Much opprobrium has been heaped in recent days on the “elective dictatorship” of Alexander Lukashenko and his violently fraudulent bid to secure a sixth term as president of Belarus. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, led a chorus of condemnation, rejecting last Sunday’s poll as “neither free nor fair”.
Yet Europe’s righteous wrath and sanctions threats seem a tad confected. Nobody really expected Lukashenko to play fair. Democratic reform in Belarus, a country firmly stuck in Russia’s orbit, is not an EU priority. There is no discernible appetite for the kind of robust intervention that might actually make a difference.
Europe’s harsh public criticism of Lukashenko contrasts sharply with its reluctance to openly denounce the latest aggressive machinations in the eastern Mediterranean of another elective dictatorship, that of Turkey’s long-entrenched leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Turkey is a Nato member, key EU trade partner, border gatekeeper and influential actor in Syria and the Near East. Unlike Belarus, it has real strategic importance. Perhaps that explains the awkward silence of many governments, including the UK’s. It does not excuse it.
All the same, there is one telling similarity with EU policy towards Belarus: there is little sign of concerted action to curb Erdoğan’s excesses. Anybody who doubts the “dictator” tag need look no further than Erdoğan’s repressive new social media law, which replicates his evisceration of traditional independent media. The law will greatly increase online censorship, said Tom Porteous of Human Rights Watch. “An autocracy is being constructed by silencing all critical voices.”
In his approach to Turkey, as in other respects, Emmanuel Macron is an exception to the European rule. France’s president was enraged in June when Turkish warships, escorting a vessel suspected of smuggling arms to Libya, went to battle stations when challenged by a lone French frigate, obliging the latter to withdraw. This was not the behaviour of a supposed ally. Further incensed by Turkey’s expanding oil and gas exploration operations in Greek territorial waters, Macron sent naval reinforcements to the eastern Mediterranean last week and told Erdoğan to back off.
Both Greece and Turkey have mobilised their navies and air forces. Turkey claims current international law governing continental shelf energy deposits is unjust. Greece says its territory is being invaded. Both claim to prefer dialogue to military confrontation. But on Thursday, as Ankara vowed to defend its “rights and interests” and Athens warned of the growing danger of a military “accident”, two Greek and Turkish ships collided.
The escalating crisis, which also touches Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, provoked a belated flurry of diplomatic activity last week. The EU foreign affairs council met in extraordinary session. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, got on the phone to Erdoğan as she has in previous crises, trying to talk him down. Athens appealed to the US.
Tensions between Greece and Turkey are nothing new. But this sudden, provocative intensification of a long-running dispute smacks of deliberate calculation. It prompted the respected commentator Yavuz Baydar to ask what Turkey’s president was trying to achieve.
His answer: an insecure Erdoğan, beset by economic, pandemic and currency crises, wants to reinforce his dominant reputation as a strong leader and commander-in-chief upholding Turkey’s honour and rightful place in the world. “He needs to reproduce his swashbuckling image every day,” Baydar wrote.
Secondly, Erdoğan hopes to insure Turkey’s position in the Aegean, eastern Mediterranean, Syria and Libya against a change of administration in Washington. Wannabe strongman Donald Trump envies Erdoğan his elective dictatorship. He has given him free rein. Joe Biden could apply the brakes.
Be that as it may, Europe’s Erdoğan problem has grown steadily worse since he survived a coup plot in 2016. Indiscriminate repression at home, involving the jailing of tens of thousands of real and imagined opponents, has been matched by destabilising, Ottoman-revival adventurism abroad.
Driven by a faith-fuelled nationalism, Erdoğan has doubled down in his role of neighbourhood bully. On Tuesday, for example, a reported Turkish drone attack inside Iraq drew a furious response from Baghdad. The incident followed Turkey’s launch in June of yet another uninvited, cross-border military offensive against Kurdish separatists based in Iraq.
Under Erdoğan’s direction, Turkey has plunged headlong into Libya’s proxy war, taking sides with Islamists against Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Partly it’s about competing with rival Sunni leaders; partly it’s about oil. It’s certainly not about the welfare of Libya’s people.
By opening Turkey’s border with the EU to displaced Syrians in February, Erdoğan forcefully reminded Europe he was fully prepared to use refugees as a political weapon. Turkey continues to deploy thousands of troops deep inside northern Syria. Ostensibly they are peacekeepers, in reality, occupiers and jailers.
Erdoğan maintains a constant state of friction with Israel, partly by supporting Hamas. He denounced last week’s diplomatic breakthrough with the UAE as a betrayal of the Palestinians. Further burnishing his neo-Islamist credentials, he gratuitously offended Christians and secularists alike by turning Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s former cathedral and museum, into a mosque.
If all this were not trouble enough, Erdoğan’s lurch to Russia, symbolised by Turkey’s purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missiles, has left Nato members asking whether he can be trusted. The fact that Trump, anxious as always to please Vladimir Putin, failed to insist on Turkey canceling the deal will not prevent it from becoming a major point of contention should Biden win.
Head-in-the-sand European leaders must surely realise their Erdoğan problem cannot be ignored, dodged, or downplayed indefinitely in the hope that he will eventually go away. Turkey turning rogue is a very real, immediate, and dangerous prospect. Nobody seems to have an Erdoğan containment plan. One is increasingly required.