Can Europe Make It?

A botched coup and Turkey’s future in western institutions

The EU will fail in anchoring policy reform in Turkey as a result of becoming hostage to inter-governmentalism and the zero-sum-game dynamics associated with it.

Mehmet Ugur
16 August 2016
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James Stavridis, NATO supreme allied commander, testifying on Capitol Hill, 2013. Now retired, calls on Obama Administration in Foreign Policy magazine, to be 'nice to Erdogan'.Molly Riley/ Press Association. All rights reserved.Western interpretations of the botched coup in Turkey and its aftermath are varied. Nevertheless, if one draws a vector that represents the divergent arguments a consensus view with two components can be detected: (i) a readiness to accept the Turkish government’s argument that the coup was staged by the Islamic Gülen Movement that infiltrated the Turkish state institutions, including the military; and (ii) expressions of concerns about the future of democracy in Turkey given the announcement of a state of emergency and the extent of the post-coup purges.

In terms of policy recommendations, there is only one recommendation in the market place: the west should try to appease Turkey, a key strategic partner in NATO and in the fight against ISIS.

My argument is that the analyses of the botched coup are largely superficial and the policy implications derived reflect the prevalence of macht over recht in the formation of western policy preferences. First, I will demonstrate why the current AKP should be held responsible for the botched coup as much as the perpetrators of the latter. Then, I will argue for freezing Turkey’s membership in and its negotiations with all western institutions.

State fetishism and its dark underside in Turkey

As I have argued elsewhere, the modern Turkish state has been strong against individual citizens but weak against organised economic/political interests. This characteristic has been reform-resistant irrespective of whether successive governments are elected or established by military coups. As indicated by Acemoglu and his co-authors, this leads to a captured democracy. In such regimes, electoral cycles may continue to exist but economic or policy outcomes will be invariant to changes in political institutions. Furthermore, conflicts over social choices will ultimately be resolved in favour of the groups with greater de facto power.

In the specific context of Turkey, the state-centred system of loyalty and rewards has had three important implications. First, absolute loyalty to the state is required from both citizens and organised interests. However, the returns to loyalty are skewed heavily in favour of the latter because of the stronger de facto power they possess. Secondly, organised interests (whether they consist of business and media elites; or the education, religious or military establishment; or mainstream political party leadership) play an active role in legitimating the state rule irrespective of whether the government in power is elected or established by a military coup. Finally, any political dissent that calls for a shake-up in the existing power structures is demonised and criminalised ruthlessly by the state/military bureaucracy supported without a blink by the media, business organisations, and the religious establishment.

From this perspective, the latest botched coup is not that different from its predecessors in that it has been a predictable outcome of a power structure that allows power holders to play havoc with any notion of democratic politics and rule of law. Increasing authoritarianism, dysfunctional parliaments, politicisation of the judiciary and the security forces, corruption, clientelism and state-orchestrated violence against dissent has preceded each of the Turkish coups in the past, including the latest attempt.

From a normative point of view, such failures do not justify the confiscation of power by armed forces. However, objectively, they create an environment in which the use of force becomes a more likely method of settling scores between factions trying to maximise power or minimise losses. In such environments of intra-elite competition for power, the frequency of the oscillations between civilian and military regimes depends on three factors: (i) the terms of the settlement between the warring factions of the economic and political elites; (ii) the probability of ‘cheating’ by one of the colluding factions; and (iii) the threat to the legitimacy of intra-elite collusion posed by popular dissent, which may have a class, ethnicity or identity dimension.

AKP establishment and coup plotters: a symbiotic relationship

The above reading suggests that the latest coup attempt was predictable. Its predictability can be read off the records of the Justice Development Party (AKP) rule under Erdoğan as prime minister or president. As I have argued , the weak commitment of the AKP leadership to democratisation reforms and EU membership became evident two years after its election victory in 2002. Emboldened by the gains made in local elections in the autumn of 2004, the AKP leadership decided to cater for the demands of its religious core support base and settle scores with both the Kemalist elite and the liberal supporters of integration with Europe. It adopted a state-centric and security-oriented discourse against democratization demands in the west of Turkey and against Kurdish demands for autonomy.

For me, the turning point in this process was the brutal police attack against a peaceful women’s demonstration in March 2005, the critiques of which were branded by the then prime minister Erdoğan as ‘Euro-informers’. This statement set the stage for equating all political dissent with treason and conspiracy – a practice that became the hallmark of AKP rule under Erdogan as prime minister or president.

Yet, successive AKP governments and Erdoğan himself continued to be the ‘reformist darlings’ of the west until 2015. Attracted by investment and trade opportunities in a country that was bouncing back from a serious economic crisis in 2001, western business and political elites turned a blind eye to the systematic culling that has taken place of governance institutions since 2005.

Enjoying the support of western governments, successive AKP governments were openly complicit with the Gülen Movement that it now accuses of organising the botched coup. The AKP establishment allowed the latter to penetrate the state and the military. They helped the movement fill up vacancies in the civil service and colleges by turning a blind eye to blatant irregularities that bore the hallmark of the Gülen Movement and distorted the recruitment processes in favour of the latter’s supporters.

The AKP government has also collaborated with the Gülen Movement in the control of the judicial system and in conducting mass trials of Kemalist military officers and Kurdish politicians. The Ergenekon trials, for which the then prime-minister Erdoğan considered himself the prosecutor, were based on fabricated evidence. Later on, when the partnership with the Gülen Movement came to an end, the Ergenekon convictions were repealed but the convictions of Kurdish politicians that were part of the same campaign were upheld. The use of law as an instrument of settling scores with adversaries was blatantly obvious for all to see.

The simmering tensions between the AKP cadres and the Gülen Movement in 2012-2013 did not stop the AKP government from crushing peaceful protests violently during the Gezi protests. The AKP establishment also used state-orchestrated violence to create fear and win elections, during which state resources and the office of the presidency were deployed extensively in support of the AKP against opposition parties. Wide-spread corruption scandals remained uninvestigated.

Kurdish towns and cities have been destroyed and civilians killed and displaced in contradiction to international law. Explicit and implicit support has been provided to terrorist groups in Syria; but journalists disclosing arm shipments to such groups have been tried for treason. Academics have been charged with treason and are facing prosecution for calling on the government to resolve the Kurdish issue through negotiations and urging international organisations to monitor the destruction of Kurdish cities and towns.

Given this background, people in Turkey have lost confidence in the state as provider of security and legal redress. This state failure was a major factor in the calculations of the coup plotters, whose statement read on the state radio and TV under force made explicit references to how the ‘Peace Council’ would restore confidence in state institutions battered by the AKP. Therefore, the relationship between the authoritarian regime built by the AKP and the plotters of the botched coup should be considered as symbiotic: one ‘bad’ feeds on the spoils of the other in an environment where the avenue for democratic politics is shut down either by the tanks of the coup plotters or by an authoritarian government whose legitimacy is a function of unfair elections.

Why Turkey’s membership in and negotiations with western institutions should be frozen

True, western European leaders have warned the Turkish government that it should respect rule of law in the aftermath of the coup. The warning was voiced by the US in the context of NATO meeting on 18 July, by the European Union on 21 July, and by Germany on 8 August. Nevertheless, these warnings do not have any credible bite and seem to be voiced for domestic consumption rather than serious commitment to rule of law and human rights standards in a European country.  

Indeed the stance of the western political elites has been softening towards Turkey, despite massive purges, evidence of torture presented by human rights organisations, and continued repression of MPs and political party leaders defending the rights of the Kurdish people. According to a New York Times assessment on 2 August, the scale of the post-coup purges in different segments of the civil service and judiciary is equivalent to: (i) firing every police officer in Philadelphia, Dallas, Detroit, Boston and Baltimor; (ii) revoking the licenses of every third teacher in private elementary and high schools across the United States; (iii) taking nearly every fourth officer in the US Army into custody; (iv) suspending every state judge in California, Texas, New York and Georgia; (v) firing nearly every third employee of the US Department of Education; and (vi) forcing all American university deans to resign. At that time, the scale of the purge stood at 60,000; today it is more than 80,000.

Due process has not been followed either in the decisions to purge and prosecute or in the recruitment for filling up the vacancies. Moreover, the government, with support from two of the opposition parties with nationalist ideologies, continues the witch hunt against the third largest party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party. They are all complicit in preparations to prosecute the party leader and its MPs under a draconian anti-terror law that the European Union considers as a barrier against implementing the refugee deal with Turkey. Party offices are being raided at dawns without warning and its activists are being arrested.   

So far, neither European institutions or governments, nor NATO or the United States have taken any measure against the Turkish government. If anything, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, is calling for stronger western support to the Turkish government.  Earlier, in a Foreign Policy article, a retired NATO supreme allied commander has called on the Obama Administration to be nice to Erdogan, by supporting Turkish positions in NATO (meaning distancing itself from the Kurds in Syria) and through intelligence sharing and targeting against Kurdish ‘radical terrorist groups’.  

These are nauseating indicators of the extent to which macht rules over recht in the formation of policy preferences in the west. The Secretary General of the European Council, who is supposed to look after the upholding of the human rights standards in Europe, displays the same frame of mind as a soldier whose vision is limited to war games. On the other hand, national governments in Europe and in the US are bending over backwards to ensure that business continues as usual with a regime that mobilises its supporters with increasingly anti-western conspiracy theories broadcast 24 hours a day through a sub-servient media.

I have spent a good amount of time investigating the scope for and limitations to the European Union’s capacity to anchor policy reform in Turkey. During my research in 2008-2009, I have come to the conclusion that the EU will fail in anchoring policy reform in Turkey as a result of becoming hostage to inter-governmentalism and the zero-sum-game dynamics associated with it.

Now I urge the European Union to: (i) freeze the accession negotiations with Turkey until the country returns to democratic rule that will enable the people of the country to enjoy the same standards of good governance and rule of law that the European public enjoys; and (ii) suspend the free visa deal that is part of an illegal and shameful agreement on Syrian refugees.

I also urge the Council of Europe, in collaboration with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to fulfil its duties by monitoring the violations of human rights standards in Turkey. This monitoring should include both the violations after the botched coup and those suffered by Kurdish people and their political representatives.

Finally, I urge NATO to suspend Turkey if it is interested in any credibility to its claims that it is a defence partnership between democratic nations. Turkey’s suspension in NATO is also necessary to avoid the embarrassment of propping up a regime that is likely to be tried under international law for supporting terrorism and destabilising a neighbouring country. The third case for suspending Turkey’s NATO membership is that different factions of the Turkish political elite under elected governments or during military regimes have relied on NATO in settling scores with their opponents. This government is no exception. 

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