Between Turkey and Europe: why friendship is welcome

Murat Belge
15 December 2004

“Everything for the people, nothing by the people” – originally the maxim of the Spanish king – could easily have been the one for Turkish modernisers in the first half of the 20th century. The republican state had inherited the repressive mechanisms of the Ottoman empire of the 19th century, as well as its mostly illiterate peasant masses. These masses now had to be transformed into the citizens of a modern society by cadres who, having received a modernist-westernised education, were prepared for the chores of nation-building.

The introduction of a multi-party parliamentary system in 1946 attempted to conform to the democratic climate which prevailed in the wake of the second world war (when Turkey, officially neutral, inclined towards Germany), the victory against Nazism, and the emergence of the United Nations. It was a significant, though problematic, step for Turkey.

Also in openDemocracy from Murat Belge:

  • “Inside the fundamentalist mind” (October 2001)
  • “Turkey – normal at last?” (November 2002)
  • “The Turkish refusal” (May 2003)
  • “Bombs on Istanbul” (November 2003)
  • If you find these analyses and arguments valuable, please subscribe to openDemocracy for £2/$3/€3 a month and gain access to easy-to-read PDFs of these and other articles

The first elections that can be considered “free” were held in 1950 and resulted in the victory of the Democratic Party, established in 1946 by those members of the Republican People’s Party who had become increasingly critical of the economic and social policies of Turkey’s single-party regime. This was a “changing of the guard” (or “vanguard”) within the family. Even so, it was a step too far for the army who staged the first military coup in 1960. This would be followed by the intervention of 1971 and the total takeover in 1980, which put in place the legal structure and institutions that still to a large extent shape Turkish society.

Caught between the patriarchal severity of the Republicans and the authoritarian use of the plebiscite by the Democrats, this structure left little room for the development of democratic values and principles. But it did open up certain crevices, as well as allowing a modest expansion of civil society under the protective wing of clientilist party politics.

The system of checks and balances, as reflected in the 1961 constitution and enforced by the military rule of the time, was designed to protect the educated urban population from the “misrule” of a populist party enjoying the votes of unenlightened rural masses whom it could easily “deceive”. The new dispensation also reduced the traditional power of the executive, making possible the emergence of the “left” in Turkish political life. The socialist Turkish Workers’ Party was able to send fifteen members to parliament in the 1965 elections.

The early socialists were probably the first green shoots of a modest flowering of Turkish civil society, imperceptibly expanding beyond the umbrella of the paternalist, omniscient and omnipotent state. The paradox is that the structure of politics in Turkey transformed them before they could transform it.

In spite of all its shortcomings, the socialist left provided the one political channel connecting Turkey to the rest of the world. All other political parties were “native” and “national” and intended to remain immune from “foreign influences”. The liberals had especially little to do with the political liberalism of the west; the social democrats were cautious to keep their Kemalism free of the taint of foreign versions of socialism or Marxism. The Islamism of the National Salvation Party or the grey-wolf movement around the National Action Party naturally had little respect for anything “alien” to Turkey.

Two steps back

The coup of 12 September 1980 terminated even this modicum of diversity. Ostensibly against the “communist threat”, it reinforced the “democracy-proof” character of the state system. But such myopia was hardly a source of great embarrassment to the rulers of the 1980 coup, because their move was designed as a return to the spirit of the 1930s, and consequently to the “single-party” ethos of the earlier days of the republic. This was to be done within the framework of a multi-party system. Accordingly, the parties were to be only nominally distinct. The army was to have a central place within the entire system.

The 1980 coup has left its mark on Turkish society. The political “establishment” - parties that were set up in conformity with the legislation of the period - has so far demonstrated a remarkable quiescence and adaptability in obeying its logic. Although they all complained about the restrictions, the system was not seriously challenged. Strangely enough – because he was in many ways a direct product of the intervention - it was Turgut Özal’s period as prime minister (1983-89) which was the most “subversive” in the eyes of the generals of 12 September. Özal proved less loyal to the “single-party-period” values and procedures than those parties and politicians most brusquely swept away by the coup, who all returned to positions of power.

The regime tried to annihilate the socialist left and was largely successful. But the disappearance of this “orthodox opposition” was balanced by renewed vitality in the civil terrain which has continued to this day.

This means partly that a lot of the people active in various left-wing movements now appeared in the guise of civic activists, working in human rights, women’s, and environmentalist groups. This sometimes had its disadvantages. The Realpolitik power politics of the old structures could – and often did – cast a blight on burgeoning civic organisations. Human-rights action, in particular, was a danger zone, because it could more readily be seen as the substitute sphere for militant action in a society where most of the traditional channels for this kind of socialist politics were closed.

Even so, several changes took place during the 1980s which enabled Turkish civil society, generally considered so weak, to become lively enough to be noticed.

A new dawn

The most important structural change concerns the business community. From the 1950s to the 1990s, industries sprang up in many parts of Anatolia, and commerce thrived. Together with all this physical change, a generational shift must also be taken into account. In a society like Turkey, where capitalism had to be built from scratch, the state played a very important role in the economy, in addition to running its own enterprises. This left the Turkish bourgeois class entirely dependent on the state, and, consequently, totally subservient with respect to the political authorities.

But by the 1980s, a new generation of owners as well as a rapidly expanding managerial class were assuming more and more responsible positions in business. They were more open than most social layers to western ways, not only in their managerial skills, but also in their daily lives. At the end of the 1980s, they could see clearly that communism had ceased to be an international threat, thus rendering superfluous the traditional defensive (and quite oppressive) measures of the state. On the other hand, they could also see that the traditional “security”-oriented cadres of state industries were becoming increasingly obsolete in a changing world. In short, the business class felt successful and mature, and demanded a larger voice in running the country.

Similar developments could be detected throughout civil society. Again, from the 1950s onwards, there was tremendous social change. The urban population increased, eventually coming to form the majority of a rapidly-growing national population. Education spread in the new urban centres and there was increasing demand for preparation for the professions and services.

However, this changing society could not find space for itself in a Turkish political structure that remained quite static. The politicians were by now a separate caste, with their own procedures and traditions, shaped by pre-capitalist power relations and political mores. Their archaic manners and the kind of relations that had to be endured in the party structure were not at all attractive to educated professional people or the new urban elites. The left opposition, meanwhile - pursuing its Leninist, Maoist, or Guevarist models to achieve a “Turkish revolution” - did not offer any viable kind of path forward for such people. Far from it: many who joined certain groups as students, typically gave up in utter disillusionment a few years later.

Such people found activism in non-governmental organisations more rewarding than any of the older structures. Consequently, there was a proliferation of NGOs, especially during the 1990s.

A further factor was the international political and cultural atmosphere after the end of the cold war. “Civil society”, “non-governmental organisation”, “civic activism” - these and related terms suddenly appreciated in value all over the world. They became buzzwords for organisations that could never actually deliver half as much as they promised. But this also increased the dynamism of civil actors in Turkey: it certainly provided them with a certain prestige and protection.

This terminology has by now come to stay. The price to pay for such an “achievement” is an evaporation of content as the terms become part of the arsenal of inanities of professional politicians, bureaucrats and the establishment media, who employ - or deploy them - both a suitable and unsuitable occasion.

Europe and Islam

The European Union and the question of Turkey-ever-being-a-member has been the focal point of debate since the early 1990s. Europe has become a codeword for democracy in Turkish society where the internal dynamics for democratisation are habitually weak.

This has led to a very interesting situation. All political ideologies as well as all institutions, bodies and social strata are affected and reshaped by the European question. The left is divided, as usual, but the old ideologies of imperialism still weigh heavily on the majority, turning them “against” in a rather lukewarm fashion.

However, even among the supporters of the grey-wolf “Explain” movement, there are some who are strenuously “for” Europe. The bourgeoisie in general is strongly in support though there are some who abhor the idea. The balance in the armed forces tilts in favour, whereas among teachers, probably, it is the other way round. In every newspaper there will be a few columnists pouring contumely on Europe though here, again, the general balance is very much in favour.

The governing party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice & Development Party (AKP), has taken different positions on various occasions, which are interesting, perhaps even baffling for some observers. Its staunchly positive attitude regarding membership of the EU is probably the most important. It is crucial not only in a national sense, in terms of the destiny of Turkey, but also as a commitment that can have an impact on international Islam.

How is it that a political party with obvious Islamist affinities opts so clearly for universal democratic principles embodied in the EU? This attitude is evidence of belief within the party that such democratic principles are indeed the main safeguard for its future. The so-called “postmodern coup” of 28 February 1997 which ousted Erbakan and his Refah (Welfare) party from power was probably the major single event contributing to its new way of thinking. But behind this lies all those years of political effort, with innumerable lessons and experiments in a multiparty parliamentarian system.

On the threshold of the November 2002 elections, the AKP was the one political party whose character differed from the status quo ordained by the laws and constitution of 12 September. The others - from Bűlent Ecevit’s “left” to Devlet Bahçeli’s “right” or Mesut Yılmaz’s “liberal” - all fitted the definition of “state” parties dominated by a strongly xenophobic nationalist ideology. The result was the landslide of the 2002 elections, which swept them all away. Apart from the AKP, only the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party, CHP) was able to put representatives into parliament, and the reason for this was the fact that it had been out of parliament (and therefore not visible or audible) during the previous term.

In this new divide which the question of Europe has created, many roles have been reversed. A large portion of the Kemalists, adherents of these elitist and forceful drives for westernisation, have now become opponents of the west. The Kemalists draw their intellectual ammunition for this stand from the socialists (of several Marxist denominations) the majority of whom have decided to remain faithful to a kind of “third world anti-imperialism”. The so-called “left” - including also the CHP and Ecevit’s Democratic People’s Party (DSP), where nationalism and isolationism have always predominated - has thus transformed itself into the champion of conservatism in Turkey, siding with the Kemalist state and its most anti-democratic elements on every major issue. Conversely, the AKP, trying to define itself as “conservative democrat” (to avoid more direct references to Islam), has become a “subversive” and also “revolutionary” force, pushing for social change.

Small events, big results

The shift in balance is admittedly slow and gradual but, in the final analysis, it tilts in favour of Europe and democracy. As such, it resembles the Gramscian “trench war” – a war of position rather than a frontal attack. But the situation is very precarious and small events can easily produce big results.

In the midst of all this historical-political turbulence, the social dynamics of Turkey have pulled or pushed the country increasingly in the direction of “civil society” over the last forty or fifty years. The country’s rigid political superstructure and institutions allow little reflection in state behaviour of these changes that are taking place below the surface. But as the state resists, its defensive walls get thinner and thinner. It becomes very difficult to dam the currents influencing political life in general.

The socialist left in its heyday had a negative effect on civic activism. The Turkish 1968 - which throughout Europe and the west triggered off many new social movements and gave rise to many new forms of democratic struggle - sealed the dominance of orthodox (even “Stalinist”) socialist politics. This kind of “opposition” was just as hostile to the growth of NGOs (which, by definition, it could not control), as the traditional state mechanism.

Paradoxically, and unwittingly of course, the 1980 coup played a positive role in the development of civic activism, on two specific counts. By hitting the orthodox left, which was rendering itself obsolete, it abolished the source of inhibition for the democratic-libertarian movements. At the same time, by molesting every possible “unorthodox” (that is, not sufficiently “national” or “nationalistic”) tendency or initiative in society, and forcing everything to meet Procrustean norms of “correct behaviour”, it further contributed to the cleavage between state and society. It thereby elevated “human rights” to a common platform suitable for every form of opposition in society.

These last sentences convey the impression that the bugle-call for civil society in Turkey was finally blown. So, what happened? Why was there no brilliant advance?

There are several reasons. One of them was the protracted fight of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against the Turkish state. The PKK launched an armed struggle in 1984, which continued uninterrupted until 1999, when its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was taken captive. Although the Kurds suffered by far the larger number of casualties, many Turkish soldiers and other state personnel were also killed or injured. The effect of such losses, combined with the effect of ever-present nationalistic propaganda, once more brought the people closer to their state. The impact of democratic opposition or human rights campaigns were effective only in reaching certain better-educated, urban sections of society. The rural people or the newly-emigrated, semi-urbanised masses in the cities responded not to that new discourse but to the time-revered clichés of state propaganda.

In the 1990s , the problem, or danger, of Islamic fundamentalism was added to this violence. Those sections of the Kemalist intelligentsia who at one time had flirted with left-wing ideas and ideologies, and could perhaps sympathise with the democratic demands of the more approachable spokesmen of the Kurdish population, had no patience for Islamists whom they saw as the cause of backwardness in society. For them, it was more natural to form an alliance with followers of General Kenan Evren than to look for every possible means of rapprochement with the Islamists.

Once again, in altered circumstances, the state rose to the challenge of refreshing the loyalty of the urban (and Kemalist) intelligentsia to their authoritarian rule. This involved enlisting certain important social institutions, primarily the press, the educational apparatus, and the centrally administered universities, in support of state policies. It quite successfully pitted its traditional discourse of “threats”, “subversive activities”, and “the danger of separatism” against the discourse of “human rights and democracy”. It was able to recoup part of the position it had lost through the universally harsh policies of the military intervention of the 1980s.

But the question of Europe, tied closely to that of democracy, continued to stem the advance of the conservative forces.

A sudden earthquake

Civil values, civic organisations and civil society are quite fragile objects and, at least in the short run, cannot compete with such strong forces and ideologies. Their influence may be more long-term, but they are not weapons for close combat. In the absence of political parties or movements that struggle for further implementation of democracy and human rights, civil organisations by themselves cannot be expected to be the sole agents of social and political change. This “lack”, however, has been a conspicuous feature of the Turkish political scene, especially since the 1980 coup. Almost the whole burden of democracy and human rights was left on NGO shoulders, as the political parties chose the more comfortable, conformist position.

The older problem - habitual behaviour in a highly centralised society, where almost any social initiative comes from above - means that creating a new culture for NGO work is a sufficiently formidable undertaking in itself.

To the extent that it exists, the state response to NGO activism has not been one of blatant repression and coercion, though that also occasionally surfaces in a country where security forces are conditioned to certain forms of thought and action. In a post-cold war world, where anti-communist rhetoric can hardly be taken seriously yet there is universal acclaim for NGOs and civil society (albeit sometimes little more than lip service), it is difficult for any state to adopt seriously repressive methods for dealing with this kind of organisation.

The Turkish state, consequently, has chosen to remain impassive and unresponsive. In civic work, success acts like fuel. People come together to foreground a certain grievance, and expect to overcome it at the end of their efforts. But if no improvements are achieved, any motivation for this kind of work is bound to seep away. Starting with the 1982 constitution, the forces for the status quo in Turkey have been successful in keeping major grievances immune from significant improvement.

This, combined with the tradition of top-down initiative, has checked the growth of civic activism, though not all aspirations for change have been suffocated. They remained, encouraged by the more concrete prospect of Europe. But practical change has been blocked by the existing political parties, acting in unison with the forces of the status quo.

Now at last, the presence of the AKP is beginning to disturb the seemingly unassailable balance of forces. Since the November 2002 elections, this new political phenomenon has already begun to effect some spectacular change and progress in the direction of democracy. In having its own different approaches and objectives, the AKP is breaking the mould of what has for so long been expected of any political party, let alone a party in government. In resolving to join the European Union, it has propelled Turkey onto an open-ended path of European-style normalisation.

Unforeseeable events have also helped. The tragic earthquake of August 1999 (followed by another in November) was revealing. Faced by such a catastrophe the state, paternalist “protector” of society, appeared struck dumb, like a helpless victim of stage-fright, unable to think or act because the threat was not Communism or Separatism or Fundamentalism. When Turkish NGOs rushed to the scene, and help began to pour in from abroad (not least from Greece, the long-time enemy), part of the state mechanism managed to retrieve its implacable animus against anybody acting outside its control, and once more tried jealously to regiment the recovery process. There were, however, other state agents by now, that did not wish to function as a “blockade” at least on this occasion. In short, this tragedy bestowed many valuable lessons on various sectors of Turkish society: the concept of “civil society” certainly gained some flesh.

Links across Europe

We come to the question of the future. What new growth can we expect? The crucial point is that the link between Turkey and the European Union should not be severed. It is not easy for a society that has lived through such an experience as Turkey has, to digest the consequences, and to reach out to standards which qualify us for western European-type development. Full maturation for full accession will take a longish time. Nobody in Turkey thinks it will be quick.

On the other hand, it is not a mission impossible, as some people in Europe tend to believe. The crucial question, to repeat, is not the duration spent in the waiting-room; it is the assurance that there cannot be any unwarranted and unexpected expulsion from that room, no wall of prejudice ultimately barring full entry.

Making this clear to European public opinion is something that European NGOs can and should do. But a much more important is the help they can give to Turkey’s NGOs in the preparatory period.

Once political obstacles are cleared away, the seriousness of economic, cultural and social problems will manifest themselves in all their urgency: they have to be the new targets on which NGO activity will fasten; the new criteria by which it will be judged.

More in openDemocracy about Turkey – from Islamism to cinema:

  • Werner Schiffauer, “Democratic culture and extremist Islam” (October 2002)
  • Deniz Kandiyoti, “Where is Islam going? Responses to Werner Schiffauer” (October 2002)
  • Reinhard Hesse, “Turkish honey under a German moon” (March 2004)
  • To access easy-to-read PDFs of these and related articles, please subscribe to openDemocracy for £2/$3/€3 a month

    The number and ratio of people working in the agricultural sector in Turkey is much greater than in any country in the European Union. The number of women employed in any kind of work in Turkey is much smaller than in any EU country. The system of social security is in a shambles and apparently no one has a clear idea of reforming it. The health service is in no better a condition. The education system, from primary school to university, has very serious problems and inadequate financial support.

    With the strong centralist tendencies of the administration, local government needs to be given a lot of autonomy, but also a far higher sense of responsibility and a better appreciation of local culture, together with much more sensitivity to environmental issues. In other words, centralist rule is bad, but decentralisation also has its own dangers.

    Cultural throwbacks, such as vendettas and “honour killings” are still a significant drag on the country. Legal measures by themselves are not sufficient to deal with such pre-modern practices.

    Political problems will also endure, albeit in changed form. The fighting in the east and southeast, which darkened the life of the whole society throughout the 1980s and 1990s, has left many physical and moral scars . War is formidable; building peace has its own problems. Democratisation, on every level, means the introduction of a totally new cultural regime, which needs sensitive and cooperative effort.

    This article draws on an essay published by the British Council in its 70th anniversary Counterpoints booklet Growing a bigger Europe (2004)

    These are only a few of the Herculean tasks facing Turkish civil-society organisations in the near future, with or without the feeling of welcome relief from sabotage by forces in the status quo. In all these areas, assistance from the NGOs of other countries will be of inestimable value. The mere fact of collaboration with foreign NGOs for a common cause is an antidote to the xenophobia injected deep into Turkey’s body politic for so long. That this, in itself, is a great asset, was experienced profoundly in Turkey at the time of the August 1999 earthquake. Not the quake itself of course, but the friendship offered.

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