Turkey is at a critical point in its relations with the West. While we wait to see whether the nasty surprise that Recep Tayyip Erdogan got in his country’s local elections will lead him to revise his domestic policies and relations with other countries, the recent verbal skirmish between the vice presidents of the United States and Turkey showed that – at least for now – Ankara does not intend to tone down the belligerence of previous years.
“Turkey must choose. Does it want to remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in history or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making such reckless decisions that undermine our NATO alliance?” Mike Pence declared on Wednesday. Ankara’s determination to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system, which has enraged Washington, was also to be discussed on the sidelines of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers yesterday, the 70th anniversary of the alliance’s founding. Pence’s Turkish counterpart, Fuat Oktay, shot back in similar vein: “The United States must choose. Does it want to remain Turkey’s ally or risk our friendship by joining forces with terrorists to undermine its NATO ally’s defense against its enemies?”
Erdogan had campaigned in the local elections under the slogan that the outcome was a “question of survival for Turkey.” This, however, did not prevent his ruling party’s loss of the country’s largest cities to an alliance of opposition parties. The Turkish president immediately called for a recount in Istanbul and Ankara, gaining some time while he thought of his next moves. Also, it was Oktay who replied to the strong US declaration, not Erdogan, leaving the president a way to back down, if necessary. Now Erdogan must choose between accepting a painful defeat or shouldering responsibility for an attempt to overturn the election result. He must also shape a new economic policy to deal with recession, unemployment and uncertainty – all questions that were voters’ priorities and for which Erdogan blamed the United States and other hostile forces. He must also choose whether he wants better ties not only with the United States and the European Union but also with Turkey’s neighbors, as good relations are necessary for the country’s economy to grow and its security to be strengthened.
Erdogan has always responded to any threat with a head-on confrontation. Now, having lost strength at home and before the United States, the EU and Russia, will he do the same? His choice will determine his country’s fate.