Turkey’s promised reforms could recast US relations under Biden administration

President Erdogan has promised a series of economic, democratic and judicial reforms that could ease relations with the incoming US President

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks following a cabinet meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Turkey is re-introducing a series of restrictions, including partial weekend lockdowns, in a bid to slow the surge of COVID-19 cases in the country. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)
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Promises to reform Turkey’s judiciary and economy, as well as pledges to address democratic shortfalls, have come as Ankara looks to recalibrate its relationship with a new resident in the White House when Joe Biden, the president-elect takes office in January.

Since the resignation of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s finance minister and son-in-law earlier this month, senior government figures have signalled a switch in the approach to the economy and other areas where Turkey has come under sustained international criticism.

“We are launching a brand new mobilisation in the economy, judiciary and democracy,” the president told a meeting of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at the weekend, adding: “The message to the world is extremely important.”

Many see these so-far unspecified reforms in light of Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential race.

While Mr Erdogan has mostly had a good relationship with President Donald Trump, Mr Biden is regarded in Ankara as a potentially much trickier counterpart.

Although Mr Trump hit Turkey with sanctions two years ago over the jailing of an American pastor, he has generally behaved as a friend to Mr Erdogan.

Mr Trump has resisted calls from the US Congress for sanctions to be imposed over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles last year and has reportedly tried to intervene in the prosecution of Turkey’s state-run Halkbank over alleged breaches of sanctions on Iran.

“I get along with him and he listens,” Mr Trump said in September of his relationship with the Turkish leader.

Sightline with Tim Marshall: Erdogan's bid to rid Turkey of Ataturk's legacy

Sightline with Tim Marshall: Erdogan's bid to rid Turkey of Ataturk's legacy

Mr Biden, however, has criticised Turkey’s slide away from the rule of law and democratic practices. In an interview last December, which was revived in Turkey’s pro-government media over the summer, he called Mr Erdogan an “autocrat” and pledged support to Turkey’s opposition.

Edward Stafford, a former US diplomat who served in Ankara, said human rights would be a “more prominent” feature of Mr Biden’s foreign policy.

“In the near future, we can expect members of Biden’s administration to speak out in defence of a free press, of peaceful assembly, association and for equal rights for racial, ethnic and social minorities,” he said.

A sign of Turkey exploring ways to connect with Mr Biden’s team came in reports this week that Turkish representatives had met lobbyists promising access to the new administration.

According to Yasar Yakis, a founding member of the AKP and a former foreign minister, the era of Mr Erdogan’s easy access to the White House is “coming to a close.”

Turkey’s former finance minister, Berat Albayrak, had played a prominent role in Ankara’s back-channel diplomacy in Washington through his friendship with Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s adviser and another presidential son-in-law.

However, common interests between the two countries would mean seeking a compromise.

“Whether Washington likes it or not, Ankara is an important player in the Middle East,” Mr Yakis said. “Thus, despite the incoming Biden administration’s misgivings about Erdogan, the two countries will probably find common ground to protect their reciprocal interests.”

In addition to an economic approach seemingly designed to entice foreign investors and placate international markets, the promised reforms also hint at tackling concerns about the rule of law.

Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul last week suggested a review of pre-trial detention, a practice that has seen thousands of government opponents jailed.

Meanwhile, a handful of government-supporting newspaper columnists this week called for the release of philanthropist Osman Kavala and writer Ahmet Altan, two of Turkey’s most prominent prisoners held on charges widely regarded as politically motivated.

As well as having an eye to developments in the US, Mr Erdogan’s reforms are also viewed as a way of soothing his own supporters’ concerns, particularly over the economy.

The new team heading the economy – Mr Albayrak’s November 8 resignation as finance minister followed the sacking of the central bank governor a day earlier – have said they will focus on tackling an inflation rate of nearly 12 per cent.

This was evidenced on Thursday when the bank announced a hike in interest rates to 15 per cent, a swivel away from the unorthodox economic mantra espoused by Mr Erdogan, and implemented by Mr Albayrak, that high interest rates lead to inflation.

Personnel changes at the top of the economic pyramid came amid reports that AKP members and even MPs disillusioned with the management of the economy were considering defecting to parties recently established by former AKP ministers.

The appointment of Lutfi Elvan, an ex-minister who has not held office for more than two years, to the finance ministry was a sign that “the AKP is aware of the discomfort, because of Albayrak, within the party and the possibility some of the deputies might shift,” according to journalist Murat Yetkin.

However, attempts to burnish the government’s image, both in Washington and at home, have created fresh doubts.

Mehmet Ihsan Arslan, a close adviser to Mr Erdogan who is well connected in Washington, told BBC Turkish that reforms suggested “a problem with our policies to date. It’s a confession.”