A Strongman To Watch

Normally the subject of my Sunday article is the biggest political story of the week just passed. Internationally anyway, the biggest story of this week, although not unexpected, broke this Sunday. Recep Erdogan was reelected to a five year term as President of Turkey. I doubt most Americans even noticed but the international implications could be huge.

I’m somewhat alone in that I feel that Turkey is the key to the Middle East. That said, what happens in Turkey can have huge international implications, I have few decenters on that point. Despite protest to the opposite from his loyalists, there is little doubt that Erdogan is a wannabe autocrat and rules his country in less than a totally democratic manner.

My Middle East argument aside (for today anyway), Turkey holds a unique position in today’s global conflict situation. Metaphorically, it has one foot in Europe and the other in Asia. While secular (at least in comparison to many of its neighbors) it is still a Muslim majority nation. Arguably the only one in Europe. (Again, is Turkey a European or Asian nation? I’d say both and if it is Asian, it is only of the Middle Eastern “extraction”.)

One other nation occupies a similar geographical distinction – Ukraine. Where Turkey stands on that and what a new term for Erdogan means in that stance is a huge question hanging over the world.

Erdogan has described Vladimir Putin as, “A friend.” That said Turkey has never recognized Russia’s “annexation” of Crimea. You can personally be a friend and still disagree politically. Most intelligent Americans have many personal examples of such a relationship.

Turkey is a member of NATO which is huge in any situation and only more important with regard to the conflict in Ukraine. As I write this Sweden’s membership in NATO is being held up by Turkey. While I don’t think Sweden’s membership is particularly militarily crucial to the West’s efforts in supporting Ukraine it is symbolically. It goes without saying that NATO is stronger with than without Sweden and that Putin would prefer Sweden not join the alliance.

Sticking with NATO (which is largely, though not exclusively, the West in the case of Ukraine) to date Turkey has basically been supportive of the efforts to aid Ukraine’s defense of democracy. With another five years assured Erdogan has a much freer hand to play both domestically and internationally. The question is: Will he continue to support Ukraine?

Erdogan has a history of using (and some might say basically inventing) circumstances to solidify his control over Turkey. This election went to a runoff and even then Erdogan won by only about 4%. That is a very weak showing for a strongman. There is reason to believe that the election was somewhat less than totally free and fair. It appears that Erdogan’s campaign had about a 60:1 advantage in air time. That was not a misprint. How does that happen in a totally free and open society? Answer: it doesn’t. I’ll leave other allegations to people much better at reporting on them, but rest assured that they exist.

Economically Turkey is far from in good shape. However, in addition to its geographically strategic position it does have one of the largest and most powerful militaries in the region. This combination of factors is certainly cause for concern. If you think I’m exaggerating I suggest you read NYU professor Ruth Ben Ghiat’s Strongmen (along with some 20th century history) and then reexamine your views.

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