While all eyes in Washington are on the impeachment process ensnaring President Donald Trump, a bill entitled “Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS Act of 2019” passed the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The bill underscores the U.S. government’s concern about Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia and proposes sanctions that would, if imposed, gravely harm Turkey’s already fragile economy. 

In response to this threat, the Erdoğan administration has threatened the U.S. with the closure of the İncirlik Air Base in Adana and Kürecik Radar Station in the south eastern province of Malatya, two facilities of great geostrategic importance.  The “Mexican standoff” between bilateral high stakes (sanctions vs. the closure of military bases) may result in an irreversible divorce. 

Secularism and Eurasianism

Why is Erdoğan insisting on pursuing this hostile line with Turkey’s “eternal ally”? A comprehensive answer to this question has been put forward by the “Eurasianists”, who were first mentioned in the Turkish context in a 2003 report by the U.S. ambassador to Ankara of the time to the State Department, which Wikileaks published in 2011. The report, entitled “The Turkish General Staff: A Fractious and Sullen Political Coalition”, states that there are three factions in the Turkish military: Atlanticists, Nationalists and Eurasianists. The ambassador observed that Eurasianists and Nationalists act together and they are close to Russia, while the Atlanticists are pro-West, loyal to NATO and the European Union. 

This fragile coalition collapsed with the launch of the Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations in 2007, both being probes into allegations of a plot to stage a secularist military coup. The Nationalist/Eurasian wing, as described by the report, was liquidated through the detention of hundreds of military personnel of all ranks. The AKP government stood behind this comprehensive operation at the time. By 2016, however, the tides were reversed. This time, followers of Fethullah Gülen, who allegedly allied themselves with the Atlanticist elements in the military, attempted to stage a military coup. 

The quelling of this coup and the subsequent consolidation of the AKP’s rule necessitated, according to some observers, a rapprochement between two former enemies: secularists (consisting of Nationalists and Eurasianists) on the one side, and the AKP government on the other. In other words, the July 15 2016 coup attempt led to the Turkish state’s recourse to its unitarian/nationalist kernel, encased in a pro-Islamist AKP shell.

Eurasianist gurus: Maoism meets Putinism 

Eurasianists, as championed by their self-styled leader, Doğu Perinçek – head of the left leaning nationalist Homeland Party – argue that since 2016 the AKP has been transformed to adopt their strategic position. Perinçek argues that he is the main architect of this transformation. In turn the Eurasianist/Nationalists have also compromised their hard-line secularism to recognize religious affiliations as part of national unity. The Eurasians’ main task is to maintain existing nation-states, the gravest threat to which is “separatism” encouraged by the form of democratization imposed by the Atlanticists.

Perinçek was among the first Turkish Maoists from the 1960s. In the leftwing environment of the late 1960s and 1970s, he led a movement which saw the main threat to Turkish society as coming from Soviet Union’s “social imperialism”. In the decades that followed, Perinçek’s position evolved to initially see the Islamist revival as the major threat, with the direction of the main threat later changing to “Kurdish separatism.”

Since his first appearance in late 1960s, Perinçek has maintained a small group of followers, but his discourse has always reached far beyond his limited constituency. Currently, Perinçek in his daily newspaper (Aydınlık) and his TV channel (Ulusal Kanal) constantly preaches that he leads the Eurasian wing of the Turkish state. As evidence of his influence, he emphasizes his relationship with the eccentric Russian political analyst Alexandr Dugin.

Dugin is a passionate supporter of Vladimir Putin and his version of Eurasianism preaches the protection of the nation-states against Atlanticist currents of globalization. He argues that Russia, Iran and Turkey should form a territorial alliance as neighboring states and this alliance should expand towards the neighbors of neighbors through the continents. National or religious differences such as Persian, Turkish or Muslim are not important in this alliance. The ultimate aim is to form a geographical unity that would include the continents of Asia and Europe.

The deep state and the new strategy

Eurasianists argue that Turkish state is in the process of elaborating a new “official ideology” and strategy along these lines. This, they argue, has become possible with Erdoğan’s reconciliation with the Turkish “deep state” which is seen as nationalist and Eurasianist in its core. The de facto coalition between the one time rivals the pro-Islamist AKP and ultra-nationalist MHP is explained in terms of this Eurasian alliance.

The Eurasianist analysis of the shift in Erdoğan’s policy towards a nationalist, anti-Kurdish and pro-Russian strategy since 2015 is hopefully an exaggerated over-interpretation. In fact many sceptics warn against Perinçek’s megalomania, arguing that he presents an inflated image of himself by recruiting retired generals and colonels to his Homeland Party. They observe that in real life, the sole contact Perinçek has had with Erdoğan so far was in the wake of the July 15 coup attempt, when he handed over a list of pro-NATO officers to be purged from the military, which his clandestine elements in the army had prepared. 

Such scepticism generates some relief and comfort but what if the Eurasianist claims are true? If Erdoğan’s current challenge to the American sanctions is not simply a bluff, but the expression of a strategic decision, then there is all more reason to be concerned for Turkey’s imminent future.