Turkey After Referendum: Rejection of the European Path and New Risks


According to Russian participants in the expert discussion at the Valdai Discussion Club on the referendum results in Turkey, strengthening of authoritarian tendencies, pressure on opposition political forces amid deep division of society together with offensive foreign policy mean that Turkey will remain a difficult and not always predictable partner.

The referendum on amendments to the Constitution of Turkey, which envisages transition from the parliamentary system of governance to the presidential system, split the country into two parts. Society is becoming more polarized and realization of Erdogan’s ambitious plans to build a “New Turkey” depends on how he will act with his new powers in conditions of this split. Meanwhile, the international community should prepare for a wide range of scenarios – from consolidating Turkey under the leadership of a strong leader to country’s plunging into chaos. Such were the conclusions of participants in the expert discussion held at the Valdai Discussion Club on Monday.

The vote results showed that President Erdogan’s plan was supported by conservative residents of relatively less developed regions of the country, while supporters of the European path – residents of the major cities and the Mediterranean coast as well as national minorities – voted for preservation of the old system. Vladimir Avatkov, director of the Center for Oriental Studies, International Relations and Public Diplomacy, and the author of the recently published Valdai Paper “Defense Through Leadership: Turkey on the Eve of Its Constitutional Referendum” noted that Erdogan did not propose a clear program of further action after winning referendum. In other words, voting “yes” became expression of loyalty to the president who campaigned for amendments to the Constitution using the slogans of unity and strength of the nation. He was echoed by Soli Özel, Senior Lecturer at the Kadir Has University in Istanbul. According to him, Erdogan capitalized on the fears of his supporters that without expanding his powers he will not be able to finish what he started after coming to power in 2002.

Despite his formal victory, the results of the referendum can hardly be called Erdogan’s triumph. In this regard, a question arises whether the next steps of the Turkish leader are aimed at consolidating society or whether its polarization will continue. Avakov believes that Erdogan’s policies – both internal and external – will be offensive, otherwise the idea of strong power concentration loses its sense. The issue of restoring death penalty is already on the agenda, and can be put to a referendum. A positive decision on the issue will inevitably strengthen the already existing atmosphere of fear in the country and increase the danger of political protests against the current regime.

As participants in the discussion noted, some contours of a new Turkey, which Erdogan intends to build, are already evident today. The most important domestic policy change is the withdrawal of the military from the political arena. According to the new amendments, they are prohibited from running for elections, Avatkov said. Since the times of Ataturk, the military have been guarantors of the secular nature of the state and took power into their own hands when they believed that the government violated the principles of the founder of the Republic of Turkey. Does this mean that the concept of a military coup is to disappear from the Turkish politics? Avatkov believes that it does not, but at the moment no force is able to implement a coup and any attempt to overthrow the current government will require active participation of external players.

Meanwhile, world powers are now least interested in any radical transformation of Turkey because of the instability on its southern borders. Moreover, the concentration of power in Erdogan’s hands could strengthen the Turkish economy. Mirko Hempel, director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Moscow, said that the markets reacted positively to the results of the referendum, expecting more short-term stability. At the same time, it is obvious that the European path of Turkey, which the country tried to follow over the past twenty years, is over. It is absolutely clear that Turkey does not fit into the EU, but it does not mean that there cannot be normal working relations between EU and Turkey. “We will go more interest-driven, less value-driven,” Hempel predicted.

According to experts, the military-political alliance with the United States and participation in NATO will remain a constant of Turkey’s foreign policy. At the same time, within NATO, Turkey will try to conduct a more independent policy and demonstrate to Washington that it is an indispensable partner. According to Özel, the Turkish leadership is concerned about the operation to free Raqqa from ISIS, which the Americans are carrying out jointly with the Kurdish forces. This can exacerbate bilateral relations, but is unlikely to endanger the two countries’ strategic alliance.

At the same time, it is obvious that Turkey will diversify its geopolitical orientation. According to Hempel, Ankara will pay even more attention to the Middle East, Eurasia and Central Asia. According to Avatkov, Erdogan’s foreign policy will be aimed at gaining the status of a world-level power and an informal leader of the Turkic-speaking world. Realization of these aspirations is fraught with aggravation of contradictions with other world powers, including Russia. In particular, according to the expert, the problem is that Turkey builds its policy in the post-Soviet space in terms of influence, not partnership. Even the foreign policy concept of “zero problems with neighbors”, which was put forward in 2008 by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and subsequently failed, was based on the premise that the key to peaceful relations is Turkey’s influence in neighboring countries, implemented through lobby groups and other soft power tools.

In general, the discussion showed that Russian experts are inclined to assess the changes in Turkey with a certain degree of concern. Strengthening of authoritarian tendencies, pressure on opposition political forces amid deep division of society together with offensive foreign policy mean that Turkey will remain at least difficult and not always predictable partner.

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