Türkiye’s Many Faces: Friend, Enemy, and Mediator

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Türkiye is a state that demonstrates one of the most flexible models of foreign policy and is gradually promoting both its regional and global leadership. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine highlighted this process, and at the same time showed the strengths and weaknesses of Turkish policy under the leadership of President Recep Erdoğan. In addition, the deep internal economic crisis, the consequences of devastating earthquakes, and other domestic political issues require the country’s government to focus on Turkish national interests as much as possible, regardless of the position of its allies. Thus, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which caused many international political challenges, became a litmus test for Türkiye as a regional and world leader, military ally, and political player.

Erdoğan’s “Turkish Gambit”

After the end of the First World War, the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Türkiye’s policy was mainly focused on maintaining its viability within the spheres of influence of the great powers. The key goal of the newly created Republic of Türkiye under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was, on the one hand, to prevent the final collapse of the state, and on the other hand, to restore its image as a full-fledged state participant in international relations. This difficult, often considered as humiliating period in Turkish history led to a gradual deepening of the partnership between the Republic of Türkiye and the Western powers. With the unfolding of the “Cold War” and the growth of the regional ambitions of the USSR, Türkiye’s need for military and political protection increased, and therefore it joined NATO in 1952. This decision cemented a close partnership and cooperation between Türkiye, the USA, and Europe for a long period of time, which allowed the Republic to accumulate strength for a more independent future policy.

Photo: EPA-EFE/Turkish Presidential Press Office handout

With the end of the “Cold War”, the change in the world order, and the rising to power of the undoubtedly powerful but ambiguous leader Recep Erdoğan, Türkiye began to gradually move towards increasing its international political subjectivity. Due to Erdogan’s policies, in the period between 2002 and 2011, the state’s economy grew by an average of 7.5% per year, and the main motto of its foreign policy was “zero problems with neighbors.” The situation began to change in the 2010s, which coincided with the first anti-democratic processes beginning in Türkiye – political persecution, the introduction of censorship, and “purges” in the armed forces. In the wake of the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring, Türkiye took advantage of regional instability to increase its military presence, launching military campaigns in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Azerbaijan.

The evolution of this policy brought us to where we are now – Türkiye strives to demonstrate self-sufficiency and independence, resistance to any pressure, and leadership ambitions with every decision it makes.

Internal Prerequisites of Erdoğan’s Policy

In May-June 2023, the whole world watched the political race before the presidential election of the Republic of Türkiye. For the first time in two presidential terms, Recep Erdoğan faced real political opposition. The reason behind this was two main problems in the state: a deep economic crisis and citizens’ fears concerning the suppression of democracy and the growth of authoritarianism.

The country’s internal economic situation posed a severe challenge to Erdogan. Taking one view, the period of his rule was characterized mainly by growth in the economy, an increase in investments, and the acquisition of a more influential place in the world economic system. Taking another view, rising inflation and the simultaneous increase in real estate prices, especially given the housing problems due to the devastating earthquakes that occurred in Türkiye in early 2023, became top concerns for the Turkish population before the vote. In addition, special attention was focused on finding those responsible for the tragedy, with an emphasis on Erdoğan’s manipulation of the housing sector and the inefficient emergency response system. The inability to provide assistance to the population in time led to the increased feeling of insecurity among citizens. The crisis of the Turkish economy became evident when the Turkish lira fell 18 times against the dollar – by 44% in 2021, and later by another 27%. By the end of 2022, inflation reached 80%, the index of domestic producer prices increased by 143.75%, prices for transport – by 116.87%, and prices for agricultural products – by 90.25%. At the same time, even taking into account the official high inflation figures from the Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK), according to the survey, 50% of Turks considered this information false and the numbers of real inflation even higher.

According to the IMF for April 2023, the inflation rate in Türkiye reached 50.6% (compared to 72% in 2022 according to the World Bank Group). At the same time, the country’s GDP is growing by 2.7%, but this is a negative trend compared to 11% in 2010 or 2021 when inflation did not exceed 15%.

The situation began to deteriorate when the unreliability of the Turkish economy led to a drop in investment, as companies doing business with Türkiye risked being linked to several corrupt state-owned Turkish banks and financial institutions. The latter were engaged in illicit international finance, including promoting schemes to evade sanctions against Iran, Venezuela, and the Russian Federation. In addition, President Erdoğan’s ambiguous behavior puts business in Türkiye at constant risk of sanctions: the United States has already imposed sanctions on the Turkish Defense Industry Directorate (SSB) and Ismail Demir, SSB’s president, in response to Türkiye’s purchase of the S-400 system in Russia. Erdoğan’s growing ties to both Russia and Iran — two countries facing extensive international restrictions — have put Turkish industry at risk of secondary sanctions. Thus, it creates not only a legal risk for international companies but also a reputational one.

Experts from the “Turkish Democracy Project” point out that the main causes of the economic crisis, in addition to the recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, are the lack of Central Bank independence, insufficient adherence to the rule of law, and rising levels of corruption and extremism. Thus, the economic challenges are largely connected with the undemocratic political inclinations of Recep Erdoğan: his closest associates control large parts of the construction, energy, communication, financial, and media sectors. This system ensures that the best business opportunities go to the most loyal members of the Justice and Development Party or those with family ties to them, and any illegal activity or tax evasion goes unpunished.

If we consider the issue of democracy in Türkiye separately, then the growing indignation of the Turkish population about Erdoğan’s excessively long rule becomes noticeable. In addition, in 2017, a presidential republic was introduced in Türkiye, for the first time since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk proclaimed a parliamentary-presidential republic in 1920, which also increased the Presidential powers. According to the Freedom House index, Türkiye has an indicator of 32/100 and is therefore considered “not free” due to the lack of basic political rights and civil liberties, the same applies to Internet freedom. At the same time, there is no particular trend toward further decline – this indicator has not decreased since 2021.

Journalists, lawyers, and union members protest the so-called “disinformation and fake news law” on June 21, 2022, in Izmir, Turkey. Photo: idiltoffolo / Shutterstock

Despite the demonstrative presence of the opposition and the freedom of political choice of citizens during the last presidential elections, there are obvious examples of the undemocratic nature of the Turkish government. One of them is the “disinformation law”, which was passed in October 2022, and another name of which could be the “censorship law”. It increases government control over social media and news web sources. Its adoption caused indignation among both the opposition forces and the Turkish population in general. Considering that Turkish society, as well as the Ukrainian one, is used to free access to information and perceives the digital age as a part of its daily life, the new law is in sharp contrast with the established habits. Its main provisions stipulate the criminal liability for “disinformation” and the dissemination of “misleading news” (which somewhat resembles the law on “discrediting the Russian army,” where even an empty poster can be perceived as “discrediting”). In addition, the concept of “disinformation” in the law is quite ambiguous and can include any activity that can be regarded as disturbing public order or promoting an atmosphere of fear. This example demonstrates that the Turkish population’s fears about future freedom from authoritarianism aren’t baseless.

Eternal Difficulties

The question of Kurds is considered to be one of the biggest problems in the time of Erdoğan’s rule, Türkiye’s “powder keg”. The Kurds, the country’s largest ethnic minority, represent roughly 1/5 of Türkiye’s population. They seek national autonomy and have traditionally strained relations with Recep Erdoğan, given his desire to preserve a large, undivided Türkiye.

Even Türkiye’s military presence in Syria, in addition to supporting the mission of NATO allies and striving for regional influence, is partly explained by attempts to suppress Kurdish political ambitions in the region and destroy the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In certain periods it even contradicted the interests of NATO, as the Syrian Democratic Forces, partly led by the Kurds, were forced to fight both ISIL and Turkish military forces at the same time. This significantly reduced the effectiveness of NATO’s fight against ISIL. The same applies to the periodic attacks carried out by Türkiye in the north of Iraq, the area where the Kurds are settled. In the near future, there are no sufficient prerequisites for the peaceful settlement of this conflict. Despite the attempt to reconcile with the Syrian side during the May meeting in Moscow, the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syria, and therefore the reduction of control over the Kurds, is an unimaginable move for Erdoğan.

The failure to hold Türkiye accountable for its actions in Syria has inspired Erdoğan to act elsewhere. The Turkish army is now heavily involved in Libya, where its presence and material support for the Government of National Accord have prolonged the already bloody decade-long civil war. Meanwhile, in the disputed Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Türkiye provided key material assistance to Azerbaijan. No serious political issue in the region remains without Erdoğan’s attention.

Over the past decade, there has been a general strain in relations between Türkiye and Arab countries, primarily due to Türkiye’s approbation for uprisings during the Arab Spring events, as well as close cooperation with the United States. On the other hand, primarily thanks to active and mutually beneficial economic cooperation, in recent years friendly relations with the Arab states began to restore. For example, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia has stated that as long as Ibn Salman and Erdoğan live, there will be no differences between Saudi Arabia and Türkiye (despite the temporary deterioration of relations after the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018). Such a statement was made as an answer to U.S. President Biden’s comment about both rulers being dictators.

Türkiye’s relations with the West are much more complicated, both with Europe and, especially, with the United States. First, Turkish “undemocraticness” is a sore point in relations between Türkiye and the West, which Erdoğan prefers not to talk about. Recep is trying to emphasize his peace-making activities instead, focusing on the case of Ukraine and, for example, by expressing his willingness to guarantee peace in Serbia. This approach proves effective in ensuring Turkey’s access to European markets.

Secondly, one of the tools of Türkiye’s pressure on the EU was blackmailing to “open the door” for illegal migrants, that is, to stop steeming the flow of refugees from Syria and other countries on the territory of Türkiye. At the same time, such blackmail played into the hands of the Russian Federation – by contributing to the increase in the number of refugees due to military operations in Syria, the Russian Federation could thus indirectly influence the decisions of the EU.

The issue of Türkiye’s accession to the European Union also remains open. An official application for accession was submitted back in 1987, and the request was officially considered from 2005 to 2019. The reasons for the lack of consensus are the above-mentioned issues of “undemocraticness” and refugees, as well as the lack of general political will on both sides for an appropriate decision. For a long time, Erdoğan’s principal desire was Türkiye’s accession to the Schengen Agreement, but so far this remains unsuccessful, too. In 2019, the European Parliament voted to end negotiations with Turkey on EU accession. At the same time, according to The German Marshall Fund of the United States, 58.6% of the Turkish population still supports joining the EU.

Türkiye As an Ally, Mediator, and Party With Its Own Interests

The most interesting and ambiguous in the conditions of the current international political situation is the position of Türkiye in relation to the war started by Russia in Ukraine. In this context, three separate views of the Turkish state can be distinguished: as a NATO ally and partner of Ukraine, as a “friend” of Russia, and as an independent mediator and a peacemaker.

1. Türkiye as a NATO ally and a partner of Ukraine

Türkiye has the second-largest NATO army with 446,900 military personnel as of 2022 (compared to 1.3 million soldiers in the United States and 207,100 in France). Türkiye hosts several NATO military bases and US nuclear weapons at the Incirlik Air Base.

After the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Türkiye, according to the Montreux Convention, closed the Black Sea Strait for the passage of Russian warships and recognized the invasion as war. These steps were favorable for Ukraine. In addition, Türkiye provided Ukraine with military support – in particular, it sold Bayraktar TB2 attack UAVs, which proved to have critical importance in the defense of the country’s capital Kyiv.

All this makes Türkiye an important strategic partner and ally. And therefore, at first glance, it seems that since it is a member of NATO, its decisions regarding any wars and conflicts should be coordinated with the Alliance. This is exactly the position that Türkiye avoids and fights against, and this is the reason for the periodic conflicts within NATO caused by the actions of this state.

The first examples of Türkiye’s “rebellious” policy appeared even before the start of a full-scale invasion – one of them was the purchase of S-400 anti-missile defense systems from the Russian Federation, despite the incompatibility of these systems with NATO weapons. The official reason for this decision was the refusal of the US to provide Türkiye with the Patriot system, but in reality, it can be seen as a demonstrative move by Erdoğan to show his right to take independent decisions. In his interview with CNN, the President stated that in the conditions of a global free market, he had the right to make any purchases, in particular in the military sector.

Given the tension in the relations between the states in recent years, the United States seeks to reduce its dependence on Turkish military bases, looking for alternatives for their location. In addition, in his speech, Joe Biden made public reference to the Turkish genocide of Armenians, which Türkiye does not recognize. Moreover, according to a survey conducted by Kadir Has University in Istanbul, 43% of Turks now perceive the US as a threat.

It is worth mentioning Turkey’s confrontation with NATO over the accession of Finland and Sweden to the Alliance. The very fact of Turkish opposition to the acceptance of new members indicates its desire to once again demonstrate the independence of its policy and to obtain as many benefits as possible in the case of its concession. In particular, Türkiye’s approval of Finland’s accession to NATO was “bought” thanks to the authorization to purchase the F-16 fighter aircraft.

The situation with Sweden is much more complicated: the official reason for blocking Sweden’s accession to NATO is the support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (as well as the YPG/PYD and FETO), although the PKK is recognized as a terrorist organization in Sweden. Likewise, Türkiye calls on the US to withdraw its support for the PYD. The ultimatum to the ratification of Sweden’s application is the demand for the extradition of 130 Kurds whom Turkish authorities accuse of terrorism. As a result of Türkiye’s relentless position regarding the admission of a new member to the Alliance, on the 12th of January 2023, an anti-Turkish action took place in Sweden, during which an Erdoğan’s effigy was hanged. This angered Ankara and further worsened already strained relations. On January 22, right-wing activists in Sweden publicly burned the Koran, which caused anger in the entire Islamic world, and during the election campaign in Türkiye, demonstrations against the current Turkish government and in support of the Kurds took place.

After his re-election as President in June 2023, Erdoğan said that Sweden should not wait for the green light to join the NATO summit on July 11. On the other hand, U.S. President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg continue to urge Türkiye to approve Sweden’s application. Similar statements are also made by Olaf Scholz, Emmanuel Macron, and Andrzej Duda. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg said that his chief of staff, who was present at the latest talks with Türkiye, said: “Some progress has been made (in Türkiye’s persuasion) and we will continue to work on accepting the application as soon as possible”. Answering the question of whether there is hope for a solution to this issue before the July 11-12 summit in Vilnius, he said: “It is still possible, although, of course, I cannot guarantee it”.

To curry favor with Türkiye, Sweden introduced a new, tougher anti-terrorist law in June, and its Supreme Court extradited a suspected PKK supporter to Türkiye. In addition, Swedish authorities began an investigation into accusations of the alleged PKK fundraising in Sweden. As a result, on July 10, Turkey finally decided to ratify Sweden’s application to join NATO.

2. Türkiye As a Friend of Russia

Since the beginning of 2023, Türkiye has increased exports to the Russian Federation by 1.7 billion dollars, and, in January-April 2023, exports increased by 83% (exports to France, for example, increased by 26%). Although the first places among the destinations of Turkish exports are traditionally occupied by Western countries – Germany (6.2 billion), the USA (3.86 billion), Italy (3.75 billion), and Great Britain (3.63 billion) – exports to the Russian Federation sums up for a total of 3.2 billion dollars, which is not far behind the turnover with Western partners. At the same time, exports to Ukraine increased by 398.6 million dollars. The Russian Federation is currently the largest importer of Türkiye (3.77 billion), followed by China (3.7 billion) and Germany (2.5 billion).

Despite international criticism, Recep Erdoğan publicly calls the Russian Federation a “friendly state” in his CNN interview and emphasizes the importance of “close relations” with Putin for a peaceful settlement of the international situation. Moreover, since the beginning of the war, Türkiye’s trade with Russia has increased significantly, and the preserved economic and transport links not only allow the Russians to largely circumvent Western sanctions but also create significant economic benefits for Türkiye.

The strength of Türkiye’s relationship with the Russian Federation is manifested, in particular, in the cooperation regarding the “Turkish Stream” and the recent construction of the nuclear power plant “Akkuya” in Türkiye. It can be said that Türkiye is consciously becoming more dependent in its energy sector both on Russian energy carriers and on the maintenance of such an important source of energy as a nuclear power plant. It also agrees to deepen scientific and technical cooperation, because this allows to solve the energy problems of the state, partially overcome the impact of the economic crisis and stop the rise in prices thanks to the reduction in the cost of production.

Photo credit: Umit Bektas/Reuters

Such an approach toward the Russian Federation has been observed for several years in Türkiye, and the reason for this may be, in particular, the economic crisis, caused both by internal processes and, for example, by the COVID-19 pandemic. At a convenient moment, when the European and American economies were suffering from the restrictions of the pandemic, Erdoğan turned to deepening relations with the Russian Federation as a less affected economy. Putin’s invitation to the inauguration of President Erdoğan in June 2023 indicates his intention to continue such a policy and avoid Russia’s international isolation.

On the other hand, it is impossible to call Russia and Türkiye unequivocally friends or allies – in particular, the position of these states is opposite in Syria and Azerbaijan and also remains ambiguous in the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine. In Syria, the Turkish mission, together with NATO, backs the Syrian Democratic Forces in opposition to Russian support for the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad. In 2015, for example, the Turkish armed forces shot down a Russian SU-24M fighter jet, which led to Russia deploying a new air defense line in Syria and cutting Türkiye off from its allies. In Azerbaijan, two states compete for access to the energy resources of the Caspian Sea and the possibility of their transportation to Europe via the Black Sea.

3. Türkiye As a Party with Its Own Interests

Returning to Türkiye’s decisions regarding Russia’s war against Ukraine, a key feature of Recep Erdoğan’s policy is that in this war Türkiye is trying to act as a peacemaker, and therefore follows a relatively neutral position (since a peacemaker must be impartial). This is the narrative that is promoted for the sake of a positive image of Türkiye, which still “has zero problems with its neighbors” and strives exclusively for an atmosphere of international friendship and mutual respect. The decision not to apply economic sanctions against the Russian Federation is explained by Erdoğan precisely through this prism – this is a war in which Türkiye occupies a neutral and independent position, and therefore should not side with any of the parties and should not make efforts to isolate the Russian Federation internationally.

Such a decision and positioning allowed Turkey to become a broker in the so-called Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allows the movement of ships with grain from the Ukrainian ports of Great Odesa. Turkey acted as a mediator in the negotiations and during the signing of the agreement. According to it, ships with Ukrainian grain will be checked in the Turkish port by local inspectors. In addition, Türkiye should guarantee the security of Ukrainian ports (but this is not happening, because this would require certain conflicts with the Russian armed forces or attempts by Türkiye to hold the Russian Federation responsible for attacks on ports and coastal areas).

At the same time, the idea of Türkiye’s “peacekeeping” is not limited to politics in Ukraine – another example of Türkiye’s activities for the sake of such a positive image is the sending of Turkish peacekeeping forces to Kosovo because of armed conflicts between local Albanians and Serbs. This happened at the beginning of June 2023, and Türkiye quickly responded to NATO’s call, demonstrating, in particular, its reliability as an ally.

Source: AFP

If we recall the last tragic events in Ukraine, namely the blowing up of the Kakhovka HPP, then Erdoğan was also actively involved as a mediator. In particular, immediately after the explosion, Zelenskyi and Erdoğan talked on the phone about the investigative commission to find those responsible for the disruption. Immediately after this conversation, the President of Türkiye, in his mediation mission, also spoke by phone with Putin. Thanks to this conversation, it became known that the Russian side completely rejects any accusations against it and considers the Ukrainians to be responsible for the tragedy. Erdoğan also spoke urgently with Putin during the military mutiny that took place in Russia on the 23-24th of June 2023 – during this conversation, the President of Türkiye expressed his support and willingness to help resolve the situation as soon as possible.

Thus, Türkiye’s position regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine varies depending on specific situations but is developing in the direction of neutrality, mediation, and peacemaking. These are the most favorable conditions for the Republic of Türkiye when it cannot lose either economic, security, or political advantages from cooperation with all hostile parties. At the same time, for both Ukraine and NATO, this means that Türkiye should not be counted on as a reliable and stable partner, or ally.

The Future of Turkish Politics

In the “Memorandum on Common Policy”, which was announced in January 2023, the 6 main political parties of Türkiye declare the coherence of their future policy decisions. Emphasis is placed on the fact that in times of the deepest crisis since the time of the Republic, the state needs unity. In addition, it is emphasized that Türkiye should move to a friendly, soft, and peace-making foreign policy – with respect for territorial integrity and non-interference in military conflicts. This can be considered a declaration of a change in the vector of Turkish policy in a less aggressive direction, with a simultaneous deepening of cooperation with Europe and the USA. On the other hand, it is also planned to introduce a tougher policy regarding refugees to Türkiye – politicians claim that “Türkiye will not allow itself to be perceived as a buffer country.” Such a decision will be accompanied both by measures to strengthen border control and, for example, by canceling the initiative to grant citizenship to refugees when buying a home in Türkiye.

It is interesting that despite rather ambiguous relations with all surrounding states, the official position of the President, which is published on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Türkiye, is reflected by the quote of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk “peace in the state is peace in the whole world”, with an emphasis on following democratic values. That is, Erdoğan tries to combine calls for democracy and world harmony with the presidential tendency to authoritarianism and conservative traditionalism. At the same time, a strong Türkiye is positioned as a cornerstone of regional and world stability, its main support.

In the international arena, Türkiye no longer wants to remain a small entity state or one dependent on the policies of the USA and Europe, as it was after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Its government wants it to be strong and independent enough to influence world events, and President Erdoğan confidently pushes it in this direction. As the US presence in the Middle East decreases, Türkiye seeks to increase its influence there. Previously, hostile relations with the Russian Federation and Iran reduced the leverage of Turkish influence on the US and the EU. In the current conditions though, when Türkiye can be considered a de facto partner of these two states, it even creates favorable conditions for Türkiye to put pressure on the US and the EU for its own benefits.

Another provocative step by Erdoğan, which demonstrates his intentions regarding the future vectors of foreign policy, was a recent statement in which the President called on the international community to recognize the independence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. At the same time, the recognition of this part of Cyprus as independent (as opposed to the position that these territories are occupied by Türkiye) also means the legitimacy of recognizing the territories of Luhansk and Donetsk regions (controlled by the so-called DPR of the LPR) in Ukraine as independent, and not occupied by the Russian Federation. This is another manifestation of the sharpness of Turkish policy in the international arena, and although such a statement should not lead to factual actions, it is another indicator for the US and NATO that Türkiye has its own independent position on any issues.

In the context of the confrontation with the U.S, China will play an increasingly significant role in Turkish foreign policy: in 2021 it has already become Türkiye’s largest trading partner, and the “One Belt One Road” project currently provides financing for numerous Turkish infrastructure objects, industrial and trade projects. At the same time, since 2009, Türkiye has stopped mentioning the oppression of Uyghur rights in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur District. Given the ongoing leadership struggle between China and the US, such moves by Türkiye once again demonstrate its exclusive focus on its own national interests rather than maintaining friendly and allied relations with America.

Thus, it can be expected that Türkiye will continue with a policy focused on getting the most out of every decision it takes. As Lord Palmerston pointed out that “Great Britain has no eternal friends and eternal enemies, Great Britain has only eternal interests”, so Türkiye shows flexibility in its policy, and its “friendship” depends on the benefit in each specific situation. Given this, Ukraine should not hope for Türkiye as its friend or ally, but neither should it fear Türkiye as an enemy. This state, having ambitions of great power in the international arena, will pursue its independent policy both from the U.S. and from Russia. It will not be a friend of any of these parties, and despite the current “warm relations” with the Russian Federation, Türkiye will support them as long as the Russian economy has the resources to support this cooperation. At the same time, it is expected that Turkiye will consistently negotiate and solve conflict questions with the US and Europe in exchange for concessions and friendly solutions because, in today’s changing world order, one should not remain aside from powerful world powers.

Oleksandra Usychenko

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