Turkey: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is exploiting a bitter row with the United States to pin the blame for Turkey’s increasingly acute economic troubles on an external enemy rather than problems at home, analysts say.
Analysts had warned over recent months that pent-up imbalances meant Turkey’s economy was headed for choppy waters, even before sanctions announced by President Donald Trump sparked a precipitous fall in the value of the lira.
But the Trump administration’s measures have allowed Erdogan to lump those issues together with the lira’s plunge and place them firmly at the door of the White House, playing on an anti-Americanism that is present in all sections of Turkish society.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey Research Program at the Washington Institute, said Erdogan’s control over the Turkish media — a grip tightened after recent ownership changes — allowed the authorities to easily paint the United States as the villain.
“I think Erdogan has decided that while he did not want this crisis with the US to come to where it is, he is also going to use it,” he told AFP.
“Erdogan can shape the narrative domestically because he controls 90 percent of the media.
“He can now connect the economic crisis in Turkey, which is a result of his policies, to US sanctions solely.”
– ‘Plot against Turkey’ –
Well before Trump pushed the lira off the edge of a cliff on August 10 with a tweet that announced a doubling of steel and aluminium tariffs on Turkey, clouds had been gathering over the Turkish economy as inflation raced to almost 16 percent and the current account deficit widened.
Erdogan had also undermined confidence in the currency with repeated statements regarded as baffling by some market players.
He called interest rates the “mother and father of all evil” and said low interest rates were needed to bring inflation down.
And one month after winning a new mandate in elections, Erdogan stunned observers by naming his son-in-law Berat Albayrak, a former energy minister without financial market experience, to head a newly expanded finance ministry.
But once Trump triggered the crisis over the detention by Turkish authorities of US pastor Andrew Brunson, Erdogan was quick to denounce a “plot” that aimed to bring Turkey “to its knees”.
Meanwhile, pro-government media lined up to denounce what they termed an “economic coup”, comparing events to the failed putsch that sought to oust Erdogan in 2016.
– ‘Consolidate support’ –
Sinan Ulgen, president of the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy (Edam), said Erdogan’s strategy was “essentially to consolidate popular support at a time of economic crisis” by “minimising” the government’s responsibility.
And Erdogan’s rhetoric finds considerable echo throughout Turkish society, which has long been marked by a strong anti-American sentiment which only intensified after the failed putsch.
Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic preacher Turkey accuses of masterminding the coup bid, has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999 and this led many, including even some top Turkish officials, to insinuate a US hand in the coup.
The United States has rubbished such claims while Gulen insists he had no involvement in the failed putsch.
But anti-American rhetoric falls on fertile ground in Turkey, despite Ankara and Washington being NATO allies since 1952.
According to a poll conducted earlier this year by the Center for American Progress, the US is viewed favourably by just 10 percent of Turks, with 83 percent holding unfavourable views.
Erdogan, who has repeatedly been seen using Apple gadgets, even announced Turkey would boycott the iPhones of the US tech giant. Videos promptly appeared in social media showing Erdogan supporters gleefully smashing their iPhones.
Meanwhile, shots were fired on the US embassy in Ankara early on Monday although the government was quick to denounce a “provocation” and vow that the perpetrators would be brought to justice.
– ‘Just one person’ –
“With his actions, Donald Trump is hiding those who are truly to blame for the economic situation” in Turkey, said a European diplomat, who asked not to be named.
“And it is just one person who is preventing the central bank from acting and stopping the finance minister” from taking the necessary measures, added the diplomat, warning that Turkey was mistaken to think it could “take on the United States… especially President Donald Trump”.
On television and in newspapers, there is very little dissent from the government’s line, with economists who take a different view forced to air their views only on Twitter.
As long as there is no interest rate rise, “the ability of the central bank and finance ministry to reassure markets will be severely weakened,” said Ulgen.