BACKGROUND: Çavuşoğlu was born in Alanya, one of eight children in a well-off, politically active family. From a young age, Çavuşoğlu’s father had ambitions for him and hired instructors to tutor him in multiple languages including Japanese and Arabic. Çavuşoğlu studied at Ankara University and then bounced between institutions—a master’s degree at Long Island University in the United States, another MA from Ankara University, and a never-completed PhD at Bilkent that included a scholarship covering two years at the London School of Economics.
This endless schooling (mixed with some work for the UN Development Program) ended in the early 2000s, when the AKP was formed. Çavuşoğlu was among the founding members of the party in Alanya and its province of Antalya. His decision to join was far-sighted. While his brother and father were members of the center-right True Path Party (DYP) and his brother-in-law was a member of the center-right Motherland Party, both these parties had been largely discredited by a decade of scandals. In the 2002 elections, neither would receive the 10% of the national vote needed to enter parliament. Çavuşoğlu, on the other hand, was elected as an AKP representative. Because of his language skills and education, he found a niche for himself among the AKP’s foreign policy circles. In the twenty years to follow, his family would see the wisdom of his decision: his previously-DYP brother is now an advisor in the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
Starting in 2003, Çavuşoğlu became one of Turkey’s representatives in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), a representative body tasked with championing human rights, democracy, and the rule of law through issuing reports, monitoring elections, and electing members to the European Court for Human Rights. Çavuşoğlu and the AKP were allied with the conservative bloc in the parliament, and he was an active member. In 2010, the bloc was strong enough to elect him president of the assembly for a two-year term. Though Turkey had been a member of the body since its founding in 1949, Çavuşoğlu was the first Turkish member to hold such a high position, a testament to both his ability to cultivate relationships and to Turkey’s international popularity at the time. When Turkey’s minister of European Union affairs was forced to resign amid corruption allegations in December 2013, Çavuşoğlu was an obvious successor. When Foreign Minister Davutoğlu became prime minister in August 2014, it was again natural for Çavuşoğlu to take on the role.
Çavuşoğlu’s time in PACE was essential to his career. It allowed him to prove his worth to the AKP and form relationships that have been helpful in his role as Turkey’s chief diplomat. For example in 2016, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a Russian businessman whom Çavuşoğlu had metwhile they were both in PACE put Çavuşoğlu in contact with Brian Ballard, an American lobbyist responsible for organizing Donald Trump’s inauguration festivities. After their meeting, Ballard’s firm received contracts worth $4 million to advocate for Turkey and Halkbank which was under investigation for its role in helping Iran evade sanctions (part of the same scandal that had forced Çavuşoğlu’s predecessor at the Ministry for EU Affairs to resign). Çavuşoğlu also allegedly met with Trump campaign foreign policy advisors to discuss efforts to extradite (or otherwise remove) Fethullah Gülen from the United States.
While these meetings were in pursuit of Turkish state interests, his time in PACE also opened him up to charges of unethical—if not technically corrupt—behavior. As the OCCRP also reports, Çavuşoğlu was part of a group (including the former presidents of Poland and Austria and the former prime minister of Italy) that received money from partisans of former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych in 2012. These members were allegedly paid to discourage PACE from decrying the imprisonment of Ukraine’s main opposition leader while the Yanukovych government was in the process of negotiating an association agreement with the EU. In addition, Çavuşoğlu allegedly provided favorable reports of the 2012 Ukrainian elections.
IMPLICATIONS: Navigating the intersections between politicians, businessmen, and their various fixers is difficult work, and Çavuşoğlu is clearly adept at it. Rather than attempting to build up his personal brand, he has focused his energies on representing the government’s positions, whatever they might be. This willingness to subordinate himself (and his ministry) to presidential authority is both the key to his success and the aspect of his tenure that has most frustrated career foreign service officials. Historically, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been among the most autonomous parts of the state. The language skills needed to staff it, and the very nature of its duties, mean that its officials tend to be well-educated and cosmopolitan, viewing themselves as somewhat apart from the grubbiness of politics. However, since the establishment of the presidential system in 2018, much of this autonomy has been removed: more party-members are appointed at the lower ranks and ambassadorships, previously held by career diplomats, are increasingly being given to political appointees.
In some respects, this politicization of foreign policymaking and concentration authority in the presidency was occurring even before 2018. Since Erdogan became president in 2014—and especially since Davutoglu was forced out in 2016—the ministry has become an adjunct to policymaking rather than a driver of it. Since 2018, the primary formal institution for developing policy is the Security and Foreign Policy Committee, overseen by President Erdogan’s spokesman and trusted advisor İbrahim Kalın. Whereas Çavuşoğlu has spent his career focused on the routine activities of diplomacy Kalın has been more involved with the grand-strategic aspects. From 2005-09, for example, he served as the head of the main pro-AKP think tank, SETA Kalın’s close relations with Erdoğan mean that Çavuşoğlu would be likely to lose out in any bureaucratic turf battle. In fact, some journalists have suggested that Kalın hopes to push him out fairly soon, perhaps as a means of signaling to frustrated American and European diplomats that Erdoğan is embarking on a policy “reset.”
Çavuşoğlu has certainly been the diplomatic face of Turkey through some of its most unpopular years. He entered office in August 2014 just as Turkey’s ambitious regional policies were coming undone. In Egypt, a Muslim Brotherhood-led government close to Turkey had been removed by the military and its supporters massacred with limited condemnation from western governments—which suggested to Erdoğan that his own overthrow might be welcomed by Turkey’s allies. In Syria, the Asad regime’s brutal efforts to maintain control and the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) combined to force hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. More than one million people registered as refugees in Turkey during Çavuşoğlu’s first year in office. Almost two million more have followed. Even more concerning to Turkish officials was the territorial expansion of Kurdish military forces in northern Syria and the alliance forged between these forces and the US government against ISIS.
Erdoğan’s unwillingness to support Kurdish armed groups against ISIS infuriated Kurdish voters in Turkey and contributed to the AKP’s loss of its majority in the June 2015 elections. These elections were also the first time that the AKP’s three-consecutive-term limit for members of parliament came into effect. Members like Çavuşoğlu, even if they were on good terms with Erdoğan, could not stand for reelection. The party’s electoral setback, however, gave these representatives a new lease on political life. Rather than form a coalition with another party, Erdoğan forced a new election in November 2015, peeled off votes from the far right by taking a hard line against Kurdish nationalist groups, and won back the AKP’s majority. Having honored the three-term rule, Çavuşoğlu and others could now run again—as, in fact, could all AKP representatives after the party lifted the rule in advance of the election. In Antalya, with Çavuşoğlu leading the list, the AKP vote rose from 34.9% to 41.3% and the party picked up two seats. After a short lapse, he again became foreign minister.
CONCLUSIONS: Despite the return of some political heavy hitters in November 2015, the following seven years have been marked by the concentration of power in the presidency and the waning importance of the parliamentary AKP. To consolidate his position, Erdoğan has relied on the support of the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP). As a result, only politicians like Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, who appeals to hard-line nationalists in the MHP, have been able to carve out a space for themselves in the presidential system. Soylu only joined the AKP in 2012; previously, he had been the leader of the Democrat Party (itself a combination of ANAP and DYP, older parties with which Çavuşoğlu’s relatives were associated).
Many of the nationalists on whom Erdoğan now depends—often called “Eurasianists”—wish for him to challenge Greece and Cyprus in the Aegean and Kurds in Syria and Iraq. The underlying assumption in both stances is that “the West” is seeking to encircle Turkey and split it apart as it did to the Ottoman Empire after WWI. Turkey’s best hope, therefore, lies in an alliance with its Eurasian neighbors, particularly Russia. Erdoğan’s efforts to please these nationalists and reassert Turkey’s autonomy in the face of expanding “western” ideas has manifested itself in his hostility toward minority sensitivities and women’s rights.
While Çavuşoğlu has been deeply involved in cultivating the diplomatic relationships undergirding this nationalist strategy, he is not particularly associated with the strategy itself. In some sense, neither is Erdoğan: the effort to promote parties in other countries modeled on the AKP has given way to rapprochements with leaders in Egypt and Syria whom Erdoğan once defined himself against. Pragmatism has replaced grand visions, and Çavuşoğlu’s ability to shift and adapt according to the needs of Erdoğan have made him a valuable—though hardly irreplaceable—figure in the regime.
Reuben Silverman is a researcher at the Institute for Turkish Studies, Stockholm University