Growing authoritarianism in Turkey produces few ripples abroad

While the Turkish government is turning into a more authoritarian regime by limiting freedom of expression, controlling the judiciary, tightening its grip on power and controlling the media, it appears that Turkey is managing to maintain a “business as usual” relationship with the US and European countries without any repercussions, as long as Turkey protects the interests of Western powers in the region.

Diplomatic sources and experts who closely follow Turkish-American relations and Turkey’s accession process to the European Union agree that recent important steps by the Turkish government, such as satisfying Western powers on the Cyprus issue and normalizing ties with Israel, are helping to keep potential criticisms from the US government and other Western countries at bay regarding problematic issues on democracy and freedom in Turkey.

“Feeling weak and uneasy at home and vulnerable and isolated in its foreign relations, the Justice and Development Party [AK Party] is desperately seeking to build up some credibility with the US and EU,” main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Faruk Loğoğlu told Sunday’s Zaman.

“That is why Foreign Minister [Ahmet] Davutoğlu hastily agreed to the start of negotiations in Cyprus. That is why the talks to normalize relations with Israel have picked up steam. That is why the AK Party has toned down its high-handed rhetoric on Syria and taken steps to ameliorate relations with Iraq. In short, the AK Party is in a panic. Authoritarian measures at home and concessionary moves abroad will not save the AK Party from defeat at the polls on March 30,” said Loğoğlu, a retired diplomat who served as Turkey’s ambassador to the US between 2001 and 2005.

The negotiations in Cyprus started on Feb. 11 after intense diplomatic efforts by the US administration. Cyprus talks have been stalled since January 2012 due to postponements by Greek Cyprus for a variety of reasons.

The US administration insists that Turkey normalize its relations with Israel. Diplomatic ties between Turkey and Israel took a downturn after eight Turks and one Turkish-American were killed by Israeli soldiers on a Gaza-bound aid ship called the Mavi Marmara in 2010. The Israeli ambassador was expelled from Ankara in September 2011 after Israel refused to apologize for the killings. Obama convinced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call Erdoğan and apologize for the flotilla incident. Israel formally apologized for what it called “operational mistakes” that might have led to the deaths on the ship. Currently Turkey and Israel are negotiating on a compensation deal for the victim’s families. According to diplomatic sources, the deal between Turkey and Israel is done, but the AK Party government does not want to risk losing votes if it normalizes relations with Israel before the local elections on March 30. Therefore, a compensation deal with Israel and a normalization of the relationship may come only after the local elections.

The AK Party’s political started to take a slow but steady downturn with the Gezi Park demonstrations in İstanbul last summer, compounded by recent corruption and bribery scandals involving the families of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and several of his ministers, explained Loğoğlu, adding that the economy is in deep trouble, society is polarized along ethnic and sectarian lines and Turkey’s foreign policy is in tatters.

“As the AK Party’s troubles mount, Erdoğan is increasingly resorting to threats and sanctions against his opponents, whether in the realm of politics, economy or the media,” said Loğoğlu.

According to former US Treasury terrorism finance analyst and current Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Vice President of Research Jonathan Schanzer, “There is little risk of a downgrade in the ties [between Ankara and Washington], even as Turkey increasingly takes on autocratic characteristics.”

In an e-mail to Sunday’s Zaman, Schanzer said Turkey is of too much strategic importance and that one should not forget that “Washington has a history of maintaining strong ties with autocratic states that hold strategic importance.”

“Take Saudi Arabia, for example. But this uneasy relationship should not be a model for Turkey,” he said.

Washington has its plate full in the Middle East and US President Barack Obama is trying to become less involved in the domestic affairs of countries from Turkey’s region, Schanzer emphasized.

“He [Obama] knows that any attempt to influence the outcome in Turkey right now would almost certainly cause a rupture in US-Turkish ties, and the president doesn’t want to risk that. This is why the administration has kept things business-as-usual on foreign affairs — particularly where progress can be made,” said Schanzer.

The US administration has mostly opted to remain silent following corruption and bribery investigations in Turkey involving some members of the ruling AK Party government and their relatives; a purge of members of the judiciary and law enforcement officials; restructuring Turkey’s judiciary to give more power to the government, raising concerns about the separation of powers; a new Internet law which restricts freedom of expression; and the government’s tight control over the media.

Unlike European Union officials who have openly criticized Turkey on such issues, US officials have repeatedly said that “the United States is not and will not become involved in Turkey’s domestic politics.”

EU officials have criticized Turkey turning more authoritarian, though with the EU countries, it is business as usual as well. French President François Hollande, on his first presidential visit to Turkey in 22 years in late January, said that his country backs the continuation of Turkey’s EU membership process with the opening of talks.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy visited Turkey on Feb. 11 and reaffirmed his country’s support for Turkey’s EU bid. During a press conference with his Spanish counterpart, Erdoğan criticized a Zaman reporter simply because he “dared” to ask the prime minister tough questions about villas that allegedly belong to him, and much more extensive corruption allegations.

Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University, a specialist on Turkey and a former member of the US State Department policy planning staff, told Sunday’s Zaman that there are two explanations accounting for the US and EU reactions to the recent developments in Turkey.

Barkey explained, “The Europeans may be quite happy to see Turkey take steps that distance it from the European idea; it may be the path of least resistance; that is, now all they have to do is point out the AK Party’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies and say, ‘See, Turkey is decades away from serious admission consideration; we have done everything we can to open up to them’.”

He pointed out that the Obama administration is distracted by looming congressional elections that may cause it to lose the Senate majority, adding that the Obama administration “has not been able to come up with a coherent strategy vis-à-vis the region, other than a new vigorous push for Arab-Israeli peace, which is truly commendable, and it certainly is having trouble understanding Turkish developments.”

Cenk Sidar, the founder of Sidar Global Advisors (SGA), a Washington, D.C.-based macro insight and strategic advisory firm, told Sunday’s Zaman that Turkey has always been very important to keep as an ally in the region, however, both the US and the EU should be aware of the fact that Turkey is important due to its unique identity as a democratic and secular state in a turbulent region.

“The current trend towards more authoritarianism and censorship is not only a structural threat for the future of Turkey, but also for the Western community’s alliance with Ankara. That’s why both Brussels and Washington should raise their voices about the current problems in democracy and not make anyone in the region to think that it is OK to veer off from [the] democratic path,” said Sidar, adding, “Being pragmatic is not always the best political choice.”




About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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