Turkey’s aggression towards its rivals and allies alike is posing a threat to regional stability, yet nobody is prepared to act.
Much opprobrium has been heaped in recent days on the “elective dictatorship” of Alexander Lukashenko and his violently fraudulent bid to secure a sixth term as president of Belarus. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, led a chorus of condemnation, rejecting last Sunday’s poll as “neither free nor fair”.
Yet Europe’s righteous wrath and sanctions threats seem a tad confected. Nobody really expected Lukashenko to play fair. Democratic reform in Belarus, a country firmly stuck in Russia’s orbit, is not an EU priority. There is no discernible appetite for the kind of robust intervention that might actually make a difference.
Europe’s harsh public criticism of Lukashenko contrasts sharply with its reluctance to openly denounce the latest aggressive machinations in the eastern Mediterranean of another elective dictatorship, that of Turkey’s long-entrenched leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Turkey is a Nato member, key EU trade partner, border gatekeeper and influential actor in Syria and the Near East. Unlike Belarus, it has real strategic importance. Perhaps that explains the awkward silence of many governments, including the UK’s. It does not excuse it.
All the same, there is one telling similarity with EU policy towards Belarus: there is little sign of concerted action to curb Erdoğan’s excesses. Anybody who doubts the “dictator” tag need look no further than Erdoğan’s repressive new social media law, which replicates his evisceration of traditional independent media. The law will greatly increase online censorship, said Tom Porteous of Human Rights Watch. “An autocracy is being constructed by silencing all critical voices.”
In his approach to Turkey, as in other respects, Emmanuel Macron is an exception to the European rule. France’s president was enraged in June when Turkish warships, escorting a vessel suspected of smuggling arms to Libya, went to battle stations when challenged by a lone French frigate, obliging the latter to withdraw. This was not the behaviour of a supposed ally. Further incensed by Turkey’s expanding oil and gas exploration operations in Greek territorial waters, Macron sent naval reinforcements to the eastern Mediterranean last week and told Erdoğan to back off.
Both Greece and Turkey have mobilised their navies and air forces. Turkey claims current international law governing continental shelf energy deposits is unjust. Greece says its territory is being invaded. Both claim to prefer dialogue to military confrontation. But on Thursday, as Ankara vowed to defend its “rights and interests” and Athens warned of the growing danger of a military “accident”, two Greek and Turkish ships collided.
The escalating crisis, which also touches Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, provoked a belated flurry of diplomatic activity last week. The EU foreign affairs council met in extraordinary session. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, got on the phone to Erdoğan as she has in previous crises, trying to talk him down. Athens appealed to the US.