TURKEY: centralisation of power also means the centralisation of blame | Bulent Gokay


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(the following text is the full and original English version of an interview with me, part of it published in Greek daily To Vima on Sunday, 8 June 2014.)

Soviet Eastern PolicyShort

Once someone described Turkey as a “paper big brother” for the countries of the Middle East, implying that the policy of the AK Party government has promised more than it can deliver and oversold what it has achieved. My humble advice to Turkey’s policymakers will be to stop trying to emulate an ambitious model of leadership, and instead follow Deng Xiaping’s discretionary doctrine dating back to 1991: Not to try to carry the flag, nor head the wave. Rather than demanding leadership, to watch, watch carefully and act cautiously. Avoid unnecessary confrontation, and costly rivalry. Keep the principle of national sovereignty and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. Finally, do not claim a hegemonic position, but instead act in the framework of peaceful cooperation and development.

Would you say that Erdogan is now the source of Turkey’s problems, threatening with his authoritarianism its status as a fully functioning democracy (the separation of powers, the independence of the Judiciary, the freedom of the Press, and the rights of the citizens)?

More than anything else, 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 AK 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.

Μπουλέντ Γκιοκάι: Ο Ερντογάν έγινε ισλαμο-κεμαλιστής

Do you think that he is presiding over an Islamist transformation of society, and that he wants to consolidate a “neo-Ottoman” regime? Will that help Turkey’s standing in the world?

The AK Party, formed 12 years ago, is both Islamic and pro-Western from the start. It is a party of centre right, coloured by a moderate interpretation of Islam, similar to Christian Democrat parties of Europe, with a programme composed of detailed sections on keeping religion separate from politics, promoting a kind of democracy and multi-party politics, interpreting religious tolerance within the context of wider human rights. The AK Party, which grew out of popular Islamist support, won three consecutive elections despite an intense campaign, both home and abroad, presenting it as a threat to the secular Kemalist regime. The party is described by its founders not as a religious party, but as a party in which religious people feel at home. AK Party’s interpretation of Islam considers Islam mostly as a personal matter and not as a dominating force in political/ public life. All this is in line with the wider historical conditions which led to the rise of the AKP to power.

During the critical years of 1923 to 1925, soon after the independent Turkish Republic was established, the basic institutions, as well as the policies, of the new Turkey were established. The new Turkey, from the start, identified itself directly and immediately with the history, culture and perceptions of the Western world, claiming a total break with the Ottoman and Islamic past. By 1925 an independent Turkish republic was firmly established with its new Western institutions and militantly secular modernising ideology. A completely new social order was created under the rule of a small secular elite. The events of these early years mark an important watershed in the development of Turkish state ideology, which is still dominating most aspects of the Turkish state and society. During those years, 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. The power and legitimacy of the republic were based on a conflictual relationship between the secular centre and Muslim and traditional vicinity.
Some of those social groups that once made up the vicinity started to gain more and more socio-economic mobility and moved to the cities in large numbers, from 1970s onwards. These, later made up an important section of the young and dynamic middle class. This new and important group of people brought along their provincial identity and more traditional values and demands with them into the centre. The tension between the new urban middle classes, whose members originally sprang up from the provincial towns and the old established secular elite is one of the key factors to understand the rise and increased support for the Islamist political elite.
Ironically, 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, Tayyip 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.

Is the idea that Turkey could become, with Erdogan, a model Islamic liberal democracy that would reconcile the Muslim world to the West, dead?

I believe the claim that Turkey could become a model Islamic liberal democracy that would reconcile the Muslim word to the West has been unrealistic from the start. Perhaps the most critical achievement of the last twelve years has been to establish civilian supremacy over the staunchly secularist military, an institution with a history of multiple interventions against democratically elected governments. However, the claim that Turkey is a model Islamic liberal democracy was not convincing even at the beginning of this process 12 years ago. It was unrealistic not because of a principal clash between Islam and secularism. Instead, the real source of the conflict is between electoral democracy and liberalism. The last 12 years of AKP rule has shown that Erdogan has a tendency to reduce democracy to elections. His approach to majoritarian democracy comes at the expense of individual rights and liberties, an independent media, and the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers. These essential characteristics of liberal democracy are missing in today’s Turkey. Once someone described Turkey as a “paper big brother” for the countries of the Middle East, implying that the policy of the AK Party government has promised more than it can deliver and oversold what it has achieved. My humble advice to Turkey’s policymakers will be to stop trying to emulate an ambitious model of leadership, and instead follow Deng Xiaping’s discretionary doctrine dating back to 1991: Not to try to carry the flag, nor head the wave. Rather than demanding leadership, to watch, watch carefully and act cautiously. Avoid unnecessary confrontation, and costly rivalry. Keep the principle of national sovereignty and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. Finally, do not claim a hegemonic position, but instead act in the framework of peaceful cooperation and development.

What are the new forces emerging now in Turkey’s society?

At the surface, it seems that the AK Party rule in Turkey is strong and popular, after 12 years and three terms in power, with an increased share in the popular vote. Erdogan’s regime is based on a cleverly crafted hegemonic apparatus. This has been quite evident since 2011, with the start of violent repression of public protests, the jailing of journalists, and the updating of military regime’s anti-terrorism laws. All these are characteristic of an administration that has spent too long in power and become too arrogant and too sure of itself. Therefore, perhaps the root source of the current conflict in Turkish society and politics – which has found its most powerful expression in the 2013 Taksim Gezi park protest of tens of thousands of young people – boils down more than anything else to a style of ruling, the style of a leader who is increasingly intolerant of dissent. As his regime provides material improvement in the lives of large sections of Turkey’s population, he becomes more and more arrogant and too sure of himself and his ruling style.

Now he is acting as if the national power is his own personal power because the millions of people, 53 per cent in the most recent elections, in Turkey’s representational democracy had given their power to his party. But with the recent protest movements, started in Taksim Gezi Park, a line had been crossed. The young protesters in Taksim square already achieved a significant goal: to show the urgent need to go back to basics and ensure that the fundamental tenets of individual freedom and democracy function in Turkey. If a significant number of people are not allowed to express their views freely and to demonstrate peacefully and their attempts to view their opposition are met with such heavy brutality, then this is not a proper democracy.

Democracy is not only about elections every four or five years. It is essentially a means for the people to choose their leaders and to hold their leaders accountable for their policies and their conduct in office. In a democracy, the people are sovereign. They are the highest form of political authority, not their elected political leaders. Power flows from the people to the leaders of government, who hold power only temporarily. The people are free to criticise their elected leaders and representatives, and to observe how they conduct the business of government. Elected representatives at the national and local levels should regularly listen to the people and respond to their needs and suggestions.

“Democracy is a demanding discipline – not only during election campaigns but every day. It requires debates, consultation and compromise,” said European Commissioner Stefan Fule rightly in his meeting with Erdogan on 7 June 2013, in Istanbul, while the Taksim Gezi demonstrations were still going on. Fule also said that excessive use of force by police had “no place” in a democracy and called for a “swift and transparent investigation” to bring those responsible to account. Erdogan, on the other hand, responded by saying that his party’s victory in past elections justified carrying on with controversial projects like the redevelopment of Gezi Park and Ataturk Cultural Centre – or AKM – in Taksim.

Perhaps, the greatest deficiency in the current Turkish political scene is the absence of a responsible, credible and effective opposition, an opposition to offer the citizens some meaningful alternative. Current opposition party, CHP, is too ineffective, too negative, and too much entrenched within the past Kemalist/ nationalist traditions. The country urgently needs a robust opposition, preferably with a genuine social democratic orientation to heighten the quality of debate. The current ongoing conflict between the AK Party and the Gülen movement has no potential to bring an alternative. To me this is more like an internal fight within the same Islamist political movement for more share in power. Despite the intensity of the clash, in particular during the last six months, I do not see any significant principal differences between two camps, neither ideological nor political. Both groups are pro-Islamic, in favour 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, and both sides have so far proved that what they have very little to offer to the demands of more secular and urban population of the country . More importantly, 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.

Despite the revolts and the scandals, we see Erdogan winning, again and again, at the ballot box. Why is that? And what could, really, challenge his hegemony, in the near future (a significant slowing down of the economy, and a steep rise in youth unemployment perhaps)?

It is difficult and extremely risky to predict the future with any degree of clarity, but we can comment generally on why the AK Party regime is still very popular despite all ongoing problems. As I mentioned in my answer to the first question, the AK Party’s continuous, and even increasing, 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 AK party has been in power. As long as the economy performs reasonably well, the ruling party can manage to secure this strong support. But economic success is not necessarily a guarantee for a stable and democratic progress. AK Party’s Erdogan has successfully chipped away at the security services, the army and the judiciary, and established his overriding authority. But this is very dangerous for him and his party: all this centralisation of power also means the centralisation of blame. Now, naturally he is blamed for anything going wrong, such as the recent tragic Soma mine disaster. 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.

Will Turkey ever be a member of the EU? Or is it too big, still too poor, and too Muslim for that?

After the AKP’s 2002 electoral victory, its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had declared the priorities to be commencing the EU membership process and rebuilding the Turkish political system based on societal demands and international norms and principles. However, the party also set the stage for resolving the crisis with Greece over divided Cyprus – and serving as a model for other Muslim countries in balancing mosque and state.

The performance of the AKP government for the last 12 years and its role in Turkish politics is obviously a topic for intense debate, and there is no easy answer to it. On some aspects the last 12 years achieved significant progress: there is no doubt that the country exerted considerable energy towards reforming the legal framework of its institutional and political practices, and Erdogan’s regime deserves a portion of the acclaim it has received for its efforts. The Turkish state establishment, before the AKP came to power, has traditionally resisted widening its legitimacy base to include new identities based on ethnic, ideological, and cultural diversity. Under AKP Turkish state has made some progress with regard to the various international conventions on human and minority rights. And it was under Erdogan’s leadership significant steps have been taken into calming the decades-long violent conflict with the country’s significant Kurdish minority.
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: a significant section 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 currently interested in developing further links with the Shanghai Cooperative Organization and the other emerging powers in the global East/South. However, this more pro-active stance in foreign affairs does not automatically mean the rejection of the Europeanisation project. What this shift indicates, however, is that the EU is not the centre of Turkey’s external relations anymore. This new position in Turkey’s external relations indicates a breaking away from the Kemalist perception of Turkey as a country surrounded by enemies, and strategically located within the Western security framework. This new trend instead emphasises the organic link between Turkey and its neighbours in the middle of three strategic regions: the Middle East, Caucasus, and the Balkans.

Whether Turkey ever becomes a member of the EU? In the last 20 years, the world has changed a lot, it has become a more complicated place, and the previous world order under the US/ NATO hegemony has visibly diminished. Historically, the rising economic success of Emerging Powers and the slowing down in the core economies of the West are generating an entirely new state of affairs in the 21st century. The rapid economic growth has made Turkey the world’s 16th largest economy. Since 1990, Turkey’s gross domestic product has quadrupled. Therefore, it was only natural that Turkey’s newly found economic clout would translate into more self-confidence and a more multi-dimensional foreign policy. All this has also changed the perceptions and expectations of the citizens of Turkey regarding Europe: More and more citizens now believe that Turkey does not need to join the European Union for economic prosperity, nor do they believe that membership in the increasingly anti-Turkish/ anti-Muslim bloc is possible, according to surveys conducted recently. In 2005, when talks for full membership first started, two-thirds of the Turkish people, that’s about 74 percent, believed, and wanted, Turkey would one day become a full member. That figure has now fallen to around 30 percent. Most respondents listed Russia, Iran and other countries in the region, even China and India as alternatives to the EU in terms of economic cooperation and new markets. All this provides clear evidence that the population of Turkey no longer see the EU as an economic house the country should try to belong to.

How do you evaluate Erdogan’s foreign policy, esp. towards the neighbours, Syria and the Balkans? And what about Greece? Is he aggressive on issues like the Muslim minority in Thrace, and the Cyprus stalemate?​

When in 2003, Turkish Parliament finally refused to allow the United States to use Turkish territory to stage an invasion of Iraq, a clear message was given to the world, and to the country: Turkey’s foreign policy axis has shifted significantly—Turkey could and would think and act for itself when it comes to foreign policy, and that the hierarchical alliances of the Cold War era were over, and that the US should no longer take Turkey’s collaboration for granted. Later in 2010, in collaboration with Brazil, Turkey worked for a peaceful alternative to the US/ Israeli position of sanctions and warmongering against Iran regarding the nuclear issue. In foreign policy, Turkey, a medium-sized regional power, enjoys a certain level of influence in the international stage, and should enjoy a notable power in resolving regional conflicts, just like South Africa. The fact that it is the main economic and military power house of the Middle East, Caucasus and the Balkans grants Turkey potentially a leadership role inside and outside of these regions.

But there were too many contradictions in the policy as well. Turkey went too far when it backed NATO in Libya. And the policy of Davutoglu, AK Party’s visionary Foreign Minister, has been in disarray since the Syrian civil war began. About two years ago, Davutoglu had famously declared that Beser Esad was about to fall in a matter of weeks. In the more or less 100 weeks that passed since then, Esad did more than just holding his ground, and eventually gained the upper hand in the bloody civil war of Syria. In Egypt, Tayyip Erdogan put all his weight behind Muslim Brotherhood, and even after Mursi was ousted from power by the military AK Party still continued to support Mursi strongly. So, both in Syria and Egypt, Turkish government bet heavily against the actors who came on top, positioning Turkey as a direct adversary to current administrations. 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 neighbours and moved to a “zero friendship” policy in the Middle East.

As with the relations with Greece, probably this is one of the areas where we can expect some modest improvement in near future. The Turkish media reported earlier this month that some Greek families had decided to leave Greece and (re)settle on the island of Gokceada(Imbros), in Turkey’s northern Aegean region, encouraged by the reopening of a Greek primary school there, after 49 year. This follows an earlier opening where Davutoglu, in December 2013, extended an invitation to the 25,000 Gokceada Greeks scattered around the world to apply to regain their Turkish citizenship. The AKP government’s policy about non-Muslim minorities signals a break from the secular Kemalist militarist security tradition, but it would be premature to say that the country has adopted policies that embrace non-Muslims and encourage their mass return. Let’s hope that these symbolic steps will be followed by concrete changes in the official policies and institutional framework. Otherwise all these will remain just empty rhetoric.

Bulent Gokay
Keele, 27 May 2014

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