The outbreak of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has posed major policy-level challenges for many countries. Its impact and repercussions vary from one country to another, depending on the efficiency of each in handling the crisis. Ranked 9th in the world, Turkey has been among the hardest-hit countries, with more than 170,000 infections, and around 5,000 deaths as of the beginning of June 2020.
While the Turks have heavily criticized their government over the response to the crisis, and for even exacerbating it, the Justice and Development Party (AKP)-dominated ruling regime has sought to use the crisis to shore up its weakened domestic position and achieve its regional expansion and hegemonic agendas.
This paper examines the impact of the Covid-19 on Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies by focusing on four main areas. The first part deals with the crisis that ravaged Turkey before the outbreak while the second discusses Turkey’s management of Covid-19 and how far it has succeeded in tackling it. The third section examines the impact of Covid-19 on Turkey’s politics and economy while the fourth sheds light on the impact of the crisis on Turkey’s foreign policy.
I- Turkey before Covid-19
Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, Turkey suffered numerous domestic and external crises that affected its domestic and foreign policies. The Turkish economy has faced difficulties since 2018, resulting in a decline in the Turkish lira, which fell from about 3.78 lira against the US dollar in January 2018 to 6.2 lira in February 2020. This was the worst performance among the emerging currencies.
Turkey is also vulnerable to volatility due to the geopolitical risks ensuing from its policies. For example, in the summer of 2018, the US threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey due to its role in northern Syria. This pushed the lira to shed more than 30 percent of its value within days. Even the end of this crisis, and somewhat improvement in relations, failed to help the currency recover.
Turkey has also suffered other negative economic repercussions caused by government policies that led to the stagnation of tourism, real estate, and the stock market due to the flight of foreign investments and soaring unemployment rates. According to Turkish official data, unemployment rose from 11 percent in 2018 to 13.7 percent in 2019. Short-term external debt rose by $118.2 billion by the end of December 2019.
Turkey has faced several domestic crises since the failed coup in 2016. The challenges have got aggravated due to Erdogan’s moves to suppress domestic freedom and consolidate his dominance over political discourse. Differences emerged within the ruling AKP, prompting some leaders to establish new parties. Former Turkish Deputy Prime Minister, Ali Babajan, has announced his intention to establish a new party. The AKP also sustained heavy losses in the local elections held on March 31, 2019, conceding major municipalities, most notably the capital Ankara and Istanbul.
Turkey also got embroiled in bitter confrontations on multiple fronts that caused its relations with several regional and international powers to rapidly deteriorate. There has been a significant shift from its policy of “zero problems” in the neighborhood to creating problems and crises with almost every country in its vicinity.
The country has maintained a strong presence on the Syrian front since the revolution started in 2011. It has become one of the key parties to this conflict supporting Syrian opposition forces and extremist groups. Its role in Syria has often been in confrontation with Russia, which believes that the survival of the Assad regime would help achieve its interests in the Middle East.
The tension between the two countries in the Idlib region, the epicenter of the conflict, and the last opposition stronghold in northern Syria rose significantly before the outbreak of Covid-19. It took a serious turn after more than 30 Turkish soldiers were killed and dozens wounded during an attack by Russian-backed Syrian government forces on the city. Turkey saw direct Russian involvement in the war against it and responded by attacking the Syrian government forces. Tensions heightened raising fear of a direct military conflict between Turkey and Russia until the two sides agreed on a ceasefire on March 5, 2020, in Moscow.
On the Libyan front too Ankara has stepped up its intervention. This became more intense after its parliament agreed to send Turkish troops to Libya in early 2020. Two controversial agreements were signed with Fayez al-Sarraj, Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), on security cooperation and the demarcation of the maritime border between the two countries.
This paved the way for large-scale Turkish military intervention in Libya that enraged countries in the neighborhood. They were particularly enraged because the intervention focused on providing support to Islamist militias controlling the capital Tripoli, and seeking to impose Turkish hegemony over the country. Concerns were raised that such an intervention would allow Ankara to benefit from the huge gas and energy reserves in the eastern Mediterranean region.
Turkey has also sought to play the “refugee card” in its conflict with Europe to gain the best possible concessions, leading to the souring of its relations with the EU. This became evident as President Erdogan sought to divert attention from his setback in Idlib by fueling the Syrian refugee crisis on the Greek border. He pushed thousands of them to the border with Greece to ramp up pressure on the EU. The idea was to get greater support for the Turkish military operations in northern Syria, particularly in Idlib, and obtain more money for the declining Turkish economy. However, European countries viewed this move as blackmail, which deepened the gap between Turkey and European countries.
Turkey’s relations with the United States have been turbulent to the extent that President Trump even threatened to obliterate the Turkish economy following the Turkish military operations against the Kurds in northern Syria. Relations have also been strained due to Turkey’s insistence on acquiring the Russian S-400 missile system, which is a matter of concern for Washington because it runs counter to NATO’s defense mechanism.
The Gulf-Turkish relations have also gone the same way in recent years. Turkey’s biased interference in the Gulf-Qatar crisis, its alignment with Doha, and the establishment of a military base there, as well as its continued support for extremist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, have isolated Turkey regionally and internationally. These actions have been seen as a part of the Turkish president’s unbalanced and conflicting policies.
II- Handling of the Covid-19 pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic badly exposed the AKP’s confused and mismanaged handling of the crisis. The regime has come under severe criticism because it put economic considerations above the health and safety of the Turkish citizens. This was evident in its piecemeal precautionary measures that came late. The most prominent aspects of Ankara’s mismanagement of the crisis can be outlined as follows:
- Denial and media blackout: Economic concerns prompted the Turkish government at the onset of Covid-19 to deny its spread in the country. They did so despite Turkey’s borders with Iran where the healthcare system was collapsing amid a spiraling number of infected cases. Turkey continued to remain open to the outside world and was receiving millions of tourists, adjacent to the European borders. It also has strong relations with China. Despite all these factors, Ankara remained in denial until the first case was reported on March 11, 2020. The denial then gave way to disinformation and hiding the real number of infections and deaths, which exacerbated the crisis making Turkey ninth in the world in the number of casualties.
- Slow actions: President Erdogan’s government has been criticized for the delay in taking precautionary measures to contain the rapid spread of the virus. It ignored repeated warnings and calls from doctors and experts. Even Istanbul mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, called for a complete lockdown in the country to prevent the outbreak. Yet, Erdogan preferred not to take any such decision for fear of the country’s fragile economy. In one of his speeches, Erdogan said: “Turkey is a country where production must continue and the cogs must keep turning under every circumstance and every condition.” This amounted to playing with the lives of Turkish citizens.
With the rate of infection spiraling and pressure from the Turkish people and the opposition mounting, the Turkish government was finally forced to impose a lockdown. The announcement was, however, made in a confused and surprising manner, two hours before it came into force. People rushed to the streets and crowded the markets to secure food and other essential items. Instead of easing congestion and applying social distancing, they abandoned all health measures necessary to reduce the spread of the virus.This state of confusion demonstrated the extent of the government’s failure. It fueled political tension in the country that affected Erdogan’s inner circle with the Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announcing his resignation for failing to handle the crisis. The Turkish president, however, rejected his resignation.
- Exploiting the crisis to settle political scores: Erdogan regime took advantage of the pandemic to suppress journalists who denounced the failure of Turkish policies and action to contain the pandemic. Such people were arrested on charges of “inciting fear and panic among the public”. In one of his remarks, Erdogan said the country had to be rescued not only from the coronavirus but from “all media and political viruses, too”, referring to journalists and critics.
The Turkish opposition also accused the Erdogan regime of exploiting the pandemic to manipulate the legislature. The government suspended the parliament session for 45 days after passing the laws it wanted as part of the measures to counter Covid-19. It included the Amnesty Law, which exempts a large number of prisoners at risk of infection, but excluded journalists, opinion leaders, and politicians opposed to it.
III- Covid-19 and the domestic situation
The shortcomings of the AKP government in handling the crisis have exacerbated the health situation in Turkey. Following the announcement of the first case of infection on March 11, 2020, the number of casualties began to multiply, bringing the total number of casualties to around 50,000 after only about three weeks.
Around 170,000 infections were reported by early June 2020, making Turkey ninth in the world in the number of infections. This situation provoked widespread internal criticism and led many Turkish observers to warn of the “Italy-like” scenario with overburdened hospitals and high mortality rates.
Perhaps the only bright spot in Ankara’s management of the crisis was the low mortality rate among the infected. Turkey officially recorded fewer than 4,700 deaths out of about 170,000 infections as of the beginning of June 2020, which means a mortality rate of about 2.8 percent, which is lower than Greece 6 percent, Iran 5.4 percent, and Iraq 3.5 percent as per a Johns Hopkins University report based on the figures released by these countries.
The AKP has sought to amplify this point excessively by trying to show its management of the crisis as the most efficient compared to other European countries. They have done this to ease domestic pressure and to improve the party’s declining popularity at home. President Erdogan seized this opportunity to promote the political discourse of his party, its successes in establishing a strong health system, and its successful management of the crisis. He has used the crisis to boost his popularity while seeking to downplay the efforts made by municipalities under the management of rival parties even though such a crisis requires concerted national efforts.
The approach has thrown Turkey’s domestic situation into political turmoil and polarization between Islamists led by the AKP and other secular and opposition parties. The crisis affected the AKP itself, with the interior minister announcing his resignation. Opinion polls have shown a marked decline in Erdogan’s popularity. A May 2020 poll, conducted by the Eurasia Research Center, showed that Istanbul’s opposition mayor Ekrem Imamoglu would defeat president Erdogan by a fairly comfortable margin if a presidential contest was held in the current circumstances. More than 39 percent of respondents said that they would vote for Erdogan, while 45.5 percent preferred Imamoglu.
Another poll, conducted by the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), showed that the AKP’s share of the vote fell by 7 percent to 35.8 percent, highlighting that Erdogan’s popularity is declining the most among political figures in Turkey.
At the economic front, Erdogan’s administration has not been at its best. First, there was a delay in imposing lockdown and then a rush to open the economy in May 2020. The government also provided a $15 billion assistance package to businesses. Yet, the economic crisis has worsened, especially since the package helped only a small segment of the economy with a total annual output of $800 billion. It did nothing for workers who lost their jobs and instead invited the community to collect donations.
Additionally, the Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated the country’s economic crisis, with the Turkish Ministry of Commerce data, in early June 2020, showing a nearly 41 percent drop in exports in May 2020. Data also showed that the trade deficit widened by 78.7 percent year-on-year to $3.36 billion in the same month. Official data published by the Turkish Statistics Institute on June 3, 2020, also showed that inflation in Turkey in May increased by 11.4 percent year-on-year.
The tourism sector has been the hardest hit. The number of tourists fell dramatically in the first four months this year to 4.3 million tourists from 8.7 million during the same period in 2019. This is in addition to a shortage of hard currency in Turkey, the decline in production, sales, and profit, as well as a flight of investment. With $172 billion in external debt payments due, the Turkish regime may suffer a stifling economic and financial crisis during the second half of this year.
Erdogan’s mishandling of Covid-19 has exacerbated the country’s internal crisis, and further eroded his popularity. As the crisis continues to worsen, Turkey will be a strong candidate to leave the top 20 economies in the world and will likely face more domestic crises. This will have repercussions on Turkish domestic politics, possibly ending the Erdogan regime and the AKP’s dominance of the political landscape in Turkey. This could manifest itself in the 2023 elections or even earlier if elections are held before schedule.
IV – Covid-19 and the foreign policy
The Covid-19 pandemic and its ensuing fallout have prompted many countries to temporarily turn inward and prioritize cutting down risks at home. However, the Turkish regime has moved in the opposite direction. It has tried to exploit the crisis to advance its geopolitical objectives and reinforce Turkey’s regional influence. This approach is driven by a fundamental desire to circumvent the internal political and economic challenges and ease domestic pressure by achieving illusory victories abroad.
In pursuit of this objective, Turkey has followed two opposing tracks. The first track augments Ankara’s relations with its allies and some other countries through what can be described as “aid diplomacy” to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The second track amounts to stepping up its disruptive interventions on many issues, particularly concerning Libya, Syria, and the migration crisis.
- Humanitarian diplomacy: Amid the Covid-19 pandemic and many countries’ need for medical assistance, Ankara launched this diplomacy under the slogan “Humanity First”. President Erdogan was keen to seize this opportunity to advance his foreign policy goals through the provision of medical assistance, even when his country was among the hardest-hit by the virus. The list of recipients of Turkish assistance suggests strategic and political considerations beyond the humanitarian one.For example, Turkey provided medical aid to Israel, the US, and some European countries to ease tensions that have harmed Turkish interests. It also provided medical aid to some African countries to serve the Turkish expansionist projects in the continent. Furthermore, it provided aid to Iran and allied countries, as well as some Arab countries that it wants to attract to its ranks, such as Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Libya (under the Government of National Accord). The choice of these countries demonstrates how Ankara has sought to exploit the crisis to break its years-long isolation caused by Erdogan’s controversial policies.
- Raising the stakes in regional conflicts: Ankara has exploited the international community’s preoccupation with the ongoing pandemic to achieve the regional aspirations of its president. This is particularly evident on the Libyan front where military support was extended to the GNA and its militias, to take advantage of the controversial agreement Erdogan signed with Fayez Al-Sarraj. The agreement came in the form of two memorandums of understanding (MoU) between the governments of the two countries, the first on security and military cooperation, and the second on sovereignty over maritime areas.Ankara has ramped up its support for the GNA, providing its militias with sophisticated weapons, and sending a large number of Syrian mercenaries and extremists to the Libyan territory as part of what has come to be known as the “Syrianization of Libya”. This move amounts to a total disregard for the outcome of the Berlin Peace Conference, and all international resolutions which prohibit states from interfering in the Libyan crisis or violating the ban on arms exports to the warring parties in the country.
Turkey’s relations with its eastern Mediterranean neighbors have also undergone heightened tensions, particularly with Cyprus, Greece, and Egypt. This has happened due to Turkey’s attempts to seize energy sources in the region, resuming its illegal oil and gas exploration activities in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone and territorial waters, taking advantage of the suspicious MoUs it signed with the Libyan GNA.
These developments have sparked angry reactions from European countries and Cyprus over the explicit violation of international laws under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The EU has threatened to impose sanctions against Ankara as its activities threaten regional security off the coast of Cyprus, which in turn has repeatedly accused Turkey of violating international legitimacy and engaging in piracy in the eastern Mediterranean.
On the Syrian front, Turkey stepped up its military intervention as the conflict over Idlib flared up even though tensions temporarily subsided after Turkey and Russia reached an agreement. Turkey has also played the Syrian refugee card against Europe once again, sending thousands of them to the Greek border ignoring the risks posed by Covid-19 or any other humanitarian considerations.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Turkey has laid bare the widespread confusion in Turkish politics. It has exposed the shortcomings of the Erdogan regime, which has failed to handle the crisis at home and has tended to escalate crises abroad, particularly in Libya, to distract attention from its domestic problems.
Regardless of the consequences of such misadventures of the Turkish regime, its failure in handling the pandemic, and the humanitarian and economic impact, it has had on the Turkish people, the popularity of Erdogan and AKP has witnessed a dramatic decline and may even bring the Erdogan era to an end.
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