Just a few months ago, the Turkish president was under domestic pressure, but the war in Ukraine has turned the tide. Erdogan is back in power - and he's using it to settle old scores with the West.
There are elections in Turkey next June. And the starting position for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not the best: Although he has dwarfed the opposition in the country since the attempted coup in 2016 that an election campaign can't be much more than a show - but the difficult economic situation with record inflation of over 85 percent , the progressive censorship of the media and his government's persistent sawing of secularity in the country are still bringing Erdogan falling poll numbers. According to an assessment by the opinion research institute "MetroPoll Araştırma", the AKP could clearly miss its own majority in 2023. If there were a run-off election, Erdogan would lose to all conceivable opponents.
For the "strong man on the Bosphorus," these are alarm signals to which he responds with a proven strategy: distraction. Whenever Erdogan came under domestic political pressure, he sought confrontation externally - either with the EU, the USA or Germany. It's the same now. Erdogan has been threatening to attack the Greek islands in the Aegean for months. He even referred to them as occupied by Greece. Officially, he is bothered by the fact that Athens has increased the military presence on the islands, even though their demilitarization has been a contractual requirement for decades. However, he does not mention that Greece was only forced to take this step after the Turkish attack on Cyprus in 1974 and the partial occupation of the island.
So far, the Greek government has reacted deliberately calmly to Erdogan's saber-rattling. And according to a MetroPoll survey, even the majority of Turks (51.5 percent) consider it a diversionary tactic to create an agenda for next year's elections. You know your president well. But according to experts, an escalation cannot be completely ruled out. According to US historian Ryan Gingeras, "the desire for an election boost or even his constitutional possibility of postponing the vote under the threat of war" could drive Erdogan to an escalation. With a view to Greece's military strength, there is also "a general Turkish confidence in relation to the outcome of a confrontation".
The fact that the Russian president started the invasion of Ukraine plays into Erdogan's hands twice over. On the one hand, he was able to present himself to the international community as a successful mediator in the negotiations between the two warring parties on grain exports - and thus free himself from his isolated role from the West for the time being. On the other hand, the attempt by Sweden and Finland to join NATO also benefits him domestically, because nothing happens without his consent to the two countries joining the alliance. The Turkish president therefore openly launched an attempt at blackmail by making his consent dependent on the extradition of 73 declared enemies of the state - including alleged PKK officials, Gülen supporters or simply critical journalists.
Bülent Kenes is also on the list of "terrorists" whose extradition Erdogan is demanding. Before the attempted coup, Kenes was editor-in-chief of the anti-government newspaper "Today's Zaman." Since fleeing Turkey, he has lived with his family in Stockholm. The fact that Erdogan emphasized his name at a press conference with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson on Monday is proof enough of how important the journalist's extradition is to him. The Turkish President is counting on the fact that the Swedish government attaches more importance to NATO membership than protecting those who are politically persecuted - and that it can put enough pressure on the Swedish judiciary, which ultimately has to decide on the extradition requests. The rule of law should be subordinate.
If it actually happens, it would be an expensive sacrifice for Sweden's security. And it could encourage Erdogan to expand his attempts at blackmail to other Western states. He has enough leverage: the refugee crisis is not over, and Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser is traveling to Ankara next week to ensure that Turkey keeps the floodgates to Europe closed. And geostrategically, the country remains an important bridgehead for NATO on the Black Sea, especially in times of war. The question is how much the allies are willing to put up with. After the attack on the Istiklal shopping street in Istanbul, Erdogan quickly identified the Kurdish Workers' Party PKK and the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG as the masterminds. Both reject it.
But in the end that is not so important. What is more decisive is how Erdogan capitalizes on this politically. The attack gave the president one more argument to ask his international partners for help in the fight against "Kurdish terrorism". He also repeatedly accused Sweden and Finland of supporting the YPG. Now Sweden's Foreign Minister Tobias Billström has publicly distanced himself from the YPG - a first small victory for Erdogan, who also has a good excuse to internationally justify his long-threatening new offensive in northern Syria. The aim is to expel the Kurds there in order to resettle non-Kurdish Syrians who have fled to Turkey instead.
Domestically, Erdogan could sell both as a success, presenting himself as the guardian of national security while simultaneously addressing growing resentment against the more than three million Syrian refugees at home. If, despite all international warnings, he dares to invade northern Syria or even attack Greece's islands, NATO and the West could soon be faced with the question of how to deal with the ricochet from the Bosphorus. Not the best prospects in an already tense world political situation.