March 06, 2022
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has started offering signals of moderation in his attitude. The first signs came in foreign policy, with Turkey taking the initiative in trying to mend its relations with Egypt. These ties had deteriorated because of Ankara’s strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Eight years after souring relations with Cairo, Erdogan thought that Turkey’s attitude toward Abdel Fattah El-Sisi was damaging its interests in Egypt and the Middle East at large. He therefore tried to improve relations by tightening the freedom of movement of the Muslim Brotherhood activists operating in Turkey. Egypt said that “Cairo would look at what Turkey would do rather than what it was saying.” It is still watching to see whether there is convincing stability in Turkey’s attitude on its promise regarding the Muslim Brotherhood activists.
The second positive foreign policy step came in connection with Turkey’s relations with the UAE. With Erdogan’s successful visit to Abu Dhabi last month, bilateral relations seem to have entered a new era. The previous tough language used for the rulers of the UAE was put aside. This was the right thing to do because countries should not keep their relations tense unnecessarily.
Erdogan also softened his attitude on Turkey’s relations with the EU. Instead of the defiant rhetoric that he had frequently used, he last week asked the EU to “please demonstrate the same sensitivity for Turkey’s EU application as you do for Ukraine.”
Relations with Armenia are also moving in the right direction. A modest step was made with the resumption of commercial flights between Istanbul and Yerevan last month. This is expected to cause a further thaw in bilateral relations and may ultimately lead to the opening of the land border crossings and further socializing of the two peoples, which have held strong grudges against each other.
Erdogan softened his attitude on Turkey’s relations with the EU. Instead of the defiant rhetoric that he had frequently used, he last week asked the EU to “please demonstrate the same sensitivity for Turkey’s EU application as you do for Ukraine.”
Even stronger signs of moderation have taken place in Erdogan’s domestic policy attitude. Mainly due to his strong power base and also to demonstrate his determination, he always used to reject any suggestion that stemmed from the political opposition or from public opinion. For instance, on the question of a megaproject to link the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea with a canal, he said “we will build the canal, whether you like it or not.” And when a group of retired admirals last year published a statement drawing attention to the various consequences of any attempt to modify or abrogate the Montreux Convention of 1936, which regulates maritime traffic through the Turkish Straits, Erdogan erupted in anger and took legal action against them.
When the Ukrainian ambassador in Ankara asked, after the outbreak of the crisis in his country, Turkey to block the entry of Russian warships to the Black Sea, as per Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, Erdogan’s government understood that the issue was more complicated than it thought at the beginning. There was one set of rules in the case of war in which Turkey was a “belligerent” and another set for when it was not. There was also a third case for when warships of the Black Sea riparian countries were outside the Black Sea at the time of crisis and wanted to return to their main bases there. To further complicate the issue, Turkey had to decide whether there was even a “case of war,” as none of the parties to the Ukrainian crisis had officially declared war.
Another concession that Erdogan had to make was about the inauguration of a bridge that would link Asia to Europe — the Dardanelles Bridge. The inauguration was initially scheduled for March 18, which was the date of the withdrawal of the Allied Forces from the Dardanelles in 1915 during the First World War. Probably on the suggestion of Erdogan’s yes men, the date was moved to Feb. 26, which was the president’s birthday. However, for the first time in recent memory, Erdogan relented and agreed to postpone the inauguration to the original date.
It is not only the crown that makes the king wiser, but sometimes electoral considerations also make leaders take sounder decisions.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.
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