Birol Yesilada (Ph.D. 1984, University of Michigan) is Professor of Political Science and International Studies, holds an endowed chair in Contemporary Turkish Studies, and is Director of the Center for Turkish Studies in Portland State University Hatfield School of Government. He teaches courses on the European Union, International Political Economy, Decision-making, and Turkish Politics. Previously, he was Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Professor Yesilada is the principal investigator for the World Values Survey project in Cyprus and has served as Co-editor-in-Chief of International Studies Perspectives and Associate Editor of The Middle East Studies Bulletin. His books include: EU-Turkey Relations in the 21st Century (Routledge: 2013), Islamization of Turkey Under AKP Rule (co-edited with Barry Rubin, Routledge: 2012), Comparative Political Parties and Party Elites: Essays in Honor of Samuel J. Eldersveld (University of Michigan Press, 1998), and The Emerging European Union (with David M. Wood, 5th ed. Longman: 2010). He has published numerous journal articles and book chapters on European Integration, Human Development Dynamics Theory, International Political Economy, Political Development in Turkey, Political Islam, Cyprus Problem, and Foreign Policymaking. His most recent research projects include World Values Survey, Power Transition Theory, Rise of Islamist Political Forces in Turkey, and the EU-Turkey Relations. Professor Yesilada has been a consultant to various policy think-tanks and agencies of the U.S. Government, Baclays Capital, Booz Allen Hamilton, Nathan Associates, and the World Bank. An active Rotarian for 20 years, he was Co-Chair and Organizer of Rotary District 5100 Peace Conference in June 2012.
Professor Birol Yeşilada
Ahmet Ceylan: Professor Yeşilada, problems in Turkish-American relations reached its peak with Turkey’s decision to buy Russian made S-400 air missile defense system. However, it is also interesting to note that there is a great difference between U.S. President Donald Trump’s and U.S. Congress’ approaches to Turkey. How do you evaluate the current situation and the future of Turkish-American relations?
Birol Yeşilada: This development in US-Turkey relations is nothing less than a severe train wreck. In my opinion, it is a grave error for the AKP government to buy the Russian missiles. Regardless of these missiles capabilities, it is important to keep in mind that their usefulness in Turkey’s defense will be limited as they cannot be integrated with the existing air defense system which is NATO-based. More so, it is quite risky to house these missiles in a NATO country where the new generation stealth fighter aircraft will be stationed. While there are so many superficial discussions going on about this purchase, one thing that is ignored in the media. The S-400 has a direct digital link to Russian military databases on potential threats. If this system becomes operational in Turkey, and Turkey also flies the F-35s, Russia will be able to obtain the essential data it needs to undermine NATO’s new airforce and make the $500 billion JSF Program obsolete. I hear so many “experts” make the argument that other NATO countries have S-300s and this is not a problem for NATO and so, why is S-400 is a big deal? Well, the S-300 and its radar system are more than 20-30 years old – obsolete.
Moreover, it is correct to say that the Obama Administration refused to sell Patriot missiles to Turkey but probably due to the terms asked by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump, on the other hand, is willing to sell them. Does this mean that there is a change of heart for the Trump Administration? That is a complex issue as the Administration, and the Congress do not see eye to eye on this and most other matters. President Trump will say and do whatever he pleases from one day to the next. Congress is split along political interests (local politics). Lobbies are playing a pivotal role in influencing positions of the Congressmen and Senators. So, we might see some level of sanctions imposed on Turkey by the Trump Administration. In my opinion, the purchase of these Russian missiles goes far beyond a mere sales transaction. It is a crucial development cleverly designed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to put a wedge between Turkey and the USA, and therefore, between Turkey and NATO. It is an attempt to weaken the Western Alliance by pretending to be a friend of Turkey. It is a well-designed plan with long-term implications, and President Erdogan has taken the bait. The net loser will be Turkey – strategically as well as economically. Economic costs of losing co-production of F-35s as well as any additional sanctions that could be forthcoming could have adverse effects on the Turkish economy. If the sanctions include the banking sector, that would be devastating.
Contrary to others’ claims that Turkey could find viable markets elsewhere, like Russia, this is not very convincing at all. Overwhelming dependence on Western markets and technologies cannot be replaced overnight. The Turkish manufacturing sector depends on technology obtained from Western partners as well as her defense sector industries. Whereas the domestic defense sector is growing, most of the critical technologies are still either co-production or licensed through Western industries.
Ahmet Ceylan: Recently Turkish government established Cyprus Affairs Coordinatorship (Kıbrıs İşleri Koordinatörlüğü) mechanism and Turkish Vice President Mr. Fuat Oktay is appointed as the Coordinator. Eastern Mediterranean has become a tense geography after the recent gas discoveries and gas deals without Turkey’s approval (the country that has longest shore in the Eastern Mediterranean) and Turkish Cypriots’ involvement. We have also seen a government change in Greece most recently. How do you see the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean?
Birol Yeşilada: In my view, Turkey’s position in this matter is quite to the point and well-founded. Cyprus (ROC) and Greece unilaterally declared EEZs (exclusive economic zone) in the region and have embarked on an international campaign to set a fait accompli for Turkey and TRNC. The EU has given them verbal support and has asked Turkey to reverse course. That is expected as these two countries are members of the EU. I do not see the EU doing anything more than a verbal statement. There is no international agreement about these disputed EEZs. Turkey has every right to show its determination to protect its interests. The fact of the matter is, the most cost-effective way of bringing natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to European markets is through Turkey. Everything else that is being discussed is far more expensive and may make the entire effort economically unfeasible. The best option is to build pipelines from Israel and Egypt to Cyprus and from there to Turkey. It makes sense to use Turkey’s vast pipeline system and its location to get the product to the EU market as well as to Turkey itself – a major importer of natural gas and could reduce dependence on Russia. This option is the cheapest and most sensible among all possibilities, but the Cyprus Problem (Cyprus Dispute) stands in the way of its realization. I will keep my eye on the moves of American oil companies to see if there is any potential movement that could be indicative of market players’ preferences. This matter cannot be resolved unless each side is willing to come to the negotiation table and set aside zero-sum demands.
Ahmet Ceylan: In Turkey, in recent months, there are discussions about Turkey’s dependency on Russia especially in the field of natural gas. The main opposition party CHP’s leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu even said that “During our whole history, we haven’t been dependent on Russia as today”. Do you think Turkey could create a new equilibrium by developing its relations with Russia without spoiling its relations with the West?
Birol Yeşilada: The only time Russia (rather the Soviet Union) was a friend of Turkey was during the War of Independence when Lenin provided support for Ataturk against Western Imperialist powers. The Friendship Agreement signed between the newly established Republic of Turkey and the Soviet Union on 16 December 1925 was unilaterally abrogated by Joseph Stalin on 19 March 1945. Furthermore, Stalin demanded territorial concessions for USSR and Bulgaria and joint control of Bosphorus and Dardanelles! That was the start of the Cold War as far as Turkey was concerned – before the official Cold War between the East and West. To understand how and why Turkey joined NATO, one ought to take a look at the Truman Doctrine of 1947. Russian interest in the control of Turkish Straits and access to the Mediterranean is nothing new. To rely on Russia as a friend or worse, and ally would be a serious mistake. There is an old rule in International Politics that goes like this: Never ally with the bully next door, which means that you end up being swallowed by the bully. Another lesson of history is simple: Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. I have serious concerns about the dangerous foreign policy decision of the current Turkish government. It is quite clear that President Erdogan’s vision for Turkey is very different than previous pro-Western and secular leaders. That said, looking north and east (Russia and perhaps China) as President Erdogan’s Eurasian allies have called for is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The competition between the giants (USA-EU versus China-Russia) is not something that can be manipulated easily by President Erdogan and his advisors. Eventually, they will end up losing badly in this game. Consequences for Turkey could be unimaginable.
Ahmet Ceylan: Professor Yeşilada, thank you for sharing your views with us.