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Summary: While simultaneously reacting to the conflict between Israel and Hamas and conducting another wave of arrests in the Ergenekon case, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister, suddenly appointed Egemen Bağış as Turkey’s chief EU negotiator. Time will tell if this indicates a rekindling of the EU accession process after nearly three years of lethargy and growing political and public disinterest. In the meantime, the Prime Minister’s tolerance for dissent and freedom of the press is wearing thin and authoritarian tendencies are rising. The Turkish government has also, however, recently launched a Kurdish channel on state television. In short, with or without the EU process, pressures from society for widened rights and freedoms ultimately do get a response. The discipline of the EU process, however, is needed for Turkey to avoid the pitfalls of illiberal populism and move toward a consolidated democracy.
Going in All Directions
by Soli Ozel*
ISTANBUL — In Turkey, the Israeli military assault against Hamas in Gaza has engendered quite an uproar. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister, has taken the lead in expressing moral and political outrage against Israeli military action and the human cost of the operation. Media coverage went a long way to keep the temperature high, and societal response was extremely negative and full of angst. As Erdoğan’s envoy was joining French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Syria, news broke out of a new round of arrests (the tenth) in the long-running Ergenekon case. To recap: The case is a judicial proceeding looking into illicit organizations and how they allegedly conspired to overthrow the government of Turkey. So far, only the detainees from the first waves of arrests are being tried in court. Two highranking generals have also been taken into custody, though indictments against them, have yet to be formally prepared and made public. This new arrest wave has seen the arrest of four serving colonels, three retired generals, the former head of the Higher Education Council, an eccentric academic, and the former deputy chief of Special Operations. Docu*
ments found inside the home of the chief of Special Operations led police to an arms cache buried in the woods. One other prominent figure, former Istanbul Mayor Bedrettin Dalan, who was also on the arrest list, remains in Miami though he promises to return to Turkey soon. Following this latest wave of arrests (some of those arrested were released within a couple of days), the military’s high brass met for over six hours. The next day, the chief of staff had an unscheduled meeting with the Prime Minister and then his scheduled meeting with the President. Later, Erdoğan declared that a few individuals could not harm the reputation or the integrity of an institution, clearly alluding to the military. It is widely assumed that the recent release of some retired generals is a consequence of these meetings. On Monday, the police arrested a lieutenant colonel, where documents that were found in his home led to the discovery of additional massive arms caches and ammunition buried under the ground. In the middle of this hectic time, even by Turkish standards, Erdoğan abruptly changed Turkey’s chief negotiator of EU accession talks. Egemen Bağış, the vice-chairman in charge of foreign affairs of the ruling Justice and
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Soli Ozel teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Department of International Relations and Political Science and is a columnist for the Turkish daily Sabah. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).
Development Party (AKP) and a close advisor of Erdoğan, was appointed minister of state in charge of EU relations, replacing foreign minister Ali Babacan who had doubled as chief negotiator. Babacan is known to be very close to President Abdullah Gül who, in turn, sees himself as the true custodian of the EU accession project. The move was not totally unexpected even if its timing was. Those who still continued to care about the EU accession process (their numbers are steadily declining), long thought that Babacan ought to have either found a strong deputy or dropped the post, given his overwhelming schedule as foreign minister. But coming at a time when nobody expected the government to seriously engage on EU accession until after the municipal elections, if even then, the news of the personnel change made waves. As a recent ICG report on Turkey-EU relations noted: “[Turkey’s] prospects for EU membership are at make or break stage.” The report detailed how both sides showed by their actions and inactions that they were happy to let relations remain in a coma. Neither side dared break off relations outright, but the report argued that given the urgency of the Cyprus issue, such lack of firm commitment on both sides risked just that. (In 2006, the European Union gave Turkey three years to open sea ports and airports to Greek Cypriot vessels. In the fall of 2009, the EU Commission is scheduled to review the situation, at which time it will make a recommendation on what to do with Turkey, if Ankara does not comply with the EU’s requirements.) Indeed, the AKP government long ago dropped the ball on EU-related reform, evidenced by the fact that only one-sixth of the reform measures identified in its National Program were enacted over the past two years. Erdoğan, who is convinced that Turkey will never get a fair shake with Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in positions of power, has barely uttered a positive word about the European Union in recent times. He is reported to have “initiated a revolt against the heavy legislative load [of the new National Program] when it was first presented by Foreign Minister Babacan.” Over the course of the last year, the Prime Minister’s authoritarian instincts and intolerance for even the mildest of criticism by outsiders or dissent in his ranks also
became painfully obvious. Erdoğan called for a boycott of the Doğan Media group newspapers, refused office accreditation to journalists he deemed too critical, and even asked for the closure of a local newspaper because he was unhappy with the validity of a news piece. In this latter incident, the editor stood by the reporting and his boss did not close the newspaper. In the wake of the favorable Constitutional Court verdict on the closure case against the AKP, Erdoğan has taken a hardline position and sided with the military on occasion concerning the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the democratic reforms related to the Kurdish population. He has also attacked newspapers whose reporting he has found disconcerting. Under these circumstances of rising illiberalism, it was no wonder that the EU process and the democratizing measures it entailed went by the way side. In the run-up to municipal elections, nobody truly expected the AKP to rekindle the flame of the 20022004 period, particularly in the absence of any pressure toward EU accession from the opposition. Yet on the last day of 2008, President Gül signed into law the new National Program that committed the government to the continuation of the EU reform process. Then came the replacement of Babacan by Bağış, that in this context might hold the promise of revitalizing the EU accession process, pending the outcome of the upcoming elections. It is in this context that recent developments in Turkey ought to be interpreted. Somewhat revolutionary developments are taking place in Turkey, while their true significance is hardly noticed. The scene is somewhat bizarre because accompanying these developments are the defensive reactions of a nation to a bewildering array of challenges to its self-image and who have yet to fully appreciate what modern, secular citizenship means. In a way, fulfillment of rights and an increasingly intolerant, authoritarian streak in government and society march in tandem. This transformative period is unfolding under the watch of a political class that cannot rise above crass populism, and that still finds it expedient to cater to primal prejudices. The innate religiously-based conservatism of the AKP and the ossified nationalism of the opposition has increasingly bog down the political system. Despite the record of the past three years, the AKP has also
taken several trailblazing steps. On January 1, Turkish state television started a 24-hour broadcast in Kurdish on its new channel, TRT-Ses (“6” in Kurdish). For years, Kurds and Turkish democrats demanded such an opening but the security establishment objected to it on the grounds that it would undermine the unity of the nation. The opposition gave a wordy but nonetheless knee-jerk reaction criticizing the move. The overall reaction of the public, however, was mostly favorable, or neutral at worse. Additionally, the state television’s main news hour was recently aired from a cemevi (gathering place), the place of worship for Turkey’s Alevis, on the occasion of their holy day Ashura. The staunchly secularist Alevis are a minority Muslim sect much discriminated against and are considered less than full Muslims by conservative Sunnis, upon whose support the AKP relies. The AKP government also finally resolved the thorny issue of restoring citizenship to the communist poet Nazım Hikmet, who was stripped of his Turkish citizenship in 1951 after having been forced to flee the country. These steps were taken against a backdrop of rising intolerance across a country that is undergoing spasms of deepening conservatism and nationalism. Perhaps no single move exposed Turkey’s split personality better than the online petition initiated by 200 public intellectuals and so far supported by some 27,000 signatories, opening the file of the tragedy of Ottoman Armenians during WWI. It reads: “My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers. I apologize to them.” The petition was controversial even among public figures that sympathized with its intention because of the personal apology at the end. Despite reactions ranging from the selfvictimizing (“it is they who killed us”), to the cynical (such as Erdoğan’s comment that “these Turkish intellectuals must have committed genocide”), to a horrifyingly racist comment by a social democratic deputy, this civic initiative broke open the final taboo of Turkish history. Probably many, if not most, signatories do not qualify the 1915 tragedy as genocide. Yet they ask that there be a reckoning for the elimination of
the Armenian population of Anatolia from their ancestral lands, followed by reconciliation. After all, only those nations that confront their history are able to transcend it and build a better present. In short, with or without the EU process, pressures from society for widened rights and freedoms ultimately do get a response. The trouble is that without the disciplining effect of the EU accession process, a lot of time and energy are being wasted before taking the right course. Given the fact that Turkey’s entire system of government is being overhauled and the balance of power between the bureaucracy and the elected representatives is rapidly shifting, the EU framework is absolutely necessary to consolidate a liberal democracy in Turkey. Otherwise, the outdated and now-maligned, tutelary democracy of Turkey might be replaced, not by a full-fledged liberal democracy but by an illiberal populism or at worst by an “electoral authoritarianism.”
Soli Ozel, Lecturer, Bilgi University; Columnist, Sabah
Soli Ozel teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Department of International Relations and Political Science. He is a columnist for the national daily Sabah and is senior advisor to the chairman of the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association. Additionally, he is the editor of TUSIAD’s magazine Private View.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany, on the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.
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