Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Australia-Turkey: Erdogan’s bitter legacy in present-day history

The intemperate outburst over Christchurch is more a product of Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: Ali Balikci via Getty)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: Ali Balikci via Getty)

Pity MIKTA. Not so long ago, Canberra had high hopes for this obscure grouping of countries ­– Mexico, Indonesia, (South) Korea, Turkey, and Australia. Former foreign minister Julie Bishop was a particular fan of this caucus of middle powers within the G20, a gathering separate from the stubbornly persistent G7 and the block of BRICS.

Erdogan’s outburst should make obvious to all Australians just how much damage he has done in Turkish politics.

But Turkey? The other nation which, along with Australia, the international relations theorist Samuel Huntington once described as “torn countries”, supposedly split between ancient civilisations, respectively the West and Islam, the West and Asia? It was never so simple, but following Turkey’s turn to authoritarianism under Recep Tayyip Erdogan since 2014, what bonds did exist to link this group within a group appeared fragile.

Now they appear broken.

Erdogan’s intemperate remarks in the wake of the Christchurch attack, claiming Australians and New Zealanders had invaded Turkey during the First World War because of a fear and hatred of Islam, and would again be returned in “caskets” “like your grandfathers” over the deranged ranting of the Australian terrorist in Christchurch, were wrong both in history and the present. New Zealand immediately dispatched Foreign Minister Winston Peters to Ankara to “confront” Erdogan for his recklessness, while in Australia, Scott Morrison on Wednesday hauled in the Turkish ambassador for a dressing down, and then publicly rebuked him.

Erdogan’s officials have since claimed his comments were taken out of context and mistranslated. Hardly. As journalist Tony Wright put it, leaders under stress make foolish decisions and Erdogan faces local polls next month.

Erdogan decided to use the horror of an Australian citizen slaughtering Muslims in New Zealand to present himself as a tough leader defending Islam against those who once invaded Turkey. You could barely imagine a more contemptuous use of a pre-election platform.

Yet a rally to the flag makes for potent politics, and Australians are not so immune from allowing a present-day nationalist tinge to storytelling. Acting RSL chief John King was also wrong in history with his reported criticism of Erdogan for expressing “the sort of hate and extremism” that Australian soldiers fought against in 1915 when landing in Gallipoli. Perhaps King was also taken out of context. Wright, again:

Australians and New Zealanders did not go to Gallipoli to wage war on Islam ­– Turkey had signed a pact to fight for Germany, and those from Australia and NZ were sent to the ill-judged expedition against Germany’s allies by British leaders.

So where does this episode leave relations between Australia and Turkey? Well, don’t expect much progress from MIKTA in the immediate future.

Thousands of Australians travel to Turkey each year for battlefield commemorations. Shepherding this lucrative industry gives some practical purpose to the bilateral relationship, but as we’ve seen, history is inevitably tangled up in the present, and not a foundation for strong ties.

What Erdogan’s outburst should make obvious to all Australians is just how much damage he has done in Turkish politics. Having stomped on local media in 2016 (I reported at the time on Canberra’s call for Turkey to uphold freedom of the press as a “fundamental element of a democratic system of government”), Erdogan subsequently conducted a purge of the bureaucracy following a claimed “coup” attempt.

All this was a long way from the urging of then Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu who arrived in Australia in 2014 for the Brisbane G20 summit with a message of progressive optimism.

And it is even further, as Morrison and many others noted, from the sentiment towards Australia and New Zealand of Turkey under Ataturk, with his reputed comments in 1934 of onetime enemies at Gallipoli “now lying in the soil of a friendly country”.

If the quality of any grouping is judged by the character of its members, Erdogan’s Turkey has turned friendships suddenly sour.

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