What does Sweden have to do with whether or not Turkey will be accepted to the EU?

Political statements made before and after elections frequently diverge drastically. To a casual observer, it may appear that we are not discussing the same country. This is not even a matter of internal politics, where candidates lavishly spread slogans like “power to the people,” “only the people are masters of the state’s fate,” “corruption is death,” “inflation will be defeated,” “life will become better,” and so on to the electorate. There are situations when the results of elections also partially change the foreign policy emphases of the winning politicians, although before the vote they had said quite the opposite with a menacing look.

Today, we can see similar processes taking place in Turkey as a result of another victory for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the most recent presidential election, although his victory against Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu with a margin of less than 4% hardly qualifies as a victory. And, in fact, what are the more striking changes or contradictions in Erdoğan’s politics today?

The Turkish president was compelled to appoint pragmatic technocrats, particularly Minister of Finance and Treasury Mehmet Şimşek and the central bank governor Hafize Gaye Erkan to stabilize the Turkish lira and reduce inflation in the government’s economic bloc after realizing the severity of the financial crisis, collapse of the national currency, and rising inflation combined with the tragedy of the devastating earthquake.

As much as the Turkish president wants to keep rates at the same level to boost domestic production, he must reach an agreement with his key ministers on changes in this area and refrain from interfering with the Central Bank’s policy. Previously, Erdoğan intervened in this matter and kept bank lending rates for small businesses below 8.5%. In order for the new Turkish government to rely on external loans from reputable international organizations and financially successful Western nations, the latter requires rigorous adherence to international principles in the financial affairs of the liberal market economy.

So, Erdoğan may agree to 9% lending rates first, followed by temporary modifications in central bank policy until better times arrive. In real politics, what is “temporary” is established by the politician and the political context. As a result, the home crisis will have a dramatic impact on Turkey’s foreign policy, particularly economic.

The very results of the presidential elections in Turkey clearly showed that the Turkish society is, in fact, proportionally split into two camps: the supporters of the Turkic-Islamic course independent from the West, the spokesman of which is Erdoğan himself, and the opponents of this strategy, who are in favor of maintaining Westernization focused on the United States and Europe, represented by the opposition leader Kılıçdaroğlu. Fortunately for Turkish society and the government, the election results did not spark large-scale opposition rallies (uprisings) or widespread political instability. The same Kılıçdaroğlu appeared to have no trouble accepting his opponent’s triumph and restricting himself to his party’s slight victory in the legislative elections. At the same time, Turkey’s economic crisis and rapid devaluation of the currency have worsened since May 29.

On the eve of the election in Turkey, some American experts thought, not without reason, that the West (primarily, the US) might be satisfied with Erdoğan’s victory, but under certain conditions. According to them, the essence of these conditions was stipulated during closed negotiations with Erdoğan during the pre-election period, where among the conditional lots were played such topics as “financial aid in exchange for Ankara’s accession to broad-scale anti-Russian sanctions”; “military aid in exchange for Turkey’s agreement on Finland and Sweden joining NATO”; and “easing Turkey’s integration regime with the EU in exchange for reducing economic cooperation.” Simultaneously, the same US specialists reminded the audience, not without reason, of the famous comrade Sukhov’s statement from White Sun of the Desert, “The East is a subtle matter.” In other words, Erdoğan’s ambition and desire to retain the presidency of Turkey may be higher than other motivations.

It is difficult for this author to fully agree with his American colleagues, but he also cannot completely disregard such negotiating between Erdoğan and the West. In any case, the subsequent course of events in Turkey’s foreign policy track has the potential to validate or refute these beliefs. It should be acknowledged that the president is always obliged to seek the interests of his country, and the facts of life govern the extent of his flexibility.

Since Ottoman times, the Turks have distinguished themselves by their virtuosity in flexible diplomacy and maneuvering between different centers of power, at the end of which they have usually succeeded. And when it appeared that the Turks were doomed to failure and disaster, in an astonishing turn of events, they managed to turn the situation in their favor with no reputational damage.

So it was after the Crimean War (1854–1856) and the decisions of the Treaty of Paris (1856); so it was after Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) and the decisions of the famous Congress of Berlin (1878); so it was after the First World War (according to the decisions of the Treaty of Moscow and the 1921 Treaty of Kars and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne). This was also the case at the end of World War II, when Turkey, a partner of Hitler’s Germany until February 1944, was able to be among the winners through its diplomacy with Great Britain and the United States.

Therefore, the author would not rush with inventions to the traditional Turkish diplomacy when some Russian experts, for instance, Pavel Shlykov, associate professor at the Institute of Asian and African Countries at Moscow State University, are now trying, while praising Turkish diplomacy, to invent new names for it like “strategic hedging,” which is “balancing and adjoining the strong.”

In early April 2023, that is, before the general elections in Turkey, Ankara, represented by President Erdoğan, agreed to Finland’s membership in the NATO bloc. This choice may have been made as a result of a Finnish government capitulation to Turkish demands about the Kurdish issue. However, this did not make things easier for Russia, whose border with NATO has increased by exactly, 1350 km.

Then the author presumed that the worst-case scenario for our country’s interests would be for Turkey to make the same decision regarding Sweden after the elections. In other words, Erdoğan may have agreed with the West to take a positive decision on 50% (Finland) and leave the remaining 50% (Sweden) as a guarantee of his victory and its recognition by the United States and Europe.

It is no secret that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg arrived in Ankara for President Erdoğan’s inauguration and held closed-door talks with the Turkish leader, along with the leaders of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of National Defense, and MIT. However, as a result of these talks, Stoltenberg did not express confidence in Ankara’s positive decision on Sweden’s fate at the upcoming summit of NATO heads of state in Vilnius in July.

Turkey, represented by Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, called on Sweden to take concrete steps on the subject of combating Kurdish terrorism. The Swedes only promised to extradite some Kurdish activists to Turkey and end the arms embargo, but so far, they have not taken any real action.

US Ambassador to Turkey Jeffrey Flake has changed his mind several times this week regarding Ankara’s possible decision on Sweden’s membership in NATO. In particular, last week he first stated that Turkey would rather not support Sweden’s membership in NATO on the eve of the summit in Vilnius, but a day later he contradicted his own opinion, expressing optimism about Ankara’s agreement on the issue at the very summit in Lithuania. What would that mean? Is an American diplomat in the rank of ambassador so ignorant as to make diametrically opposed statements on the same issue two days apart? Or are the Americans just escalating the situation once again?

Meanwhile, Turkey today frankly needs serious external financial assistance, which can be provided by the same EU countries, where Sweden is among the heavyweights. As you know, after Erdoğan’s victory in the last elections, Manfred Weber of the influential European People’s Party of the European Parliament said that Turkey is, of course, an important partner for Europe and must be helped. However, the issue of Turkey’s accession to the EU, according to the European deputy, is removed from the agenda. In other words, Europe is no longer considering integration with Turkey; for it, as Western experts point out, Ukraine and its postwar reconstruction and, at this point, appropriation of the ruined part is much more important.

However, if before the elections, Erdoğan repeatedly and loudly declared that Turkey was tired of standing in line for 20 years waiting for a positive decision from Brussels on its integration with the EU and that Turkey was no longer considering integration with Europe and had found an alternative in the East, after the elections Erdoğan began to change his emphasis on the EU. Today, Turkey’s president stresses the importance of incorporating the topic of Turkey’s EU inclusion into the legal framework. So, what happened? Of course, the Turks need money and favorable loans. Or maybe the topic of the EU is one of the topics of Erdoğan’s negotiations with the US before the elections?

In any case, despite the open disputes between Ankara and Stockholm over Sweden’s NATO membership, Turkey did not receive Erdoğan’s approval before or after the election to respond against the Swedish democrats more severely. For example, Turkey’s ambassador Yönet Can Tezel was never recalled after a Danish extremist burned the Koran or Kurdish radicals burned an effigy of Erdoğan in Stockholm; tens of thousands of Turks living in Sweden did not protest as directed by the Turkish MIT; well-known Swedish companies (like IKEA, Ericsson, Electrolux, and Volvo) were not removed from Turkey; Turkey did not impose restrictions on the supply of Swedish goods to its market and, conversely, on the export of its products to Sweden; the Turks did not escalate relations with European Commissioner Ylva Johansson, who is responsible for the Schengen zone in the EU.

It is obvious that the closure of Swedish businesses in Turkey will create significant losses, particularly for Turkish citizens, as fewer jobs and less money will be available for the wage fund. In addition, the Swedes are major financial donors to the EU and producers of quality modern weapons, along with the Anglo-Saxons and Germans. They can either help the Turks or refuse. In addition, Sweden has held the EU presidency for the first six months of 2023, and Turkey heavily relies on its stance.

All of these factors have to be taken into account by Erdoğan on the subject of Sweden and NATO. Perhaps this is why the Turkish authorities demand concrete practical steps from Stockholm to Turkey, which could include not only tightening anti-terrorist legislation and the extradition of Kurdish extremists but also, perhaps, providing financial and investment assistance to the crisis-hit Turkish economy, as well as supporting Ankara in its negotiations with Brussels on the topic of Eurointegration.

Therefore, as noted by Vadim Trukhachev, associate professor at the Russian State University of Humanities, Sweden is a key component of the Collective West; the leaders of the North Atlantic alliance swiftly endorsed Stockholm’s decision to join NATO; and Turkey is likely to receive a compromise in the form of economic (financial), political, and military assistance.

Furthermore, some analysts have suggested that Erdoğan has become addicted to the policy of independence from the West and is abandoning Europe in favor of a special partnership with China and Russia. In this author’s opinion, it is important to keep in mind that Turkey is enhancing its role as a transit country to Europe by strategically utilizing its advantageous geographic location at the intersection of Europe and Asia. Accordingly, Erdoğan’s agreement to implement the Russian proposal for a gas hub in Eastern Thrace also pursues the goal of increasing Turkey’s assets to the EU. And all because European countries are financially and technologically developed and richer.

Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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