Pivot point: 2018 will be a defining year for the Turkish nation under Erdogan
PUBLISHED: 12:28 11 January 2018 | UPDATED: 12:28 11 January 2018
Xinhua News Agency
Turkey’s trajectory under Erdogan is a disaster for her people and a big loss for Europe, but we must not write the country off, argues former Europe Minister DENIS MACSHANE.
If Britain at the western edge of Europe is stuttering down the exit road from Europe, Turkey in the east has never quite been able to find the slip road that allows entry in the first place.
These two proud nations, with memories of empire and ruling over peoples far from home, are now co-joined as book ends of the continent that have fallen off the shelf.
Britain was always Turkey’s main supporter for its European aspirations. Today it has a Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, with a Turkish blood-line via his great-grandfather – who made the wrong choice and backed the Sultan and the Anglo-French occupying forces in 1922 and was murdered by nationalists.
But Johnson wants Britain out of Europe and can offer no help to those Turks who still dream of some kind of European future. He recently told the journalist Sarah Helm that the EU “is a racist concept run by white men – it even refuses to let in Turkey as a member”. I was indeed shocked, when serving as Minister for Europe, at the raw quasi-racism against Turks, especially from cultivated Austrian diplomats and politicians.
Alas, our Foreign Secretary can hardly talk, as his Brexit victory was based on whipping up fears that 75 million Turks were about to join the EU – as his new cabinet colleague, Penny Mordaunt, told the Today programme in the run-up to the referendum. In one of the most grotesque claims of a tarnished Leave campaign she then went on to deny the fact that the UK or any other EU member state could veto an application by Turkey to join the EU.
If 18 months ago, the chances of Turkey becoming part of Europe were remote, they are now vanishingly small. As a young journalist from Hurriyet, the Times or Le Monde of Turkey, told me on a recent visit to the country: “Erdogan has made Turkey into a Middle East state.”
That might seem one way of characterising the increasing authoritarianism of the 63-year-old president, but in some senses Recep Tayyip Erdogan is travelling along the same path as a number of other European leaders, from points north and west of the Black Sea, where countries are showing signs of turning away from economic, political and cultural liberalism and towards a new politics of nationalist populist identitarianism tinged with religiosity. The Erdoganisation of Europe can be seen in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic and, of course, it finds common ground with politics of Putin and Trump.
Modern Turkey cannot be easily pigeonholed, though. It is an elected autocracy, not the military dictatorship the country knew briefly for periods of the 1960s, 1970s and finally in 1980. There are plenty of claims of corruption, and business and governing power works symbiotically, but things do not seem as chronic as in Russia or China.
Turkey is where 21st century Islamism meets 20th century nationalism. Erdogan now wants to be considered a modern-day Ataturk – Father of the Turks – yet cannot bear to mention the name of the original Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the strategic military genius who destroyed Churchill’s dreams of Turkish conquest at the Dardanelles in the First World War. He came from an area of the Ottoman Empire which is now Thessaloniki, in Greece, and wanted a western-facing Turkish nation to replace the ramshackle Sultanate.
He swept away the Arabic script, loved his raki, is still popular today from Athens or Ankara, and was filmed dancing with women to show Muslims that having a good time, holding hands with women and dancing cheek to cheek were perfectly compatible with Islam. Even today, one sees more burkas and niqabs in Oxford Street and Knightsbridge than in the shopping streets of Taksim Square in Istanbul.
Yet the Islamisation of Turkey proceeds apace. More and more schools focus on religious instruction. As the Jesuits used to say: “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” Erdogan is a de facto if not a formal member of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that seeks, through a literalist reading of the Quran, to place men in domination over woman, criminalise gays, close down bars and discos and roll back 100 years of Kemalist secularism. Since its founding in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood has been trying to make a breakthrough to serious political power. Erdogan is currently their best hope and the secular, Kemalist Turkey is slowly being whittled away. But the country is not Iran, nor an Arab state, and the tensions within the Erdogan project are visible for all to see.
His main priority has been to stay in power. The treatment of journalists and critical intellectuals is shameful, with a tide of persecution, arrests and dismissals from public posts. He has neutered the military, dismissing half the army’s generals and about the same number of naval and air force commanders. Turkey now has twice as many warplanes as there are pilots to fly them. Erdogan has been careful to stay within Nato and keep Turkish membership of the Council of Europe, so links to the Euro-Atlantic community have not been fully ruptured.
But the refreshing foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbours”, promoted – with much praise – earlier under Erdogan’s rule, has all but vanished. Since those optimistic days, the country has alienated almost all its neighbours, from Israel to Iran, and Greece to Russia.
This is not all Turkey’s fault. Two of its neighbours, Iraq and Syria, have seen their states destroyed by war. As a result, Turkey has had to accept three million refugees from conflicts unleashed by others.
Moreover Kurds have used the fighting in Iraq and Syria to become an increasingly powerful military force and raise the prospects of the enduring Turkish nightmare of their country being split asunder.
The Kurds, like Catalans, Basques, Scots or Quebecois, have a real identity and a genuine sense of historic grievance. Erdogan began his reign by allowing Kurdish language rights and some tolerance for peaceful dialogue. But the measures failed to halt militant Kurdish identitarian politics and the kind of terrorism that the IRA in Ireland or FARC in Colombia indulged in. Leaders don’t take kindly to their agents being murdered and Erdogan was no exception.
Rather like Eamon de Valera, who referred to Ireland as a “Catholic country for a Catholic people”, Erdogan sees Turkey as a wholly Muslim state. He was initially aided in his efforts to ensure this was so by a Muslim theologian-organiser Fethullah Gulen, 76, who has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999.
To begin with, Gulen was an ally of Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party), although Gulen was opposed to Erdogan’s early opening of dialogue with the Kurds. The two men sought a de-Kemalisation and re-Islamisation of Turkey. Gulen supporters were encouraged to enter the state bureaucracy, open schools and become foreign service officials. What is not known is how many entered the military or became police and intelligence officers. This point has become particularly pertinent since the relationship between their pair, and their respective movements, started to decline in the early 2010s in a classic power struggle between the two organisations.
The Islamic priorities of both Erdogan and Gulen always had difficulty meshing with Turkey’s opening to Western capitalism. The country had become a massive tourist destination for northern and western Europeans, as well as Russians who could travel there visa-free. Turkey was – and is – in the EU Customs Union (except for agricultural products) and Turkish businessmen did well in post-communist, liberalised Europe, as well as Russia and the ex-communist world of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, which lie with the Turkic family of nations.
Turkey’s economy in the early Erdogan years grew strongly and business liked the cleaner government initially associated with his rule. But Turkey since then has not remained exempt from Lord Acton’s rule about the corruption and power.
Erdogan’s early bid to get closer to the EU was scuppered by his refusal to come to terms with the Cyprus question. Turkey invaded and occupied northern Cyprus in 1974 and ever since has stationed two full army divisions on the island – 35,000 soldiers in all. There is no military threat from Cyprus or its patron, Greece, and the former British colony is within two minutes flying time from the Turkish mainland.
Turkey has refused to reduce its military profile on the occupied part of Cyprus or even open its ports to freighters from the island. In exchange, there are no direct flights to the tourist centres of northern Cyprus, from outside Turkey, and endless tit-for-tat shenanigans between Greek and Turkish coastguard vessels, with blatant over-flying of Greek islands by Turkish warplanes.
A referendum to approve a UN plan for a resolution, put forward by Kofi Annan in 2004, was defeated by Greek Cypriots. The twin nationalisms of a Greece that remembers all the humiliations of being a province of the Ottoman empire and a Turkey that blames the West for its reduction in status still simmers. No recent political leader has been able to rise above playing to the nationalist identity galleries of Greek or Turkish politics, and Erdogan long ago gave up trying.
He may indeed be author of his own misfortunes but the botched coup of June 2016 was real, and he narrowly escaped with his life. The rising, by a faction in the military – linked by Erdogan to Gulen – gave the president an excuse for mass arrests of army officers, state bureaucrats and journalists.
Detaining journalists, some with good links to Western Europe, especially with German media, is never wise. But Erdogan doesn’t care. The attitude in Europe has hardened considerably. In recent elections in Austria, Germany and France, the right have called for Turkey to lose its technical status as an EU candidate state. In truth, this is electioneering on the part of European politicians – there is no chance of Erdogan’s Turkey getting even a toe in the EU’s door.
Such calls for a more critical stance from Europe towards Turkey are understandable, but they will not change Erdogan’s approach and will further isolate liberal, modernist, western-oriented Turks.
Nonetheless Erdogan still has to face his electorate and he now has a serious new challenger in Meral Aksener, a strong-willed, eloquently funny and feisty female political leader in a country where politics is mainly by and for men. She has set up the sweetly-named ‘Good Party’ and says she will challenge Erdogan in elections due to be held in November 2019.
She is far from being to everyone’s taste as her political career – which includes spells as interior minister and vice-speaker of the parliament – has been spent firmly on the nationalist right. But she has now broken with the main rightist party and has been willing to take the fight to Erdogan in a manner which the gentle and professorial leader of the centre-left CHP (Republican People’s Party) party has not been able to do.
Turkey’s 15 million Kurds are swing voters.
The Kurdish HDP party got more than 10% cent of votes in the 2015 parliamentary election, with many non-Kurdish Turks lending their vote to help the party get over the necessary threshold and win their 80 seats in Turkey’s 550 seat parliament, which is elected on a strict proportional representation system.
Akenser has been accused of treating Kurdish aspirations with contempt in the manner of old-style Turkish right-wing nationalists.
Yet it is Erdogan who has arrested not just those committed to armed struggle like the PKK, but also HDP’s leader and other moderate Kurd politicians, closed down papers and used the excuse of Kurdish participation in conflicts in Iraq and Syria to launch full-scale military operations against towns and communities in south-east Turkey.
If Aksener can continue her U-turn away from her past, can she find words that offer hope to Kurds in a post-Erdogan Turkey that they will not be treated as third-class citizens?
To be sure, the odds on Erdogan, like Putin, staying at the top of his country remain good. He dare not lose office and the immunity it brings, as members of his inner circle would likely face charges of corruption.
But he is not the leader he was. It is almost a quarter of a century since Erdogan became Mayor of Istanbul, where his tough, effective leadership allowed his Islamic party to win enough votes to win national power in 2002.
He has fired or lost most of the ablest advisors and officials from his team in Ankara. He has also fired the mayors of Turkey’s four biggest cities, since he cannot be sure of their loyalty. He is paranoid the Gulen movement is out to get him, and he faces a fresh electoral challenge in Aksener.
Much depends on whether her Good Party really gets off the ground in the next 18 months.
It may have been under attack, but Turkish secularism remain well rooted, and as Erdogan’s Islamist profile gets thicker and coarser, more and more Turks may lose enthusiasm for his ultra-religious politics. The most important thing for European and North American democracy is not to rupture links with Turkey, despite the many flagrant violations of liberal values by a country that is facing serious threats from terror, secessionism, and extra-parliamentary Islamic movements guided from outside the country.
Turkey and the EU are embarking on talks to update their existing customs union agreement. This allows Europe a foot in the door to insist on more transparent trade rules to stop state and AKP capture of major chunks of Turkey’s economy.
The formal ending of any EU discussions with Turkey or an expulsion from Nato will only play into the Erdogan narrative that the West is out to get him, and still is dominated by anti-Turkish prejudice on an almost racist level.
One of the sharpest observers of Turkey is its former UK ambassador, Sir Peter Westmacott, who went on to Britain’s two top diplomatic postings in Paris and Washington.
He speaks Turkish and has a home there. In a recent pamphlet for the Atlantic Council he wrote that unless someone or something stops Erdogan’s “slide into authoritarianism… it may be too late to salvage Turkey’s political institutions, culture and reputation. The people of that remarkable, diverse, vibrant and indispensable country deserve better.”
If that remark by the young Hurriyet correspondent, that her Turkey is becoming a Middle Eastern nation, does encapsulate the country’s 21st century future, then that is as big as loss for Europe as the folly of Brexit.
• Denis MacShane served as the UK’s Minister of Europe from 2002 to 2005.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, right, establishes the Turkish Republic
First democratic elections held
Turkey becomes a full member of Nato
Military junta seizes power and hangs the prime minister. Power is then handed back to civilians
Turkey becomes associate member of European Economic Community
Second military coup takes place, with martial law imposed for two years
Turkey invades Cyprus and, after gaining control of 40% of the island, unilaterally declares a ceasefire
Turkey’s bloodiest coup sees General Kenan Evren take power. Hundreds of deaths and dozens of executions follow, as do more than 500,000 arrests; the army draws up a constitution which, with amendments, remains in place today
The military formally cedes power, but Evren remains president until 1989
Turkey applies to the EC for full membership
The EC endorses Turkey’s eligibility for membership, but defers assessment of its application
The EC endorses Turkey’s eligibility for membership, but defers assessment of its application
A customs union created between EU and Turkey; Welfare party head Necmettin Erbakan becomes country’s first Islamist prime minister
Army triggers what becomes known as the ‘postmodern coup’ pushing Erbakan out of power, not assuming control of the government. His party is later banned; EU leaders decline to grant candidate status to Turkey
Erdogan serves a four-month prison sentence for reading out an Islamist poem; the EU agrees to recognise Turkey as an applicant country, on conditions which
EU partially freezes membership talks over Cyprus issues
The military declares itself “an absolute defender of secularism”, seen a threat to the government. Erdogan holds early elections and increases his majority
AKP survives an attempt to close down the party. The constitutional court fails by one vote as 10 out of 11 judges find party guilty of “anti-secular activity”
A split occurs between Erdogan, right, and the Gulenists
Erdogan becomes Turkey’s first directly elected president
In two elections, in June and November, the AKP first loses and then regains its parliamentary majority as the backdrop of violence increases
Further attacks from ISIS and the PKK follow. A coup attempt against Erdogan fails