“It should be kept in mind that every disaster comes with opportunities”. These words pronounced by president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the occasion of Europe’s Day reflect well the rationale of Turkey’s foreign policy approach during this pandemic. By adopting a very active “coronavirus diplomacy”, Erdogan has tried to remedy damaged international relations as well as to reshape the image of his country globally and regionally, at a time when Turkey’s standing has decreased and its regional isolation has intensified. The latter was the result of a number of factors – assertiveness in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean; support of political Islam; and tough contrast to the geopolitical ambitions of other regional players – that have gradually left Ankara with no friends in the region, a part from Qatar and the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA).
Against this backdrop, the pandemic offered Turkey the opportunity to project its soft power abroad. Thanks to well-prepared textiles and manufacturing sectors, Ankara was able to provide more than 50 countries all around the world with tons of masks and other medical protective equipment. From Asia to Africa, from the Middle East to the Balkans cargos with Turkish flags were welcomed in countries hard hit by Covid-19. Turkey’s coronavirus diplomacy was particularly dynamic vis-à-vis the West, especially the United States and Europe, with whom relations have been remarkably tense in recent years. However, it is premature to say if it represents the start of a resetting in ties with Washington and Brussels. Defusing tensions with the West does not appear an easy task, as longstanding problems and reciprocal mistrust persist, while there are no ready-made solutions.
While a certain personal affinity undeniably exists between Presidents Trump and Erdogan, a range of thorny issues have and continue to strain their countries’ relationship. Ankara has long been frustrated by US support for the Kurdish People’s Protections Units (YPG) in Syria and refusal to extradite wanted cleric Fethullah Gülen. Meanwhile in Washington, Turkey’s acquisition of Russian military technology and unilateral intervention in conflict areas remains highly contentious.
Concern over a Turkish shift towards Russia, and the implications that it could have on NATO security, have been expressed on many occasions while pending sanctions still loom over Turkey’s head. However, the postponement of the activation of the Russian S-400 missile defence system, which was scheduled in April, though officially cited as being due to the pandemic, has pushed away this gloomy scenario, at least for the time being. The need for swap agreements to support the fragile economy hard hit by the pandemic is the more urgent priority for the Turkish government, where the influence of the Eurasianist narrative/discourse seems to wane. Some analysts see the recent demotion and resignation of the chief of staff of the Turkish navy, admiral Cihat Yayci who is considered the architect of the Turkish policy in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, as an evident sign of this direction.
On the European front, the list of frictions is even longer. The migration issue has been on the top of the list in recent years as well as a major source of bilateral tensions. On many occasions president Erdogan used the issue as a means of exerting pressure on a divided and unprepared Europe. Following the last refugee crisis at the Greek-Turkish border erupted, which took place just a couple of weeks before the first Covid-19 case was registered in Turkey, the two sides restarted a dialogue, putting the migration dossier once again on the agenda. However, so far they have not gone beyond agreeing to set up two working groups to review the implementation of the migrant deal put in place in March 2016, and additional EU financial aid is not on the table.
On a different track, Turkey’s accession process remains in a stalemate and negotiations are very unlikely to restart in the foreseeable future. The EU has been and remains highly critical of the decline of democracy, rule of law and freedom of expression transpiring in Turkey, as well as the country military projections into Syria and Libya, not to mention its proactive policy in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara’s assertiveness in stepping in the “great game” of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean irritated not only regional countries, which have high stakes in gas exploitation, but also the EU that has thrown its weight behind Cyprus and Greece. Far from initial expectations for regional cooperation, gas discoveries transformed into a source of new tensions in EU-Turkey relations.
Following years of harsh rhetoric against the EU and its perceived “double standards” vis-à-vis Turkey, interest in EU membership had considerably declined in some circles within the country. Erdogan, however, recently stressed once more Turkey’s commitment to the EU membership, which he considers a strategic goal for the Turkish Republic. While the country is very far from fulfilling the political criteria required to access the EU, Erdogan’s moves appear just as an attempt to gain support at a time when Turkey is facing several challenges both inside and outside. However, disagreements persist and it will take more than the coronavirus diplomacy and a new rhetoric to reset bilateral relations.