15 January, 2021
Yavuz Baydar, the Editor-in-Chief of Ahval, a trilingual, independent online news and podcast site on Turkey, chaired this talk with Dr Aykan Erdemir, the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.
In his opening remarks, Baydar emphasised that we are passing through a critical juncture in modern history characterised by huge concerns resulting from the pandemic and growing economic difficulties. We have been witnessing a series of dramatic political events in the United States. The elections in November 2020 brought about a deep seismic change and shifted the power from Donald Trump and Republicans to Joe Biden and the Democrats. He highlighted that tensions have been high since the election. This tension culminated in the riots on the Capitol, which marks a defining moment in American history. As the world tensely waits for Biden’s inauguration ceremony, many questions arise from these recent events not only for America but for the world, Turkey and the wider Middle East region.
Erdemir started by reflecting on the political impacts of the Capitol Riots. He said President Trump had the choice to accept the defeat and emphasise, in his last days in office, his wins and successes to boost his legacy. But he chose to escalate the tensions and polarise the electorate further, refuse to concede the election, and bring the escalation towards the use of violence. The first choice would have been a better strategy for the day after if President Trump wanted to continue his political ambitions.
Erdemir said the Capitol Riots were hybrid, it involved people from different backgrounds, who were heavily under the influence of conspiracy theories, disinformation, various supremacist, anti-Semitic ideas and prejudices. They were violent and quite majoritarian and believed in the ultimate goodness of ‘the people’ versus the corrupt elites. Trump’s ‘day after’ is now very different from before Capitol Riots. This event boosted the ranks of anti-Trump Republicans. For tactical reasons, the bulk of elected Republican officials stayed with Trump throughout his term because they did not want to be destroyed by the populist wave.
However, following the riots, there is a greater willingness in the ranks of the Republicans to speak up against Trump, which shows something is in the making. 10 Republican representatives broke rank with their party and voted in favour of Trump’s impeachment. Almost half of the business community declared that they would no longer make donations to representatives and senators who voted against certifying the election results. Media and social media companies also started to push back against Trump and others in his movement. More robust actions will be taken to impeach Trump and block him from holding office in future. We know Trump had ambitions to run again in 2024, and this project will now face a significant challenge. There will be a robust action to prosecute Trump and his inner circle for tax evasion, negligence, abuse of power and other infringements, which could be a major drain on Trump’s time and finances. Deutsche Bank stated that they would no longer work with Trump in future and the PGA of America declared that they would be dropping Trump properties from their annual Golf Tour. Overall, these push backs raise the possibility that establishment Republicans can take the party back from populist. Trump has a weaker hand compared to two to three weeks ago.
Baydar interjected and asked about the new administration’s burden and highlighted that it would not be small. They are taking on an increased load because of the Capitol Riots; the impeachment process will also create further challenges for the Biden administration, which is why Biden is reluctant to support the impeachment process fully. He asked about the impacts of overall developments since November and the impacts the bloody Capitol Riots will have on the US-Turkish relations?
Erdemir agreed that the domestic agenda is heavy. He said the fallout from the riots is compounded by the urgent need to deal with the Covid and economic situation. There is also a demanding foreign and security policy agenda. He referred to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ answer to a question on addressing the heavy domestic agenda in which she mentioned the word multitasking. The Biden administration is confident and hopeful that the Senate can impeach Trump and address the Covid and economic situation. The Biden administration remains optimistic that it can multitask, but it doesn’t look very easy.
Erdemir argued that the Turkey portfolio is not an easy one. In an unprecedented manner, Erdogan took clear sides during the US election, with the Turkish government, media outlets, front organisations and think tanks supporting President Trump. They were betting all they had on what now appears to be the wrong horse. The Erdogan government also betted again on the wrong horse during the riots. The Turkish Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a rare schadenfreude message about the riots, signalling that they kept an equal distance from rioters and elected officials. TRT World broadcasted an extensive interview with the Proud Boys, a racist supremacist group. Turkish government appear to be an extension of these far-right racist anti-Semitic fringe movements, which will be difficult to erase through lobbying activities. This will be a wakeup call for those few people in the Biden administration who remained optimistic about Erdogan’s reform agenda and rapprochement outreaches to Western Europe, Israel, Saudi Arabia etc.
Baydar asked about Erdogan’s behavioural pattern and why he delayed congratulating Biden for his win and what should be done to repair it? Erdemir highlighted that Erdogan’s team have been making so many back-to-back mistakes and argued that these chains of events result from the complete break in the institutions’ abilities or capabilities caused by a combination of centralisation of power around Erdogan and purges in the bureaucracy and media.
However, as soon as Erdogan realised that Biden would win, his government started to hedge to not be the loser in the changed context. Erdogan talked about reforms expecting that Biden will emphasise human rights. When the Senate Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks about the problem cases, she lists Turkey among the worst offenders. When senior American politicians, whether Democrat or Republican, refer to problem cases, they all mention Turkey. Even before Biden takes office, Turkey’s potential reform agenda looks impossible.
Baydar asked about how Turkey’s prospects look in light of the regional context? Erdemir mentioned Turkey forged close relations with Azerbaijan and the situation in the eastern Mediterranean seems to have calmed down. It was declared that exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece would take place. Erdogan is also still pushing the rhetoric of rapprochement with regional adversaries, such as Israel. Turkey nominated a junior official as its ambassador to Israel, who is known for his anti-Semitic views and anti-Israel writings. When we look at the developments from Israel, it is clear that what Turkey is trying to do is not a rapprochement. Turkey’s steps are not seen as rapprochement by the US, the EU, or the region’s main capitals. The talk doesn’t match the actions.
The argument that Turkey is the great bulwark against Russian and Iranian expansion, which was made frequently and had some weight in the past, isn’t as convincing as before because Turkey is now seen as being in cooperation with Russia and Iran. Erdogan finds win-win situations with Putin that advance Russian footprint in the Middle East, undermining the US or NATO interests. There is an emerging new logic in Washington that as long as President Erdogan is in power, Turkey will play a spoiler role and the US should find alternatives. Recently, we have seen the US further developing its ties with Greece.
Baydar draw attention to Minister for National Security Hulisi Akar’s comment on the possibility of a solution for the S400 missiles issue. He also asked about the court case in the US against Halkbank for violating Iran sanctions. Erdemir mentioned that the S400 issue is a red line for the US, and Ankara does not understand its importance. Co-locating the S400s with F35s means that a 1.5 trillion US$ project will go to waste.
The Halkbank case is similar to other instances over the years that resulted in western banks receiving a fine. He gave the example of the BNP Paribas getting an 8.9 billion US$ fine. The Halkbank case, however, is much stronger and involves a conspiracy to help Iran. He said he expects the case to reach a conclusion and a fine reflecting the crime to be handed. Erdemir expects the two issues not to go away, and they could not be swept under the carpet. There are numerous other sealed indictments in the Iran sanctions evasion case against Halkbank thought to be against the high ranking Turkish financial and political officials; in other words, President Erdogan’s inner circle.
The event continued with further questions from Yavuz Baydar and some from the audience.
Dr. Aykan Erdemir is the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Between 2011 and 2015, he was a member of the Turkish Parliament, and served in the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee.Dr. Erdemir is a steering committee member of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief and serves on Anti-Defamation League’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities. He was awarded the Stefanus Prize for Religious Freedom in 2016 and the First Freedom Award of the Hellenic American Leadership Council in 2019 in recognition of his advocacy for minority rights and religious freedoms.
Dr. Erdemir received his BA in International Relations from Bilkent University, Ankara, and MA in Middle Eastern Studies, and PhD in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University with his dissertation, “Incorporating Alevis: The Transformation of Governance and Faith-based Collective Action in Turkey.” He worked as a faculty member at Middle East Technical University and Bilkent University. He was also a fellow at Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a research associate at the University of Oxford’s Center on Migration, Policy and Society.
Dr. Erdemir has edited seven volumes and coauthored three books and numerous reports, including Antagonistic Tolerance: Competitive Sharing of Religious Sites and Spaces (Routledge, 2016) and Erdogan’s Hostage Diplomacy: Western Nationals in Turkish Prisons (FDD, 2018). His articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, Politico Europe, Kathimerini, Al Ahram, Al Arabiya, The Jerusalem Post, and The Times of Israel among others.
Yavuz Baydar is the Editor-in-Chief of Ahval, a trilingual, independent online news and podcast site on Turkey.His opinion articles have appeared in the Guardian, Süddeutsche Zeitung, New York Times, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, Yomiuri Shimbun, the Arab Weekly, and Index on Censorship.
Baydar was among the co-founders, in 2013, of the independent media platform P24 to monitor the media sector and the state of journalism in his home country.
In 2014, as a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, he completed an extensive research paper on self-censorship, state oppression and threats over journalism in Turkey – in the wake of Gezi Park protests. The extended version of the paper was published in book form in German and Turkish, under the title “Newsroom as an Open-Air Prison: Corruption and Self-Censorship in Turkish Journalism”.
Baydar is the author of the book, “Die Hoffnung Stirbt am Bosporus – Wie die Türkei Freiheit und Demokratie Verspielt” (“The Hope dies at Bosporus: How Turkey Squandered Freedom and Democracy”). He was given in 2018 the prestigious ‘Journalistenpreis’ by the (Munich-based) SüdostEurope Gesellschaft in Germany; and, the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for ‘excellence in journalism’, in 2014.
Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. He served as president of the U.S. based International Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003.
He studied Informatics, Cybernetics and Journalism at the University of Stockholm. He worked as a reporter and editor with Cumhuriyet daily, Radio Sweden, BBC Turkish, and Yeni Yüzyıl daily throughout the 1980 and 1990s.