The Turkish president’s aggressive foreign policy pursuits are a way to distract from economic failures at home
UNTIL early October it looked as if concerted efforts by Germany to de-escalate confrontation and bring Greece and Turkey back to discussions were paying-off. Turkey pulled its seismic survey vessel Oruc-Reis away from the disputed area on September 18 and a few days later its drilling-rig Yavuz left Cyprus’ EEZ. Turkey even agreed to a Nato-brokered ‘military de-confliction mechanism’ with Greece designed to reduce the risk of incidents and accidents in the East Med.
But these hopeful developments were short-lived. On October 12, the Oruc-Reis was back in the disputed area, supported by the Turkish navy. Since then Turkey has been escalating the dispute.
Adding oil to the fire, the Turkish energy minister announced on October 20, that the Oruc-Reis would continue its current activities for another two months and possibly longer “depending on the results of the surveys.”
Greece is not being drawn into naval confrontation but said it will pursue all other avenues to resist Turkey’s actions: “We are not following Turkey in its game”.
On October 16, the EU27 said they “deplore renewed unilateral and provocative actions by Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.” They urged Turkey to reverse this and reiterated their “full solidarity” with Greece and Cyprus. This was reiterated on October 29, giving Turkey until December to respond. Otherwise the EU is “prepared to use all means available to it.” But so far though the EU has been reluctant to take any serious action, despite Erdogan’s taunts.
The US State Department also reacted strongly. It said it “deplores” Turkey’s decision to restart surveys in the disputed region and called on Ankara to “end this calculated provocation.”
In parallel with Turkey’s persistence to maintain tension with Greece, another seismic vessel, Barbaros, continues its activities in Cyprus’ blocks 6 and 7.
On the face of it, it appears that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan missed a good opportunity by sending the Oruc-Reis back, ostensibly for new surveys. But did he or was it deliberate? By doing so he snapped the EU and particularly Germany, which had put so much into bringing Greece and Turkey back from confrontation into discussions.
A valid question one is bound to ask now is: is Erdogan seriously interested in a negotiated solution, or is he determined to maintain confrontation and regional destabilisation for internal political reasons? Certainly Turkey is at various states of confrontation with all its neighbours, at Erdogan’s choosing.
Especially as seismic surveys for hydrocarbons are nothing but an excuse. Not only can these not take place effectively with so many warships around the Oruc-Reis, but the likelihood of finding hydrocarbons in this area is small. By perpetuating conflict, is it an attempt to deflect Turkish public opinion?
Given recent actions, it seems that Erdogan prefers to maintain disputes as a distraction to divert internal opinion from increasing problems with Turkey’s worsening economy and Covid-19. With the Turkish lira at 8,33 to the US dollar on October 30, and the country’s GDP down 25 per cent since its peak, and still falling, Turkish citizens struggle to cope with high unemployment and soaring prices.
As the FT pointed out this week “Turkey’s economic woes are one of the reasons why Erdogan has adopted an increasingly combative style of foreign policy, wading into conflicts in Syria, Libya, Iraq, the East Med and the disputed Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh. There is some evidence that it has worked. Erdogan enjoyed a bounce in popularity in September amid high tensions with Greece.”
This is also the conclusion drawn by the US Slate magazine that asked: “How many battles can Turkey fight at once?…Turkey seems to have gone from a policy of fighting with no one to one of fighting with everyone,” pointing out that “using foreign policy to boost your support and mobilise your base is going to be less and less effective for Erdogan.” As it becomes more isolated, Erdogan is becoming more reliant on hard power to achieve his aims.
If this is the reason, then the risks for a hot incident could increase as the situation within Turkey deteriorates. So when Jens Stoltenberg, Nato General-Secretary expressed concern last week about the increasing tension in the East Med, he may be well-justified.
Whatever it is, resumption of discussions is the only sensible way forward. Greece’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis can afford to stand firm and wait. His standing within Greece is strong, as is support from the EU and the US, and with the funds he is about to receive from EU’s Recovery Plan, Greece’s economy will be on the mend.
Whatever Ankara is aiming for, nothing can be achieved through its current actions. Only discussions and negotiations can lead to resolution of these disputes. Let’s hope that sense eventually prevails.
Meanwhile, on October 19, Turkey announced that it discovered another 85bcm natural gas at the Sakarya gas-field in the Black Sea, taking the total confirmed reserves to 405bcm. It still plans to develop the field by 2023, but this is likely to prove quite a challenge. However, the fact that this is not altering Turkey’s aggressive posturing in the East Med is another confirmation that hydrocarbons have little to do with it.
In another development, with Turkish Cypriot elections over, the way to renew efforts to solve the Cyprus problem is now open. The UN Secretary-General has confirmed he is ready to rekindle resumption of negotiations. However, given pronouncements so far, a solution of the Cyprus problem may not be a priority for Turkey.
The crisis in the global oil and gas sector continues, with massive cost-cutting, restructuring and reorganisation of the international oil companies in progress. ExxonMobil announced 15 per cent staff cuts, some 14,000 jobs, more losses in Q3 and more spending cuts in 2021. BP plans to slash 10,000 jobs, Shell 9,000 and Chevron 6,000.
It is not then surprising that there is no sign of any plans to resume exploration in the East Med. On the contrary, the International Energy Agency warned in its recent ‘World Energy Outlook 2020’ that “higher cost development projects…look increasingly difficult to justify,” particularly in regions such as the East Med.
In addition, with China and Japan following the EU and committing to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050-2060, as in Europe, the future of gas demand in southeast Asia is in the balance. The future of East Med energy is regional.
Dr Charles Ellinas, Senior Fellow Global Energy Centre, Atlantic Council