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24 May 2022

Striker, shopkeeper, pigeon: what Sweden and Nato should know about Erdoğan

The Turkish president has been moving the goalposts domestically for 20 years. The international community must catch up.

By Ece Temelkuran

ISTANBUL – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was supposed to be a football player. Had his father not prevented him from taking this path, he could have been one of the best Turkish strikers. His natural charisma could have rewarded him well in a football TV show, blabbering with other elderly pundits in a better world. Well, in such a beautiful world, there would have been neither horrible fathers nor Nato – nor indeed Sweden’s sudden urge to be part of the alliance. All such troubles being present today, Erdoğan is now dribbling the giant political football of Turkish veto power in order to shoot at the Swedish goal. His supporters are absolutely devoted, his team intact, and the Swedes seem like they didn’t even hear the referee’s starting whistle. They are certainly not prepared for the tricks.

A day after Erdoğan suddenly announced that he would use Turkey’s veto power to stop Finland’s and Sweden’s accession to Nato, foreign ministers gathered in Berlin to begin negotiations. According to a Reuters report quoting an anonymous Nato diplomat, the meeting was scandalous. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, raised his voice at his Swedish counterpart, Ann Linde, saying that he was irritated at her “feminist policy” and bothered by her “drama”. Since I come from Turkey, such manners from the government’s leading figures are not as surprising to me as they are to a European woman. Still, the interesting part of the whole saga was that the ministers at the meeting opted for silence in embarrassment, according to the Nato diplomat quoted. Let’s stop there and look deep into that silent moment in Berlin.

“Talking to a right-wing populist is like playing chess with a pigeon,” I have been telling Westerners for the past few years. I was prepping them for the right-wing populist politics that was to come to their countries, so that they would not be as shocked as we had been in Turkey when Erdoğan rose to power. “Even if you play the game perfectly well, the pigeon scatters the pieces and proudly flies away.”

Anyone about to negotiate with a right-wing populist regime should be ready to experience sudden shifts in the ground rules, and prepare for the dismissal of the most established precedents. The shock induced by such mannerisms would indeed create awkward silences, as it did in Berlin on 14 May, but as those silent moments would be prolonged, new rules would get set irreversibly. Suddenly, you might find yourself trying to scatter the pieces better than the pigeon. You can take my word for it because Erdoğan’s regime has in this way dismantled the entire political mechanism in Turkey over the past 20 years.

Yet we have to hand it to Çavuşoğlu. Like many advisers and ministers in the Turkish government, his job has been to chest the ball down when Erdoğan volleys it unexpectedly and, at times, in directions that hardly make sense. This happens in domestic politics quite frequently, yet it only becomes visible to the world when Erdoğan plays in the international league.

[See also: Turkey’s balancing act pays off as Ankara mediates between Ukraine and Russia]

For the last week, many journalists have been asking, “what does he want?”, and trying to get a proper answer from prominent experts on Turkey and diplomatic analysts. Erdoğan demands the extradition of members and supporters of the PKK, the Kurdish militant group that the Turkish government considers a terrorist organisation; a guarantee not to support the YPG, the Kurdish-led militia in northern Syria; and the lifting of sanctions on arms sales that have been in place since 2019, when the Turkish army entered Syria.

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As Turkish criminal law has a definition of “terrorist” that violates the usual protections for freedom of expression today, such demands would be near impossible for Sweden to meet. And a deal about lifting the sanctions on arms is not only about Swedish politics but also dependent on the approval of the US Congress. So, what else? For the past 20 years, those analysts who became accustomed to Erdoğan’s ways have uttered the word “transactional”.

One should know that Erdoğan began his career as a biscuit seller. He was the distributor for a biscuit company before he ended up in his outlandishly lavish palace in Ankara. Besides being a football player with curbed enthusiasm, he is also a shopkeeper. We’ve seen that he imagined my country, Turkey, as a big shop and himself its sole owner in the past. Therefore, anyone who sits at a negotiating table with him has to remember that they will meet a self-seeking striker with the peddling abilities of a small-time shopkeeper and the self-assurance of a pigeon.

[See also: The second coming of Nato]

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