By Orhan Coskun and Dominic Evans
ANKARA (Reuters) – Despite its fury with the United States for calling the Ottoman massacre of Armenians a genocide, Turkey is for now avoiding a showdown which could hurt its fragile economy and scupper hopes of better ties with U.S.-allied Arab states.
President Tayyip Erdogan angrily condemned Joe Biden’s characterisation of the killings a century ago, saying the U.S. president should “look in the mirror” and examine the fate of Native Americans wiped out by settlers who founded his country.
But the usually combative Turkish leader, who has often used foreign disputes to rally domestic support, is more focused on reviving a battered economy which is key to his longterm re-election prospects.
In a largely restrained response, he has taken no concrete retaliatory steps, and addressed the issue just once since Biden’s historic declaration on Saturday.
In the same televised speech in which he lashed out at Biden’s “baseless, unjust and untrue remarks”, Erdogan stressed that the two leaders could forge a new start when they meet in June for the first time since Biden took office.
That softer tone reflects the delicate path Erdogan is treading between fury over the genocide designation and fear of the damage which could be done by a deeper rift with Washington.
It is also consistent with Turkey’s broader goal since late last year of mending frayed ties with Western and Arab states, after years of military interventions and assertive foreign policy which increased Ankara’s hard power but left it largely isolated in the east Mediterranean and Middle East.
Relations with Washington were already strained by Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defences and U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish fighters Ankara says are inextricably linked to militants waging a decades old insurgency in Turkey.
In contrast to his predecessor Donald Trump, who spoke to Erdogan regularly and was largely sympathetic to the Turkish president, Biden has kept his distance and his administration has criticised Ankara’s human rights record.
Three months after taking office, Biden had not spoken to Erdogan until last Friday, when he called the Turkish leader to give him advance notice of his genocide declaration.
“Certainly it was not something pleasant,” a senior Turkish official with knowledge of the call told Reuters. “Doing this in his first year was a stance that put relations in jeopardy”.
At the same time, the official said the phone call “laid the foundations” for the two NATO partners to cooperate in future. “Developments will show how relations will evolve, but it still appears that it can be overcome.”
Two other officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said Turkey would seek to avoid escalating the dispute with Washington – at least for now. Erdogan’s spokesman and national security adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, told Reuters the day after Biden’s announcement that Turkey would respond in various ways in the coming months.
After 18 years in power, support for Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party has eroded as Turkey’s once vibrant economic growth has stalled and it grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Facing elections in 2023, the centenary of the modern Turkish state, Erdogan’s chances of heading into a third decade in office rest on his ability to revive the country’s fortunes.
Opposition parties say the government mismanaged COVID-19 and erred in selling off $128 billion in foreign currency to stem losses in the lira.
Biden’s statement showed Erdogan was too weak to give the U.S. president the response he deserved, said Meral Aksener, head of the centrist nationalist Iyi Party, mocking what she said was Erdogan’s uncharacteristic deference.
“The world leader who takes pride in shunning those who upset him has become a very polite, very cute, little darling Mr Erdogan,” she said in a speech to party members on Wednesday.
But with the lira not far off a record low against the dollar and COVID-19 rates still perilously high, officials say Erdogan’s priority is to avoid further harm.
Ankara is trying to rebuild bridges with the European Union, as well as U.S. allies including Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
“We will act within the framework of the economic conditions during the pandemic and the approach the president signalled to in November about opting for better ties with the European Union, Gulf nations or other problematic regions,” a senior security official said.
He said Turkey’s policy would be one of ‘wait-and-see’, until the presidents meet in June.
Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies think tank, said those talks would be crucial to shaping Turkey’s relationship with Biden.
“The fact that the reaction has been muted until now does not mean it will remain as such in the future,” he said.
Nevertheless, the measured response suggested Ankara was avoiding a “conflict-prone foreign policy” which has hurt the economy by putting off foreign investors.
“It’s the beginning of a sea change,” he said. “It remains to be seen whether this will be sustainable and constitute the main thrust of Turkish foreign policy in the years to come.”
(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Editing by William Maclean)