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Turkey, sick man of Europe, reappears?

This is not a call for Europeans to do the work on the Turks’ or Kurds’ behalf - but a call to show solidarity with democratic forces of the country at a critical time.

lead Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu returns to Ataturk airport after Dutch withdraw travel permission from his attendance at a rally in Rotterdam, March 12,2017. Depo Photos/Press Association. All rights reserved.In 1852, John Russell was using his political sabbatical to make the case for the approaching Crimean War with Russia. To add spice to his writings, he revealed that the Russian Tsar described the Ottoman Empire as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’. In the same year, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx articulated one of his most quoted aperçues: history repeats itself; first as tragedy, then as farce.

The devil you know?

Forward one-and-a-half century or so, and the repetition of history as farce is unmissable. Turkey is once again the sick man of Europe. It is causing a serious headache for Europe and adding a new dimension to the geo-political rivalry between Russia and the west. The root cause is strikingly similar: an authoritarian Ottoman/Turkish state structure bent on crushing political dissent from below instead of reforming itself. In both cases, Europe appeased the Ottoman/Turkish rulers on the grounds that the devil you know is better than turmoil.

The chickens, however, eventually come to roost! The Sick Man of Europe, personified by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has made it clear that a ‘strong Turkey’ at the gates of Europe is possible only under a dictatorial regime.  But this ambition poses serious threats to Europe. The first consists of a new wave of out-migrants and asylum-seekers escaping regime brutality in the country. The second relates to state-led mobilisation and espionage activities among the ‘Turkish’ diaspora in Europe, with increasing evidence of polarisation within already fractured migrant communities. The third is escalating xenophobia in the rhetoric of Turkish officials, who have been attempting to humiliate European officials and treating European governments and institutions with contempt.

Their fear of ‘losing a strategic partner’, has caused Europe to turn a blind eye to regime atrocities in Turkey. Since 2005, Europe has remained largely silent in the teeth of Turkish official discourse that has demonised domestic opponents as plotters in the service of European/western interests. Europe has also remained silent against the AKP elite’s use of law as an instrument for settling political scores with opponents. Europe has been silent too as the Turkish state supported and collaborated with Jihadi terror groups to destabilise Syria. Finally, Europe remained largely silent when AKP officials (including the president and the prime-minister) have uttered irredentist claims against other neighbours such as Iraq and Greece.

But the times are a changin’. The latest UN report has put on record that Turkish security forces have destroyed Kurdish cities and towns under the pretext of fighting terrorism. The security crackdown led to deaths of more than one thousand Kurdish civilians and displacement of over 350,000 Kurdish men, women and children. Also, in a number of European countries (Austria, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland) local and central government authorities have refused permission to Turkish officials campaigning for a Yes vote in the upcoming referendum.

I welcome these developments for four reasons. First, the Turkish government has already agreed to demands from Germany and other European countries to refrain from election campaigns on European soil. Indeed, the Electoral Procedures Law was amended in 2008 by the AKP regime itself to stipulate that “Election propaganda campaigns shall not be conducted either in foreign countries or in Turkish representation facilities therein” (Article 94/A). Turkish officials have violated their own law in 2014 (Presidential elections) and in 2015 general elections. European governments have been permissive mainly due to fears of having to deal with refugees from Syria.

Secondly, the strength of the reaction to AKP officials is positively correlated with the strength of the welfare state and freedom of speech in Europe. As such, the trigger is not the migrants from Turkey but the abuse of the European political space by both open and secret agents of the AKP regime. Europeans are rightly concerned about illegal activities directed from Turkish embassies and religious attaches in their countries. The sick man of Europe has polarised not only the politics in Turkey but also community relations among the ‘Turkish’ diaspora in European countries.  

Third, the people of Europe are no longer buying the argument that a stable but nasty Turkey is preferable to ‘unknown alternatives’. There appears to be a growing rejection of appeasement, which has historically failed to contain dictators and produced disastrous consequences at the same time.

Finally, I welcome the exclusion of AKP officials from the European political space because these officials  have been arresting, gassing and incarcerating domestic political dissent both before and after the start of the referendum campaign. Almost all offices of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have been either bombed or raided by nationalist thugs or the Turkish police or both. Currently, 13 HDP lawmakers and more than 2,000 of its activists are prison. Almost all municipalities in the Kurdish region (at least 82 municipalities) have been confiscated by the Turkish state; and their mayors and co-mayors are in prison.

The perpetrators of such massive violations of political freedom should not have access to the European public space. This is particularly the case as it has long been known that president Erdogan and his henchmen view democracy as an instrument for domination; rather an as a regime that accommodates ethnic, religious and political differences.

Latest developments

The emerging European stance against the AKP elite’s dictatorial ambitions deserves every support signalling solidarity as it does with the democratic opposition in Turkey, at the same time as it defends European norms and values in a post-Brexit and post-Trump world of authoritarian threats. Has the new wave of academic persecution in the run-up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum finally helped to bring Europe to its senses? 

Before the botched coup in July 2016, the AKP government instigated a lynching campaign against Academics for Peace (BAK) – more than 2,000 academics who signed a letter calling on the Turkish government to stop destruction and civilian killings in Kurdish cities and towns. More than 300 BAK academics have been dismissed and a total of about 800 have been subject to disciplinary actions, criminal prosecution or detention. After the coup, thousands of academics have been fired and around 20 universities have been shut down on the grounds that they are supporters of the Gulen Movement – a para-legal network that the AKP regime had allowed to penetrate state and education institutions before they were newly declared enemies. Scholars at Risk’s 2016 report states that the government's actions have “harmed the reputation of Turkey’s higher education sector as a reliable partner for research projects, teaching and study exchanges, and international conferences and meetings.”

More recently, the AKP regime’s lynching campaign against Academics for Peace has gathered a new momentum. President Erdogan has reiterated that Academics for Peace must pay the price for their actions; and instructed his henchmen in the higher education system and in the media to tighten the screw.

It is expected that the next wave of purges will be in some reputable universities that have so far escaped the cull mainly due to the non-cooperation of their rectors. The rector in one (Bogazici University) has been replaced by an Erdogan appointee and has already begun to deliver: a promising historian, Dr Noémi Lévy-Aksu, has been dismissed for signing the Academics for Peace letter of January 2016. The atmosphere in Bogazici university is one of fear and helplessness: reputable academics are having to appease the rector in order to avoid further dismissals.

In Cukurova University in the south, another promising academic (Dr Mehmet Fatih Tras) has committed suicide after his contract at the university was terminated and his job applications to several universities were turned down on the grounds that he is a security risk. The chain of events leading to Mehmet Fatih’s death begins with Erdogan’s demonising campaign and ends with a ‘tip off’ from another academic at the same university, who told the rector that Mehmet Fatih was a terrorist! 

There is ample evidence indicating that lists of academics to be dismissed are being drawn on the basis of ‘information’ from informants within and outside the university. University rectors and the Higher Education Council (HEC) compile the lists and submit them to the government for inclusion in State of Emergency (SoE) decrees. SoE decrees are nothing but summary executions because there is no appeal mechanism in place – in contravention to international standards.

The president has the sole authority to appoint university rectors. More than 90% of the rectors appointed by Erdogan since 2015 are men. The latest seven appointees in March 2017 are all men – and known to be supporters of the AKP government. A similar pattern is observable in the case of Higher Education Council appointments: out of 21 HEC members, 14 are appointed by the president or the council of ministers and only 7 members are appointed by an inter-university board. The latest HEC member appointed in March 2017, Nihat Hatipoglu, has decreed on TV that atheists are fathered by Satan and more dangerous!

Given this state of affairs, Europe has lost more than enough of its soul and values because of appeasement towards the AKP regime. But the damage is even more severe in Turkey itself: European goodwill must be withdrawn not only with respect to campaigning by AKP officials but also with respect to cooperation with the perpetrators of the academic cull in the country. Many academics in Europe are voicing such demands and offering support. Financial help from the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) and Alexander von Humboldt Foundation among others are being used to provide full- or part-time positions for critical academics forced to leave Turkey.

But it is now necessary to go beyond such partial help. The European Union has just suspended the convergence reform funds earmarked for Turkey as a candidate country. Funds were suspended on 11 March 2017 on the grounds that Turkey has not undertaken the necessary reforms related to rule of law. The EU should now channel part of these funds to provide support to European universities willing to employ the academic victims of the AKP regime. Furthermore, all European universities and funding councils should declare a moratorium on future cooperation with the Turkish higher education system. The moratorium should remain in place until persecuted academics are fully compensated.

Further dictatorial ambitions and the international response

President Erdogan and his team are accusing European governments of being Nazis or Nazi remnants for refusing to allow them to run a referendum campaign in European cities. This is despite the domestic Turkish law that prohibits election campaigning in foreign countries. So far Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland have barred Turkish officials from holding referendum meetings.

Other countries have not declared their hand yet, but it is expected that the UK government will be permissive. This is not surprising given the lucrative arms contracts that Theresa May just concluded with Turkey in January 2017. Also, Germany and France are ambivalent due to their problem with refugees.

Despite the risk of government backsliding in the name of ‘national interest’, developments so far point to a significant public turn against appeasement in Europe. They must be evaluated against the backdrop of major policy shifts within European institutions and the United Nations.

In Europe, the Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called on 8 March 2017 for Turkey to be put under monitoring, a status reserved for members lacking democracy such as Russia, Azerbaijan and The Ukraine. In its 110th plenary on 10 March 2017, the Venice Commission has concluded that the proposed constitutional amendments were a “dangerous step backwards” for democracy in Turkey. The Commission also noted that “the amendments would not bring a democratic presidential system based on the separation of powers.” Instead, “it would risk degeneration into an authoritarian presidential system.”

As already noted above, the EU commission has suspended EU funds earmarked for convergence reforms that have never happened. Finally, the UN has documented that the Turkish state has killed hundreds of Kurds during the security crackdown in 2016. The report provides detailed information about summary killings, torture, rape and widespread destruction of property among other violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

Put together, these developments are in strike contrast to the European/western silence that I and others documented earlier. Part of the reason for the turn is the increase in the European public’s doubt about the rationale for appeasement. This public distrust is generating cross-cutting alliances that force the hands of the politicians to act. Another part of the reason, however, relates to the dictatorial ambitions of the AKP elite and their new-found partners among the racist/nationalist camp. The two camps are now united in their push for a constitution that would provide de jure legitimacy for dictatorship.

The proposed constitutional amendments are designed to legalise the de facto dictatorial regime in Turkey. The proposed model of presidency lacks the safety mechanisms and checks and balances that characterise democratic presidential systems. It goes beyond the arbitrary regime described by Montesquieu, where the legislature and the executive powers are under one control. Indeed, the proposed constitution enables the president to monopolise all powers, including the judiciary. It also ensures that the president is immune to any legal and parliamentary scrutiny.

Control of the legislature is ensured in amended article 116. Under this article, the president can decide on early elections as and when he wishes. If such a decision is taken, the presidential and parliamentary elections will be held simultaneously on the same day. This change will enable the president to keep pressure on the parliament to toe the line. Otherwise, recalcitrant MPs from the president’s party may be de-selected in the run up to new elections and all MPs will face the risk of failing to hold onto their seats after the election.

Control of the Constitutional court is ensured in Article 146. Under this article, 15 members of the Constitutional Court will be appointed as follows: (a) 5 members will be selected by the president from among the candidates designated by the Court of Cassation and Council of State; (b) 3 members will be selected by the Parliament, which would be normally dominated by the political party chaired by the president; (c) 3 members will be selected by the President again from among candidates proposed by the Board of Higher Education (YÖK), which is appointed by the president in the first place; and (d) the remaining 4 members will be directly appointed by the President from a list of professionals. In practice, all members of the Court are selected or appointed by the president!

Control on the Council of Judges and Prosecutors seems to be less than full in appearance. Of the 13 members, 4 will be selected by the president, 7 will be appointed by the parliament, and the remaining 2 will consist of the minister of justice and the undersecretary of the ministry of justice. In practice, however, presidential control over judges and prosecutors is also ensured because at least some of the 7 members appointed by the parliament will reflect the preferences of the president’s party in the parliament.

The president also has full executive power. Under amended Article 104, the prerogative of the executive rests with the president, who will have the power to appoint and fire ministers and vice-presidents. The president will also have the power to appoint and dismiss the senior state executives and to regulate the procedures and principles relating thereto through presidential decrees (Article 104(9)).  Under amended article 119, the president also has full power to declare a state of emergency and martial law.

Alongside this full spectrum control on the executive, legislature and the judiciary, the president is declared immune to criminal liability and/or parliamentary scrutiny. Under amended article 105, the president can face impeachment only if the parliament voted with a two-thirds majority, after the preceding hurdle of setting up a parliamentary inquiry commission with a three-fifths majority. Furthermore, the president will also be immune from parliamentary scrutiny. Under amended article 98, the parliament can exercise control only over the cabinet and vice-president(s) – and this is only through parliamentary questions.

Overall, the proposed constitutional amendments boil down to a regime that perpetuates the practice of state crimes that the Turkish state has excelled in. It also protects the chief orchestrator of such crimes against both legal and parliamentary scrutiny. To put icing on the cake, the new chief-to-be-crowned (Mr Erdogan) has vowed that the death penalty will be re-introduced after a Yes vote in the referendum!

The bicycle theory of state violence

The AKP establishment seems to be subscribing to a ‘bicycle theory’ of continued violence as a means of securing re-election. State-orchestrated violence has enabled the AKP to win the re-run elections in November 2015. Then, the violence against the Kurds was intensified in 2016. The aim was to consolidate AKP rule by securing the support of the nationalists and the military. Now a new wave of violence is in the making, with determination to outdo the past practice.

From a parliamentary question tabled by HDP members, we learn that the minister of the interior and the commander of the gendarmerie have issued a directive to governors of 16 Kurdish provinces asking them to prepare for the ‘Three-Crescent Operation’. The governors are informed that this operation will be conducted by special commando teams and the armed Kurdish militia on state payroll. All gatherings or meetings in party buildings or public spaces will be banned if they are deemed to constitute an obstacle to the operations of the security forces. Also, state officials should show “no mercy to anyone” suspected of supporting terrorism; and what is necessary should be done immediately.

This new wave of state violence is designed to scare both the Kurdish and non-Kurdish electorate to vote Yes in the constitutional amendment referendum on 16 April. This is why it is very important that some European governments and European institutions are taking a stance against the AKP regime. Appeasement that borrows from the ‘sick man of Europe’ syndrome of the 1850s is not an option for Europe now – as it is likely to produce more disastrous outcomes than the appeasement during the Crimean War.

The European public will remember that dictatorships are unsustainable in the face of a principled stance by the people and governments of the countries that value democracy and human rights. They are also aware that propping up the ‘sick man of Europe’ cannot be justified by doomsday scenarios based on the assumption that a nasty AKP regime is preferable to uncertainties about the future of Turkey. As A. J. P Taylor indicated with respect to the immediate cause of the Crimean War, fear is a disastrous basis for policy.

Meanwhile, the AKP is not a monolithic party – as poll after poll indicates, a sizeable portion of its supporters are against the constitutional amendments. A resilient European stance will allow the silent opposition within the AKP to challenge the adventurist and dictatorial ambitions of Erdogan their chief. Beyond that, support for the pro-democracy HDP is still above 10% – despite unprecedented waves of arrests that include both its MPs and more than two thousand of its members. In contrast, the support for the Nationalist Action Party (the main partner of Erdogan in the referendum campaign) is falling and the Party is likely to remain below the 10% threshold and hence out of the parliament. Fourth, the hold of the nationalists on the Republican People’s Party (CHP) will weaken and the strength of the social-democratic bloc increase when Erdogan fails to secure a win in the referendum. This combination opens up new avenues for a just solution to the Kurdish issue in Turkey and a renewed partnership between Turkey and the European Union.

Finally, the religious and nationalist support that Erdogan has enjoyed so far should not detract attention from the fact that the electorate in Turkey are acutely aware of the benefits of secularism and parliamentary democracy – even though both qualities have had much less than perfect expression in their country. Given this combination, a pro-democracy political re-alignment in Turkey is more than wishful thinking. European governments, institutions and the public at large should side with the democratic forces of Turkey. This is not a call for Europeans to do the work on the Turks’ or Kurds’ behalf - but a call to show solidarity with democratic forces of the country at a time when the fear instilled by a ruthless regime is the main reason of its survival and a major obstacle to the emergence of political alternatives.


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