ANKARA: Turkey’s latest arrest wave targeting former admirals who signed a critical night-time declaration has stirred debate over whether the crackdown is a result of the country’s “Eurasianist shift.”
On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused 104 former navy commanders of trying to stage a “political coup” through an open letter that criticized the government’s new 45 kilometer-long artificial waterway, dubbed Kanal Istanbul, and its immediate impact on the 1936 Montreux Convention that regulates the traffic of warships in the Istanbul strait.
Among the signatories, the most notable name was Cem Gurdeniz, the mastermind of Turkey’s controversial maximalist maritime doctrine, known as Blue Homeland.
Gurdeniz, who has been held in police custody since Monday, is a well-known member of the prominent Eurasianist faction within the Turkish military. The group advocates an anti-Western strategy, and stronger relations with Russia and China.
Dr. Berk Esen, a political scientist from Sabanci University in Istanbul, said that the admirals’ statement came at a critical juncture when the Erdogan administration is recalibrating its position in the international arena.
“Over the last few years, the Turkish government has sought closer ties with authoritarian regimes like Russia and Qatar to draw support for its revisionist steps in the wider region,” he told Arab News.
In response to Western criticism against undemocratic Turkish politics, Esen said that some Turkish government officials have gathered support from retired officers and analysts belonging to the Eurasianist faction.
For several years, the Eurasianist movement has pushed Turkey’s leadership toward a rapprochement with Russia and China. It has been rumored that the faction has acquired significant clout in the government, letting it shape the direction of Turkey’s foreign and security policies.
The predominant ideology of the Eurasianists, who originated in the Turkish far-left, is based on an anti-Western foreign policy coupled with ultra-nationalism in the domestic sphere.
They advocate for leaving NATO and abandoning the EU candidacy process in favor of membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
According to Esen, the anti-Western policy of the Turkish government may soon come to an end, judging from reports of an agreement between Turkey and the EU.
“To strengthen this trend, Erdogan is seeking to curry favors from the Biden administration by supporting the recent US offensive against Russia. The admirals’ statement came against the backdrop of this shifting geopolitical situation,” he said.
The latest Russian troop movements in zones bordering eastern Ukraine have enraged the Biden administration, leading the US State Department to demand that Moscow explain the reported “provocations.”
However, Russia sees the the proposed Kanal Istanbul project as a threat because it would provide NATO members with free access to the Black Sea and Crimean peninsula, including the strategic port of Sevastopol, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
Therefore, the group of admirals fear that the new canal could anger Russia, as Turkey might break from the Montreux Convention that governs the transit of naval vessels during times of peace and war.
The length of stay and tonnage of warships from non-Black Sea naval forces are restricted by the convention. They cannot stay in the region for more than 21 days, while there is a maximum vessel weight limit of 45,000 tons.
However, in a televised speech on Monday, Erdogan said that the government is not considering a withdrawal from the convention, adding: “But if the need emerges in the future, we could revise every convention to help our country get better.”
According to Esen, although not all the signatories to the letter subscribe to the Blue Homeland doctrine, the admirals are likely worried that Erdogan will use the Montreux Convention as a bargaining chip with the US, which has for decades tried to undermine the agreement in order to gain access to the Black Sea.
“After seeking a tacit alliance with the Eurasianists for the last couple of years, Erdogan may have gotten a convenient excuse to eliminate the retired officers affiliated with the Blue Homeland doctrine as he considers strengthening ties with the US,” Berk said.
Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy in Ankara condemned the capital’s mayor Mansur Yavas and Good Party leader Meral Aksener for penning messages commemorating the massacre of Uighurs by the Chinese military in 1990.
“China reserves the right to proportionately respond,” the embassy tweeted, adding: “The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is an integral part of Chinese territory. This is an internationally accepted and indisputable fact.”
Turkey’s opposition has long criticized the government for remaining silent on China’s oppression of Uighur Muslims.