A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not destroying Turkey, but the Syrian crisis is destroying all of the Middle East, including Turkey.
The Syrian crisis is destroying the Middle East, including #Turkey.Tweet This
Since they came to power in 2002, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have considerably transformed Turkey, in a positive and progressive sense. Erdoğan has contributed to Turkey’s rapprochement with Europe, modernized the Turkish economy, and even played a considerable role in integrating the Kurds into Turkish society and politics. This last realization is crucial: Erdoğan was the first Turkish leader to deal directly with the leadership of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), despite the fact that Turkey and its allies considered the group a terrorist organization.
Since 2011, Erdoğan has started to change and has gradually become unrecognizable: more authoritarian, unpredictable, and unreliable for Turkey’s allies, and more disrespectful of the separation of powers. In that sense, there is a strong sentiment that Erdoğan is destroying the modern Turkey he contributed to making.
But it would be erroneous to think that this authoritarian turn is inherent to Erdoğan and the AKP. Analysts fail to notice the coincidence between two major events affecting Turkey: the beginning of Erdoğan’s authoritarianism and the Syrian crisis, in which Turkey has inevitably been embroiled. Erdoğan is not a dictator by nature but has been transformed into an authoritarian leader by the Syrian crisis. What Erdoğan is doing is to preserve Turkish territorial integrity with possibly authoritarian methods that could worsen the situation.
Even in Turkey, where views are notoriously polarized, two things are beyond dispute. One is that that the larger-than-life personality of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has come to dominate politics. Even without a formal constitutional change, his party’s triumph in the November 2015 general election inaugurated a presidential republic. The other truth is that rather than transforming its neighbors in its own image, Turkey is now importing the problems of the volatile Middle East. The stability Erdoğan promised to his constituents has proved elusive, and as the nation’s leader, he bears responsibility.
#Turkey is now importing the problems of the volatile Middle East.Tweet This
The risk is not a collapse of the Turkish state but a return to the 1990s. Under former president Turgut Özal, Turkey was full of confidence and dynamism. By the middle of the decade, the country was bogged down in intractable problems, not least the Kurdish issue and strained relations with the West. Though the fractious coalition cabinets of the time have long faded from memory, there is now a nagging feeling of déjà vu. And it can get much worse if Turkey’s economy falls prey to politics as back then. It is therefore in Erdoğan’s interest to avoid meddling in economic decisions. Although far from a shining success, Turkey is not a failure—as long as it continues to grow.
Whether you see Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the savior or the scourge of modern Turkey depends on where you stand politically. With Turkey’s highly polarized politics, it sometimes seems attractive to pin all ills on Erdoğan, but one should not forget that almost 50 percent of voters elected his party in the November 2015 general election. This contest was not fair, but that does not change the fact that many Turks see their president as the person who lifted their country from an underdeveloped backwater into the club of 20 major world economies. For a majority of Turks, their lives are simply better now than they were fifteen years ago.
The situation is different for those who are active in opposition politics or who dream of Turkey as a liberal democracy and not a state in which the president acts as an überfather who is convinced that his subjects depend on his wise guidance. With the head of state increasingly caught in his own worldview with few people in his inner circle able to criticize his course, the main danger for Turkey is that Erdoğan is the sole arbiter for many political decisions. The fact that most policymaking seems to hinge on Erdoğan’s ideas and his easily offended personality creates tangible risks for the country, especially for its increasingly irrational foreign policy.
The EU is Turkey's reluctant spouse in a marriage of inconvenience.Tweet This
This is particularly true at a time when most of the president’s foreign policy strategies—be they Turkey’s alliance with Russia or the planned ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—are collapsing, leaving Turkey isolated and with few real friends. Only the EU is left as some sort of reluctant spouse in a marriage of inconvenience.
The cost of excluding Turkey from European integration is very high for both EU and Turkish citizens. If Turkey had been well engaged in the EU accession process since negotiations began in 2005—on issues from foreign policy and refugees and to economic growth and energy—today’s picture would be different. The EU would be a better global power, and Turkey would be a stronger European democracy showing greater convergence with European values and interests. The test results of the EU’s failed Turkey policy are clear.
The test results of the EU's failed #Turkey policy are clear.Tweet This
Meanwhile, the question of a possible British exit from the EU has accelerated an evolution toward a bloc marked by differentiated integration, and eventually two circles: the full EU and a more federal eurozone core. This prospect makes Turkey’s European integration possible once more; and once more, the EU can exercise its transformational power on Turkey. This positive influence is also a policy that was tested—successfully—from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.
However, because of blurred vision, weak creativity, and reluctant action, Europe now risks destroying its future. The problem concerns all European countries, including Turkey. This is not only about the challenges of refugees or security, but also about the immense opportunities stemming from radical changes in society: the digital economy, green energy, smart cities, and so on. These changes all require smarter democracy and a smarter Europe. One of the smart tools for action is to promote more Europe for both Turkey and the EU.
There is little doubt that Turkey’s image in the Middle East has suffered lately. From widespread accusations of complicity that facilitated flows of so-called Islamic State fighters into Syria (and back) to condemnation of attacks against the Kurdish political opposition, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is increasingly perceived as yet another leader corrupted by a long stint in power.
#Erdogan is increasingly perceived as a leader corrupted by power.Tweet This
Today, to eliminate checks, he controls the military and the judiciary and interferes with civil society and the media. He justifies these antidemocratic tendencies by pointing to electoral success. Yet, these policies contrast with Erdoğan’s early days, when his premiership served as a hope for Islamic democracy that prioritized economic progress and the accommodation of minorities.
For Turkey’s Kurds, early 2016 is the complete opposite of early 2015. This time last year, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was preparing to participate in the June 2015 general election to represent the Kurds. The party eventually won 13 percent of the vote, and for the first time the Kurds had their own representation in the Turkish parliament. For the Kurdish nationalist movement, institutional politics was replacing violence.
This all changed when Erdoğan, disappointed in the result of the June 2015 election, when his Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to gain an overall parliamentary majority, unleashed a campaign to obstruct this institutionalization and provoked the militant elements in the movement. As such, violence has returned, and the Turkish state is yet again at war.
Turkey is going through turbulent times. Whether this justifies the question above is for the Turkish electorate to decide.
As the rapporteur for Turkey in the European Parliament, I presented my draft annual progress report on the country on February 16. While applauding Turkey’s willingness to house millions of refugees from war-torn Syria and welcoming cooperation between Ankara and Brussels on managing the flow of asylum seekers, I am also critical. There are negative developments with regard to the rule of law—especially concerning the freedom of the media. The deterioration of press freedom seems to be part of a broader trend in the direction of more presidential and authoritarian rule.
The #Kurdish question can be resolved only at the negotiating table.Tweet This
In southeastern Turkey, violence has erupted again between the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and state security forces. While the Turkish authorities have every right to fight terrorism, it is clear that the Kurdish question can be resolved only at the negotiating table. Many lives, on both sides, have already been ruined by this decades-long conflict. Therefore, every effort has to be made to return to dialogue.
Finally, I sincerely hope that the turbulence in Turkey will not be detrimental to the ongoing—and very positive—peace process in the divided island nation of Cyprus.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave the world the first taste of his experiment with soft Islamism in 2003 as prime minister. Since then, he has baffled friends and foes, alternating between promises and threats while driving the country toward an authoritarian regime. The failed Arab Spring revolts, the Sunni-Shia conflict, the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and the refugee exodus from the war in Syria have given Erdoğan a lot of cards to play with.
Europe and the United States are much less inclined than in the past to question Erdoğan’s abysmal civil rights record. On February 28, he boasted that he would not respect a decision by Turkey’s Constitutional Court to release two Cumhuriyet journalists who had been detained after publishing articles on alleged Turkish arms smuggling to Islamic State supporters in Syria. In the violent, Game of Thrones–style atmosphere now weighing on the region, Erdoğan challenges Russian President Vladimir Putin’s growing influence in the Middle East while waging a private war against the Kurds.
#Erdogan is now a man past his time, obsolete in his ideas and values.Tweet This
Europe lost a golden opportunity to set a path for Turkey—maybe not a fast lane, but a process to engage Ankara in a shared environment. This foolish attitude gave Erdoğan an excuse to play the Ottoman autocrat, using proud national Turkish traditions to his advantage. The result is a wild, violent theater in which terrorists hatch their plots and deploy their weapons, foreign powers try to twist Turkey to their own interests, and the moderate opposition has an ever-smaller role to play.
Like many Middle Eastern leaders, Erdoğan is now a man past his time, obsolete in his ideas and values. Yet it is very difficult to spot any credible, sustainable alternative to his clumsy grip on power.
On February 25, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled that the journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, who had been imprisoned over a report alleging that Ankara had tried to ship arms to Islamists in Syria, should be released. The relief many Turks expressed at the ruling was quickly overshadowed. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded by saying he would “neither obey nor respect” the highest court’s ruling.
Let that sink in for a moment. These words summarize the deep trouble Turkey is in. They were tweeted in English, along with a full statement, by the Turkish presidency’s official Twitter account. A clear message to the world confirms that neither the rule of law nor the separation of powers is respected in Turkey. Personal attacks on journalists or opposition figures have all too often led to immediate arrests. They also have a chilling effect on the entire population and result in (self-)censorship.
#Turkey's dangerous spiral can be stopped only by the people.Tweet This
This dangerous, negative spiral can be stopped only by the people in Turkey themselves. No outside entity can determine the country’s fate, but the EU must at least stand by its principles and not compromise them as it did in the November 2015 deal on refugees. Polls indicating more support among Turks for EU membership, and peaceful defiance, offer hope that no one can destroy the promise of a democratic Turkey.
But there is no time to lose. Only effective checks and balances and respect for democratic principles in word and deed can prevent authoritarianism from further spinning out of control.
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