Turkey’s influence: 22 world leaders attend Erdogan’s inauguration

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was sworn in Monday afternoon under the country’s new presidential system. Twenty-two heads of state attended, including key Ankara allies such as Qatar, Venezuela and numerous Balkan and sub-Saharan African states. Erdogan’s new term promises to seek to revive Turkey’s influence on the regional and world stage after years of turmoil that saw a coup attempt in 2016 and widening Turkish involvement in the conflict in Syria.

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The swearing-in ceremony was Turkey’s first under a new presidential system that came about after the June 24 general election. The position of prime minister will cease to exist and the president’s powers will increase. Turkish media highlighted the attendance of the 22 foreign heads of state as well as “special friends” such as former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Tunisia Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi. The inauguration saw a visit by Erdogan to the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and a 101-gun salute as well as the presence of an Ottoman military band. The blending of tradition with Ottoman-era pageantry seems to show the way Turkey today is seeking to bridge the gap between its local politics and foreign policy aspirations in the region.

At home Ankara was criticized for jailing more journalists just two days before the inauguration. Five students from the Middle East Technical University were also arrested for carrying placards “insulting the president” at a ceremony. 18,000 state employees were fired Sunday, accused of acting against “national security.”

Meanwhile Turkey’s global alliances were on display in the whose who of people that flew in for the swearing-in. In the Balkans, where Turkey’s influence is a remnant of Ottoman-era rule, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Moldova, Kosovo and Bulgaria sent their presidents. In Africa, Turkey has sought to widen its influence, and the leaders of Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Zambia, Somalia, Sudan and Mauritania came. Ankara’s key ally, the emir of Qatar, also came, as did Pakistan. The only high-level leader from the Americas in attendance was Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.

The Turkic speaking states of Central Asia also sent delegations. Notably absent was Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah, who have been visitors to Turkey over the last seven months due to Turkey’s attempt to challenge the US Embassy move to Jerusalem. Instead, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah went to Ankara. Russia’s Dimitry Medvedev came, a visible sign of Moscow’s attempt to court Turkey and pull it away from NATO. Iran did not appear to send a high-level delegation, but Iraq sent several politicians, including Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. Turkey has been involved in military operations in northern Iraq targeting the Kurdistan Workers Party and in Syria where it is providing a umbrella for the Syrian rebels.

On July 11, Erdogan will reportedly head to Brussels for a NATO summit. Turkey has good relations with NATO despite its tensions with the US in recent years. The new administration in Ankara, bolstered by the strong electoral showing in June, will likely continue to try to remake Turkey, allying it both with Russia and seeking to balance that with relations with the West, playing one off against the other.

For many European powers Turkey is a key ally not because of shared values but because the European Union has been paying Turkey to stem the refugee crisis since 2015, an issue EU powers see as existential. Turkey’s president can only benefit from these disputes that make Ankara a key partner of both the West and other countries. Whether Turkey wants to smooth relations with Riyadh, Jerusalem and other countries where connections have soured, is the question Ankara has to answer now.