Turkey’s ‘year of nullification’

As a chronicler of Turkey’s story for decades, I am finding it hard to sum up the previous years without feeling their inherent gloom.

The year 2014 was such. And this year that is about to end offers no silver lining either. All it shows, looking back at the past 365 days, is a massive reversal to a Turkey with darkening shadows.

Perhaps the breaking point was much earlier. Exactly four years ago, 34 Kurdish villagers were bombed in Roboski/Uludere in the border area between Turkey and Iraq, and the brand that incident left on society — in terms of impunity and cover up — should have been read as a harbinger of what was to follow.

When compared to the beginning of 2012, everyone agrees that Turkey is not closer to democratic rule, but exactly the opposite. What then seemed to be more or less limited to the Kurdish issue has now taken the entire civilian sphere hostage with oppression committed under the banner of majoritarianism spreading like a destructive disease, turning Turkey into a republic of fear, and where a regime change (with unknown consequences) is in the offing, a society that is even more sharply torn apart and not much left of the rule of law, which is necessary to keep things together.

Somebody tweeted while looking back at 2015 that the only day Turkey somehow relaxed was June 8, the day after the general election, because it meant an opportunity for the parties to seek consensus about the main tenets of the future, but it faded away as quickly as it appeared. The “repeat” election on Nov. 1, cunningly engineered by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) top echelons, only helped consolidate the path to a more authoritarian order.

Certainly it would be irrational and unethical to question the legitimacy of the 49.5 percent of the vote the AKP garnered in November; yet, what is worrisome is the historic fact that dreams of democracy cannot be minimized to ballot boxes. What matters is how responsibly the victor acts to advance toward a management model that would ease the decades-long suspicion and tension within this society.

After the Nov. 1 election, the majoritarianist AKP continued to de exactly the opposite. Once more interpreting the result as carte blanche for arbitrariness and hardline policies against political opposition and civilian dissent, it pressed the gas pedal to create a society in which a social hierarchy is taking shape: the flag of “us and them” waving more strongly than ever and the much-feared state readopting its old operating system.

This has been the year we, the observers of Turkey’s story, witnessed, as a historic example of what happens when the public and their elected representatives fail to take a leap away from the misdeeds of the past, growing turmoil, simply because it is impossible to close an opened Pandora’s Box. The story now develops going into 2016 as high drama in which the majoritarianist AKP is displaying a truly worrisome mismanagement of domestic and foreign policy.

This has been the year when two main pillars that kept Turkey’s story a hopeful one — despite all — namely, the judiciary and the media, have been torpedoed, penetrated, manipulated, sieged and, to a great deal subordinated, by a full-scale, power-hungry force.

After a ruthless and incredible engineering of the institutional genetics of these two pillars, there is no longer any sense of trust in the law, and the public perception of reality is, with the media now toothless and frightened, deeply distorted. Turkey at the end of 2015 is no longer able to distinguish between right and wrong, between what is moral and immoral.

Soft power is gone. One man entirely obsessed with personalized power, reintroduced punitive measures against journalists, lawyers, academia, students and, in general, all dissent en masse, with jail as a destination. Turkey is perceived as an open-air prison for those who disagree with power.

Four years after Roboski, we see full-scale violence in Kurdish areas, a war affecting millions of locals in the southeastern provinces and leaving less and less hope for peace and reconciliation. Extreme hardline measures have brought all the conservative, nationalist and Islamist elements of the state closer, with the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) creating a de facto alliance, wider fault lines, hatred or apathy. Prepare for a dark future.

So, we leave this year with much more political and legal debris than the year before. The deliberate policy of destruction, escorted by waves of lies and paranoia, an endless stream of conspiracy theories and constant demonization through the targeting of segments of this complex society, has left us, as of Dec. 31, 2015, with almost no sense of justice and an extremely distorted perception of reality.

Two pillars that keep the public debate in the sphere of reason and maintain trust in the system — the media and the judiciary — are in ruins.

In my previous column, I gave a detailed description of the domestic issues that are piling up rather than being solved. What’s even more worrisome, the overall mismanagement of Turkey — caused by the ruling party’s top echelons apparently preferring to live in a parallel universe — has gotten the country’s foreign policy into a rut.

In that sense, it may be fair to say that 2015 marks the nullification of Turkey’s once-hailed “zero problems with neighbors” policy. In many ways, seemingly rudderless, Turkey’s decisions how to deal with the burning issues in its immediate vicinity have powerfully exposed the lack of a coherent strategy and caused further tensions with Iran and Iraq and a crisis with its northern neighbor, Russia. What began as the start of the “zero problems” policy with the Armenian normalization process some years ago led one move after the other to open disputes with Israel, Egypt and Syria, and now, Turkey is left as a large island surrounded by discreetly or openly hostile neighbors, eviscerating its abilities to conduct proactive policies that would serve its strategic interests.

If the foreign policy designed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is as of now widely translated as a formula that has placed Turkey as “part of the problem and not the solution,” the heart of the matter, many of us observers agree, is the ruling AKP’s severe misjudgments of Ankara’s capabilities and the party’s overreaching ambitions. In a simple metaphor, it could be said: The AKP threw far too many balls up in the air and failed dramatically to juggle them.

Apparently, 2015 has been the year in which the AKP has realized how myopic it has been to abandon its once-praised “soft power” policy to a “regime changer” role and how wrong it was to remain distant to — or deviant from — its Western allies and ties. What caused this was the delusion of grandeur, laced with neo-Ottoman ambitions and wishful thinking and a misreading of the Arab mindset regarding Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may still be personally enjoying considerable popularity with some Sunni publics, but for the rulers of the Arab world, he has lost his glamour. And Tunisia has replaced Turkey as a source of inspiration.

Now, there are two matters of urgency that will haunt Turkey into the next year, inviting more drama. The top echelons of the AKP seem still ambiguous about the joint battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), giving mixed signals, mainly because the obsession with “regime change” in Turkey — to an empowered presidential system — is based on keeping a powerful Sunni voter base devoted to the party.

The second issue is the termination of the Kurdish peace process by President Erdoğan, coupled with the apparent consensus in Ankara between the AKP and the military to block all Kurdish advances beyond Turkey’s Syrian border. The “anti-Kurdish” policy choice, displaying the lack of a realist strategy and sound reason, raises the risks of a further clash of interests with Ankara’s Western allies because it invites Russia and Iran to undermine Turkey’s remaining weight. There is no sign whatsoever that neither the US nor Europe will discontinue their support for the Syrian Kurdish forces.

Also, the downing of the Russian jet, whatever intent may have been behind it, brought Washington and Moscow closer to a confrontation, while the miscalculated move to place troops near Mosul showed that Baghdad relies much more on Tehran than Ankara on its future.

As my distinguished colleague Semih İdiz wrote in Al-Monitor: “The AKP’s policies have left Turkey facing the United States in Iraq — where Ankara also faces Russia and Iran — and facing Russia and Iran in Syria, where it is not completely on the same page with the United States, either. None of this suggests that Ankara’s influence in the region will improve.”


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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