Turkish- American relations have been on a downward curve for some time now. Disputes over Ankara’s role in Syria, its policy toward its Kurdish population, and its growing hostility towards Israel have been among the major irritants.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and Islamization of the country’s political system have worried Washington for some time.
Now, there’s a new issue. As far as Erdogan is concerned, the United States is now intentionally sabotaging Turkey’s economy. Remember, this is a man who sees conspiracies around every corner. There’s no doubt, though, that the Turkish economy is in dire straits, at the same time as relations with Washington have continued to deteriorate.
The growing diplomatic crisis with President Donald Trump’s administration has now pushed Turkey’s economy into a full-fledged currency crisis.
The Turkish lira has lost about 40 percent of its value over the last 12 months. And, because Turkish banks and firms have borrowed heavily in foreign currency, the lira’s freefall threatens to bring much of the private sector down with it.
Economic growth had become dependent on a steady flow of foreign capital to finance domestic consumption and investments in housing, roads, bridges, and airports. But these good times have come to an end, with the Trump administration’s decision to use sanctions — and the threat of more of them to come — to press Turkey to release Andrew Brunson, an Izmir-based American evangelical pastor arrested during the purges that followed the failed coup against Erdogan two years ago.
National Security Adviser John Bolton indicated in an Aug. 21 interview with Reuters that Turkey — the sole Muslim member of the NATO alliance — could end the crisis with the United States “immediately” if Brunson were freed. Meanwhile, the U.S. has frozen the American assets of Turkey’s interior and justice ministers and doubled tariffs on Turkish aluminum and steel.
But a Turkish court has rejected an appeal for Brunson’s release, drawing a stiff rebuke from President Trump, who said the U.S. would not take the detention “sitting down.”
Washington considers Brunson a political hostage, while Ankara insists he’s a suspected terrorist and spy.
It also hasn’t helped that Erdogan has put his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, in charge of the treasury and finance, and that Erdogan would personally appoint the Central Bank governor as well as Central Bank deputies and monetary policy committee members.
It’s so bad that the International Monetary Fund may have to be called in for temporary financial assistance.
Erdogan, with his usual belligerent tone, on August 25 insisted that the unity of the Turkish nation against the attacks targeting their political and economic independence would prevail. “As we tackle attacks against the Turkish economy today, our biggest guarantee is the commitment and determination of every member of our people to take hold of their independence, nation, and future,” he declared.
He compared the currency crisis as being no different from attacks on Turkey’s flag or call to prayer.
Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin claimed on August 22 that the U.S. sanctions are aimed at unraveling the country’s once vibrant economy. “The Trump administration is targeting a NATO ally as part of an economic war,” he told Reuters in a statement.
The Turkish government also thinks that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are using Brunson, a member of the conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church of America, to shore up the Republicans’ Protestant evangelical base in advance of the November mid-term Congressional elections.
How has it come to this? Erdogan has fostered an authoritarian political culture over the past few years, as he marshalled ever more power while destroying most organs of civil society, a free press and the education system.
Erdogan has overseen historic change in Turkey since his ruling party first came to power in 2002 after years of secular domination, by trampling on civil liberties and behaving in an autocratic manner. His election victory in June has accelerated this process, as he quickly transformed Turkey’s parliamentary system into an executive presidential system with almost no checks and balances.
His glorification, appearance of infallibility and ultimately political survival are portrayed as Turkey’s supreme goals. Every other objective is only undertaken in order to strengthen his rule.
In this political structure, he feels entitled to be above all laws and to enrich himself and his close associates. He has become a modern Ottoman sultan subordinate only to the Islamic legal code, the Sharia.
Sooner or later, economic pressures will force Turkey to adopt fixes that will stabilize its currency and financial markets.
But that will not revive long-term private investment, bring back talent that is leaving the country in droves, or foster a climate of freedom that will allow Turkey to thrive, unless there is fundamental change in the country.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.