​​The War in Ukraine and the Contradictions of Turkish Politics

Eyüp Özer on Turkey's political crisis and the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

“Posle” starts publishing a series of articles on the transnational perception of the war in Ukraine exploring how political actors in different parts of the world see the Russian invasion. We are particularly interested in the left parties and leftist movements across the globe. Today we are in Turkey, whose authoritarian leader seeks to play the role of the prime mediator between Ukraine and Russia. And yet, Erdoğan’s international politics is aimed at his potential voters who are tired of his disastrous economic policies. Eyüp Özer, a journalist and an officer of the United Metal Workers’ Union, comments on the political situation in Turkey. 

Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine came at a time when the Erdoğan regime in Turkey was struggling through multiple and interconnected crises. If one thing can be said about Erdoğan’s foreign policy it is that he always tries to find a way to benefit his regime from any international political crisis. He once again used the re-invasion of Ukraine as a tool for himself to postpone his own political crisis. 

Especially during the last year, the working class of Turkey lost their purchasing power quite a lot. This is mostly connected to global capitalism’s response to the 2008 crisis when global markets were flooded with cheap money, Turkey has become one of the favorite destinations but now when the time is up and money is not so cheap anymore, the Government allowed the Turkish Lira (TL) to fall freely without support. It is about 10 months now since the Erdoğan Government has started an economic experiment. In keeping the value of TL currency low, it was trying to support export; at the same time, it was supporting producers who wanted to expand their production with very low-interest rates. But the real interest rate has almost reached 40 percent.  The main aim was to support export and replace imports with new production investments at home. But this experiment, coupled with the global increase in prices, also unleashed a huge increase in the inflation rate, officially 70 percent but according to the independent research organization, ENAG, inflation has reached 175 percent annually. After many years of destruction created by neoliberal policies in Turkey, now many agricultural products are imported. So the purchasing power of the working class has decreased significantly leading to massive poverty. The war in Ukraine also added to this crisis which especially increased the price of grains and energy, making the situation even worse for the majority of the working class. Actually, in the inevitable economic crisis, the Government had to make a choice between high inflation or a high unemployment rate. While running towards an early or regular election (latest in June 2023) it chose the inflation rate over a possible increase in the unemployment rate. 

Now Erdoğan’s popular support is declining mainly because of this economic crisis. He also tried to use war in Ukraine as a tool to rebuild his strength both internally and internationally. While global capitalism is getting even more polarized, he is trying to get something out of the world situation as by now, he has become quite a master of this business. Turkey’s economy is heavily dependent on the European market, EU is the biggest export market for Turkey, and that’s why the big capitalists of Turkey have favored more free trade (like an expansion of the Customs Union Agreement with the EU) and closer cooperation with the Western alliance. Now changing alliances in world politics help Erdoğan to support his export-oriented capitalist project for Turkey even further at a time when supply chains are moving towards “alliance partners”. As US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called it “friendshoring”, or as others call it “allyshoring”, this gives Turkey the opportunity to become one of the central trade hubs for Europe. 

The organization of the largest capitalists in Turkey, TÜSİAD, has seen this development in advance and they warned the Government, making a declaration telling it that “now supply chains are moving towards countries which share same “values” and the Government has to go back to its Western alliances in order to benefit from these changes in global supply chains.” 

This declaration was made during Turkey’s quarrel with its NATO allies, especially about the NATO membership bid of Sweden and Finland. Erdoğan’s reply to TÜSİAD was fierce, he openly blamed them for being traitors and not “national.” But actually, just soon afterwards, he did exactly what they said. After using his NATO veto card as a bargaining chip, he signed a memorandum of understanding with Sweden and Finland. In the past, he used to blame those countries for supporting “terrorism” and asked support for his plans to invade Syrian Kurdistan to create a so-called 30 km buffer zone in Rojava in order to build brick houses to send refugees there. 

As he always does, Erdoğan also wanted to use the NATO expansion project as a bargaining chip and after getting some of what he needed from Sweden and Finland such as lifting of the military embargo and expulsion of political refugees from Sweden to Turkey, now he is feeling even more glorious. Actually, in the end, he got what the capitalists in Turkey wanted even with some cherry on the top.  Sweden and Finland were just the beginning of these actions.   This month, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has come to Turkey and returned back with a bag full of signed memorandums on many issues varying from military cooperation to diplomatic cooperation, from memorandum of understanding on Civil Protection to Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Driving Licenses in both countries. During the meeting, among other things the two countries discussed, was to increase trade to 30 billion Euros and strengthening of road transport between the two countries, as it can be seen in the Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Driving Licenses which is another preparation for increasing trade with Turkey. 

Immediately after the Russian re-invasion the main opposition party, the social liberal CHP, made a declaration calling on the Government to stay neutral, but condemning Russian aggression; and it emphasized the importance of commitment to the Montreux Convention. 

Especially over the last decade, bourgeois politics in Turkey is extremely polarized: basically, the Government and the main opposition has exactly the opposite position on every issue. But there is one exception: on the Turkish Government’s own military policies the opposition has always lined up behind them. During all the military operations to Rojava and Iraqi Kurdistan, the main opposition has supported the Government’s position. When it comes to the recent NATO crisis and re-invasion of Ukraine, even though there has been some minor criticism, in general, the CHP supported the Government’s “pragmatic” policy.  This policy gives more importance to whatever Turkey can get out of this war instead of supporting the situation of the Ukrainian people.

When it comes to the anti-capitalist left, then we can say that the general political sentiment is one of confusion. If someone looks at the official declarations of the main anti-capitalist left parties, you can easily see that they are ambiguous. Of course, they condemn the Russian re-invasion but with very soft language most of the time; but there are also many nuances regarding how the Russian action was provoked by other forces. Even though the official declarations are a bit more ambiguous, the views of the main political organizations become clearer if you look at the discussions of their members. Definitely, no significant actor on the left has seen the Russian reinvasion as acceptable or legitimate, as reflecting the general sentiment among Turkish society. But there has been no real mobilization against the war, either. Also, there is no real movement in solidarity with Ukrainian and Russian refugees who are fleeing to Turkey. Some kind of apology for the Russian re-invasion has somehow found its voice among the left in Turkey, even though it is very weak. 

It is important to remember that the left in Turkey has a quite important and significant history of struggle against NATO from within one of its own Member States. NATO has a bloody and brutal history in Turkey as well, especially in repressing radical left and workers’ movements. Since the 1950s, a special unit called the “Special War Division” was formed in Turkey together with far-right militias, by direct coordination of NATO which organized clandestine operations against the left, Alevis, and trade unionists including assassinations, pogroms, etc. It was later well documented that these militias were trained with NATO manuals and built up as a project of NATO. So even in the very weak demonstrations organized about the war in Ukraine, of course, Russian aggression was denounced but more focus was on NATO and the main demand was for Turkey’s exit from NATO. In a NATO member country of course the main duty of the left is to oppose its own Government’s imperial aggression and its affiliation with a war machine like NATO, as we always say:  “The Main Enemy is At Home!” But then again, of course, this shouldn’t mean indifference to the sufferings of the Ukrainian people unfortunately which is the case right now. 

There is no real debate among the left on how to support the Ukrainian people or their resistance to Russia. This is partially the result of the long tradition of “bloc-ism” among the left in Turkey where today a weaker imperialist can be seen as preferable to a stronger imperialist, and by deliberately ignoring people’s struggle in that region. In this case, the struggle and faith of the Ukrainian people and the struggle of the Russian political opposition are deliberately ignored to such an extent as if it doesn’t exist at all. Of course, this strange “bloc-ism” seems even stranger today when there are no real blocs to support. 

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