideas, ideologies. But at least in the next twenty-four months, we can get stuff done.
ROBBINS: So let’s go to questions. We’ve got—we have several people in the queue. So I’ll turn it over to our maestra.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take our first question from John Barry. Mr. Barry, please accept the unmute now prompt. Looks like we’re having trouble with that line. We’ll take our next question from Ryan Kaminski.
Q: Hello. Thank you so much. Ryan Kaminski with the Truman National Security Project.
I just wanted to ask specifically on LGBTQI+ individuals, the election saw a lot of, you know, very harsh anti-human rights language about the community. And I’m wondering for the panel’s thoughts on, post-election, is this is expected to accelerate and broaden, or if it was really just more of, like, an ephemeral tactic associated with the election? Thank you so much.
ROBBINS: Merve, you want to take that?
TAHIROĞLU: Such a depressing answer I have on this. (Laughter.) It’s only going to get worse. I mean, it—(laughs)—OK, the positive thing is that Erdoğan is doing it less than his allies are doing it. So the vitriol, the really, like, homophobic speech, is coming more from people around Erdoğan than Erdoğan himself. So maybe that, I guess, is the one positive thing we can hold onto her, that he himself doesn’t seem to want to make this into a big boogeyman for people. But he is doing it, right? People around him doing it. The parliament today is more right-wing and Islamist than it has been ever, thanks to people Erdoğan allied with right before the election. And all of those people decided to turn in the same way that the oppositions was pointing fingers at migrants as Turkey’s big problem, as the big enemy, they were pointing to the LGBT and even Erdoğan called the opposition, you know, these people are gay, as a slur, to try to hurt them.
So I think we’re going to see more of this language now. Moving forward in parliament, they will probably want to propose—these fringe actors that Erdoğan brought in, the very, very Islamist guys into the parliament, they probably will want to introduce bills that, you know, ban the word “LGBT,” things like that that, you know, we’ve seen elsewhere around the world, in—
ROBBINS: Like Florida.
TAHIROĞLU: Yeah, exactly. I think he’s going to—(laughter)—I’m really worried. And I keep thinking about Florida as their model. Hopefully, what I think, is that these measures likely won’t pass. I mean, I don’t think they will be able to, like, ban the use of LGBT, or anything. But, you know, the space that—and any kind of maneuverability that they—that the LGBTQ community has in Turkey has shrunk so much. And I don’t think—it’s going to be nonexistent. So the pride parade in Istanbul has been banned for ten years. But even then, you can see—though it’s banned—people hold that march anyway in Taksim. It happens every year. The police intervenes and there’s violence, but it just happens every year.
And moving forward, that may not happen. We might see so much more violence while—you know, violent groups, mobs targeting, for example, of the pride parades that, you know, this year it may not happen. And so I think the LGBT organizations in universities, you know, the queer clubs, all of these things I think will be targeted more and more. So, you know, we won’t see massive legislation, I don’t think, because, again, these are still more fringe actors, thankfully, in Turkish society. But I think they’re going to be—the fact that they’re much more empowered now is only bad news for all sexual and gender minorities in Turkey.
COOK: Can I—just two data points for Ryan here to underline the point that Merve’s making, that this is not ephemeral, this wasn’t just a political tactic. First, there’s been ongoing protests at Boğaziçi University, Bosphorus University, which is a crown jewel of Turkey’s education system, over the appointment of a Justice and Development Party-affiliated director. This has been going on for a couple of years now. But the government has specifically targeted the LGBTQ community at Boğaziçi for treatment—for special treatment on this, and really dialed up the rhetoric against the LGBTQ community. And, as I said, it’s been going on for years.
And then the other point I’d point out, that the government pulled out of the Istanbul Convention. The Istanbul Convention is an international legal instrument that Turkey was the first to sign that is for the protection of women and prevention of violence against women. But it also has within it protections for LGBTQ community. And when they pulled out of it, the government said, oh, no, no. We remain committed to preventing violence against women, but the protections for the Turkish homosexual community runs counter to Turkey’s values. So this is—this is baked into the worldview of the ruling party, as well as its partners. So I expect that it will continue. And, as Merve said, fearful given who Erdoğan’s partners are, that it will get worse.
ROBBINS: So, OK. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Robert Pearson.
Q: Thank you very much for the conversation today. And hello to friends I see on the screen.
I have a question that concerns how to deal with Turkey, in the sense that I had my own experience with them when I was ambassador in Ankara from 2000 to 2003, a rather interesting passage of three years. And that is, I noted that Turkey refused to go to the Chişinău conference of European states, I think, on June 1. And so that was, for me, done at the very last minute and kind of an interesting development. And, secondly, with respect to the issue of Sweden’s entry into NATO, why not consider turning Turkey’s tactics on Turkey? If Turkey was absent at Chişinău when Europe was trying to deal with its future security issues, on the premise that it was neutral and couldn’t be present, they why shouldn’t Europe take a stronger stance in framing its own security concerns without regard to Turkey?
And, secondly, if Turkey decides to be dramatic, as Steve has said, about the entry of Sweden into NATO, then why not suggest, or leak, or have someone comment on the possibility that the rest of the NATO allies could individually compact with Sweden to provide any security concerns that they see, and any security guarantees that they see? And just bypass Turkey? I think it would be a very good lesson. I’d like to know whether you think this is on the fringe, or whether you think this might have some resonance in the way we deal with Turkey going forward.
ROBBINS: Henri, you want to field that?
BARKEY: Hi, Rob. I’m not—I wasn’t aware that the Turks refused to go to that conference. But, look, on Sweden, there’s already a deal. The Swedish supreme court, I think, has allowed the extradition of one person the Turks have asked for. This is a guy who is actually a drug dealer, who was in jail in Turkey, and I’m not sure if he escaped, but then went to Sweden and then claimed that he was a Kurd and asked for political asylum, that he was a PKK guy. He wasn’t. So allowing him to be deported back to Turkey, Erdoğan is going to turn around and say: You see? I won. This is a huge victory. The Swedes had to concede. And that would be the way—and the Swedes have done other things as well. But in terms of extradition, this is the only person I know who will be extradited.
So the Sweden issues was completely domestic political construction to show how tough he is, right? And he knows that this is costing him. He knows that he will never get F-16s or any kind of help anywhere in terms of also the economic issues that I mentioned. So I don’t think there is probably a need to go and kind of use those tactics that you suggested against Turkey. In fact, if NATO were to actually—NATO countries other than Turkey—make a compact with Sweden, that would be a concession to Erdoğan. That would show that Erdoğan is actually powerful, that all of NATO has to go around him to achieve something. On the contrary, you want him to say yes to Sweden, just the way he said to Finland earlier.
So this is going to happen. This is not—this is not the issue. The most concerning things is, you know, Syria, the Aegean, and sanction-busting with Russia, rule of law in Turkey. So we should not—I don’t actually think that this is going to be a major issue, Sweden’s accession.
ROBBINS: Thank you, Henri, for that. Next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Aaron David Miller.
Q: Great panel, guys. Carla, it’s great seeing you.
ROBBINS: Aaron, great seeing you even though you’re like a bug on my screen.
Q: So, look, one of the core problems of our many problems with our foreign policy is that we have a real hard time defining what our core interests are with respect to country X, Y, and Z. So could—a lot of brainpower on this panel. So I wonder if one, two, or three of you could identify our vital interests, what I call the must-haves, with respect to Turkey, as opposed to our discretionary interests, the it-would-be-nice-to-haves. Do we have vital interests that pertain to American security and prosperity that we really do need to further and advance? Anybody?
ROBBINS: Steven, it’s your sort of a question.
COOK: I’ll take a stab at it. (Laughs.) Just wait till my book comes out. Because we never really do this, Aaron. We never really understand what it is our core interests are in talking about a country. And I think that with Turkey, I’m going to answer this sort of in a kind of broader, historical way. December 26, 1991 was a long time ago. That was the day that the hammer and sickle came down over the Kremlin. And that was the overarching issue that bound Turkey and the United States together.
Now, here we are. And Russia is once again a threat to Europe. And there is a major land war in Europe. And the belief is that, at least some people, that Turkey is critical to this project of repelling and containing the exercise of Russian power. Because the Turks have an actually somewhat different view. I’m not saying that, you know, Turkey has thrown its lot in with the Russians, and therefore should be thrown out of NATO. But I think that the Turks benefit from what is clearly a more independent approach to the conflict in Ukraine than its NATO allies would want it to be.
And so that is, I think, the rub. Because we consider the conflict in Ukraine as a major national security issue for the United States. Whereas the Turks see it in—don’t see the—see the solution to the problem in, I think, a very—in a different way from the United States. And that is why they carved out this more—I don’t want to use the word “neutral.” I want to use the word “independent,” policy from the United States. And it’s a long way of suggesting that the United States and Turkey do not necessarily have an overlap in interests in a variety of places. We’ve seen that in the Middle East. We’ve seen that in Europe. We’ve seen it in the Caucasus.
So I think what we’re going to have to get used to with Turkey is this independent foreign policy, that Turkey sees itself as a great power in its own right. And I’m not suggesting that all of this is bad. I think the fact that Erdoğan was able to strike the Black Sea grain deal with Putin was very, very good. I cannot imagine what would be happening in Egypt, a country of 110 million people, many of whom are very poor, without grain coming out of the Black Sea. As many of you know by now, Egypt is the single-largest importer of wheat in the world, and much of it comes from Russia and Ukraine.
So I think that what is our core interest in Turkey has become trying desperately to keep Turkey onside and trying to keep Turkey desperately in the NATO tent, even though the Turks want to pursue an independent foreign policy. From my perspective, that’s OK. And that doesn’t require kicking them out of NATO, as some have suggested, as if that can even happen. And I think that the Turks want to remain in NATO, but they also want to pursue—they don’t want to be regarded as an asset or an appendage to the Western alliance. They want to be treated as a great power in and of themselves.
And that means there’s going to be conflict with the United States. But the proposition that we share a whole host of security issues, and that our interests align, I think is something in the past. And there’s not as much there as perhaps others might imagine. I think we continue to look at Turkey through these kind of rose-colored glasses, when the relationship has always been difficult and will continue to be difficult, full stop.
ROBBINS: Henri, were you waving at me? And I would just like—since I’m the moderator, and I would just like to add that that’s not my definition of a NATO member. But I would just sort of add that.
BARKEY: I agree with you. Here is the issue. Look, we do have very serious interests in Turkey. There’s no question about it. But the problem has been that Turkey has been a special case and not a normal country. The kind of problems we deal with in Turkey are not the problems we have with most, shall we say, Southern European NATO allies. We don’t have the minister of interior or the president saying the United States is responsible for all drug trafficking in the world, and stuff like that. It’s a very different—but the primary reason we have a difficult relationship with Turkey is because we have indulged them, right? It is not because we necessarily have differences with Turkey.
If you ask—if you ask Turks where it is that they would like to go to travel, how many Turks go to China? How many Turks go to Russia? Most Turks want to go to Germany, to England, and to United States, all right? So even if 70 percent of Turks say to you that United States is the greatest threat to Turkey, the fact of the matter is, after all these years, Turkey is integrated in the West. Part of the problem, and I’m not saying it’s all of the problem, is that we have kind of an alliance of authoritarian leaders. Putin and Erdoğan like each other because they both see themselves as being targets of the West because they’re undemocratic, right? And so that is a natural alliance.
One day this will change, but the way it’s also going to change is if United States is more truthful, or more true to its own principles, and doesn’t indulge Turkey. And that has to do a lot with the State Department, which always finds ways to appease the Turks. And the Turks got used to it. So they keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing. And we keep giving in. So from that perspective, I would say when you look at Turkish-American relations in terms of the economy, this is a vibrant—not now—but it is a very vibrant economy. It is a fairly educated workforce. And so the relationship is there. But we have to figure out a strategy.
TAHIROĞLU: Can I ask add something very quickly? I just have to, because I work for an organization that posits that democracy in the Middle East and Turkey is a major core U.S. interest, even a national security interest. And I have to sort of argue that line very quickly with regards to Turkey, even though I’m having an identity crisis at the time and have lost all hope in Turkish democracy as of two weeks ago. (Laughs.) I just have to make the argument.
Like, it’s—Turkey and authoritarian—you know, like, ruled in an authoritarian manner by someone like Erdoğan, who’s hated by half the population, is never going to be a stable country. And I think stability of Turkey is important—is a core interest for the United States. It’s probably more of an important—more of an interest for Europe, because at the end of the day if there is something—you know, major social tensions in Turkey, if there’s something like a civil war, if there’s something like a revolutionary movement, a coup attempt, which we have had, and mass protests throughout the country, which we have had—all of these have happened in the last ten years.
I think it’s only more likely that they will keep happening as long as this—you know, these two polar, you know, wildly different blocs of the country are fighting for the identity and soul and the future of—and the governance of the country. As long as these two very crystalized halves continue to oppose each other like this, and you have someone like Erdoğan trying to rule over that in a—you know, autocratically, without any room for the other half to breathe and to have an outlet to express its frustration with that government, then I think it’s very likely that you’re going to see civil unrest.
More likely and more imminent is the brain drain, which will continue. It already has the highest number of Turkish people leaving the country. They’re all going to Germany. They’re all trying to come West. And, you know, the more Turkey’s, you know, economy collapses, the more the status quo continues, I think we’re going to see an exodus of the Turkish people becoming immigrants all over Europe. And already, you know, every time there’s an election in Turkey, Germany becomes chaos because of the Turkish voters there.
So even with, you know, little things like that just in terms of population movement and the important integration of Turkey’s economy into European markets, and the exposure of European banks in Turkey, and all of that, Turkey—democracy or some sort of democratic progress in Turkey is, I think, vital for the country’s stability, and the country’s stability is a vital interest for all of Turkey’s transatlantic allies. So that’s my little case for why democracy should matter there too.
ROBBINS: Thanks. A little more upbeat by the end, at least. So onto our next question. I just want to caution, we only have seven minutes left. And I’d like to get in as many people as possible. So over to the next—thank you very much, Maestra.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Stephen Flanagan.
Q: Hello. Thank you all. Steve Flanagan from RAND. Excuse me. Sorry, my voice.
Steven already started to touch on some of this, but I wondered could you see any developments in the war in Ukraine or Black Sea military posture on Russia’s part, or perhaps some other confrontation in Syria that might result in Erdoğan reassessing this balancing act that he’s been playing—or, as Steve put it, the independent foreign policy, and tilting a bit more back towards his Western allies, out of concern that some of these developments are beginning to threaten Turkey’s interests? You know, in 2016, he was—Erdoğan did say that
there was a danger of the Black Sea becoming a Russian lake. And if Russia achieves—rebuts the Ukrainian offensive, or is seen as even gaining more territory, is that the kind of scenario that you think might lead Erdoğan to reassess this balancing act? Thank you.
BARKEY: Hi, Steve. Look, you’re right that he’s very concerned about what’s happening in Ukraine, I mean, especially if Russia were to get to the upper hand in this war. We don’t—most people don’t seem to think that Russia’s going to win this war, but clearly if the war continues and then spills over into the Black Sea, it’s going to be a huge problem for the Turks. I mean, the Turks want to have a relationship with the Russians whereby they continue to buy oil and gas and have Russian tourists come to Turkey, and also be able to cheat oil sanctions. I mean, they’re making money out of all this. This is fine.
A major change in the balance of power, if Ukrainians, for instance, were to actually start winning and Russia decide to exact revenge in Syria, that’s going to be a problem. I mean, even though the United States and Turkey are not on the same side with respect to Kurds in Syria, but they will be affected by a Russian attempt to undermine the United States’ position in Syria. So, yes, I absolutely agree with you. But there’s not much Erdoğan can do against Russia. So he’s going to try to figure out ways to appease Putin. He’s going to try to figure out—it’s not going to drive him into Washington’s arms, right? His first option will be, how can I please Putin? How can I satisfy him?
COOK: I know we just have a couple seconds—a few minutes left, but I just want to respond to something that Steve said. And just it strikes me that, you know, the Turkish position, it would really have to be something extreme happen in Ukraine, the brandishing of tactical nuclear weapons, something along those lines that would really scare Erdoğan. Because it strikes me that what he is seeking to do is to maintain that position. What’s important to him is to maintain that position as the interlocutor with Putin and the West. I’m not sure—I can’t remember whether you were there—but Ibrahim Kalin was in town a number of weeks ago, and there was a couple of meetings with him.
And he was clearly—I couldn’t actually tell whether he was carrying a message from Putin to Washington, or they were clearly articulating exactly what it is that the Turks wanted. But it was not the battlefield victory for the Ukrainians that we have been moving towards. They had very clearly a different picture of what might happen. And their belief is that, you know, this would be a conflict that will go on for a decade or longer, and that it was time for an actual negotiation. And I think that’s where they want to be. The thing that might move them from that is, as I said, something extreme happening in Ukraine. I don’t even think anything in Syria is going to move them so hard and fast back to align more tightly with Turkey’s NATO allies.
ROBBINS: But how much—if I may—I mean, how much of this is an autonomous or an independent foreign policy, and how much of this is—I mean, how much have they co-opted members of the Turkish elite? How much have they invested, and how much more expectation do they have for more financial investment? I mean, Putin doesn’t have a lot of money, but he’s very good at wielding it.
COOK: Well, look, I mean, there’s no doubt that the Turks have moved in where Western business hasn’t, that they—the economy’s in bad shape, that last summer they allowed huge numbers of Russians to come in. They allowed the Russian—I forget the name of it—the credit card clearing system to work in Turkey when it was blocked elsewhere. So, you know, Erdoğan needs money. Putin needs sanctions relief. The Turks have a good idea how to evade sanctions. So there’s a—there’s an overlap of interests—overlap of interests there. But I do think that the Turks—where Putin—to my mind, where Putin and Erdoğan, I don’t think there’s a bromance, but I think where they kind of have a meeting of the minds is that the exercise of American power, and American-led order, isn’t necessarily—certainly in Putin’s case, it’s not in his interests. In Erdoğan’s case, it’s not necessarily in his interests.
ROBBINS: So we have one minute left. I’m going to do final jeopardy here, which is one thought. (Laughs.) One sentence per all of our fabulous speakers. Merve, you want to go first?
TAHIROĞLU: One sentence on this area is too hard, but don’t expect any big change under Erdoğan’s leadership, whether domestic politics or foreign policy. That would be the one thought I would just put out there.
ROBBINS: Definitely won’t be. Henri. Oh, Steven, please.
COOK: No, I was going to give—I was going to give to elder statesman and wiser panelist the last word. So I’ll just say that I agree with—I agree with Merve on that. But I would also add drama, drama, drama.
BARKEY: Look, I think there will be changes. But those—as I said earlier, those are not changes that are—changes that are coming from the heart. They are transactional changes. But it’s going to be interesting. It’s going to be—the next three years are going to be very hard for Erdoğan, and he has to figure out a way how to survive them. And that’s why he’s talking about constitutional change, and so forth. Stay tuned, invite us back.
ROBBINS: Any chance to prove Steven wrong is something I look forward to. (Laughs.) No. This has been an absolutely fabulous conversation, once again. And I just want to thank everyone for joining today’s virtual meeting, and thank you to our speakers—Steven Cook, Henri Barkey, and Merve Tahiroğlu. Please note the video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. And we will be having, I’m sure, many more conversations on Turkey in the near future. So thank you, everybody, for joining us today. And thank you so much. Great conversation, everybody.
COOK: Thank you so much, Carla, for moderating. Have a great day.
BARKEY: Thank you.
TAHIROĞLU: Thank you.