Turkish Foreign Policy in the Shadow of Massive Purges and Eurasianist Turn

July 17, 2020
by İmdat Öner, published on 17 July 2020
Turkish Foreign Policy in the Shadow of Massive Purges and Eurasianist Turn

It has been four years since the failed coup attempt in Turkey and no one has any clear idea yet what actually happened that night. While the complete narrative and evidence about the failed coup have yet to be clarified, the scope of the reaction by the Turkish government to the coup attempt was quite horrifying. Beyond any doubt, the coup attempt dramatically transformed Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies.

Domestically, Erdogan used the attempt as an excuse to purge thousands of military and government officials accused of links to the Gulen Movement. While the failed putsch has accelerated democratic backsliding and curtailed freedoms and human rights in the country, on the foreign policy front, there has been a major shift in the actions and vision of the government. The atmosphere of uncertainty in the wake of the coup has enabled the Erdogan government to structurally transform the foreign policy decision making.

First and foremost, Erdogan has steadily stepped up his efforts to tighten his grip over the foreign policymaking process. With the transition from a parliamentary system to a centralized executive presidency in Turkey through a referendum in 2017, the foreign policy decision-making process has been mostly transferred from the traditional institutions to Erdogan’s hand. In particular, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which long played a key role in decision-making, has turned into a simple implementer of decisions made by the president, based solely on his preferences.

The massive purge of the Turkish diplomats following a coup in 2016 has further weakened the prestigious “Hariciye” which long served to guide the implementation of Turkish foreign policy. No less than 550 diplomats, whose very presence was indispensable for the day-to-day running of the Foreign Service, saw their careers upended by the brutal post-coup crackdown. Needless to say, their departure created an immense vacuum within the Ministry at a time diplomatic expertise is needed more than ever.

As much as its significant quantity, the atmosphere of fear that unprecedented purge generated among the Turkish diplomats has undermined the balancing role of career diplomats. While Erdogan's administration has driven the foreign policy disastrously off the rails, the seasoned diplomats adopted silence to simply avoid a similar dismissal. The purge and subsequent politicization of the ministry endangered the Foreign Service’s constant balancing act and nonpartisan service, which has for years mitigated the fallout of the government’s reckless policy course.

While pro-NATO and pro-EU officials were losing their previous influential positions, the government appeared to increasingly align its post-coup foreign policy with the Eurasian bloc. The alliance of the AKP with the Eurasianists in domestic politics has also manifested itself in Turkey’s new foreign policy orientation. As Doğu Perinçek highlighted several times, after the coup attempt the AKP has been transformed to adopt the strategic position of this clique.

In the new era, Turkey’s increasing detachment from the West underscores a major shift in Ankara’s strategic thinking. With the Eurasianist ideology increasingly emboldened in foreign policy decision-making, Turkey’s relations with the West have grown more strained, and anti-American and anti-Western sentiment among the country’s ruling elite has dramatically ramped up. Erdogan’s tacit approval of this strategic re-orientation in foreign policy has become even more pronounced in the decision of his government to purchase the Russian S-400 defense system, pursue assertive posturing in the Eastern Mediterranean and keep silent in the face of China’s suppression of Uighur Muslims.

Amid Ankara’s increased isolation in the region and beyond, Russia took advantage of deepening anti-western anger among the Turkish people to build its influence on the Erdogan government. The Russians even promoted some stories highlighting that Russian intelligence had saved Erdogan by providing him advanced warning of the coup. After the abortive coup attempt, the relations between Turkey and Russia have highly intensified. Amid the rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow, the Eurasianist clique within the Turkish bureaucracy which long aspired to be closely aligned with Russia emerged holding key positions. It was not a simple coincidence that while pro-Russian Eurasianists filled the vacuum in the bureaucracy in the aftermath of unprecedented purge, Turkey has been spinning out of NATO orbit.

Moving forward, it is difficult to foresee how long the de facto alliance between the government and Eurasianist will remain in stage. Yet, one thing is crystal clear that this alliance of convenience in the aftermath of massive purge has already created serious damage in Turkey’s foreign policy that will take generations to heal.

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