Erdogan against a European Turkey?

Why did Erdogan miss his historic opportunity? Inadvertently? Due to exasperation? Or because, more consequentially, he does not identify with those 'European values' that would force him to respect a country that cannot be reduced to its Sunni, Turkish, conservative majority?

Jean-Paul Marthoz
26 June 2013

The Bosphorus strait, separating Europe from Asia. Demotix/Vedat Xhymshiti. All rights reserved.

Last Saturday. Soft sunlight stroking Istanbul. Smiling cheekily, the simit vendor had returned to his usual spot a few steps away from my hotel to sell his sesame-sprinkled bread rings. In Istiklal avenue, the huge pedestrian boulevard in the 'European quarter', the shopkeepers rolled up the iron shutters as if the day were promising to be beautiful and munificent. A fresh scent of coffee filled the air in the lanes that hurdle down towards the Pera Palace hotel and the Galata bridge.

On the eve, in a bar in the 'bobo quarter' - the bohemian-bourgeois quarter of Cihangir - a Turkish friend confided his optimism to me. "By welcoming delegates of the occupiers of Gezi park, the Prime Minister has made a gesture", he said. "Who knows, after all, Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be capable of paying attention to voices other than those of his courtiers."

The guitar sounds of Yavuz Akyazici, the sax of Ilhan Ersahin, the sufi melodies of Abdul Gani floated in this tavern where young folk nattered serenely or tapped on their tablets. After the violence of the previous days, the mood seemed appeased even as demonstrators, equipped with lively-coloured construction helmets and gas masks, were heading to Taksim Square.

Saturday, corroborating this respite and this hope, Murat Yetkin, chronicler of the daily Hurriyet, wrote: "Taksim heralds a better Turkey, a pluralistic Turkey, a Turkey that manages to resolve its crises in the framework of democracy."


Demotix/Baris Karadeniz. All rights reserved.

And yet, I could not rid myself of a certain feeling of malaise. The police forces remained congregated in the proximity of Gezi park. All over the city, fire trucks seemed waiting in ambush. The picture of an imperial Erdogan adorned posters of a vivid red that urged the partisans to take part in the demonstrations in Istanbul on Sunday. In the morning still, TV channels had diffused the ultimatums and warnings of the Prime Minister addressed to the "terrorists" and "vandals”.

And then, abruptly that same night, all hell broke loose. While the occupiers, accompanied by onlookers, families and tourists, were listening to a concert, the police forces demanded that the area be abandoned within 15 minutes. Few minutes later, hundreds of helmeted and masked police officers were firing tear gas canisters and discharging their water canons. Without distinguishing between peaceful protesters and 'extremists'. Forcefully making their way into hotels where those who escaped from the violence were taking shelter. It was as if they were making a mockery of the criticism their disproportionate use of force had sparked a few days earlier.

So, Erdogan hadn't changed. 'His Turkey' hadn't taken a step to the side. In the time span of two weeks, the touchy Prime Minister has thus succeeded in shattering the image of his country abroad and sowing doubts among those who so far had rejected Erdogan's caricature as a new sultan. His hole-punch declarations and his choice for repression have drawn the profile of the 'old Turkey'; the intolerant, haughty, autistic Turkey the Prime Minister's partisans in Brussels and Washington had considered a thing of the past.

Erdogan, a Turkish friend told us, "has no qualms". Elections will be held in 2014 and he gambles on the fact that his own intransigence will ensure him the ongoing support of his populist and majoritarian electorate. He is persuaded that the international community will eventually hush the critical voices, given Turkey's economic and strategic importance. Turkey, the "indispensable nation".

Some European business sectors were certainly glad Taksim Square got cleansed. However, to many observers so far well-disposed towards Turkey, the demeanour of the Prime Minister has split the waters. Henceforth it will be difficult to expect serious negotiations on Turkey's European Union accession with a government that fuels tensions, denounces foreign conspiracies, is hog-wild about accusing international media and snarls at the European Union. Last week in Strasbourg Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberals, did not mince his words. "We stand for a European Turkey but not for a Turkey that turns its back on European values", he said.

The awareness of this 'Putinisation of Erdogan' is a rude awakening, for the real allies of Europe in Turkey - these liberal milieux, secular or Muslim, that supported the reforms put forward by the AKP in the 2000's. They are the first victims of this huge mess. Hustled by the populism of the Prime Minister, they see themselves forced to ally themselves with the old military establishment and the ultranationalist 'seculars' which they were strongly opposed to hitherto.

Could a glint of hope stem from the moderate factions of the AKP and particularly from President Abdullah Gül, who throughout the crisis has tried to maintain a more benign image of Turkey? During my many conversations in Istanbul, notably with Islamist journalists close to Fetullah Gülen's camp, salvos of criticism were discharged at the Prime Minister. "We have been reformers even if we are conservative", one of them told us. "It was we who opened up the political space, brought the army to heel, tackled taboo themes such as the Armenian genocide. We have acted for the destitute groups of the population that have long been neglected and humiliated under Kemalist rule, the white Turkey. And now, Erdogan is ruining it all."

More and more observers are convinced Erdogan regards democracy as a 'train you step off when you reach the terminal' - meaning, when you come to power. In a smattering of years, the Prime Minister has radically reversed the power relations by misapplying the democratic ends of the reforms that were buttressed by the European Union accession process. "Turkey has no counter-balance in power, no mechanisms of control and equilibrium" writes Hamit Bozarslan in his excellent book Histoire de la Turquie (Tallandier, 2013). "Erdogan has coopted the authoritarian Kemalist state instead of dismantling it. He has substituted for a military state a police state", asserts a disillusioned European correspondent.

Last week Erdogan missed a historic opportunity. Inadvertently? Due to exasperation? Or because, more consequentially, he does not identify with those 'European values' that would force him to stifle his power, to enter into dialogue with his adversaries and to respect the ethnic, political and religious diversity of a country that cannot be reduced to its Sunni, Turkish, conservative majority?

This is a question that the European Union ought to mind about instead of regarding Turkey in simplistic terms, whether they be inspired by crude Islamophobia, euphoric celebrations of multiculturalism or the 'self-evident mantras' of the market or strategic interests.

The future of Europe is also being determined on Taksim Square and this important challenge begs us not to mistake the realities of a country alternately represented as a model or a repellant.


This article was first published in French in Le Soir here on June 21, 2013.  Thanks go to Moh Hamdi for the translation.

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