‘It is not possible for Turkey to be a world power without democracy’ | Bulent Gokay

‘It is not possible for Turkey to be a world power without democracy’

Bülent Gökay (Photo: Today’s Zaman)

(First Published at Today’s Zaman  on May 05, 2014, Monday/ 16:47:10)
Bülent Gökay, a professor of international relations and philosophy at Keele University, has said Turkey is a rising economic power, but it is not possible for Turkey to be a respectable and responsible world power without achieving fully functioning democratic status, including freedom of expression and democratic rights.In an exclusive interview with Sunday’s Zaman, the professor, who is also the founding editor of the Journal of GlobalFaultlines, stated that Turkey will become a real global power only when its economic progress is matched by a strong, stable and functioning democratic system.

Speaking about the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government’s shift from democracy, which has recently become evident with the adoption of a number of controversial laws, including the law on the reshuffling of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), the law regulating the use of Internet and the law that gives extraordinary powers to the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), Gökay said the AK Party has remained in power for consecutive 12 years — which has led to the emergence of an increasingly authoritarian system. “This has been quite evident since 2011, with the start of violent repression of public protests, jailing of journalists on suspicion of conspiring with terrorists, and pressure being put upon newspaper owners to sack critical journalists,” he noted.

Below is the full interview with Gökay.

1) The perception in the West that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is growing authoritarian has strengthened, in particular, after the Gezi Park protests of last May. A number of anti-democratic laws, including the ones on the HSYK, the Internet and MİT, have been passed hastily in Parliament in the aftermath of the Dec. 17, 2013 corruption operation. Is Turkey evolving into a Mukhabarat state? How do you evaluate the new MİT law?

This question requires a larger perspective and some historical context first. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s success and popularity during the past 12 years is closely linked with the fact that the Turkish economy achieved significant growth during the past 10 years when Erdoğan’s party has been in power. With an impressive growth spurt, Turkey has been placed among the top 10 emerging economies in the world alongside the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries. Turkey’s per capita income was tripled within this decade when Erdoğan has been the leader.

It seems that these successes have fuelled Erdoğan’s sense of his own importance in Turkey’s economic rise. However, it should be obvious to anyone who understands how the global economy works that any such economic progress should be based on a long period of preparation — years if not decades long. If we look at the projections presented by major global institutions, like PriceWaterhouse Cooper, or analyses put forward by key experts, such as Paul Kennedy or Neil Ferguson, even in the early 1990s it was clearly mentioned that Turkey would be one of the top 10 emerging stars in the following decade. In these projections, experts looked at the population dynamics, growth potential and geographical capacities of the states and identified a major shift in the world economy for the benefit of a number of emerging economies-BRICS and others, including Turkey. Even in 1987, there was a reference in a major work to this economic trend. So, in a way, Erdoğan’s government found itself in the right time and right place, rather than creating the conditions that led to the country’s economic growth.

Now, after 12 years in power, the result is the emergence of an increasingly authoritarian, more explicitly religiously inspired, and obsessively neoliberal system. This has been quite evident since 2011, with the start of violent repression of public protests, jailing of journalists on suspicion of conspiring with terrorists, and pressure being put upon newspaper owners to sack critical journalists. All the above-mentioned reactions and policies are characteristics of an administration that has spent too long in power with a very inefficient and weak opposition. Ironically, all these authoritarian policies and heavy-handed dealings with the opposition bring Erdoğan’s government closer to the previous Kemalist/secular experiences. Erdoğan’s excessive use of the state apparatus, including indiscriminate use of tear gas and rubber bullets during the recent demonstrations, has rightly led to accusations that he is indeed governing the country in the same autocratic style for which he had bitterly criticized the Kemalist/secular generals.

 Action rooted in the power concept

The ruling party’s encroachment of the media, total intolerance of any criticism, and letting the security forces exercise the worst excesses of violence, widely witnessed during the Gezi Park protests — all these authoritarian and heavy-handed acts are originally rooted in the power concept of the Turkish Republic established by the Kemalist military elite 90 years ago. During the critical years of 1923 to 1925, soon after the independent Turkish Republic was established, Kemal Ataturk and his close associates by their actions resolved a fundamental question — whether the new Turkish regime would reach an accommodation with the people or rule over them. Any genuine accommodation with people would have required a serious modification of the militantly secular state ideology. The leadership chose to decide what the country needed and enforced its decisions, regardless of what the majority of the people thought about the matter. Therefore, the last three years of more authoritarian policies and actions of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government is clear evidence that Erdoğan’s ruling represents a strong continuity with the previous governments rather a break. Almost the entire 90-year history of the Turkish Republic witnessed ruling elites running the country with policies driven by anxiety, fear, recrimination and revenge. Erdoğan’s AK Party has proven to be no different.

According to many observers, both in Turkey and abroad, Erdoğan, who once declared that “in this country, there is segregation of Black Turks and White Turks” and “your brother Tayyip belongs to the Black Turks,” has now proved that he is running Turkey in the same fashion as the secular leaders of the White Turks.

2) How will steps taken swiftly by Turkey toward authoritarianism — including the laws on the HSYK, Internet and MİT — impact Turkey in the foreign policy in the medium and long terms?

Even though the relationship between economic/and social development of a country and the democratization of its political system is considerably more complex and complicated than suggested by a simple, one-to-one relationship, there is a fragile but essential link between being a strong economic power and establishing a stable democratic system in the long run: One doesn’t survive long without the other. Neither will tend to last long in the conditions of the absence of the other. Today, Turkey is a rising economic power, with its internationally competitive companies turning the youthful nation into an entrepreneurial hub, tapping cash-rich export markets in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East while attracting billions of investment dollars in return. But all this progress will require a stable and functioning democracy to survive. It is not possible for Turkey to be a respectable and responsible world power without achieving fully functioning democratic status, including freedom of expression and democratic rights. There is no exception to this, all existing evidence from the transition countries point to this same conclusion. Turkey will become a real global power only when its economic progress is matched by a strong, stable and functioning democratic system.

3) Is Turkey moving away from values of the EU? Is Turkey in search of a new dimension for itself? (The Shanghai Five, Russia-Putin system, etc.?)

Since its establishment, the AK Party developed its political position on the basis of two distinct approaches: it expressed widely shared demand of religious freedom through a European model, the relationship between state and religion. In this way, the leaders of the AK Party have brought the issue of religious freedom to the center of the political debate not as a major issue, but alongside with wider aspects of freedom and human rights, and in doing so, justified their pro-EU stance. The second approach is the AK Party’s fundamental criticism of the country’s economic and social problems. The party, from the start, focused on the significant responsibility of the center parties, right as well as left, in bringing the country economically to ruin and deepening social and cultural imbalances.

Whether the AK Party is moving away from the European Union or so-called European values is an interesting question. The 21st century is turning out to be much more unpredictable than we imagined. It seems major challenges to the future of Europe lie ahead. The most likely scenario for the future of the EU over the next decade and a half will be very slow or no growth. Within the European Union, the levels of economic growth vary considerably, and it seems that apart from the core countries of Germany, France and the UK, the rest are suffering more — much more since the 2007-08 financial crisis. Look at Greece, Spain and Portugal: Almost half of the working age population is still unemployed. Contrasts are sharp particularly among the 10 ex-communist countries that joined the EU since 2004. In the near future in terms of growth, Eastern Europe will trail far behind the rest of the world. Over the next decade, perhaps longer, this will be the region with the lowest economic growth or no growth.

From 1995 to 2005, the EU looked like a rising global power. It was doubling in size, from 12 states to more than two dozen. The euro was also launched for a united continent. Western Europe was one of the world’s most prosperous and stable regions. Central and Eastern Europe were rapidly coming out of their politically repressive and economically backward past. Today, in 2014, however, the outlook for Europe is more uncertain. Its destiny appears to be that of a strictly regional power, rather than a global giant. Even in the IMF and G20 summits, now all leading powers are complaining that Europeans are numerically over-represented. On all major international occasions, the EU now plays a secondary role. That’s why it is not surprising to see that the Turkish government is interested in developing further links with the Shanghai Cooperative Organization and the other emerging powers in the global East/South, rather than desperately trying to be a member of this declining “European family.” Regarding the so-called “universal” European values, I strongly believe that they exist only in the imagination of Euro-centric West European intellectuals. Freedom of speech? Public opinion? Political consensus? Human rights? Civil society? Or peaceful settlement of conflicts? Are these European values — meaning that they originated within Europe and do not normally exist in other geographies?

History teaches us that “Western/European values” at an earlier stage was basically driven by religious and mystical narrow-mindedness, by superstition, violence and exploitation in its Christian or non-Christian versions, by all the things that the West today believes are specific for Muslim or Hindu societies. Slavery, racism, fascism, segregation, these are all the products of European historical experience too. So, to define “European values” only as the positive side of this double faced history is an arbitrary attempt to purge European history of its destructive and depressing aspects.

Evaluating the AKP’s Syria policy

4) How do you evaluate the AKP’s Syria policy? Where did the AKP make the biggest mistake?

Turkey’s foreign policy has become more active and confident in the past 10 years in parallel to the country becoming more prosperous and increasingly stronger in the global arena. Before the escalation of Syrian crisis, new pro-active foreign policy of the AK Party government achieved some success through Davutoğlu’s “zero problem with neighbors” policy. However, with the escalation of the crisis in Syria, the AK Party government has taken sides in the ongoing civil war with the opposition forces fighting against the Assad regime. In Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood regime having fallen from power and Turkey’s prime minister openly siding against the new (military) regime, Turkey’s prestige as the stable and strong regional negotiator evaporated in thin air. Many in the region, and beyond, now consider Turkey on the side of the Wahhabi crusade against the Syrian regime. Starting with the “zero problem” policy, Turkey has ended up antagonizing almost all its neighbors and moved to a “zero friendship” policy in the Middle East.

Recently, about six months ago, however, there have been some indications that this policy may be changing: the Turkish government identified Jubhat al-Nusrah as a terrorist organization in the Syrian civil war. In November last year, Ahmet Davutoğlu met the Iranian Foreign Minister in Ankara, and both ministers agreed on a number of significant points on the Syrian crisis. Later Davutoğlu went to Tehran and met Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani. Just before his trip to Iran, Davutoğlu went to Iraq and visited the two most important holy cities of the Shiite world — al-Najaf and Karbala. This was the first time in modern Turkish history a senior Turkish politician has visited these holy cities. Let’s hope that these symbolic steps will be followed by concrete changes in the current policy, which will be based on reality and not just empty rhetoric.

5) What do you thing about attempts by the AK Party government to shut down schools opened and run by the Hizmet movement?

Once Freud used a term, “narcissism of small difference,” which provides a framework within which to understand that, in a relationship, there can be a need to find, and even exaggerate, small differences in order to preserve a feeling of separateness and self. In other words, social (and political) identity lies in small difference, and this difference is asserted against what is closest to achieve a superficial sense of one’s own uniqueness. The current ongoing conflict between the AK Party and the Gülen movement reminds me this term. Despite the intensity of the clash, in particular during the last couple of months, I do not see any significant principal differences between two camps, neither ideological nor political. Both groups are pro-Islamic, in favor of faith-based communities worldwide, and both share a common belief in free market economy, private entrepreneurialship, and both cherish upward-socio-economic mobility. Both sides share the same conservative frame of reference on almost all social and cultural issues. More important, the bulk of the supporters of both sides are coming from the same group of people — lower and middle classes in Anatolia, who had been marginalized by Kemalist secular regimes since the beginning of the republic, despite the fact that this group has always represented a clear majority of Turkey’s population. So, in my opinion, the current conflict stems from a power struggle, in particular at the top level, and are not necessarily fuelled by different political, economic and ideological interests. What is at stake are positions of power in the state structure in order to safeguard certain key political and economic interests.

A possibility of World War III?

6) The crisis in Ukraine has been growing. Israel has declared that it has suspended a peace process with Palestine. A conflict between Japan and China is ongoing. And we all know about civil wars in the Middle East, including the one in Syria. There are serious conflicts in every corner of the world. Would these conflicts trigger World War III?

First, I would like to say a few words on the Ukrainian crisis as this is the most recent and to some extent the most dangerous conflict on Turkey’s doorstep. The recent fight in the country has been presented by the Western media, to some extent in Turkey as well, as a simple struggle between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism. We are told by both journalists and politicians that the new de-facto regime in Kiev is characterized as Western and pro-democracy, and pro-Russian protesters in the east and southeast of the country as the incarnation of Soviet-style authoritarianism.

However, behind the simplicity of this presentation a different narrative is unfolding. In reality, the conflict has very little to do with democracy versus authoritarianism. The unelected government in Kiev, supported by the United States and the European Union, represents the modern face of a conservative — to some extent ultra-conservative — Ukrainian nationalism that has been progressively revived in the western portions of the country since the declaration of Ukrainian independence in 1990. Meanwhile, ex-President Yanukovych is little more than a typical post-Soviet petty capitalist oligarch — of which there are dozens of examples in the region that generally, but not always, enjoy the backing of Western powers. There is little to choose from between the leading parties in Ukraine, as the biggest pro-government and opposition parties have their roots in the same brazen oligarchy that divided the wealth of the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In December last year, the West was ready to embrace president Yanukovych and his unsavory oligarchs, if only they would sign an association agreement with the European Union. Two months later the story has changed completely and since then we are seemingly witnessing yet another battle in the global struggle between tyranny and democracy — with bloodthirsty authoritarians on one side and peaceful protesters on the other. Yanukovych only turned down the association agreement with the EU because he feared that he would not survive politically the social consequences of the harsh economic measures demanded by Europe.

As for the other conflicts, and that part of the question about various crisis points in many parts of the world, I do not think there is anything totally new about this situation. Apart from Ukraine, the rest of the conflicts — even though they are disastrous and tragic for the people within those geographies — seem to be manageable through diplomatic means, at least kept at the local regional levels. Ukraine is different, because this is the first time the interests of the US and its Western allies are coming on a head-on collision with the interests of the new and seriously strengthened Russian power. The US and NATO have been trying to encircle Russia militarily since 1991, from the moment the Soviet Union collapsed, just as with other perceived enemies like China and Iran. With the insistence of the US leadership, NATO has been expanded right to the borders of Russia, including a military outpost in Georgia, incorporating 12 former Soviet allies in central Europe. This is in direct contravention of George W. Bush’s promise not to extend NATO when Germany was reunited. Whether the situation will further escalate into a major war is a difficult question to answer. There are super hawks like Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, or Freedom House President David Kramer calling for the Obama administration to play a more hardline stance and send the US navy to the Black Sea. I still believe that this is a very small possibility, hopefully. As for Turkey, the best will be to stay out of this explosive conflict as much as it is realistically possible in the region.


Bülent Gökay is professor of international relations and head of the School for Politics and International Relations at Keele University, chair of the Editorial Committee of the Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies and managing editor of GlobalFaultlines. He joined Keele University in 1996 from Wolfson College, Cambridge, where he had been a postdoctoral research fellow. Before coming to Keele, he taught at the Birkbeck College, London, the University of North London and the University of Cambridge.

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