Analysis: Turkey implements new Western orientation in foreign policy while economy is strained

By Huseyin Hayatsever, Can Sezer and Burcu Karakas

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – After turning Turkey away from Western allies, President Tayyip Erdogan reversed course with measures that pleased the US and angered Russia.

The foreign policy rethink is part of a broader realignment by Erdogan six weeks after his re-election: he has also changed economic tack and reversed unorthodox fiscal policies blamed for Turkey’s runaway inflation and currency depreciation.

Erdogan’s ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin have strained Turkey’s ties with its traditional Western allies for years, along with other factors such as concerns about his increasingly autocratic rule.

But Erdogan’s approval of Sweden’s NATO entry on Monday – a move he had resisted for months – was welcomed by Western leaders who have sought to strengthen the alliance in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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The warmer tone contrasted with Moscow’s reaction last week, when Ankara allowed President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to bring home five Ukrainian commanders held in Turkey under a prisoner swap agreement.

Moscow condemned the move as violating the Turkey-brokered deal, saying Ankara had promised to keep the commanders in Turkey and complained that it had not been informed.

Analysts believe that Erdogan’s moves – including his declaration of support for Ukraine’s NATO entry – were no coincidence.

“In recent years, the impression has been that Turkish-Russian relations have gone too far. This points to a clear reorientation,” said Galip Dalay of think tank Chatham House.

One of the main motivations is Turkey’s effort to emerge from its economic crisis and stimulate foreign investment, Dalay added, noting that strained relations with the West have dampened the economy and investment flows. While Turkey has started to attract investment from Gulf Arabs, more is needed, he said.

“Turkey does not want the Turkish-Russian relationship to be severely damaged, but this will inevitably affect relations. After the election, Erdogan sees that he has more room for manoeuvre.”

The Turkish Presidency’s communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A day after Ankara gave the green light for Sweden to join NATO, Washington said it would proceed with handing over F-16 fighter jets to Turkey in consultation with Congress. Turkey announced in October 2021 that it would buy the fighters and nearly 80 modernization kits for its existing fighter jets.

Both Turkish officials and the Biden government have dismissed any suggestion that Ankara’s approval of Sweden’s NATO entry was linked to the F-16 sale in months of talks to combat Turkish opposition.

A senior Turkish official told Reuters that Turkey will not spoil its ties with Russia while improving relations with the West, adding that the West must support Turkey with its financial needs.

Erdogan’s ties to Putin figure prominently in diplomacy surrounding the war in Ukraine, helping him broker a deal for safe grain exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.

But that deal, which Moscow has threatened to cancel over allegedly broken promises by the West to remove barriers to Russian grain and fertilizer exports, expires on July 17.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday there were no plans for Putin to meet Erdogan to discuss extending the deal and it was not known when Putin might visit Turkey.

Ankara was important to Moscow as Erdogan refused to join Western sanctions against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine. Flights and trade continued, and Turkey is a rare customer for Russian gas.

Moscow is also important for Ankara as a trading partner and main source of income for tourism and is also building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.

In the run-up to Turkey’s close presidential election in May, Moscow also allowed Ankara to defer up to $4 billion of its gas import bill for the first time this year, easing pressure on dwindling foreign exchange reserves.

The Kremlin said it wanted to expand ties with Turkey “despite all disagreements.”

“Turkey can orient itself to the west, we know that in the history of the Republic of Turkey there have been periods of intensive westward orientation, but also periods of less intensive orientation,” said Peskov.

“But we also know that … nobody wants to see Turkey in Europe, I mean the Europeans. And our Turkish partners shouldn’t wear rose-colored glasses here either.”

Turkey’s application to join the European Union has been frozen for years since accession negotiations began in 2005. In 2009, Cyprus blocked six of the 35 chapters Turkey has to complete as part of its EU accession negotiations.

Analysts believe that in addition to visa-free travel for Turks, Erdogan wants closer trade deals with the EU, though membership is a long way off depending on progress in democracy and other issues.

Many European governments showed little enthusiasm for reviving the process.

“Turkey wants the European Union to play a role in economic recovery. ‘Let’s revitalize Turkey-EU relations’ is an indirect way of saying it,” said Evren Balta, professor of international relations at Ozjegin University.

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Tom Perry; Text by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.

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