Turkey's multi-layered adventure with Covid-19

“We will see a Turkey that seeks to be more globally influential after Covid-19 subsides ,but fails to attain its desired degree of influence”.

Date: 19 May 2020

Dr Ahmet Erdi Ozturk, lecturer in International Relations and Politics, delves into how Turkey has dealt with the pandemic, and what lies ahead for the country.

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There appears to be almost no country in which Covid-19 has not inflicted considerable trauma, and it has been primarily the more prominent nations that have been impacted by this pandemic. Notwithstanding this impact, it appears that some nations will, with few repercussions, successfully overcome this gruelling process, while others falter as they wade through the crisis. For instance, Germany, with its transparent understanding of governance, swift and structured administering of tests, and minimised death rate could be considered a ‘successful’ case. 

Some nations illustrate a comparably colourful and multifaceted scene, but we can categorise these as neither directly successful nor directly unsuccessful. Turkey has fallen into this category. Although, as of early May, Turkey ranked seventh in the world in the number of cases and had conducted a relatively low number of tests, some positive regressions have emerged in its global rankings for the number killed by the disease. Prominent in this apparently ‘successful’ situation was the role of Turkey’s structurally potent healthcare system, whose history dates back to Ottoman modernisation. Nonetheless, its young population and the cultural preservation of its elderly population carried added value for Turkey in this calculation of success through motivations of communal solidarity.

But, the numerical values Turkey has provided are a matter of debate. The underlying reason for this debate is that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has, by gradually incapacitating Turkey’s institutions, been constructing a chaotic, one-man regime of disputed transparency and credibility since the early 2010s. The question of whether institutions categorically loyal to an authoritarian and populist leader would share the real figures of the Covid-19 crisis represents a separate, yet substantial, topic of discussion. Turkey’s position, to be succinct, is sowing doubt in this success.

However, Turkey did act favourably by working to diminish the death rate by legally prohibiting those aged 65 and older from leaving their homes. But, as in England, Germany and France, it was unable to fully ensure that everyone stayed at home. This pertains to the state of Turkey’s economy, something we can no longer describe as merely ‘fragile’. The Central Bank has nearly depleted its reserves, yet Turkey has failed to seize control of its imploding currency. This is why gratuitous assistance has been impossible, even as businesses such as restaurants and gyms remain closed. 

Despite this insecurity, Turkey is trying to become a key global actor for the post-Covid-19 era, but these actions contain a slew of variety. As Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has noted, Turkey, while facing its own challenges with medical supplies, is providing medical assistance to more than 70 countries — such as England, Italy, and the Balkans. Although Turkey has yet to fully solve the task of how to distribute masks to its own citizens, this assistance can be interpreted in three ways. 

First, Turkey had damaged its previously cultivated image as a benevolent soft power, with its growing authoritarian tendencies after 2013 and its use of Islam as a tool of foreign policy, it aims to gain back this influence in different regions. Second, in its pursuit to become a regionally and globally dominant actor, Turkey is delivering this aid as a result of the passive war it fights with other foreign actors in regions where it seeks to spread influence.  And third, Erdoğan’s regime, as well as his domestic and diaspora supporters, is presenting this assistance as elements of propaganda. Erdoğan is, on the one hand, a cogent actor but, on the other hand, is in a difficult position where he grows weaker as he becomes more authoritarian and needs even the most insignificant vote. 

As a result, Turkey’s battle with the coronavirus — the policies it implemented during the crisis — presents a myriad of multifaceted elements both for Turkey, the Balkans and the Middle East, as well as for Europe, the epicentre. Though impossible to determine with any precision a point for the future, some points are certain for Turkey and the region. We will see a Turkey that seeks to be more globally influential after Covid-19 subsides but that, in one way or another, fails to attain its desired degree of influence due to the profound economic crisis within which it finds itself. Among the domestic political ramifications of this economic crisis, Erdoğan, in order to ensure his electoral victory, will seek to once again game the system and grow even more authoritarian, employing religion and nationalism to further suppress the opposition. For the time being, whether this emerges as a success for himself or an opportunity for the opposition appears dependent on the Covid-19 programme he enacts.

The national flag of Turkey