Turkey’s flailing economy topped the agenda as the country’s new Cabinet convened Tuesday under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the first time since he won a third presidential term on May 28.
Featuring an array of able technocrats, the new lineup has led to cautious optimism over a possible shift back to Erdogan’s reformist days in the early 2000s that saw the European Union open now stalled full membership talks with the majority Muslim nation of 85 million.
Speaking to reporters after the 4½-hour meeting, Erdogan said the twin pillars of his rule would be “stability and security.” “God willing we will stand shoulder to shoulder and build the new Turkish century together,” he said.
Erdogan also vowed to bring inflation down to single digits and make Turkey one of the world’s 10 largest economies. At the same time, however, Erdogan also signaled that subsidies to farmers and pensioners would continue, raising questions in turn about how successful or independent his new finance minister, Mehmet Simsek, can be.
Simsek, who was booted out unceremoniously as economy czar in 2018 for pushing back against Erdogan’s interventions in the economy — most notably his demands that interest rates be kept low — said at a news conference on Sunday that “Turkey has no choice but to return to rational ground.”
Markets remain skeptical as evidenced by the Turkish lira’s continued slide against the greenback hitting a new low of 21.51 to the dollar today.
Erdogan, who is facing mounting pressure to scotch his veto of Sweden’s NATO membership, offered few clues about any substantive change in foreign policy under his new foreign minister, Hakan Fidan. The US-educated spymaster handed his portfolio to the outgoing presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, today. Emerging from the shadows with his first-ever tweet, Fidan vowed to further develop “our national foreign policy vision at our long-established foreign affairs organization.” What that means in practice remains to be seen. His characterization of the ministry as an organization suggests that the veteran intel chief has yet to shed his previous mindset.
Western and Middle Eastern diplomats credit Fidan with greater intellectual heft and subtlety than his predecessor, Mevlut Cavusoglu. The exclusion from the Cabinet of the shrilly anti-American former interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, has fed their buoyancy.
Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı Başkanlığı görevini kardeşim @ikalin1’a devrettim.
Dışişleri Bakanlığı görevini tevdi eden Sayın Cumhurbaşkanımız @RTErdogan’a şükranlarımı sunuyorum.
Köklü geleneğe sahip Hariciye Teşkilatımızla milli dış politika vizyonumuzu daha da geliştireceğiz. pic.twitter.com/5kQ1VEkaiu
— Hakan Fidan (@HakanFidan) June 6, 2023
The Kremlin, with whom he’s had numerous dealings, also likes Fidan. They find exchanges with “security sector officials” more reliable, explained Igor Subbotin, a columnist for the Russian daily Nevavisimaya Gazeta. “That's why I tend to view the appointment of Fidan as a positive step in the context of Russian-Turkish relations” in which the sides can “manage negotiations without [feigned] politeness,” Subbotin told Al-Monitor.
Gonul Tol, founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program, told Al-Monitor, “It’s obvious that, through these appointments, Erdogan is trying to send a signal to the West that 'we are normalizing' and the government is entering a moderate and constructive phase.”
In any case, regardless of the Cabinet’s composition, Erdogan’s victory in the May 28 runoff election means that the West will have to continue to work with him. “If Erdogan doesn’t take a further aggressive turn in foreign policy, he will find enthusiastic and willing partners in Western capitals and in Washington too,” Tol said. Congressional objections to the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, for example, will likely wilt as a result. National security adviser Jake Sullivan’s comment to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sunday that “Turkey is a democracy” sets the tone, Tol added.
Hopes for a more benign climate grew today when a Turkish court overturned what rights groups termed the “baseless” convictions of four human rights defenders accused of alleged coup plotting. The move was seen as a potential U-turn on the government’s stubborn refusal to abide by European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings, even though Turkey is bound by them as a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Strasbourg-based body decided last year that Turkish authorities did not have “any reasonable suspicion” that Taner Kilic, honorary chair of Amnesty International in Turkey, who was the sole detainee in the case, had committed an offense.
Today, the court ruled once again that Turkey had violated the rights of Kurdish politicians Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag by failing to observe the confidentiality of their exchanges with their lawyers. The former co-chairs of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ Party have remained behind bars on flimsily evidenced "terror" charges since 2016. The detention since 2017 of Turkish businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala on his alleged links to the failed coup to violently overthrow Erdogan was similarly declared to be in breach of the European court’s norms.
Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey program director at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-based think tank, said of today’s court ruling, “This is a surprising decision given the Erdogan government’s consistently abysmal human rights record.” Coming on the heels of Simsek’s appointment, “It appears to be part of a trend that suggests a positive change in Erdogan’s approach to governance," Tahiroglu told Al-Monitor.
Erdal Dogan, a lawyer who represents the four human rights defenders who were acquitted today, also aired surprise at the verdict, telling Al-Monitor that he had expected Kilic’s sentence on “bogus charges” to be upheld.
Will Turkey finally defer to the ECHR’s decisions and set them free? Is Erdogan returning to his old reformist self that saw the European Union open full membership talks with Ankara in 2008, or is it all window dressing aimed at tiding over Erdogan until the municipal elections nine months away?
More likely the latter, critics say. Just today, for example, a 16-year-old boy was sent to prison for drawing a Hitler mustache on Erdogan's face on a campaign billboard in the southern province of Mersin.
While Fidan’s role in the now shelved peace talks between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the government is often highlighted, as head of national intelligence he also oversaw targeted assassinations of numerous alleged PKK militants in Iraqi Kurdistan and northeast Syria, with an undocumented number of civilians perishing in the drone strikes.
Nate Schenkkan, senior director for research at Freedom House, noted via Twitter that Fidan had also “presided over the kidnappings of dozens of people from around the world as the head of Turkey’s campaign of transnational repression.” Many were tortured and held incommunicado at black sites in Turkey. Schenkkan added that the Foreign Ministry “has been a key partner in the kidnappings, with evidence around the world that embassies and consulates act as hubs for the operations.”
The most immediate test of whether Erdogan has actually changed his spots rests on freeing Kavala, Demirtas and countless other prisoners of conscience and dropping charges against Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition mayor of Istanbul who might have beaten Erdogan had he been permitted to run. The other will be the outcome of the central bank's next monetary policy committee meeting on June 22 to set interest rates. “These will be the real markers of change,” Tahiroglu said.