Two months after the failed coup in Turkey, the country continues to suffer from its consequences. Government authorities have already raised the prospect of extending the state of emergency, initially imposed for three months. Of equal concern has the been the scale of the effort to purge the followers of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose followers in state institutions are accused of organizing the coup.

Former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister Carl Bildt believes that “no one should be surprised that Turkey is now trying to purge Gülenists from positions of power.” As he puts it, “[a]ny state faced with insurrection from within would do the same.” Yet the numbers seem wildly incommensurate with an effort to bring the mutineers and their backers to justice. “In addition to the discharge of nearly 4,000 officers, 85,000 public officials have been dismissed from their jobs since July 15 and 17,000 have been jailed,” points out Harvard’s Dani Rodrik, while “scores of journalists have been detained, including many with no links to the Gülen movement.” Even President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had to signal his displeasure that the net has been cast so frighteningly wide. An initiative to target the Gülen network is in danger of morphing into a plan to stifle dissent, with overzealous public prosecutors acting arbitrarily.

For many Project Syndicate contributors, including me, the post-coup environment portends a turning point for Turkey’s domestic order and its relations with the West. When Erdoğan first came to power as Prime Minister in 2003 at the head of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which he had helped establish just two years earlier, many observers believed that his government could be a model for reconciling modernity and democracy with Islam. Now they, and much of the world, are asking whether Erdoğan’s vision remains compatible with these aspirations.

With Friends Like These

The effort by elements of the military to topple Erdoğan, it is now clear, came as a complete surprise. It had been widely believed that Erdoğan and the AKP had Turkey’s military firmly under control. And yet a potent cross section of the Turkish military participated in the coup attempt.

Sinan Ülgen
Ülgen is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on Turkish foreign policy, nuclear policy, cyberpolicy, and transatlantic relations.
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The overriding belief is that the coup was orchestrated by Gülenist elements within the military. After all, the Pennsylvania-based Gülen and Erdoğan had once been close allies, and the AKP initially relied on Gülen’s Hizmet (Service) movement to populate public administration and the state’s security apparatus. Not only did Erdoğan and Gülen appear to share the same Islamist vision, but the resources that Gülen could bring to bear, were formidable. As Rodrik put it in 2013, Gülen’s followers “created what is effectively a state within the Turkish state, gaining a strong foothold in the police force, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy.”

But this mutually beneficial relationship soon deteriorated, evidently owing to the Gülenists’ insatiable appetite for influential positions within key institutions. The real turning point came in December 2013, when Gülen-affiliated prosecutors and judges leveled corruption charges against key government officials. A bitter struggle ensued, described by Bildt as a “ruthless and increasingly destructive silent civil war between the AKP and its former allies in the Gülenist movement.” With the military widely seen as the last bastion of Gülenist influence, it is this struggle that appears to have culminated in the July coup attempt.

Rodrik believes that the Gülenists had motive. “Erdoğan was preparing to make a major move against the Gülenists in the military,” he says. “A few officers had already been arrested for fabricating evidence in earlier trials, and it was rumored that a large-scale purge of Gülenist officers was in the works for [August’s] meeting of the Supreme Military Council.”Indeed, the “ultimate irony of July’s failed coup,” he points out, “is that it was engineered not by Turkey’s secularists, but by the Gülenist officers Erdoğan had allowed to be promoted in their stead.”

At the same time, Rodrik notes that “a bloody military coup lies very much outside the traditional modus operandi of the Gülen movement, which tends to prefer behind-the-scenes machinations to armed action or explicit violence.” For the Gülenists, therefore, the coup attempt “may have been a desperate last-ditch effort, given the prospect that they were about to lose their last stronghold in Turkey.”

But Duke University’s Timur Kuran believes that “the putsch was not the work of Gülenists alone.” Rather, “Disaffected officers of many persuasions participated, as did opportunists seeking promotion.” They failed, he says, owing to a lack of commitment to the plot by many who were supposed to carry it out. “[I]nformation about it was leaked in advance,” Kuran says, “inducing many conspirators, including some key military units, to withdraw” their support.

Wait and See?

How, then, should Turkey’s partners in the West react to developments in the country since the coup attempt?

For Bildt, a degree of forbearance is necessary. While agreeing that abuses in the immediate post-putsch period should not be ignored, he nonetheless counsels strategic patience: “It is hard to know at this stage if the government is casting the net too wide or not wide enough,” he argues, “but erring in either direction will only create new problems.”

But former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the European Parliament’s liberal faction, takes the opposite position and calls on the European Union to confront Erdoğan before it’s too late. “The West – and the EU, in particular – must condemn, more clearly than ever, his accelerating shift toward autocracy,” Verhofstadt argues. “They must make him understand that his current path leads away from EU membership and could cost Turkey some of the economic ties on which it depends.”

Verhofstadt is not alone in seeking to use the EU’s leverage to influence Erdoğan. In October 2015, his fellow liberal MEP Marietje Schaake expressed concern about European leaders’ unwillingness to criticize Erdoğan, owing to Turkey’s crucial role in managing the refugee crisis and keeping migrants and asylum-seekers, mainly from neighboring Syria, from seeking to enter the EU. “Turkey’s position as an essential strategic partner,” she maintains, “should not deter European leaders from raising concerns about Erdoğan’s authoritarianism or asking how Turkey’s media crackdown is compatible with the Copenhagen criteria (the conditions countries must meet to join the EU).”

Odd Man Out?

Yet, in the wake of July’s failed coup and Erdoğan’s harsh response, it is precisely the assumption shared by Verhofstadt and Schaake – that the goal of EU accession could be used to pressure Turkey to comply with European norms – that must be questioned. To be sure, the accession narrative has long sustained Turkey’s relationship with Europe, underpinning progress on democratic reforms and anchoring European engagement and leverage. As Volkan Bozkir, Turkey’s minister for European affairs and chief EU accession negotiator, pointed out last year, his country had “adopted more than 2,000 pieces of legislation to reach EU standards in various fields” since 2003.

But while the accession narrative proved highly effective in transforming the ex-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, the progress it set in motion in Turkey stalled as the process lost credibility. One reason for this, certainly, was Turkey’s backsliding on democratic norms. More important, the inability of major EU member states, particularly France and Germany, to overcome their ambivalence – if not outright hostility – toward eventual membership for Turkey clearly weakened Turkish officials’ principal incentive to sustain progress.

It may indeed be true, as Schaake contends, that “more than half of the Turkish population supports EU accession.” But it is also true that at least half of those supporters no longer believe that accession will happen.

For Schaake, this state of affairs is to Europe’s detriment, and a more hands-off approach like that favored by Bildt is a non-starter. “On the contrary,” she argues, “ensuring that Turkey remains a stable democracy – by responding both to domestic developments and deteriorating conditions in the Middle East – is in Europe’s long-term interest.” Dominique Moisi of Sciences-Po in Paris reaches a similar conclusion: “a fragile Turkey,” he says, “makes for a vulnerable West – and an even more vulnerable Middle East, which desperately needs pillars of stability.”

Likewise, former German foreign minister Joschka Fisher urges the West to focus on strategic interdependence. Despite mounting tensions, “the EU and its member states must not lose sight of the fact that the decades-long partnership with Turkey is of paramount interest to both sides.” And Bildt makes a similar case, pointing out that an “alienated and authoritarian Turkey could bring conflict and strife back to Europe’s eastern borderlands.”

But Bildt and Fischer are more cautious – or perhaps more realistic – than Verhofstadt and Schaake about what the EU can hope to achieve. Bildt wants to “escalate engagement with Turkey to ensure an outcome that reflects democratic values and is favorable to Western and Turkish interests alike.” Fischer, for his part, also insists that the basis for the EU’s relationship with Turkey “can never be the abandonment of democratic principles.” Nonetheless, Fischer, writing two months before the coup attempt, was circumspect even then, arguing that Europe should “focus on sustaining the relationship and reducing tensions as much as possible.”

A New Order for Turkey and Europe

All of these authors rightly highlight both the importance of the relationship between Turkey and Europe and its increasing fragility. But they offer little guidance about how to overcome the fundamental fact that the conventional framework for bilateral engagement has become dysfunctional. In the absence of any appetite for restarting accession talks, which have been effectively suspended since 2010, or of determined political leadership to put negotiations back on track, geopolitics seems to be imposing a new order on this critical relationship.

The refugee crisis, for example, has created a new and yet vulnerable framework of cooperation. Indeed, Verhofstadt makes the case that disagreements over the deal agreed in March could lead to more friction between the two sides. “Turkey insists that visa-free travel for Turkish citizens visiting the EU, promised by EU governments in January, should be delivered this year,” he points out. “But, with Turkey having so far failed to meet the agreed conditions, including overhauling its anti-terrorism legislation, that may not happen.” The coup attempt and its aftermath make it even less likely that Turkey will liberalize its domestic security arrangements.

Yet, despite these difficulties, the deal seems to be holding overall. Even if expectations are not fully met, neither side has an incentive to pull the plug on an arrangement that generates mutual benefits. That is why Turkey agreed to move the deadline for visa liberalization from June to October, and now from October to the end of the year.

More important, the refugee deal portends the future shape of the Turkey-EU relationship, which will be transactional, not accession-driven, with closer economic integration becoming a critical component of the new diplomatic framework. Turkey owes much of its economic success over the past generation to its open trade policies and privileged links to the EU, which Verhofstadt describes as “a critical trade and business partner that has been indispensable in driving Turkey’s modernization.” Commenting on Erdoğan’s meeting in late July with Russian president Vladimir Putin, Verhofstadt makes the case that “whatever economic benefits Russia can offer are dwarfed by those provided by the EU.”

Middle-Class Virtues

The Erdoğan government’s interest in deepening Turkey’s economic ties to Europe is likely to become more acute as the decade of sound and solid growth described in 2013 by Jeffrey Sachs peters out. Average annual growth has already since dropped from 5% to around 3%. Further downward pressure on investment and output can be expected, owing to the uncertainty of the post-coup business climate and the diversion of the government’s attention and resources from structural reforms to domestic security.

The external environment is also becoming less benign for developing countries that, like Turkey, boast a chronic current-account deficit. “A fragile world economy will not be hospitable to large net foreign borrowers,” Rodrik points out. “Countries with large current-account deficits,” he says, “will remain hostage to skittish market sentiment.” In this context, the EU, having failed to provide an anchor for political reforms, could provide one for economic reforms for a Turkish government that will increasingly be forced to develop a new growth strategy.

In that sense, the nature of external leverage seems to be shifting – and may prove to be more powerful than the EU accession narrative. Having created a significant middle class, and with a young and growing population, Turkey cannot afford a protracted period of slow economic growth, which would greatly undermine Erdoğan’s popularity and that of the AKP. As Oxford University’s Adeel Malik argues, “Turkey’s middle class will not support a party that fails to advance its interests and deliver economic prosperity,” even if it supports, in general, its Islamist aims.

So the hope is that Turkey’s overall governance challenges, brutally exposed by the botched coup, may, in Malik’s words, eventually “spur Erdoğan’s government to resolve Turkey’s political impasse and ensure economic growth.” In that sense, Turkey is set to test whether a large and empowered middle class is indeed an effective bulwark against the weakening of democracy and the rule of law. The outcome of this natural experiment will undoubtedly have implications for many other developing countries.

This article was originally published by Project Syndicate.