After the USA, Turkey with its 775,000 strong armed forces is militarily the most important member of NATO. It is also the NATO member most strategically located sharing extended land borders with Syria, with hostile Kurdish militias, notably the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and with Iran all the way from Azerbaijan to Iraq, as well as having sea borders in common with Russia and Ukraine. Sales of natural gas, oil, grain and arms mean Russia has a moderate but significant dependency on export revenue from Turkey. Not surprisingly Putin has been wooing Erdoğan for many years.
Following its annexation of Crimea in early 2014, Russia’s military intervention in Syria from September 2015 added to the complexity of Turkey’s foreign relations. On the one hand, the USA was supporting Kurdish anti-Assad militias seen by Obama as the most effective force against ISIS in the region, but by Erdogan as a major threat as the PKK conducted separatist attacks in south-east Turkey with heavy casualties. On the other, the Crimea for Turks evoked the glory days of the Ottoman Empire. The local remnant of its indigenous Turkic ethnic group, the Tatars, persecuted and deported by Stalin, opposed the annexation and were suffering as a result. Erdoğan felt obliged to speak out against Russia’s annexation but avoided denouncing Putin, refused to join sanctions being imposed by most of NATO’s members and supported Turkish government officials whose shady deals with Iran had been breaking US sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
But if Russia and Turkey are in a marriage of convenience today, the failed 16 July 2016 military coup - which caught Erdoğan on holiday in the resort of Marmaris - should count as the moment Putin slipped on the engagement ring. Erdoğan narrowly missed being seized and overthrown but emerged from the crisis stronger than ever. He took advantage of enhanced public support to brand Hizmet, the Gülen movement, an extraordinarily successful and moderate Muslim organisation, as coup planners and terrorists, the perfect opportunity to destroy a powerful internal Islamic competitor with whom Erdoğan had once been allied (See ‘Erdogan’s Victory: The Decline of Democracy’ 30/05/2023). Hizmet is generally seen as pro-American and anti-Iranian. Fetullah Gülen, founder and inspiration of the movement, lived, and still lives, in exile in the Pocono Mountains near Saylorburg in Pennsylvania. The US refused Turkish requests to extradite him. The USA was also a little slow to forthrightly condemn the coup. Russia wasn’t. Erdoğan’s first foreign visit after the coup failed was to Moscow.
Putin proceeded with his courtship in October 2016 by returning Erdoğan’s visit coming away with an agreement to provide Turkey with natural gas courtesy of GAZPROM, the Russian majority state-owned giant gas corporation. A new pipeline costing some $11.4 billion dollars, would cross the Black Sea from Russia’s Krasnador region to Kiyiköy north of Istanbul. TurkStream was subsequently extended into the Balkans to sell Bulgaria and North Macedonia gas bypassing Ukraine and Romania. Erdoğan and Putin inaugurated flows in January 2020 in good time for anticipated US sanctions after Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.
Weapons play no small part in cementing Russia’s relationship with Turkey. American Patriot missiles deployed at Turkey’s Gaziantep 5th Armoured Brigade Command to protect the Turkish-Syrian border were withdrawn in October 2015 amidst rising US-Turkish tensions over US training and arming Kurdish guerrilla forces. In 2017, a year after the coup against Erdoğan, and after protracted and failed negotiations with Washington to supply the Raytheon Patriot missile system, Erdoğan stunned NATO by signing an agreement with Russia to buy its S-400 air-defence system. According to Maximilian Hess in Economic War: Ukraine and the Global Conflict between Russia and the West, Hurst 2023, by way of response the US dropped Turkey from ‘participation in its programme to develop the F-35 fifth generation fighter jet’, on the grounds that Russian missile technicians would get access to the technology in the state-of-the art plane.
President Trump initially blocked additional retaliatory sanctions under the US 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) but then implemented them in December 2020, during his last chaotic days. A better offer of Patriot missiles was made. The game continued with Turkey seeking more S-400 batteries from Russia. As Economic War says: “Russia had successfully developed its partnership with Turkey to increase its energy leverage over Europe through the TurkStream pipeline, and the West’s sanctions had failed to halt closer Russian-Turkish cooperation”.
During April this year the foundations were laid on the Turkish coast north of Cyprus for the Akkuyu nuclear power station, costing some $20 billion and comprised of four units of a Russian designed nuclear reactor. A joint enterprise between a subsidiary of the Russian State corporation, Rosatom, and a Turkish company, when finally constructed the reactors will provide 10% of Turkey’s energy needs. Talks on the building of another nuclear power station are taking place between Turkey, Russia and South Korea.
These snapshots of the relationship between Russia and Turkey, taken partly from Hess’ scholarly book (almost 40% of it made up of footnotes, bibliography and index), give some idea of the intense economic war that accompanies the fighting in Ukraine. As a new multi-polar global configuration of states comes to birth with the formation of new trading blocs, the hegemony of the US-led ‘West’ wanes. And as it does, the limited effectiveness of sanctions becomes more apparent. The US Treasury hasn’t even been able to grab Graceful in Germany, a yacht in which ‘Putin had an interest’. It was spirited back to Russia two weeks before the invasion of Ukraine and appropriately renamed Killer Whale.
The dollar retains its global power, but few surpass Erdoğan’s ability to manoeuvre between shifting alliances playing one side against the other. Visitors to Turkey, lured by promises of accessible dental treatment – a remarkable advertisement on London Overground trains – cheap holidays and expensive Catholic pilgrimages to Ephesus, might ponder Erdoğan’s choice of strategic partner on the world stage. At the least he is giving pragmatism a bad name.
See TheArticle 29.08.2023
What has gone wrong with Democracy and with our democracy here in Britain? Line up Trump and his followers, Putin’s Russia, Orban’s Hungary, Poland’s Law & Justice Party, the Brothers of Italy as well as Johnson’s popularity, rise and fall, and you can detect a certain commonality, a plausible story about the decline of democracy and the spread of authoritarian populism. That’s why Anne Applebaum’s slim Penguin volume “Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and The Parting of Friends”, first published in 2020, received rave reviews and an immediate reprint.
A savvy journalist - liberal in the US sense - Applebaum weaves friends’ political choices, and their subsequent changed relationships with her, into a wider analysis of the populist drift in Europe and the USA. And she does it very well. Twilight of Democracy provides an analysis of the fragmentation in the last decade of Centre-Right politics and the rise of right-wing authoritarianism. We have become accustomed to some of the proposed causes: the polarising role of social media, its deliberate manipulation to promote anger and resentment – and so more clicks - the ‘cascades of falsehood’, the conspiracy theories, ‘the desire to belong to a superior community’. Applebaum explores such explanations. But there is a further ‘why?’ lurking unexplored behind these factors.
Applebaum’s focus is inevitably on widespread generic causes given the great differences between the recent history of the different countries featured in her book. There is very little about the role of specific changes in countries’ political economy, the impact - both social and personal - of striking inequality giving rise to emotions and a mindset attracted to radical authoritarian change. Sometimes, as in the distinction she makes between ‘reflective’ and ‘restorative’ nostalgia – those who miss the past but don’t really want it back and those whose ‘cultural despair’ drives them to radical action to restore it - there are ideas that demand more consideration. A broad-brush approach can hide more than it reveals.
In Britain where a minority live very well, according to the Joseph Rowntree Association 4.1 million children, one in three in 2022, were living in poverty. Some 17% of households currently say they cannot afford any food at least one day a month whilst others are extraordinarily rich. Many must skip meals. But the coming years promise steady growth in fine dining restaurants. Such inequality generates anger and resentment that can be manipulated. Those so disadvantaged are offered scapegoats: immigrants, the EU, the ‘woke’ elite.
Some nine years ago, Fraser Nelson in the Spectator made telling comparisons between living standards in Britain and in the different US states. We came in at 49th out of 50 just ahead of the poorest state in the Union, Mississippi which has the lowest health, education, development and GDP per capita in the USA.
Will Hutton in a sobering opinion piece in the 13 August Observer writes about the consequences of persistent low productivity and low growth having become the norm. “Regions like the West Midlands, particularly economically linked to the EU, have been disproportionately badly hit”. National debt has trebled in the last twenty years with 10% of government tax revenue now going on debt servicing. And Hutton cites John Burn Murdoch (Financial Times 11 August) that if you remove London from average British per capita GDP, it falls by 14-15% to below that of Mississippi. By way of comparison removing the economic hub of Munich from German figures produces only a 1% overall drop. Britain has entrenched poverty, geographical as well as class-based, and outside London is, according to Will Hutton, “scarcely better off than middle-income developing countries.”
Unlike many accused of gloom-mongering – and I must sometimes include myself – Hutton seeks to tell the truth however gloomy but also to suggest remedies, in this instance enabling government to think beyond balancing the national books. He recommends splitting the Treasury into an Office for the Budget and an Economic Strategy Ministry, strengthening the UK Infrastructure Bank and British Business Bank and pushing our national £3.5 pension pot into supporting enterprise and risk. Net Zero and Levelling Up, he argues should form a central part of a national strategy for ‘leveraging’ new industry and technology. In the past we could ride out financial crises thanks to established trading relationships, first in the Empire and then in the EU. But now, Hutton writes, we do not have an “empire or the EU anchoring our trade. We are alone”.
Our particular “twilight of democracy” has its distinctive shadows. I remember years ago the then Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Patrick Kelly, saying to me: “I can’t see how democracy can work with a Press that misinforms. How are people to take informed decisions?” His point is even more pertinent when people are trapped within social media silos.
Applebaum is right to devote several pages to Johnson’s and Cummings’ malign works and pomps. We do share aspects of a common political pathology with other countries. But many of our institutions - most notably our legal system, our universities, the BBC and structures of local government - have held up despite attempts to undermine them and turn the public against them. Government erosion of our NHS, threatening now to crumble into a second-rate service for those unable to afford insurance or fees for private care, has not diminished the public’s attachment to the idea of health care and treatment free at the point of delivery.
But we have not dodged the bullet. The wounds to our society and economy, at least to date, are severe but not lethal.
See TheArticle 17/08/2023
Dear Mr. Sunak,
Now you are taking a well-earned holiday in California I hope you will use the time and space to think about your legacy. Legacy thoughts normally come at the end of a Prime Minister’s period in office but, to be realistic, the polls consistently point to your exit next year. The unfolding debacle since the BREXIT vote is unprecedented – much exacerbated by the pandemic and Putin’s war - and most voters have suffered.
Less than a year after being elected as an MP you wrote in February 2016 to your Richmond, Yorkshire, constituents: “It has been by the far [sic] the toughest decision I have had to make since becoming an MP, but on June 23 I will vote to leave the European Union”. In the game of political snakes and ladders over the last seven plus years, it proved a good career decision. From Parliamentary Private Secretary in 2017 to junior minister in 2018, you began a rapid climb up the political ladder that led to 10 Downing Street. You were one step away in 2020 as Boris Johnson’s Chancellor. And in 2022 you got there. But your BREXIT gamble no longer seems quite so rewarding.
The voices that preceded and promoted BREXIT, abandoning any attempt at truthful communication with the public about what really faced us on leaving, set the trend for politics. Now, with the greatest crisis ever facing the world, uncontrolled climate change, threatening human civilization, neither Conservative nor Labour leader dares describe the gravity of the situation, its consequences, and tell us what must urgently be done.
The nub of the problem is the way our interconnected challenges are presented. The diverse channels of information, notably the right-wing Press and social media, and our complex demographic divisions, the unsaid ‘well, we’ll not be alive to see it’ versus ‘why are you sacrificing our future for electoral gain?’ lie behind today’s gas-lighting and irrationality. What better example than the 28 July Daily Mail editorial framing political conflict as “the concerns of ordinary people” versus “the virtue signalling obsessions and orthodoxies of the woke elite”. According to Britain’s most read newspaper this inglorious binary is the way we should interpret the dilemmas we face.
Are the forty or so backbench Tory extremist MPs, notably the anti-Net Zero group led by Craig Williams MP who breathe down your neck, ‘ordinary’? OK, perhaps more ‘ordinary’ than you, a multi-millionaire - that of course is a vulnerability for you. Is worrying aloud by grandparents about the world they and governments are bequeathing to their children and grandchildren a ‘virtue signaling obsession’? Or is it a rational and moral human response to an avoidable global catastrophe, an awareness that Government must wake up and act urgently?
‘Woke’ was originally African-American slang to describe waking up to the need to do something about racial prejudice and discrimination. It now extends to virtually any view that discomforts the comfortable. Combating climate change is very discomforting. The changes required to mitigate its consequences are even more discomforting. So, hey, how about politicising the whole thing and perhaps saving some Conservative seats.
A Labour Mayor is doing something effective about improving air quality? Time to speak out on behalf of polluting vehicle-owners. Or should that be ‘ordinary’ polluters? It worked in Uxbridge. The Labour Party is committed to a serious level of investment in solar, wind and wave renewable energy. So let’s sign off on a hundred or so licenses for coal and gas drilling in and around Britain, but not let on that we currently export 80% of our production. Tell the public it's about avoiding costly imports in the future, though keep quiet that wherever the source – and that includes the remaining North Sea oil and gas – the energy companies will be selling on international markets at an internationally determined price. And boosting their prodigious profits. Clear blue water between the Parties.
As the Tories in Uxbridge kept saying the least well off will suffer the most from measures to protect the environment, not adding that only if such measures are accompanied by effective poverty alleviation will necessary changes in the way we live become acceptable to the ‘ordinary’ voter. The truth is that transition to net zero could be made far less painful if an unprecedented priority were given to renewables; we see this beginning to happen in the USA where significant state spending and focused scientific endeavour to stop global warming are supported by government. Your modest beginnings funding carbon capture have been applauded but they do not fit into a vision of necessary and beneficial economic change, rather a fantasy vision in which the need for radical change is eliminated.
When BBC News leads on Nigel Farage’s Coutts bank account with apocalyptic warnings from leading climate scientists and the UN secretary-general coming second, something has gone very wrong with our national priorities. We had intimations with Michael Gove’s dismissing experts who foretold tears before bedtime if voters chose BREXIT: “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”. Then came the Covid anti-vaxxers peddling conspiracy theories about the medical profession. Now we have climate scientists dropped into the ‘woke elite’ bag.
Is it too difficult for you, Mr Sunak, to tell the public we face a global and therefore a national emergency, and then talk to the other Party leaders with the aim of agreeing a joint position on the way forward?Your legacy, as a Prime Minister without a personal electoral mandate, could be that of a man who read the signs of the times, rose to the occasion, and by acting decisively on climate change defeated the current national helplessness. Get rid of those advisors who, given their head, would turn you into Trump-lite. Or history will see you as the man who frittered away the vital, fast-vanishing time left to rescue the planet, leaving you a trivial footnote to thirteen deplorable years of Tory rule.
See TheArticle 04/08/2023