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The West Must Stop Playing Erdogan’s Dangerous Game

Over the last year we’ve all been spectators of an interesting scene: the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to veto the admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO. The Western reaction fell surprisingly short. Once again Erdogan was playing a game that he has mastered throughout his uninterrupted rule of two decades.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine brought a significant opportunity for Erdogan because Turkey is practically the only country with leverage on both sides of the trench. Of course, he could not stop the war. But Erdogan has used the situation to promote his persona within and outside Turkey. Considering Turkey’s deep economic issues recently escalating into a full-blown crisis, this mediator role was the only saving grace for an aging strongman.

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Being a great Machiavellian, Erdogan wanted to utilize his potential position to buy legitimacy in the West and convince them that his strategic worth outweighed his numerous violations of democratic principles. So far, it has paid off. The West ignored the fact that Turkey was the only NATO member that did not join the sanctions against Russia. Furthermore, a variety of Western leaders made official visits to Turkey, including the U.N. Secretary-General, all of which bolsters Erdogan’s international credibility.

It´s a deep frustration for me. I had to witness how my beautiful country Turkey, once on the path to becoming a strong democracy with a bright future, was not able to show enough resilience. It only needed one manipulator like Erdogan to make the whole country stray from the democratic path. Erdogan has become an authoritarian leader who reversed, step by step, almost every single democratization advance that happened under his early time of rule—why? To stay in power.

We all witnessed it: Power corrupts, absolute power—to which Erdogan is closer every day—corrupts absolutely. But my frustration isn’t only with Erdogan, but with the majority of Turkish society.

Democracy is obsolete in Erdogan’s eyes. But why is democracy obsolete for them, too? Why is it fine for them that their fundamental rights are violated by those who have taken an oath to protect them? How can they be so indifferent towards massive and systematic human rights violations targeting political dissidents especially Kurds and members of the Gülen Movement? There are crimes against humanity happening on a daily basis and they just stay silent, or even worse, are in favor of them.

And, of course, there is my frustration towards the West.

The West did not call his bluff in all these years. It has not found a means to really put the brakes on Erdogan—one cannot help but ask: Maybe it does not want to stop him? It allows itself to be undermined time and again by the Turkish president. There’s not one dispute over the years where the U.S., the EU or NATO called Erdogan’s bluff. Domestically, they are even helping Erdogan. It goes down well with his supporters if he stands up to the U.S. and Europe. The Turkish president has mastered the art of polarization like few others.

And the different in values is stark. NATO stands for: Promoting democratic values, enabling members to consult and cooperate on defense and solving security-related issues and preventing conflict. In military terms NATO is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes. If diplomatic efforts fail, it has the military power to undertake crisis-management operations.

These are NATO’s most fundamental values and yet they are ignored by the autocratic Erdogan. In the midst of NATO’s biggest Russian crisis, Erdogan has continued developing deeper relations with Putin that go against NATO’s interests and perhaps even acting a Trojan horse within NATO. For example, Erdogan went so far to demand the extradition of political dissidents, who had to flee from his cruelties to Europe. He can’t stand the fact that some managed to escape him.

And above all he is manipulating the membership process of Sweden and Finland, which are ranked 3rd and 6th in The Economist Democracy Index, on the grounds that they harbor “terrorists”—which is just ridiculous. Then again, even I am a terrorist for Erdogan. It is ridiculous and incomprehensible, call it whatever you want: This has been the bitter truth for millions of Turks who have faced nearly 2 million “terrorism” investigations under Erdogan’s regime.

A NATO member that is close to the abyss in any assessment of human rights and democracy measurements, prevents two of the most democratic countries in the world from getting the protection they deserve. And this despite the fact that, as a NATO member, it should be clear that the expansion of NATO to include Finland and Sweden will put NATO in a stronger position. With enlargement, the Baltic Sea becomes almost a NATO lake.

With his performance today, Erdogan wants to reinforce the impression that he is a global player capable of manipulating the West. We should understand why he’s doing this because it helps him domestically. More precisely, Erdogan faces a tough time ahead of the elections scheduled for June 18, 2023. The shrinking economy, the depreciating Turkish lira, and high inflation, which is officially 83.45% but estimated to be around 186.27%, have significantly changed views on Turkey.

My question is: Will the West call Erdogan’s bluff? Or will they continue to tolerate this Trojan horse in the NATO? And by doing this, help him to stay in power? The people in Turkey deserve so much better than this. The West must not allow Erdogan to instrumentalize them for his own political games. It’s time, that the people of Turkey, who are standing up for democracy and human rights, get the support they deserve from the West. I am aware that this will of course not end Erdogan’s reign or bring about a democratic rebirth but that shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction.

The question is: Will the West stand by the Turkish people and promote democracy in Turkey?