NATO ally or insider threat? How Turkey’s referendum vote will affect European security
On April 16, Turkish voters will decide if President Erdogan will maintain the presidential powers he has held in practice since instituting a state of emergency after the failed coup attempt in July 2016. The new constitutional amendment will centralize his power, giving massive authority over legislature and judiciary without a proper checks and balances system. Though NATO and Europe have dealt with autocratic leaders in member states before, the situation with Turkey’s leadership is setting the conditions for a serious security risk to the Alliance.
United by Values?
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg continually reiterates the core principles outlined by signatories of the Washington Treaty: “Democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the media, independence of the judiciary, protection of minorities. These are the values that unite us. They are the values NATO has defended since its foundation in 1949.”
But are these values truly upheld by all Allies? Despite the Turkish government’s promise to foster democratic principles in the last decade, Turkey has drifted sharply away from these values under the rule of President Erdogan. Contrary to Ataturk’s secular Turkey, Erdogan’s government is far from being a bridge between East and West. His new regime is using religion as a political tool to consolidate his internal power and project his authority abroad.
Under his rule, freedom of expression has been eliminated through intimidation, and violation of basic human rights is not a rare phenomenon. As a member nation, Turkey is capable of blocking the decisions on defending critical values — as already evidenced by Turkey’s refusal to allow military training with NATO partner nations due to the political tensions with Austria.
Heightened political tensions between the Turkish government and its NATO Allies are initial indications of the potential future security crisis for Europe. By exploiting this tense situation, the Turkish government has created propaganda material against the West, even going as far as to explicitly threaten European countries to not feel safe in their homelands if the diplomatic row continues.
Erdogan’s attempts to mobilize the considerable Turkish diaspora in Europe with strong rhetoric should not be taken lightly. If Erdogan attains his goals via referendum, he will completely dismantle the foundation of the Turkish secular republic. Thus, post-referendum Turkey would no longer be a true ally but rather an unpredictable one.
Turkey Turns East
Once backed by NATO against Russia during the downed jet crisis in November 2015, the Turkish government initiated the normalization of highly-tensioned relations with Russia after the failed coup attempt in Turkey.
The new partners, Russia and Turkey, have held positive discussions on Syria, on the construction of a nuclear power plant, and likely sale of Russian S-400 long-range air and missile defence system. Additionally, Turkey’s appointment by Russia and China to chair the 2017 Energy Club of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was a significant indication of her divergence from the West. And in the most concerning move toward the East, Turkey signed an intelligence sharing agreement with Russia.
Although European institutions typically analyse this rapprochement as a tactical manoeuvre before the referendum, it seems to have already started providing strategic outcomes.
The methods Erdogan has used against Europe are evolving to be similar to those used by President Putin. Turkey, though, has an additional tool of leverage that can be traced within the Turkish diaspora in Europe. The revealed ill-favoured intelligence activities of Turkish government among the Turkish origin European citizens is similar to Russian intelligence activities in Ukraine.
State-sponsored AK Trolls operate in social media channels very similarly to Putin’s Kremlin Troll Army. Such integration between Russia and Turkey would certainly be a worrying development for NATO’s cohesion.
The EU-Turkey Refugee Deal, as well as the country’s geostrategic location are important points of leverage for President Erdogan. In the fight against ISIS, for example, the West is leaning on Turkey to provide staging areas for equipment and aircraft, and seeks agreement on opposition targets. Particularly for countering the threats and risks emanating from the South, it is important that the cooperation and partnership with Turkey remains solid.
However, there is no doubt that Erdogan’s new Turkey will not maintain a foundation for a feasible alliance with Europe. It is worth remembering that many in the Turkish public are also looking for alternatives to Erdogan’s regime. Current public opinion polls show that around 50 percent of Turkish voters who do not support the constitutional change seem extremely oppressed by fear.
As indications of Turkish deviation from the West are growing each day, Europe needs to set priorities for mitigating this risk. Otherwise, Erdogan’s Turkey will likely turn from a NATO ally to a source of instability for the entire region.