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Turkey at a geopolitical crossroads – Part II

An interview with Adam Szymański, associate professor with the Institute of Political Science at the University of Warsaw. Interviewer: Jim Blackburn

May 20, 2016 - Adam Szymański - Interviews


And from another angle, in the 21st century Russia had become Turkey’s largest trading partner. Could the recent events and Russian sanctions towards Turkey bring the country back to a more Western facing direction and return Turkey to its EU aspirations that were a top priority for the nation through most of the early to mid-2000s?

The tension between Turkey and Russia is only one of the factors which lead currently to a confirmation of the Western direction in Turkish foreign policy. It is not a problem then to bring back Turkey to this direction – it was always the priority for this state in its external relations, no matter how critical the rhetoric was on the part of some politicians, including President Erdoğan. Davutoğlu’s “strategic depth” doctrine which was just based on the assumption that other directions of foreign policy should be developed as well. The Syrian conflict generally confirmed the necessity of being close to the US (and also Israel), NATO and the EU. Turkey found itself in a kind of isolation with reference to this conflict (with the view of Al-Assad as the number one enemy), having at the same time problems with other Middle Eastern neighbors. The Syrian conflict caused also the refugee influx to Turkey and problems for this state in the management of the refugee issue, as well as the aforementioned tensions between Turkey and Russia. This situation forced Turkey to take measures to satisfy its American partner: contributing to the activities of the anti-ISIS coalition, later also with the withdrawal of additional Turkish troops from the Bashiqa training camp in northern Iraq when the US insisted on it, to improved relations with Israel, confirming its commitment to NATO and to conclude a deal with the EU concerning the refugees and illegal immigrants.  

Read part I of this interview here.

And finally concerning Russia, Slavoj Žižek recently coined the term “Putogan.” A combination of the names Putin and that of Turkish President Erdogan, where he claims the two live in worlds of “paranoiac fantasy” and “who more and more stand for the two versions of the same political regime – one that, while formally remaining democratic, de facto function in an authoritarian way.” This is undoubtedly true of Putin, but what is your opinion on the government of Erdogan, who has come under increasing scrutiny both domestically and abroad?

An increasing number of commentators compare Russia and Turkey with reference to its leaders and political regimes. Interestingly, the comparison has recently included also other nations such as Hungary, Poland and some of the Balkan states. Political scientists are now discussing the question of whether Turkey is still a kind of hybrid regime between democracy and authoritarianism, or if it is rather going into the direction of the authoritarian system. Since 2005 (when the democratic reforms slowed down) the talk about Turkey as an unconsolidated democracy have been less frequent.

There are many examples confirming authoritarian tendencies. A permanent component of Turkish political culture is the attempted strengthening of the executive power at the cost of legislative and judiciary power, with the current plan to introduce a presidential system, a la Turca, replacing the existing parliamentary one. As well, moves towards limiting the rule of law and some key human rights, first of all – freedom of expression and media.

However, the AKP politicians and President Erdoğan claim that they want to establish a real, “advanced” democracy, within which it is the people that govern not only the elites. It seems that the crucial problem in Turkey is, apart from a dysfunctional impact of populism, a specific perception of democracy by the current governing elites. They understand it very narrowly as the regime limited actually to the existence of free elections (and referenda) but they do not pay attention to the role of citizens in between these elections. Their understanding of democracy is majoritarian. The AKP was elected by the majority of citizens and it can decide about the state affairs on their behalf. They represent “the nation” and want to protect its interests. However, “the nation” to them is actually only the part of Turkish society which supported the AKP in the election. The opinions of the rest are not taken into consideration. Moreover, very often people who belong to different kinds of “minorities” are treated as enemies of the state and nation (because “they” are not with “us”, i.e. they do not share “our” point of view). They are grouped together with foreign enemies, and can be persecuted because they insult the president or support terrorism, although in reality it is often about punishing those who invoke their natural right to express a critical opinion about the policy pursued by the government and the president.

The current unstable situation in Turkey, because of the terrorism of both ISIS and PKK, is an additional factor favoring the development of authoritarian tendencies. Interestingly, the recent terrorist attacks in Ankara and Istanbul (February and March of 2016) led to the call by President Erdoğan for the extension of the definition of a terrorist (anti-terror law), to people who support in some way terrorism (which means a return to the 1990s). This refers to “so called” journalists, academics, and other groups (including authors and artists). It may mean an extension of legal measures aimed at critics of the AKP policy towards the Kurds. Many AKP politicians and Erdoğan suggest the unstable situation requires a strong and effective executive power. In their opinion it is possible only after the introduction of the aforementioned presidential system. However, in Turkey it could not be balanced by the system of checks and balances, as for instance in the US.

The last in the international storm, though not the least if Turkey ever hopes to join the EU, is that surrounding the situation on the island of Cyprus. Here some positive progress has been made, with both the presidents of the northern Turkish Cypriots and the southern Greek Cypriots, coming together this past December to jointly wish everyone in Cyprus a happy holiday on national television (an unprecedented event). There has been some negotiation on healing the great divide created on the island back in 1974. The sticking point seems to be that for the southern Republic of Cyprus (an EU member state) is that the Turkish troops must leave Cyprus, this is non-negotiable. The Turkish Cypriots are not enthusiastic about this demand to say the least. How did such a complex situation develop on Cyprus? And is there any chance for a resolution leading to a reuniting of the two sides under the current Turkish government?

There have been many attempts in the history to resolve the Cyprus issue, including the 2004 Annan Plan – a referendum rejected by the Greek Cypriots (Turkish Cypriots accepted it). After winning the presidential elections in the northern part of the island in 2015 by Mustafa Akıncı, many people hoped that in 2016 there could be a kind of agreement between him and the President of the Republic of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades, about the establishment of a common unified state. In other words the Cyprus issue can be solved. At the turn of 2015 and 2016 there were talks that in the coming year we could observe a real breakthrough. It was based on the information about some arrangements on the disputed issues. It is true that some progress was made, first of all when it comes to the political system of the future united Cyprus. However, there are still many disputable issues, among others very difficult issues concerning the demography, property, energy resources as well as the presence of the Turkish troops in Cyprus.

In my opinion it will be very difficult to solve them not only this year but also in the next few years. A positive approach of the Cypriot leaders is not enough. The aforementioned problems are the issues having either historical roots or being connected with the lack of trust between the two Cypriot communities or they concern the issue of national interests and security. Because of this, the talks are so difficult and it will remain unchanged, even after the parliamentary elections in May 2016 in the Republic of Cyprus. An unfavorable factor can be the fall of the Turkish Cypriot coalition government (April 2016).

Recently, Turkey’s most widely circulated newspaper Zaman was taken over by the government. This is primarily because it was sympathetic to the Gulen movement. For the uninitiated, can you explain who Fethullah Gülen is and why the Gülen movement is now considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government?

When it comes to the specificity of Islam in Turkey, we can talk about the presence of different religious orders (tarikats) and more contemporary religious movements (cemaat). They play an important role not only in the religious life of Turks but also in the social, economic and political spheres in Turkey. The Fethullah Gülen movement is one of the best known and influential Turkish religious movements (although the AKP government has tried to limit its influence in recent years in Turkey). As similar movements, it has a leader – Fethullah Gülen, who lives currently in the US. His movement is present in Turkey and in a number of other countries (first of all in Turkic former Soviet republics but also many other countries including Poland). He is involved in achieving a variety of goals and works both religiously and socially. When it comes to activities abroad it is about popularizing Islam and its values, along with Turkish culture and the thoughts of Gülen on such issues as the compatibility of Islam and democracy and promoting interreligious dialogue. This is to be achieved mainly through educational measures (the movement has many secular, usually international schools on different levels in a number of countries) and the organising of special foundations for language and culture courses, excursions, lectures and conferences. As well as cultural events, which are very often in cooperation with other religious communities and churches. The movement also has its own media – newspapers (including Zaman), TV and radio channels active in Turkey and abroad. In Turkey there are a lot of private enterprises and holdings, as well as public institutions including the judiciary and police with movement supporters.

The Fethullah Gülen movement was very important for the AKP in gaining the support of the electorate (Zaman clearly sympathized with the party in the 2007 elections) and later – at the end of the first decade of the 21st century – in diminishing the role of the army in Turkish politics (with the well-known court cases among others against the army officials like Ergenekon or Balyoz, which were only possible thanks to the involvement of the Gülen movement and its supporters).

However, since 2010 the movement and Fethullah Gülen himself have been critical of the authoritarian tendencies in Turkey. It was noticeable during the Gezi Park protests in 2013. The change of the AKP attitude towards the movement occurred at the end of 2013 when the corruption affairs with the possible participation of government officials were revealed by the police and prosecutors connected with the cemaat. It was a kind of critical juncture. The Fethullah Gülen movement began to belong to the increasingly long list of state enemies, according to Erdoğan and the AKP politicians. Different kinds of actions have been directed since then against a so called “parallel state” – various institutions: police whose cadres were exchanged to a large extent, universities, banks and companies connected with the movement (it is already now a kind of insult in Turkey to call somebody “a parallel”). It concerns also the media, including the daily newspaper Zaman, whose chief editors were arrested and which later was taken over by a board of trustees. The Turkish authorities want the US to extradite Fethullah Gülen and define the movement as terrorist organization (together with the ISIS, PKK and the Syrian Kurds from PYD). It is in essence an attempt of the AKP to have implement more measures that can be taken against the movement which became an important opposition force against the government in 2013-14 period.

And concerning Eastern Europe, the top choice for Turkish students to study abroad has become Poland. Why do you think this is? Is there a proportion of students who are Kurdish as well? And finally, does your personal experience at university leave you with a sense of optimism or pessimism for the future of Turkey?

It is true that an increasing number of the Turkish students (BA, MA, and PhD) are coming to study in Poland – it concerns both the Erasmus short-term students (whose number in the case of Turks are currently bigger in Poland than in Germany) as well as regular long-term students. The reasons for this large number of Turkish students participating in studies at Polish universities are the relatively low costs of studying and living in Poland, in comparison to other EU countries (the UK and Germany as examples), and the high quality of the education. Moreover, the Turkish students repeat quite often the sentiment about the similarity of the people in both countries when it comes to features of character such as hospitality (although they differ in terms of culture and religion). When it comes to the Kurds, I can observe a large number of students from northern Iraq – thanks to the EU Erasmus Mundus programs. However, there are also quite many Turkish Kurds. I personally observe the increasing number of PhD students in this context.

Although the current political situation in Turkey is not promising in terms of the democratization process, I am quite optimistic about the future of Turkey in this case. When I observe the Turkish students (both in Poland and Turkey) I see a lot of people from a young generation who share democratic values and are aware of their importance for the future their state and society.

Adam Szymański is the editor and author of Turkey and Europe: Challenges and Opportunities (PISM, 2013) and author of the Polish book Między islamem a kemalizmem. Problem demokracji w Tucji (Between Islam and Kemalism: The Problem of Democracy in Turkey, PISM, 2008). He is an associate professor with the Institute of Political Science at the University of Warsaw, and a TÜBITAK research fellow at Koç University in Istanbul (2012-2013).

Jim Blackburn is an editorial researcher at New Eastern Europe. He is also a writer, journalist, and book reviewer.

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