A client at a fish shop in Istanbul following the fall of the Turkish lira to record lows (photo: AFP)
A number of seemingly unrelated developments in Turkey form an overall picture of anger and confusion. In the foreground is a political leadership whose foreign policies have backfired, opening it to mounting criticisms from political adversaries at home and abroad. What are the current aims and ambitions of the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?
Despite deep structural differences between Turkey and Venezuela, local observers despairing at current nosedive of the Turkish lira, have begun to ask, “is Turkey about to become another Venezuela with its runaway inflation?” Critics among the opposition forces point to corroborative facts or coincidences. “Aren’t Erdogan and Nicolás Maduro the best of friends?” some remark. Calls for early elections have grown more vociferous, and their proponents cite the need to save an economy driven to the brink of the abyss by Erdogan.
According to sources close to decision making circles, the ruling party, itself, acknowledges that it is in trouble, but refuses to give in to its critics at home or its adversaries abroad. As the national currency took its latest downward spiral, the ruling party grew desperate in its search for ways out of the predicament. Since no concrete measures to improve domestic circumstances were in reach, its only recourse on the home front was to fire the ethnocentric ardour of ultra-nationalists by playing on the past glories of the Ottoman empire and the pan-Turkic affiliation. Accordingly, the government looked eastward to the Caucasus.
This new orientation was profiled in the scene of Erdogan receiving an “iconic” gift from his partner in the People’s Alliance, the head of the ultra-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli. The gift was a map of the Turkic World, reportedly drawn by Bahceli himself and presented to the president during a formal ceremony at the Presidential Palace. While the substance of the map is taught to Turkish children from primary school onward, the pro-government media trumpeted this “unique event” and encouraged the descendants of the Ottomans to look beyond the painful present and celebrate their world which extends from southern Russia, the Crimea, the Kuban region and Rostov Oblast to the Balkans to the west and eastward to the Caucasian republics: Siberia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, the Uyghur region of Xinjiang and Mongolia.
The Kremlin found the map deliberately provocative. Commentators in the Russian media said it was a sign that the “eccentric” Turkish president had even more radical designs, with sights set beyond a federation of Turkic-speaking nations to the creation of a larger entity that includes countries with large Turkic-speaking ethnic populations. The writers stressed that Erdogan’s expansionist ambitions should not be tolerated.
It is not surprising in this regard, especially with the centennial of the Turkish Republic approaching in 2023, that Erdogan has once again raised the question of a corridor linking Azerbaijan and Turkey through the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan. The corridor would give Turkey a direct link to Central Asia and, more importantly, the Caspian Sea ports – and oil. The subject had stirred consternation in Tehran when it was raised at the time Turkey aided Azerbaijan’s war over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu most likely brought it up during his recent visit to Tehran. Although the publicly stated purpose of the visit, the first high-level Turkish visit to Iran since President Ebrahim Raisi took office, was to explore a new roadmap for cooperation that Erdogan could sign during the seventh Iranian-Turkish High Level Cooperation Council meeting in Tehran later this year, it is widely believed that the visit was intended to allay Tehran’s concerns regarding Turkey’s controversial plans for the Nakhichevan corridor.
The Iranian regime is grateful to Erdogan for providing a backdoor for Iranian goods and products, in breach of US sanctions, but it has certain red lines it will not let Ankara cross. The Iranian newspaper, Kayhan, saw in the envisioned corridor an attempt to undermine Iran politically, economically and militarily. It stressed that Iran would never accept a change to its borders. The Fars news agency observed wryly that Erdogan was trying to remake himself as a leader of the Turkic world in order to regain the reputation he lost against the “resistance front” in Syria and Iraq.
The corridor would also require Armenia’s approval since it would have to pass through Armenian territory. According to the Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan, in a recent interview with Le Figaro, that would never be forthcoming.
Yerevan was after all the only capital angered by the Turkish-Azerbaijani joint military exercises conducted in the territory “recovered” from Armenia last year. Tehran condemned the drills as a violation of the Caspian Sea countries’ agreement that prohibits any foreign military presence in the region. Iran is uncomfortable with the growing strength of Azerbaijan because of its close military cooperation with Israel, which is why it warned that Tehran would not permit any Israeli presence or geopolitical changes near its borders.
Iran also took the opportunity to reiterate its condemnation of the “transfer of some terrorist groups” to the area, referring to the jihadist mercenaries Turkey had sent to Azerbaijan to support its war against Armenia. These mercenaries have not been withdrawn and continue to help Azerbaijani forces in the skirmishes that break out along the border with Armenia from time to time. In response to such developments, the Armenian defence minister met with the Iranian ambassador to Yerevan to discuss security and military cooperation. Several days later, Tehran received the Armenian foreign minister to pursue the matter further.
So far it looks like this avenue is still inaccessible to Turkey. Moreover, it is likely to remain so given the central and unrivalled Russian influence in this politically and demographically complex region. Perhaps Erdogan’s only solution is to do something he is mentally not prepared to do, which is to stop wagering on irredentist fantasies and come up with realistic solutions suited to his country’s actual capacities.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.