Coming to terms with increasing authoritarianism in Turkey

President Erdogan is turning Turkey into a harsh autocracy. Do the "five stages of grief" explain Europe's acceptance of this fairly sharp turn?

Pelin Kadercan
13 June 2016

EU Turkey High Level Political Dialogue. [European External Action Service/ flickr][some rights reserved]Until fairly recently, the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was regarded as a hero in the west, often described as a “Muslim democrat” who believed in both Islam and freedom. But those days are over. Now, much of the western press, especially in Europe, portrays Erdogan as a budding authoritarian and reckless Middle Eastern interventionist.

An alarming number of European politicians prefer to 'play nice' with Erdogan.

Although the European media have turned against Erdogan, politicians have not followed suit. Currently, Erdogan holds an extremely important card in his hands; he has the ability to either prevent another surge of Syrian refugees from leaving Turkey and flooding into western Europe, or, he can let them go, which would further intensify what is already one of the largest modern refugee crises.

An alarming number of European politicians prefer to 'play nice' with Erdogan, despite acknowledging that he is turning Turkey into a ruthless autocracy. This is a dangerous mistake. The EU takes pride in 'transcending' the realpolitik which has beleaguered Europe’s troubled past for centuries and pursuing a 'moral' approach to foreign policy. Mollycoddling an emerging dictator just because he happens to have important influence over a humanitarian crisis (in which Europe could actually be doing a lot more, not less) is treason to all that the EU claims to represent.

The five stages of grief

Europe is in this position today, having passed through the well-known “five stages of grief”. This process was first elaborated by the psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to explain how people react to the death of loved ones. These same five steps—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—can explain Europe’s reaction to the 'death', as it were, of its hope that Erdogan would prove to be a model partner.

Europe remained firmly in denial about Erdogan’s heightening authoritarianism during the years that preceded the explosion of popular protest at Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013. Erdogan had been on this path since 2010, when he began re-engineering Turkish politics and society in ways that deprived the opposition of a voice. Yet until public protests broke out in 2013, Europe turned a blind eye to what was happening in Turkey. Denial proved less costly—and infinitely more comfortable—than acknowledging the political firestorm that was brewing.

Following the eruption of the protests, one European Union bureaucrat after another expressed anger at the brutality with which the Turkish people were being suppressed. This anger, however, was vague, disorganised and far too late. It produced no change in the strongman’s behaviour. In fact, its weakness may even have emboldened him.

Next came the bargaining phase. European leaders suggested that they would tolerate Erdogan's excesses if he were to keep Syrian refugees at camps inside Turkey. However, that bargain collapsed amid the waves of refugees that have come flooding into Europe.

According to the original “five stages of grief”, acceptance is a positive ending. In this case it is not.

The refugee crisis plunged Europe into cultural and geopolitical depression, and has sparked angry reaction in many countries. Even more worrying was the realisation that Erdogan holds this vital card, for he can determine the scope of the social and political pressure that an increasing number of Syrian refugees might place on Europe. More than 2.5 million Syrians are now in Turkey. Erdogan has suggested that if European leaders do not negotiate on his terms, he will not only stop preventing those refugees from crossing into EU countries, but will encourage them to do so—perhaps by simply urging them to jump onto passing buses.

Europe's depression, thanks to this turn for the worst in Turkey, has recently given way to acceptance; the final stage of grief. European politicians have come to terms with what they have been avoiding for years: that Erdogan's regime is transforming Turkey into an increasingly authoritarian state. It seems they have decided to deal with the would-be sultan on his terms.

According to the original “five stages of grief”, acceptance is a positive ending. In this case it is not. Europe’s decision to remain silent whilst Turkey drifts away from democracy pushes the entire EU project towards moral bankruptcy.

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