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Turkey: from “role model” to “illiberal democracy”

If the west sees Turkey as a dumping ground for refugees, ignoring its transformation into an authoritarian regime allegedly assisting jihadist groups, an even more chaotic Middle East will ensue. 

Avvocato Assassinato. Democratic lawyers protest at the Turkish embassy in Rome at the killing of Tahir Elci. Avvocato Assassinato. Democratic lawyers protest at the Turkish embassy in Rome at the killing of Tahir Elci. Demotix/Andrea Ronchini. all rights reserved.At the end of an exclusive EU-Turkey summit that took place on November 29, 2015, the leaders of 28 European countries and the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu happily declared that they have finally reached a deal concerning the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe.

In return for a $3.2bn aid package intended to improve the life of 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, the Turkish government has agreed to increase border patrols at major crossing points in order to prevent more refugees from entering Europe. As part of the deal, the EU has also promised Turkey an easing of visa restrictions and re-energized accession talks.

Although the deal seems to provide a temporary solution for Europe’s ‘migrant crisis’ and although Davutoglu praised it as “a new beginning”, anyone following Turkish politics closely would agree that, in the long run, this deal does not bode well for either the citizens of Turkey, or for the Syrian refugees it is intended to protect. Nor, for that matter, does it bode well for the citizens of the EU whose leaders have, once again, acted quite shortsightedly and opted for a solution that would save the day, rather than for a sustainable solution that would benefit the people of the Middle East as well as those of Europe.

A fateful week in Turkey

The EU deal came in the wake of an already eventful week in Turkey. On November 28, 2015, Tahir Elci, a prominent Kurdish lawyer, head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, and a human rights activist, was killed with a single gunshot to the head in Diyarbakir’s Sur neighborhood.

He was there to give a press release asking for an end to the ongoing clashes and violence in several Kurdish cities since the break of the ceasefire between the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and state security forces in July 2015. Elci was facing trial for saying that the PKK is not a terrorist organization.

During a television programme on October 20  he said, “Even though some of its acts have a terrorist character, the PKK is an armed political movement. It is a political movement with political demands and with a very strong backing in society”. Since then, he had been the target of death threats and a defamation campaign led by pro-government and mainstream media.

At the time of writing, the perpetrators of his murder are still unknown. On November 30, after the release of video footage shot minutes before and after the murder, Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) said, “From our point of view, it is very clear that at that moment, in that area and in that side street, no one was shooting except for the police officers. It is certain that the bullet that killed Tahir Elci was fired by a police weapon. For which purposes and from which weapon can only be revealed through a fair investigation”. On the same day, a parliamentary motion by HDP, calling for an investigation into Elci’s death was rejected by votes from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Elci’s murder was the last straw leading to increased tension in an already tense Turkey. On November 24, 2015, Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian fighter jet, claimed to have breached Turkish air space for 17 seconds. Only two days later, two new names were added to Turkey’s ever-growing list of jailed journalists[1]: Can Dundar, the editor in chief of the daily Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gul, the paper’s Ankara bureau chief, were arrested on charges of “espionage, divulging state secrets, and aiding an armed terrorist organization”.

At the heart of these charges lies leaked video footage released by Cumhuriyet on May 29, 2015, showing trucks carrying ammunition and weapons allegedly sent by Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) to Syrian rebels (whose identity is still contested). Following the publication of the video, in a television interview with state broadcaster TRT in May, Erdogan vowed to punish Cumhuriyet and Can Dundar, saying: “The individual who has reported this as an exclusive story will pay a high price for this. I will not let this go”. He kept his promise: both Dundar and Gul are now behind the bars, in pre-trial detention.

Turkey and ISIS: friends or foes?

The arrest of two journalists is unfortunately ‘old news’ in an increasingly authoritarian Turkey, where thirty journalists -- mostly Kurdish and leftists but also Gulenists -- are currently in jail and where several TV channels and newspapers were impounded by the government only last month.

What makes the arrest of Dundar and Gul particularly important is its immediate relation to Turkey’s stance in Syria. Following the downing of the jet, an angry Putin described Turkey’s act as “a stab in the back” and accused Turkey of enabling ISIS’ “barbarous, heinous ways” by purchasing ISIS oil, as well as by providing ISIS members with the protection of the Turkish armed forces.

While Putin’s claims might be exaggerated, it is no secret that Turkey has, for a long time, been on amicable terms with ISIS. Journalist after journalist has written about Turkey’s complicity with and alleged support for the group. In a research paper published in November 2014 (and updated in November 2015), David Phillips of Columbia University’s Institute for Human Rights put together the allegations of Turkish and western media outlets, which range from “providing military equipment to ISIS” and “training ISIS fighters”, to “offering ISIS members medical services” and “assisting ISIS recruitment”.   

Erdogan has repeatedly rejected these accusations and invited journalists “to back their allegations with hard evidence”. That is why Cumhuriyet has angered Erdogan so much: by publishing that video, it left Erdogan little space to maneuver. The footage is so clear that, at a reception he attended in November Erdogan reluctantly admitted that the trucks were indeed carrying ammunition. He angrily asked: “Let’s say the trucks were carrying weapons. What difference would it make? What’s the big deal? What matters is that they were carrying humanitarian aid to our Turkmen brothers who were direly in need of that aid”.

Western hypocrisy

Fixated on their desire to keep the Syrian refugees out of Europe, western leaders have chosen to disregard these allegations so far. While in the wake of the deadly Paris attacks, western leaders vowed to take coordinated action against ISIS, to do whatever it takes to eradicate it from the scene of history, all they did afterwards was to heavily bombard the city of Raqqa, as if they had learned no lessons from the decade-long ‘war on terror’ that did nothing but drag the Middle East (and the world) into a growing spiral of violence.

One would have hoped, by now, that they had understood that “more boots on the ground” only exacerbates matters, and that a much better method in fighting ISIS would be to cut its logistical, financial and military support.

To this day, however, none of the western powers has publicly attempted to hold Turkey accountable for its alleged support to ISIS, although several journalists have raised many searching questions on this issue.

Desperate to get Erdogan’s help in turning Turkey into a buffer zone between Europe and Syrian refugees, the EU has kept a diplomatic silence on Turkey’s relationship with jihadist groups, as well as its rapidly deteriorating record on human rights, which was the focus of Tahir Elci’s life-long endeavor as a lawyer.

Likewise, the US, eager to continue using its military air base in Incirlik, has chosen not to confront Turkey, a supposed “ally” in its anti-ISIS coalition, on any of these issues, although it has lately been exerting greater pressure on the question of border controls with Syria. What the west fails to see, however, is that Erdogan’s Turkey can offer only so much reassurance since it has long departed from its policy of “zero problems with neighbours” and turned into a loose cannon that can explode any time.

There was a time, in the early 2000s, when Turkey was lauded as a glittering “Muslim democracy” that other Muslim-majority countries could look up to. Those days are long gone. Far from being a role model, today’s Turkey is nothing but an illiberal democracy, where democratically elected leaders, who have no regard for the rule of law and civil liberties, routinely violate their citizens’ basic rights, where opposition groups are immediately silenced and where the media is continuously repressed.

Intent on maintaining his power, president Erdogan does not hesitate to take every step he deems necessary, whether it be the indiscriminate killing of Kurdish civilians in besieged Kurdish cities, the confiscation of oppositional media outlets, or the prosecution and arrest of dissident journalists.

As seen with the murder of Tahir Elci, the arrests of Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, and the downing of the Russian jet, Erdogan’s “new Turkey” has morphed into a police-state, characterized by a reckless, belligerent, sectarian foreign policy, and a polarizing, discriminatory, repressive domestic policy.

If it keeps on seeing Turkey only as a dumping ground where they can dispose of millions of refugees—who, do not even have official refugee status under Turkish law—and if it insists on ignoring the clearly alarming transformation of Turkey into an authoritarian regime, the west might have to deal with an even more chaotic Middle East in the not so distant future. A pluralist, democratic, peaceful Turkey is indispensable for not only the region but also for the rest of the world. Let us hope western powers will grasp this simple fact before it is too late. 


[1] According to Reporters without Borders’ 2015 Press Freedom Index, Turkey ranks 149 out of 180 countries: https://index.rsf.org/#!/index-details/TUR

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.
About the author

Gülay Türkmen-Dervişoğlu is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Goettingen’s Forum for Interdisciplinary Religious Studies. She received her PhD in sociology from Yale University in 2016. Her work has appeared in Nations and Nationalism and the Annual Review of Sociology, as well as on Jadaliyya, openDemocracy, The European, and Policy Trajectories.

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There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.


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