By Jamie Dettmer
Since U.S. President Joe Biden’s election, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been making diplomatic overtures to the West, pledging democratic reforms at home and promising a serious effort to improve ties with Turkey’s NATO partners.
The Turkish leader told France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, in a video call Tuesday that cooperation has “very serious potential,” and he added that dialogue has an important role to play.
“As two strong NATO allies, we can make significant contributions to peace, stability, and peace efforts in a wide geography — from Europe to the Caucasus, the Middle East, and Africa,” Erdogan said in a statement following the conversation.
Also Tuesday, Erdogan unveiled a long-awaited action plan he has trailed heavily since Biden’s election win last November, which he says is aimed at improving human and civil rights in Turkey.
“The ultimate aim of Turkey’s action plan is a new civilian constitution,” the Turkish president highlighted in his speech. The plan originates from the state’s “obligation to protect, in all of its affairs and acts and with all of the state institutions and organizations, the physical and moral integrity and the honor and dignity of individuals,” he announced.
But Erdogan’s critics say the action plan sits oddly with his government’s quashing of dissent — Turkey jails more journalists than any other country in the world — and the imprisoning of the Turkish leader’s political opponents, as well as a rolling crackdown on dissident groups, which became more expansive after a 2016 coup attempt failed to topple the Islamist populist leader.
Despite the overtures to Biden and Brussels, which have included the appointment of a new Turkish ambassador to the U.S. and Erdogan’s stated hopes to turn a new page in relations with the West after years of strained relations, the diplomatic charm offensive has been received so far in Washington with wariness and skepticism.
U.S. officials say only last year Erdogan was engineering a dangerous standoff in the eastern Mediterranean with Greece and Cyprus over lucrative gas and oil drilling rights. Western Europeans and Turkey’s other regional neighbors accused Ankara of brinkmanship in a deadlock that saw opposing warships come close to clashing. And even in December, the Turkish president was continuing to complain about a Western conspiracy being formed against Turkey aimed at frustrating the projection of Turkish power and influence abroad.
“There are few signs that the leopard really has changed its spots,” an American official told VOA on Wednesday. He was speaking just hours after Turkey said it is considering purchasing a second S-400 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia, despite strong disapproval from the U.S. and NATO.
Ankara’s original purchase last year of the Russian air defense system, which NATO members say is incompatible with membership in the Western alliance, prompted even the more forbearing Trump administration to impose sanctions on Turkey.
U.S. and Western officials say it is hardly surprising they remain skeptical about Erdogan’s intentions. “It is hard not to conclude that he is talking from both sides of his mouth,” said a Western diplomat. “There are no signs of him easing his crackdown on domestic dissent nor turning aside from a marriage of convenience with Russia.”
Biden has taken an even harder line on Turkey than his White House predecessor, Donald Trump. Before being elected, Biden tagged Erdogan as an autocrat, and the new administration has rebuked Ankara for rights abuses and urged the release of prominent activist Osman Kavala.
Biden and Erdogan have yet to speak. The only high-level contact so far featured a phone conversation between Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, and Ibrahim Kalin, a security adviser to the Turkish leader.
EU, Turkish relations
Later this month, European Union heads of state and government are scheduled to review the bloc’s relations with Turkey. “There is no doubt that EU governments want a calmer, more predictable relationship with Ankara,” according to Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe research organization.
He says they want to see improved relations with Turkey for economic reasons and because they fear that any further deterioration could prompt Erdogan to break his deal with the EU to block refugees from using Turkey again as a gateway to Europe.
But in a commentary for Carnegie Europe, Pierini notes that Erdogan’s diplomatic charm offensive places the Europeans in a tricky spot. They don’t want to be seen “giving a blessing to Turkey’s autocratic leanings at a time when the country blatantly disregards and mocks Europe’s fundamental values,” he said. “Ankara is striving to dodge punitive measures and fill the agenda with reforms that are palatable to the Europeans. Yet, domestic developments in Turkey keep pointing in the opposite direction.”
Western diplomats say Ankara wants to limit any dialogue with the U.S. and Europe just to trade and economic matters with rights issues and Erdogan’s adventurism in Syria, Libya and Central Asia off the agenda.
So far, that doesn’t seem to be working.
On Monday, 170 U.S. lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the Biden administration to address “troubling” human rights issues as it shapes its policy toward Turkey.
Lawmakers noted in the letter that Turkey has long been an important partner, but they say Erdogan is responsible for the strains in the relationship.
“Strategic issues have rightfully received significant attention in our bilateral relationship, but the gross violation of human rights and democratic backsliding taking place in Turkey are also of significant concern,” the lawmakers said, pointing to the weakening of Turkey’s judiciary, the appointment of Erdogan’s political allies to key military and intelligence positions, and the wrongful imprisonment of political opponents, journalists and members of minority groups.