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Tuesday, 1 December 2015

“New Kid in town”: the Su-24 incident shows that Turkish president Erdoğan's rise to power might have dangerous implications for the world.

There's talk on the street; it sounds so familiar
Great expectations, everybody's watching you

If Time Magazine would have had a contest for the most influential politician of the last two weeks, it would be a neck-on-neck race between the French president François Hollande and the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Although both politicians effortlessly drew the international spotlights during the last fortnight, the reasons for their “claim-to-fame” couldn’t have been more different.

François Hollande cashed his ‘president’s credit’ in the aftermath of the terrible attacks in Paris by making a ‘Tour de Monde’, bringing him in close contact with the global leaders including the Russian president Vladimir Putin. 

With his panache and finetuned French diplomatic skills, Hollande sought participants for his attack coalition against IS in Syria, after declaring them war. And although the results of Hollande’s tour are not crystal clear yet, the odds are quite considerable that the attacks upon IS-bases in Syria will be extended in the coming period.

However, the real man of the last two weeks was undoubtedly Turkish president Recep Erdoğan.

With one well-aimed missile of an F16 fighter plane, Erdoğan’s Turkish airforce downed a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber aircraft during its attack stint over North-Syria, after it passed the Turkish border for a very brief, yet fatal period. Although both pilots could escape using their ejector seats, one pilot was fatally shot in mid-air by Turkmenish insurgents, who had been under attack by the same airplane.

Thus Erdoğan gave Russia a powerful signal that there is ‘a new kid in town’, when it comes to both global politics and regional use of power. That the signal had been very well understood became clear from the governmental and public outrage in Russia, as well as from the shedload of economic measures and boycott actions against Turkey and Turkish companies and citizens, that were declared overnight by Vladimir Putin and his henchman Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Although the reason for the Turkish attack against the Russian bomber plane is not yet clear, voices speak softly that there is more behind it than a simple, fatal cross-border incident with a jet plane. Insiders speak that Erdoğan wanted to teach Russia a lesson for:
  • attacking their Turkmenian brothers in Northern Syria, who many Turks consider to be closely related to their people, instead of only attacking IS;
  • their enduring protection of the Turkish archenemy, Syrian president-under-fire  Bashar al-Assad, thus letting him stay in power during the now almost five year lasting civil war in Syria.

And according to the Australian newssite ABC (and various other international media) Vladimir Putin himself stated that Turkey had attacked the Russian plane in order to protect the alleged Syrian and Iraq oilstreams to Turkey, managed by IS. This is a possibility that may not be so implausible as it seems at first glance.

Stil, I have a hunch that these are not the only reasons for this quite brutal and probably unnecessary attack against the Russian plane, which probably did intrude Turkey for a very short period, but crashed (and had been shot (?)) when it was already back in Syria.

In my humble opinion, the state of mind and the enormous ego of president Erdoğan might also play a role. As a matter of fact, both Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdoğan are quite similar persons.

Both share an undeniable intelligence with a considerable amount of ruthlessness, as well as disdain for their opposition, for the free press in their countries and – as a matter of fact – for their population as a whole.

Where Vladimir Putin has been president and shadow-president (i.e. Prime Minister) for more than 16 years in a row already, the reign of Erdoğan lasted from 2003 (when he became PM) until now and it will probably last much longer.

Erdoğan’s latest ‘tour de force’ was his second election victory in 2015, in which he reclaimed the absolute majority in Turkey after he lost it in earlier elections during this same year. During these elections the Turkish AK Party government did not scare away from sending personalized letters to Turks living all over Europe and other forms of soft and hard intimidation of his opponents and grassroots.

Both Putin and Erdoğan turn more and more into solar kings, who see their country’s wealth and income as their personal achievement and thus their personal property. Their slogan is seemingly: “Ask not what I can do for my country, but ask what my country can do for me”.

Putin put this slogan to life by earning shedloads of money through all kinds of state participations in oil, gas and other commodity-driven companies and by ‘simply being the top dog in Russia’.

Erdoğan has done so by building a new presidential palace for himself with a ‘petty’ 1150 rooms, costing the Turkish citizens billions of dollars and by other ways to enrich himself and the clan around him.

Their self-complacency, insensitivity for self-criticism and ruthlessness becomes blatantly clear from the way that they deal with the ‘darkish’ past of their respective countries and in the manner that they treat(ed) their adversaries. 

What Putin did with his Chechnian adversaries in Russia or with the people in Georgia, is exactly what Erdoğan does with the Kurds in Turkey and – as a matter of fact – Iraq: when deemed necessary enforcing (bloody) confrontations and/or bombing the living daylights out of them.

Further, Turkey  is more and more changing from a country with basically free press into a country in which press representatives are turning into fair game for government officials: some are arrested, while others are probably murdered (see also this link).

Yet both Putin and Erdoğan are strong, outspoken men, who are appreciated by the majorities of their countries for their tough politics and rocksolid goals.
Both have grand visions of their country becoming famous and mighty again. 

Where Putin can’t sleep at night due to endless pondering upon his ‘Great Russia’ vision, Erdoğan dreams of the revival of an ‘Ottoman-ish’ empire, in which Turkey is the greatest regional power with an influence stretching from Eastern Africa in the West to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the East.

The latter is probably the reason that Turkey (i.e. Erdoğan) really hated the Russian intervention in Syria, in favour of their ‘old friend’ Bashar al-Assad: an intervention that could eventually diminish the Turkish influence and damage Turkish interests in the region, as well as their (perhaps) above average relation with the leaders and representatives of IS. This might after all be the reason that Turkey took its chance, when the Russian plane crossed its borders.

Nevertheless, whether this all was indeed the motive for Erdoğan to shoot down the Russian plane or not, does not matter much in the end.

What matters, however, is that it has been a reckless and extremely dangerous move of Turkey, which could have dramatically increased the international tensions in the world (and it still could do so in the near future). 

To make things worse: both the ego’s of presidents Recep Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin prevent them from simply saying ‘sorry’ and admitting that they have acted ‘wrongly’ in this matter.

No, instead they turn into an international ‘cockfight’ in which they try to punish each other with inconsiderate economic measures (‘an eye for an eye’), loud sabre rattling and political charivari. This would not be a very big problem, when Turkey would not be one of the most prominent NATO members with arguably the most strategic position in the Middle-East, as heeder of the entrance to the Black Sea (through the Bosporus seagate – see map).

Map of Turkey, emphasizing its strategic
position in the Middle East
Picture courtesy of Google Earth
Click to enlarge
Even though the NATO is probably absolutely not willing to risk an ‘all out’ war with Russia, on behalf of Turkey, the odds for this are increasing when the tensions between Russia and Turkey keep on mounting. In one of the most unstable regions in the world, this is almost equal to committing suicide.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems is that both the NATO and the European Union cannot force Turkey to ‘shut up’ and sweet-talk itself into a regained mutual understanding with Russia.

The NATO desperately needs Turkey as an operating base for the Middle East and as entrance for its seafleet to the Black Sea. Arguing with Erdoğan could lead to undesired reactions of the Turkish president.

The European Union, on the other hand, desperately needs Turkey to solve its refugee problem going awry. This was the reason that European Commissioner Frans Timmermans went to Ankara with a fistful of (empty) promises about a future EU membership, visa-free entering into the EU for Turkish citizens and €3 billion in cash to help Turkey solve the refugee-crisis. “Don’t mention the plane, Frans... Don’t mention the plane!”

The savvy FD journalist Marcel de Boer argued that the uncertain forecast for the Turkish economy could be an extra uncertain factor for the political future of Turkey.

Tweet by Marcel de Boer, journalist of
Picture courtesy of
Click to enlarge
Marcel:  I am especially curious what will happen when the Turkish economy will collapse (which is inevitable, as the country hoarded too much debt).

My reaction was “that Erdoğan would probably become even more dominant and authoritarian than he already is, in order to distract attention from the failing Turkish economy”.

To collect some data, illustrating the assumptions of Marcel about the Turkish economy, I collected some statistics from the Worldbank about Turkey.

The first thing that struck me was the growing influence of Tourism in Turkey: from roughly 1.2% of Gross National Income (GNI) in 1995 until 5.6% in 2013. This makes the country extremely vulnerable for Russian touristical boycotts, as more than 4 million Russians visited the Turkish mega-hotels and touristical hotspots each year.

Although the Turkish GNI and the GNI per capita showed a healthy development during the last twenty years (first chart) and the non-performing loan portfolio is currently back at a decent level of 2.8% (second chart), it is especially the development of publicly guaranteed bond loans in Turkey that shows reason for cautiousness. According to the World Bank there are currently over $3.5 billion in publicly guaranteed bond loans, which seems like a considerable amount in comparison with the past.

Chart of the development of the Turkish GNI (per capita)
Chart by Ernst's Economy for you
Data courtesy of Worldbank
Click to enlarge

Turkish development of bonds, commercial loans
and non-performing loans
Chart by Ernst's Economy for you
Data courtesy of Worldbank
Click to enlarge
It is hard to tell from this data whether the Turkish economy will indeed collapse soon, as honestly most data – except for the soaring bond loans – look quite normal.

One thing is clear, however. The Russian boycott will hit the Turkish tourist industry below the belt, as well as the Turkish building industry, which acquired enormous building contracts in Moscow, St-Petersburg and other Russian cities. Also the vast trade flow between the two countries will probably collapse to the bare minimum, which is a ‘lose-lose’ situation for both countries and especially for Russia, of which the population already suffers from the enduring trade boycott between Russia and the EU, after the MH17 incident.

So it would be healthy for both countries to get this incident out of the way a.s.a.p.

Yet, president Putin is not the man to easily forgive the Turks for what they did. A first attempt of president Erdoğan to privately speak with Putin at the Paris’ climate summit was bluntly refused by the Russian president. And as I said before: the ego’s of both presidents will stand in the way of mutual excuses.

Yet, it is important that both leaders keep their cool, in order to prevent this incident from growing to epic and dangerous political proportions.

And perhaps president Erdoğan should get his act together regarding IS.
One cannot be both president of arguably one of the most strategically important NATO members and a silent endorser and trade partner(?) of one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the Middle East.

One person can simply have just too many conflicting interests to remain a credible leader!

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