Like two peas in a pod: that’s the impression Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave last week when they cozied up in Budapest. Erdoğan met Orbán for the second time in a row in a span of few weeks; the duo was just together on October 15 at the Turkic Council meeting held in Baku.
Erdoğan and Orbán have long been compared to one other as examples of populist leaders in power, and Turkish-Hungarian relations have been increasingly harmonious at the leadership level. However, the Budapest meeting on November 7 marked zenith of warm bilateral relations between the two countries. The official occasion for the visit was the 4th Turkey-Hungary High Level Strategic Cooperation Council, but the underlying reason was obviously to convey a message of “strength” to Europe and beyond.
The “Turkey-Hungary High Level Strategic Cooperation Council” was a mechanism established back in 2013 back when Erdoğan was the Prime Minister. The council had remained basically defunct up until now; its meetings were held only every two years, and nothing very “strategic” was ever achieved.
Bilateral relations have been getting closer since the failed coup attempt in 2016, though. Orban swiftly sent Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó to Ankara weeks after the July 15 coup attempt, while other EU countries were not as keen as Hungary to pay solidarity visits to Erdoğan. In return, Turkey has been raising its “cultural presence” in Hungary: the Yunus Emre Cultural Center is one of the biggest and by far the swankiest foreign cultural institute in Budapest, with its plush historical building purchased by the Turkish state, located at one of the most prestigious and expensive parts of Budapest, Andrássy Avenue. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) has been sponsoring “Kurultáj” (Kurultay) since 2016, a convention of nomadic games that celebrates Central Asian roots and traditions. Ankara engaged in a project to restore the historical Gül Baba Tomb, dating back to 16th century Ottoman rule, and the tomb was inaugurated in October 2018 with Erdoğan in attendance.
But starting about a month ago, Turkish-Hungarian relations have been rejuvenated with a completely new zest, and have become “strategic” for the first time. Hungary has been the only country to unconditionally and vocally stand by Turkey’s Peace Spring Military Operation in northern Syria since it was initiated on October 9. Hungary also went as far as to slow down the European Union’s process of condemning the operation: Foreign Minister Szijjártó confirmed that he blocked the issuing of an EU statement of condemnation “for a long time.” As I have written before, Szijjártó subsequently skipped the EU meeting discussing an arms embargo for Turkey, and instead headed to Baku with Orbán to show off at the Turkic Council Meeting.
At this meeting, Orbán once again endorsed the “common ancestry” of Hungarians and Turkic peoples, and said that, “given the admirable achievements of the Turkic countries, calling Hungarians an Eastern people is now a form of praise.” At the 2018 meeting of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, Orbán reiterated that “Hungarians see themselves as the late descendants of Attila the Hun, and the country’s citizens are proud of their Hun-Turkic origins and their language, which is related to the Turkic languages.” In March 2019, speaking at a conference organized by the Hungarian Turan Foundation, Orbán described Hungary as “Christian Turkish lands.” He argued that Hungarians are “Kipchak Turks” — descendants of a Turkic tribe originating in Central Asia — and that Attila the Hun is the common ancestor of both Turks and Hungarians; this is why Hungary is a “Christian Turkish land.”
On the one hand, emphasizing a shared “Hun-Turkic ancestry” fits perfectly into Orbán’s “Eastern Opening.” He claims that “the old world order – with its dogma that capital and knowledge flow from West to East in search of cheap labor – has come to an end” and that “the new world order is fundamentally determined by the development of the rising states of the East.” Orbán likes to tie his arguments of Turkic historical affinity to what might be termed the “rise of new powers that take strength from their inherent greatness.” For example, he argued that the Gül Baba tomb serves “a reminder of the two nations’ greatness, and an admonition that today we must rise to that level of greatness.”
Because “Turanism,” the ideology that claims to unite peoples originating from Central Asia (the “Turan” land), was created in the 19th century by Hungarians, Orbán’s references to shared Turkic roots are not that novel. However, it is still curious as to why he is using the jargon and ideas of the Hungarian Turans because the ideology was also instrumentalized by the fascist Arrow Cross Party that governed in 1944-45 in collaboration with the Nazis. More recently, Hungary’s far-right populist party Jobbik used such Turanic references. However, the ideology itself does not have much resonance among contemporary Hungarian people.
It is also interesting how Erdoğan’s rhetoric about opening Turkey’s borders to push Syrian refugees towards Europe drew no criticism from the most anti-refugee Prime Minister in the EU. Erdoğan repeated that he is ready to open the gates to let millions of refugees to flee to Europe during his recent visit to Budapest. Orbán supported Erdoğan’s view, stating that, “Without Turkey, you cannot stop migration headed for Europe … As a consequence of this, Hungary is a strategic partner of Turkey in security and migration questions.” At the end of the day, the gist of the Erdoğan-Orbán camaraderie is displaying an image of strength to the EU. Their policies regarding Europe, popular domestically, aim to push their own agenda at the expense of Brussels.
Last but not least, it is ironic how Turkey has become an item on the domestic political agenda for the Hungarian public: while Erdoğan and Orbán team up, Budapest’s newly elected mayor from the opposition camp, Gergely Karácsony, visited Istanbul’s newly elected mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu prior to the local elections in Hungary to get tactical advice. İmamoğlu and Karácsony sang each other’s praises, and met up at the Bundestag in Germany to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall — just two days after the Erdoğan-Orbán meeting.
For an excellent book on Hungarian Turanism for reference, check out Taık Demirkan’s “Macar Turancıları” (Hungarian Turanists), printed by Tarih Vakfı — available only in Turkish for now.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak several European leaders have called launching an all-encompassing Marshall Plan-style public investment program to mitigate the economic impact. Turkey was a part of the Marshall Plan as it was automatically considered to be a part of Europe and the Western bloc back in 1951. How about now?
Hungary’s new “COVID-19 State of Emergency Law” allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. he COVID-19 crisis may pass, but the dagger in the back is there to stay. And Hungary’s new legislative turn may prove to be the real “epidemic”: draconian systemic changes going viral.
Schengen is one casualty of COVID-19, but not the only one. The European Stability Pact, which requires member states to uphold a less than three percent budget deficit is another casualty. The EU had to lift the budget cap on March 20, guarded by the European Stability Pact.
Is the first casualty of the coronavirus the European Union itself? There are now more confirmed cases of coronavirus globally than there are in China, and Europe has been defined as the “epicenter of epidemic crisis” by the World Health Organization. And when it comes to facing the crisis, it’s almost as though the European Union does not exist as an institution.
Money is an important part of the issue for Ankara; but so is its safe zone plan. The polls indicated that the public supported the military incursion into Northern Syria first and foremost because they believed that a safe zone for Syrian refugees to return may be created. As Turkey’s public opinion sours vehemently on the refugee issue, the “promise of sending back the Syrian refugees” is political gold in terms of returns in political capital.
This is our darkest hour with Europe and the European Union. And I do not think that either the public in Turkey or Turkish politicians in general are aware of the grimness of the situation. Turkey’s public psyche has gone berserk with all sorts of negative emotions, and are unable to recognize that relations with Europe are completely wrecked beyond repair.
While Ankara may not receive the solid backing from NATO that Turkey is seeking against Russia now, dialogue channels with NATO are stronger compared to other international institutions — for example, the European Union. Despite all the conflicts of interest and tensions that Turkey and European states, as well as Ankara and Washington, have endured, their links with NATO are still intact.
In Turkey’s case, beyond Ankara and Erdoğan’s foreign policy line, perceptions are changing, and the West is clearly not winning when it comes to public perception. A recent survey by MetroPOLL showed that Russia is the “most trusted country” in Turkey, followed by Japan, China, and Hungary, respectively. While love of Japan and Hungary extend back to Ottoman times and might be due to imagined cultural affinities, trust in Russia and China are novel developments in Turkey.
Várhelyi’s statement on a “revised methodology” for EU enlargement and the official document for this new approach do not even refer to Turkey. Or, in other words, as far as enlargement is concerned, Turkey is not remotely on the mind of the EU.
Since March 2018, obtaining a visa through the Ankara Agreement got increasingly harder. The UK Home Office made an unexpected announcement at midnight on March 16, 2018; declaring that new applications will not be accepted until further notice.Real impact of Brexit over Turkey may be on trade front though: Britain has signed 18 free trade agreements with 55 countries so far.
2020 seems already to be ridden with unexpected crises erupting all around the world: Turkey had to face one of its worst fears, an earthquake. The warmest responses came from the EU countries with which Turkey has the coldest relations: France, and at a far warmer level, Greece.
One of the most tangible outcomes of the Berlin Conference turned out to be worsening Greek and Turkey relations. Already the Eastern Mediterranean question was the elephant in the room in relations between two countries; now the state of crisis has become permanent and “East Med” issue is right in middle of everything. Troubles with Greece will lead to worsening of already dreadful relations between Turkey and the European Union institutions, too.
U.S.-Greece relations are on track despite Trump’s reluctance to condemn Ankara. Perhaps military sales compensate for that by producing tangible results that reduce Greece’s anxieties concerning Turkey.
Clear goal of the EU and the major European states is saving the nuclear deal. As Trump was threathening to bomb 52 sites in Iran in allusion to the same number of diplomats taken the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, the EU’s new foreign policy chief Josep Borrell invited Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Brusells. However, at the moment, there seems to be no clear European vision ahead or roadmap.
If I had one way to describe this year, it would be “bittersweet. While I am more optimistic about Europe in general, I am less optimistic about Turkey and Greece as we slowly step into 2020.
Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? Looking at Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Istanbul’s determined struggle for “freedom”; it looks like we will comeback to this question more and more in 2020-and beyond.
Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a formal comeback on Dec. 13 with the new party he founded, the “Future Party.” Former Finance Minister Ali Babacan’s new party is counting down the days to its launch and is due to take off either by the end of December or in the early days of January. There is also a surprise movement making its debut in Turkey: the pan-European movement DiEM25-Democracy in Europe Movement 2025.
While Turkey’s public clearly stands by the protection of human rights, they do not actively engage in any tangible act to actually support human rights organizations. They are neither willing to donate nor take part in advocacy campaigns.
At first glance, Turkey may seem to be missing the “climate activism” heyday that’s on-going in Europe. Afterall, it is not the best of the times for any sort of grassroots activism in Turkey. But if you probe deeper, you will come across a diligent and robust climate activist movement budding all over the country.
According to Sept. 2019 data, almost 90% of the public believes that violence against women has increased in recent times. And the public holds the judiciary and the political sphere culpable for increasing violence against women. Around 65% believe that the judiciary is not working effectively when it comes to cases violence against women, and 66% think that politicians are not doing enough to prevent such cases.
As Budapest’s new mayor (and also a political scientist by profession) Karácsony pointed out, maybe the cities are winning at the expense of the populist center specifically because “the correct answer is to strengthen representative democracy, complement this with the institutions which are part of the participative democracy and involve people more in decision-making.”
The speed at which Germany’s “international safe zone plan” was thrown off the table was only matched by the speed at which it was proposed in the first place. While the proposal became passé almost as soon as it hit the headlines, it was useful for one thing: reflecting on the current state of political affairs in Germany and the relationship between Germany and Turkey.
All eyes were on Ankara’s relations with Washington after Turkey launched its “Operation Peace Spring,” and speculation abounded that the once-allies had parted ways for good. But in fact it is Turkey’s relations with the EU and Europe that took the real and probably most lasting blow.