Will US and EU pressure soften Erdogan’s brand of strongman rule?

US President Joe Biden’s declaration on the Armenian genocide raised the ire of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who labelled the decision as a ‘wrong step’ and called for ‘good neighbourly’ ties with Armenia. He disputed Biden’s ‘baseless, unjust and untrue remarks’ and advised him to remember America’s own history with its native peoples. Erdogan’s reaction reflects Turkey’s increasing confidence in pushing back against Western criticism, its foreign policy posture one of perpetual antagonism and grievance.

In this, Turkey has followed the pattern of other revisionist, strongman states like Russia, Hungary, Poland and Belarus, which have doubled down on expansionist authoritarian narratives. Most of these states do so against a backdrop of increasing economic hardship and political dissent at home, exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis.

Erdogan has attempted to wing his way through the pandemic by prioritising the economy over health—which has proved to be a false dichotomy for nations pursuing paths of herd immunity while trying to keep business going.

In March and April, infections in Turkey hit record numbers, drawing harsh criticism from the Turkish Medical Association about the government’s botched response and continual coverup of infection rates. A full lock-down was ordered in late April and the last restrictions have only just been removed. These measures worked and Covid-19 infection rates have reduced, but the pandemic is not over yet and it remains to be seen if Erdogan will eventually pay a political price domestically for his handling of the crisis.

Despite the pandemic, or perhaps because of it, Erdogan has forged ahead with his neo-Ottoman vision of Turkey in an attempt to use broader national ambitions to engage and garner popular support, especially against those in metropolitan areas who oppose him.

This is most clearly seen in the concept of ‘Mavi Vatan’, or ‘blue homeland’, the naval vision of Turkish irredentism. Developed in 2006 by Turkish naval strategist Cem Gurdeniz, the doctrine of Mavi Vatan highlights Turkey’s increasingly assertive and aggressive stance against neighbouring states’ claims, particularly Cyprus and Greece.

And in a year in which the US has brought climate change to the top of the international security agenda, Turkey is expanding its gas and oil exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean in a further bid for regional leverage.

Erdogan’s claims to the waters and exclusive economic zone around Cyprus and into the Eastern Mediterranean ignore Greek and Cypriot claims to the waters and the resources beneath them. Contrary to international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Ankara allowed Turkish companies to conduct oil and gas exploration in contested waters with a military escort, further stoking tensions.

These actions contributed to a further deterioration in relations between Turkey and the European Union, which considered imposing sanctions against Ankara for its ‘provocative actions’. The incident follows a trend of Turkey being involved in grey-zone actions, including supporting Azerbaijan and Libya in their respective conflicts, making incursions into Syria and supplying drones to Ukraine to be used against Russia.

Ensuring the regime’s continuation has been Erdogan’s greatest priority, illustrated in his move to replace the head of the central bank with a party loyalist. At a time of extreme economic instability in Turkey, this has been seen as a play to secure his unorthodox economic policies to encourage growth, but that has spooked foreign investors.

This isn’t the first time Erdogan has installed loyalists installed in key positions. In 2018, at the height of economic turmoil, he appointed his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, as minister for finance.

In a Strategist piece last year, Connor Dilleen noted the increasingly independent strategic direction that Erdogan is charting for Turkey, away from both the West and Russia while maintaining transactional ties. But allowing Turkey to have purely transactional relationships with the West creates a more permissive environment for countries that want to strike assertive authoritarian poses regionally and globally.

Western states, particularly the US under the Biden administration, have signalled that they’re unwilling to allow this permissiveness to continue. Biden’s recognition of the Armenian genocide and the EU’s use of sanctions against Turkey show a new resolve to push back against Erdogan’s brand of strongman rule. It will be interesting to see if this leads to a more constructive attitude from Turkey in the next year. But Erdogan may have gone too far down the narrative path of Ottoman reconstructionism to reverse without risking his domestic credibility.