Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once again raised Kashmir this week, for the nth time. Obviously nobody paid any attention and it got buried in the back pages. Normally, a world leader talking about Kashmir would raise some hackles but this time the MEA didn’t bother to even respond (at least not in the usual way), because it turns out nobody takes incoherent, friendless Erdoğan seriously anymore—except his equally incoherent and ignored Pakistani counterpart.
This is a far cry from 2003 when Erdoğan took charge as the prime minister and promised a zero conflict foreign policy under his then foreign policy adviser and later foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. At that time things actually seemed good with Turkey mending its fences with not just all its Mediterranean neighbours but also countries like India with whom it had mildly antagonistic relations. Yet, it took just seven years for the façade to come off and the real face of radical Islamism and international terrorism to be revealed. The question is how did it go wrong so badly? How did someone seemingly so moderate turn out to be so fanatical? How did the man spearheading Turkey’s attempt to join the European Union end up becoming the biggest supporter of transnational terrorism in the 21st century?
Behind Turkey’s Attempt to Join EU
What we need to understand about Erdoğan is that he is a very smart politician, to the point of being too smart by half, and an entirely incompetent economist. For him only one thing matters—Erdoğan.
His greatest gambit lay in his feigned attempt at joining the European Union. As it turns out, he knew all along that the EU would simply never accept a large Muslim state as its member. But it was only when the membership attempt well and truly failed that we understood that the primary target of the said membership was not the EU or Turkey but rather a grand attempt at neutralising his own problematic military.
Turkey’s military has ostensibly been committed to secularism. Of course, this is complete nonsense because any reading of modern Turkish history will show at least three cycles of policy Islamisation carried out by Turkish military dictatorships. However, that never prevented the military from staging coups, claiming that secularism was in danger. Given that Erdoğan came from an avowed Islamist party, he had to neutralise the military by institutionalising secularism and taking away the military’s trump card. And, that was the genesis of Turkey’s attempt to join the EU despite knowing it was bound to fail.
One of the key criteria for membership to the EU is democracy and civil liberties with any military intervention in government being an automatic disqualifier. Consequently, Erdoğan used the EU membership bid simply to keep the military in its barracks while he consolidated power and once the EU formally rejected Turkey’s membership Erdoğan was strong enough to purge the military and render it toothless, something no Turkish leader before him had managed to achieve. In fact, the military was so badly eroded that when they attempted to stage a coup in 2016 it was amateur and failed even before it started. However, this gave Erdoğan the opportunity for a second round of purging of not just what was left of the military but also every other institution, from universities to courts.
In the Footsteps of China, Lebanon
Duplicitous and oblique attacks are trademark Erdoğan. During his first term as the prime minister, parallel to the EU membership effort, he launched a major economic liberalisation programme. This had little to do with any fundamental belief in economic freedom but was about creating an artificial economic bubble that would provide massive employment to his primary constituency, which was conservative rural Anatolia. This economic bubble was based on a significant trade deficit and focused entirely on the construction industry. Today Istanbul, for example, has more skyscrapers than most European capitals whose economies are much bigger and more stable.
This construction boom produced nothing and did nothing to industrialise Turkey. But what it did was provide a significant number of relatively high-paying skilled construction jobs to Erdoğan’s rural electorate, encouraging them to move to urban areas and skew the urban area voting patterns in his favour. This pattern is not dissimilar from the Chinese and Lebanese models, which too have come home to roost. At the time of writing, China is witnessing the collapse of one of its largest construction companies (Evergrande), with significant knockdown effects on both the Chinese and global economies.
Similarly, there was the Lebanese construction boom, which ensured a monopoly on buildings for the ruling Hariri family, with a short-term spurt in jobs but no lasting effects on the economy save a huge debt. Is it any surprise that Lebanon’s ruinous national debt is the Hariri families’ immense personal fortune? Predictably, like Lebanon’s now ruined economy and the imminent collapse of Evergrande, Turkey’s economy started crumbling rapidly with inflation rates not seen in over two decades and a significant reduction in both prosperity and consumer spending over the last five years.
Turkey’s Biggest Enemy
As we can see two parallel processes have marked Erdoğan’s rule. The first has been an absolute consolidation of power and the second ruination of the economy. Erdoğan’s foreign policy is a synthesis of these two trends—the greater his political power and the worse the economy, the more he interferes in other countries’ matters. Be it exporting terrorism to Syria and Libya, with his own family involved in shady deals with the ISIS, or the desperate scramble for Mediterranean gas alienating both Egypt and France, or encouraging a vicious Azeri military intervention in the Armenian-majority Artsakh region, supplying Syrian jihadis to carry out beheadings and unspeakable atrocities there.
It escapes nobody’s notice that Erdoğan talking about Kashmir is as ridiculous as Hitler talking about the Sudetenland and Danzig, using crude ethnocentric language to invade and annex other countries. After all, Turkey sits in occupation of Northern Cyprus, subject to the same ethnic cleansing of Christians that Kashmir saw of Hindus and in full violation of UN resolutions recognised by nobody other than Turkey. This is also the same Turkey that occupies and ruthlessly crushes the cultural aspirations of fellow Muslim Kurds, while launching military expeditions into Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan, killing women and children. This isn’t the pot calling the kettle black, it is low-grade lignite coal calling a flawed diamond black.
Ultimately, we need to understand that Erdoğan has played all his cards and has nothing but demagoguery left. This makes him far more dangerous than ever, but it also makes him something of a sad pathetic joke. So, what do we make of his latest comments on Kashmir? Both caution and ridicule—caution that the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism deserves, but also the ridicule of an irrelevant all-round failure not fit to be engaged with in any civilised way. After all, why should we do anything, when Turkey’s biggest enemy is its own president?
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.