Turkey, the West and the Rest: An Interview with Kerem Öktem
Evan Pheiffer 26 February 2021

The new US administration may well change its approach to Turkey, yet Erdoğan’s regime is unlikely to significantly review the foundations of its self-assigned macro-regional role— that of a revisionist player, ready to embark on a number of political and military adventures to assert its power and “right the wrongs of colonialism”. Yet someone, at some point, will call the bluff. So claims historian Kerem Öktem, a leading scholar on contemporary Turkish history and politics, in this talk with Reset DOC discussing AKP’s foreign policy in the age of Biden. A professor of history and politics, from next July at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Dr. Öktem received his PhD from Oxford before teaching at the University of Graz in Austria and Northwestern University in Chicago. He is the author, among other things, of Angry Nation: Turkey Since 1989, and a regular speaker at scientific fora dedicated to Turkish domestic and international politics (most recently, the Unpacking “the opposition” in undemocratic regimes seminar organized by the University of Turin).


Dr. Öktem, the wind blowing from the US has changed with the election of Joe Biden. Is the new American president as anti-Turkish as some say he is? How much does that even matter?

Well, the United States is still at least one of three superpowers in the world today. So of course it matters for Turkey. Even though listening to today’s AKP politicians gives the impression that it doesn’t matter what Washington says, it absolutely does. One has to remember that it’s still an ally, even if a contested and wayward one. Turkey is still a member of the transatlantic institutions. Whether or not a Biden has an anti-Turkey bias, I don’t know.


Where might Turkey’s animus to Biden come from?

Well, Biden is seen as someone who stands more for human rights and advancing President Obama’s agenda. And the last few years Ankara had been so overly dependent on Washington, more specifically on Trump. For obvious reasons, the chemistry between Trump and Erdoğan was just right: the AKP’s foreign policy actors thought they had people they could talk with on the Trump team, that they roughly shared the same set of values, or lack of values. They were both strong men who liked to talk “man-to-man,” etc. In that sense, the Trump administration was very successful in Turkey.


Where might Biden bind Ankara’s arms?

There’s been both an atmospheric and a structural change since Biden’s election. First of all, Ankara knows it can no longer have its way with Washington. So there’s a great deal of insecurity. And there’s also an expectation that there will be limitations on what it can do. It’s just not clear yet what that will be and where. If Biden lives up to his pre-election policy promises, there’s an expectation that he’ll give much greater care to institutions, diplomatic norms of engagement, bilateralism, etc. None of these are things that Ankara has been engaging with in recent years: they’ve been acting as if they’re not part of NATO and the Western security alliance whenever it suited them. Somehow, they got away with it. But under Biden, this will be much harder. So there’s a lot that a Biden administration can do to bring Turkey back into these alliances—or at least force Turkey to make a choice about whether or not it still wants to be a part of NATO, or whether it wants to go the full way toward a Russian or Chinese orientation.


Prof. Kerem Öktem

Does Turkey have anything to gain from leaving NATO?

That depends entirely on your political and ideological stance. If you ask me personally, of course not. Turkey’s westward orientation since the late 1940s is the reason why democratic institutions—despite all the problems—have until now taken hold in society. Though we’re now in the process of witnessing how those institutions are being destroyed. But it’s largely thanks to the Western orientation that these institutions could survive at all. Turkey, remember, is also a member of the Council of Europe, which focuses on democracy and human rights, not just NATO.

The moment you cut these off, the future gets much bleaker. I don’t have to tell you about the human rights conditions in Russia or China. If those are the countries you aspire to, that can only lead to a much worse situation than we’re already in. The same goes for trade: Europe is Turkey’s biggest export and import market. The UK is learning that the hard way as we speak, that it’s much better to be in than out when these are your trading partners. Turkey is halfway in, in economic terms, and reaching anything less than that would cause major problems.

Let me be clear, there’s nothing Turkey can gain from leaving NATO. But if you are a ‘Eurasianist’, the kind of AKP foreign policy actor that looks at the West as a neo-colonial, anti-Muslim, and anti-Turkish institution, and you think there has to be an indigenous form of economic and political development, inspired by China and Russia, then you think that leaving the Western block is a great opportunity.


Is there a significant demographic that feels that way? A Perinçekist[1] block lurking somewhere in the hills of Anatolia?

Not quite ‘Perinçekist,’ you know, which is close to being a bit over the top, or rather, is bordering on madness. The Russian equivalent is Dugin, whom even Putin now shuns! Not many people in Turkey follow Perinçek, though it’s true that those who agree with him have become very influential in the government. But in more diffuse and general terms, many people have been very frustrated by the way Turkey has been treated by the European Union. And the EU’s image has taken a great beating in recent years. Though Turkish society is polarized, this ‘Islamist critique of the West’ has seeped across society.

And of course, large parts of it are justified! Much of Europe is, of course, anti-Muslim and anti-Turkish. Many of the struggles in Europe today are about Islam and Muslims. So while most people still think highly of Europe—they think that things are better there—they don’t always think of it as a very dynamic place. And when they look east, not so much at Russia, but at China, they see what looks like an amazing success story. And China is a country which has brought relative wealth to a very large part of its society without any democratic structures, which people in Turkey clearly see. This idea that the new dynamics of the world are in the East—that China is the new superpower—definitely has resonance in Turkey. I’m not saying that everybody thinks like that, but even diehard supporters of the European Union are aware that the world does not solely consist of Europe anymore.


Moving the discussion southward. The Turkish post office now has over 10 offices in the Syrian province of Idlib, and the Turkish lira is the currency of choice. Is Idlib the new Hatay?[2]

I’m not sure if it’s the right analogy, since Hatay voted by referendum during the French mandate to join Turkey, an agreement made under international law, whereas Idlib is under Turkish occupation, which is against international law. But yes, it is effectively run as if it were a Turkish province. There’s not just a post office—they’re also opening a Turkish university there. So yes, there is a de facto Turkish annexation of that area. And for now at least, in areas once run by ISIS or other extremists, the Turkish state is able to deliver services. Turkey’s government is quite good at ruling places, and they know it.

But it’s difficult to know how much is merely posturing. The Nazis, you know, said their Reich would last a thousand years. They didn’t quite make it that long. I’m sure that the people who are now running Idlib think that Turkey will run that part of Syria forever, but that can change tomorrow. But it’s clear that there is a determination in the AKP government to make Kurdish autonomy or statehood in that part of Syria impossible, which is something that is shared not merely by the AKP, but by most other parties, too. And this resistance to Kurdish statehood —the aim to make it impossible or destroy it there—is quite deep.


Is there any ‘just’ solution to the Franco-Turkish-Greek rivalry in the eastern Mediterranean?

Well, in international relations, ‘justice’ rarely makes an appearance. What matters is power. At the end of the day, however, everything depends on whether Turkey will relax a bit. You know, Turkey is in hypertension on all fronts, internally and externally, but especially in the field of international relations. It’s flexing its muscles everywhere! Of course, much of this is overreach and posturing, because you can’t be fighting on so many fronts; nobody can. At some point, someone will call the bluff, and things will change, hopefully in government and in tone. Then things will settle down a little bit.


Who’s most likely to call that bluff?

That’s the thing, it’s very hard to come out and do that because it is an important country. Part of the reason the AKP is running around banging its head everywhere is that Turkey is quite an important country and has until now not been recognized as such. As the AKP sees things, Turkey has been humiliated before the EU, and they will never make it to full candidacy, even if there are reasons for that. But as things stand, Turkey would be the largest country in the [European] block. And after Russia, it’s the largest country in the Eastern Neighborhood. But in terms of military capabilities, of manpower, of capital, and strategic importance, it’s a leading Mediterranean country. And that complicates things. There is no other country that can quite stand up to Turkey. For that you would need a country a bit more like Russia. But Russia is a country with whom Turkey has a very interesting and transactional relationship.


What do you make of Russian-Turkish rivalry in the Levant and Caucasus? How can two countries be on proverbially good terms whilst fighting multiple proxy wars against one another?

First of all, Turkey and Russia don’t look at each other as allies in the sense of NATO membership, where you have a common set of values or long-term interests, comparable political systems, or a sense of political intimacy, so to say, people speaking the same language. With Russia, the relations are much more transactional. They are very much based on relations between two strong men, Putin and Erdoğan. In terms of intimacy, they’re both strong men who speak tough, but the difference, of course, is that Russia is stronger. Though both countries have very similar processes of authoritarianization. Russia’s version is more advanced, though Turkey is on a faster slide downward. It’s because of Turkey’s historical Western orientation that it has a much stronger organized opposition—for now.

That said, Russia’s foreign policy is slightly better advised; they have more ‘real’ experts on the ground. And, especially in the Middle East, you often wind up supporting a group who turns out to be the enemy of your ally. What’s been impressive is that Turkey and Russia are in these kinds of situations where they support different factions and different interests and still manage to talk to each other and not let it escalate. There is a kind of balanced politics of sorts, which is interesting.


Let’s talk about the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh. In many parts of Istanbul, one sees Azerbaijani flags waving from cars and buildings. To what extent is the average citizen invested in the many wars Turkey is waging? Is Nagorno-Karabakh the exception, or do people care about Idlib and Libya, too?

It really depends on the theatre of war. For the public, Libya definitely isn’t important: people don’t care about Libya and don’t know it. There’s not much support for having Turkish boots on the ground there. Syria is different because it’s right on Turkey’s border, and there are five million Syrians in this country. There is a general hope and expectation that as Turkey is annexing or ruling territory there, they will also repatriate the Syrians there. So there’s general support for Turkey’s presence in Syria across the political board, apart from the HDP and the left-wing of the CHP[3].

When it comes to Karabakh, I have to say that there the support goes deeper. Despite all the amazing work done by civil society in terms of the Armenian genocide and its recognition on a kind of societal level; despite all the conferences, the massive list of publications, which was all very inspiring, it didn’t have much of an impact in the sense of challenging the widespread anti-Armenian feeling in society. Add to that the sympathetic perspective on Azeris—mostly because of music, Azeri folk music is very famous in Turkey, but also because of all the Turkish-speaking peoples, the Azeris are the most intelligible. So there are massive cultural and economic relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan.

There were also many voices, minority voices, who were against the war, who were shocked by the atrocities carried out by the Azeri army and argued for a negotiation-based solution. But those voices were stifled. I mean, there’s no democratic debate in Turkey anymore under these conditions. It was almost impossible to express disagreement with that war. But there was also real grassroots support for it.


The announcement that Turkey had found gas in the Black Sea was treated as a major breakthrough by the government in 2020. Is this a game-changer? A publicity stunt?

I don’t think there are any game changes left in Turkish politics. Everything has been tried. Why should a gas find be a game-changer? It just means a bit more money for the state. So it’s probably somewhere between a publicity stunt and finding extra money. Which can be good, of course: you get to be even less democratic if you don’t need to tax people.

Under different circumstances, we might have only read about these discoveries in oil and gas specialist publications. But since this government is particularly good at pumping up these kinds of stories, the real news—the economy, technological developments—is not good. There’s nothing inspiring to use there. So you need these pumped-up hyperrealities. It’s a bit like Trump; it’s been happening on so many levels. Of course there is some truth to the government’s claims, like all the talk of Turkey’s presence in the Mediterranean. Of course Turkey has rights and sensible interests in the region; it’s not always wrong. You also have many instances where Greece is maximalist. But it’s even easier to be maximalist these days when you have a Turkey that acts so much outside international norms.


Does it realize it’s acting outside of said norms? Does it care? Is it playing ‘bad cop’ now so that its predecessors can play ‘good cop’? 

No, no, we’re very much back in a moment of history with this government, which very much sees itself as a revisionist power—as the country there to right the wrongs of colonialism, imperialism, of the first and second world wars. This is why things are so tense with Macron, why Turkey sees France as a former colonial and now neo-colonial power, which of course it is! But Turkey was also an imperial power, which the AKP elites often forget. There is now a much more pronounced and significant part of the AKP elite and Erdoğan that believe that the international system as it stands is rotten and has to be changed. That it has to give Muslims more space and power, and that Turkey is the natural leader of this new Muslim block. Of course, this does not necessarily relate to reality, because there is no such Muslim block waiting to be led by Turkey, but this very much shapes the perspective of the current government.


If you could change one European misconception about Turkey, what would it be?

It’s the misconception that Turkey is not European. Europe is more than many ‘Europeanists’ think it is. Many Europeans think Europe is simply a larger version of the country they come from. But Europe is much larger than Austria! It’s much more than that and far more complicated. Its history is, too. This kind of fantasy of history of 2,000 years of constant progress from ancient Greece to liberal democracy is highly problematic. Not merely because it excludes Turkey because Turkey is Muslim. You cannot think about Europe without thinking of Turkey. Large parts of what is now the European Union were shaped by their experience under Ottoman rule, architecturally and in terms of culinary fashions. And Turkey has extremely strong interpersonal and economic connections with Europe than many other countries in the region simply don’t have. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a member of the European Union, but one simply cannot think of Europe without Turkey. Of course, not without Russia for that matter, too.


What about a Turkish misconception of Europe?

This fear that Europe is out there to divide and destroy the country. Which, historically speaking, is justified, because that is what European actors really did want to do. Nation-states, you know, always have their big interests, but the European Union is an exciting institution which translates this idea of peace between nations into really meaningful operational terms. And that’s a great thing. For Turkey, it’s really important to be a part of that in one form or another.


[1] Doğu Perinçek is a former Maoist turned far-right nationalist who is now the leader of Turkey’s “Eurasionist” movement, which calls for orienting Turkey to the east, toward Russia, Iran, and China, rather than the West, particularly the US.

[2] A province of Syria that broke away from French-mandate Syria and joined Turkey by referendum in 1939.

[3] HDP: The left-leaning, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party; CHP: The largest opposition party in Turkey, the secular People’s Republican Party


Cover Photo: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the Presidential Complex in Ankara – February 1, 2021 (Adem Altan / AFP).

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