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Erdoğan ‘won’ his referendum, but what does that mean for Turkey’s foreign policy?

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan recently met with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Erdoğan ‘won’ his referendum, but what does that mean for Turkey’s foreign policy?

Victory for the “yes” side in the country’s April 16 constitutional referendum granting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sweeping new powers has left commentators wondering whether his foreign policy still includes joining the European Union as a primary goal.

EU leaders Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker will seek a meeting with Erdoğan at the May 25 NATO summit in what could be the European Union’s last effort to find common ground with Turkey. But EU-Turkey tensions are high, and it would not be surprising if talks were suspended in the near future.

There were widespread allegations of electoral misconduct, irregularities and state coercion of “no” supporters in the referendum.

Following unofficial results, several heads of state called Erdoğan to congratulate him, including the leaders of Djibouti, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But the only Western president who did so was Donald Trump.

Just hours after Trump’s call, the European Commission called for an investigation into Turkey’s referendum and refused to congratulate Erdoğan. And the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has decided to impose a renewed monitoring procedure on Turkey “until serious concerns about respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law are addressed in a satisfactory manner.”

The Turkish president’s recent remarks supporting the death penalty have also strained relations with Europe (though they were met with support from his followers), as did his May 2 declarations about constitutional reforms and amendments.

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan celebrate in Istanbul after the April 18 2017 referendum. Huseyin Aldemir/Reuters

But the greatest blow to European-Turkish relations came directly out Erdoğan’s mouth. In a May 3 speech in Ankara, the president openly threatened to stop the EU accession process if European countries don’t “open up” right away.

It may be that the president has better alliances in his sights. And if Erdoğan’s latest trips are any indication, Turkey’s foreign policy may well just bypass Europe.

Turkey’s open hand to India

On May 1, Erdoğan paid a visit to India, his first international trip since “winning” the disputed constitutional referendum. The main aim of the visit was to develop economic and strategic collaborations on counter terrorism.

It appears that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed him with open arms. But Erdoğan made a controversial comment on Kashmir, the northwestern state disputed by India and Pakistan, that marred the visit.

In suggesting a “multilateral dialogue” on the Kashmir issue and offering to mediate between India and Pakistan, Erdoğan irked Indian officials, who “firmly rule out third party mediation on Kashmir”.

Erdoğan also mentioned that joint trade between India and Turkey should be balanced, and that his country could assist India with rapid infrastructure development.

That comment raised some eyebrows. Given that Turkey’s relations with the EU have been deteriorating for some time now, is Erdoğan planning to start implementing an active foreign policy focussed on the East rather than the West?

His May 8 trip to Kuwait may be another example of just such an inclination.

Looking eastward

Turkey’s foreign policy agenda has for years been determined by domestic priorities, and it has sometimes become a significant issue in electoral campaigns.

This is what happened following problems with some European countries during the recent referendum process. Erdoğan and prominent figures from his AKP party used populist rhetoric to send the message that Europe does not want Turkey to be powerful, suggesting that European nations fear the resurgence of a strong, Ottoman-style Turkey.

Even as he antagonises the West, Erdoğan has been trying hard to ease tensions with Russia. A year and a half have passed since the downing of a Russian jet near the Turkish-Syria border. President Erdoğan apologised to his Russian counterpart, stating “Ankara never had the desire or deliberate intention of shooting down the Russian federation’s plane”.

Putin and Erdoğan: new best friends? Alexander Zemlianichenko/Reuters

The May 4 meeting between Putin and Erdoğan, which took place in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, suggests rapprochement.

It also reflected possible growing cooperation between the two nations on Syria, on which they were once at odds. Russia and Turkey agreed to support the formation of “de-escalation zones” in Syria, saying they both wanted to bolster the fragile truce in the war-ravaged country.

Suspicion in the Balkans

In the Balkans, which were once part of the Ottoman empire, Erdogan is looked at with increasing suspicion after years of Turkey having a balanced, if delicate, relationship with the region.

Since 2013, Erdoğan’s pro-Islamist language and policies have been discomfiting policymakers and political elites on the peninsula, with its multi-religious and multi-ethnic structure.

Between 2007 and 2013, Ankara was actually making inroads through friendlier means. Turkish investments had expanded across the Balkans, even in Croatia and in Serbia, where Christian residents still remember the sultans from Istanbul as occupiers, not liberators.

Turkey had also helped broker talks between formerly bitter enemies in the Balkans. But, post-referendum, new apprehension has arisen among the region’s political elites. Many now fear that Turkey could export authoritarianism to the peninsula and trigger instability.

Even though most of the Balkan countries will continue to cultivate or feign friendship with Erdoğan, they are also likely to lean on European powers to seek protection.

Can Turkey thrive without Europe?

Despite Erdoğan’s ultimatum to Europe and his new friends in the East, the economic picture for Turkey remains weak without backing from the West. All of Turkey’s trade with its Middle East, Asian and African partners combined doesn’t compare to its commerce with the Western world.

Turkey is the EU’s fourth-largest export market and fifth-highest provider of imports, selling well over US$50 billion of goods to Europe each year. The EU is by far Turkey’s number one import and export partner.

In contrast, Turkey and Africa trade at a volume of around US$4 billion.

The global political power of Turkey’s potential new partners is nothing compared to that of the Western world. Ultimately, Turkey needs democracy, human rights, peace and stability at home and in its neighbourhood.

In the end, other regions may be helpful to Erdoğan for a short time, but they cannot substitute the economic and political contributions Turkey requires of Europe.