Turkey Eagerly Competing for Supremacy
Of course, we're not talking about the status of a global superpower, but a regional one. Yet, it might be just the beginning. Turkey commemorates the 100th anniversary of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which established modern Turkey. Its current president finds himself at the pinnacle of influence and foreign policy achievements right now. Although its economy faces challenges, there is a chance to overcome them.
The jubilee celebrations dedicated to the centenary of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne are taking place with great pomp, amid significant foreign policy achievements. Ankara has become the key that can reignite the much-needed Black Sea Grain Initiative. It also holds the controlling stake for approving Sweden's NATO membership. Furthermore, Turkey is playing an increasingly powerful role in the volatile region of the Middle East.
While Turkey strives to project itself as a more secular and democratic state in the eyes of the EU, the US, and Japan, questions linger. Were there doubts about the democratic nature of the recent elections held in Turkey? Are the country's democratic principles not somewhat fragile? Does Turkey's stance create significant conflicts with its neighbors, namely Cyprus and Greece? Could it be considered one of the avenues Russia uses to circumvent imposed sanctions? Is Turkey's presence in the oil and gas-rich Libya not too assertive? And how significant is Ankara's role in shaping the modern configuration of NATO?
Many of these questions have affirmative answers. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's skillful negotiation allows him to exchange influence for new economic benefits, thus strengthening the country's foreign policy standing. During his speech on the anniversary of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, he declared, "As we resolutely protect the rights granted by the Treaty of Lausanne, we will reinforce our country's achievements with new steps." These words clearly indicate a confident step towards becoming a regional superpower.
A reminder that the Treaty of Lausanne was signed on July 24, 1923, between Turkey and the Allies: Britain, France, Italy, Greece, and others. This agreement recognized modern Turkey, replacing the humiliating Treaty of Sèvres of 1920, imposed on the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
It is worth noting that Turkey also seeks significant influence beyond the region. One striking example is its stance in blocking Sweden's NATO membership.
When Trumps Are in Hand
For over a year, tough negotiations were held in the "Turkey-NATO Leadership-Sweden-USA" quadrilateral. The matter finally gained momentum at the beginning of July in Vilnius during the NATO Summit. There, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledged to eventually agree to Sweden's NATO membership "as soon as possible," but he did not specify when it would happen. He also mentioned that Turkish Parliament's ratification would likely take place no earlier than October, even though Turkish deputies had the opportunity to do so in July before their summer recess.
Addressing the audience in Vilnius, the Turkish leader also indicated that he expects Sweden to make efforts to put an end to the burning of the Quran in the country. Additionally, he outlined four other conditions: lifting Sweden's restrictions on arms exports to Turkey, supporting Turkey's EU membership application and visa liberalization, as well as easing the norms of the customs union. Furthermore, Erdoğan demanded Stockholm's assistance in Ankara's fight against those whom Turkey refers to as terrorists, specifically emphasizing that Sweden "will not support the YPG/PYD [Kurdish militia group] and the organization called FETÖ in Turkey."
Externally, it appears as if Turkey is striving to secure substantial political and economic benefits in exchange for a concession that is of little value to it. On the other hand, Sweden and other NATO member states simply want to cross a relatively formal barrier. However, overcoming this barrier will prove to be quite expensive for both NATO and Sweden. Prime Minister of Sweden, Ulf Kristersson, even agreed that Stockholm will be the first to make agreed-upon concessions, at least in terms of the so-called "anti-terror" direction.
Photo Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg and Prime Minister of Sweden Ulf Kristersson(from left to right) in Vilnius Source: Twitter @trpresidency
Trading is a Serious Business
Another area where Erdoğan is confidently gaining influence is the revival of maritime exports of Ukrainian food through ports on the Black Sea. This refers to the reinstatement of the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
How significant is this agreement? According to the United Nations data, during the 360 days of the agreement's existence, Ukraine exported a total of 32.8 million tons of wheat, corn, sunflower oil, soy, and other food products. The majority of the corn was directed to EU countries and other affluent markets. Most of the wheat was delivered to countries facing significant social issues and, in some cases, even famine. Even for countries that did not receive any tons directly from Ukraine, the benefit was tangible, as these deliveries caused a much-needed decrease in global food prices. For instance, from July 2022 to June 2023, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) cereal price index dropped by 14%.
It's worth noting that Turkey itself is a key buyer of Ukrainian wheat, accounting for around 10% of it. However, this is not for internal consumption. Hundreds of thousands of tons of flour produced in Turkey were subsequently exported to countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and others, as well as through international humanitarian programs. The available estimates suggest that at least every second ton of Ukrainian wheat that went to Turkey was delivered in the form of flour to countries facing severe food shortages.
Essentially, Turkey earns considerable money from importing Ukrainian grain, and it also gains the status of a key player in the game revolving around Russian grain blackmail. Of course, Ukraine could take the risk and continue the export of Black Sea grain if Turkey provides oversight and inspections. But, in this case, it remains unclear whether Moscow would engage in direct confrontation with Ankara at sea. It's also uncertain whether Ankara would be willing to take the risk. For now, the situation seems to favor Ankara's comfort in standing above the battlefield rather than participating in it.
Is His Name Really "Almighty"?
Indeed, Erdogan's powers have their limits. He is actively pushing Turkey towards the role of a regional superpower. He is preparing for another change in the Constitution, which he announced on July 25 during a solemn gathering of judges and prosecutors. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has finally promised to replace the 1982 Constitution with a so-called "civil" constitution.
This move aims to get rid of the Constitution that was established by a dictatorial regime that came to power through a bloody coup in 1980. Those times are considered a dark period in Turkey's political history.
It is true that the 1982 Constitution has undergone many key amendments. The latest changes were made after the 2017 referendum, which solidified the transition from a parliamentary system to a presidential one.
However, there are questions about the direction of the future Turkish Constitution, as Erdogan cannot simply be seen as an uncompromising democrat. But he will need to enact a series of reforms to appease developed countries, from which much-needed investments are expected to revitalize Turkey's economy, which has been weakened over the years.
This is a critical issue amid the three-fold devaluation of the Turkish lira in the past three years and double-digit inflation figures.
Reforms are also essential to gain access to modern technology. There has been a notable story about the U.S. blocking the deal to supply modern versions of F-16 fighter jets and equipment for the modernization of older versions already in Turkey.
Furthermore, if Ankara tried to use its approval of Sweden's NATO membership as leverage to acquire F-16s, it was clearly told that these are separate issues.
Influential American Democratic Senator Bob Menendez announced on July 19 that he continues to block the sale of F-16s to Turkey, even after President Erdogan stated that Ankara would ratify Sweden's application for NATO membership. The sale includes 40 Block 70 F-16 fighter jets worth $20 billion, as well as 80 equipment kits to modernize older F-16 versions.
“I’ve always said that the ratification of Sweden, which should naturally occur, is not the sine qua non of why I would lift the hold on F-16s,” Menendez said. “There’s bigger issues than just that alone.”
What are these problems? Greece's complaints about Turkey's intrusion into its airspace, and the opening of a new airport in the northern part of Cyprus, occupied by Turkey, with Erdogan's participation, in July too. It seems Turkey's capabilities have been clearly shown their limits.