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Whither Turkey?

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • August 17, 2016

    Turkey is going where President Erdogan wants to take it to, as those who do not agree with him are too intimidated to stand in his way. To figure out Erdogan’s plans, we have to look critically at both what he has done in Turkey after the coup collapsed and his foreign policy moves before and after the failed coup a month ago.

    Erdogan invoked the people’s power initially to crush the coup and subsequently to approve the huge purge and other measures to suppress dissent with the aim of concentrating more and power in his hands. Hundreds of thousands of Turks came on the street night after night to show support for Erdogan. His thesis that the followers of Fehtullah Gulen, living in self-chosen exile in the US since 1999, carried out the coup attempt and that Gulen himself masterminded it has been accepted by a majority of Turks. That no convincing proof of Gulen’s involvement has been offered is a different matter.

    Erdogan moved fast after the collapse of the coup giving the impression that he had planned it all beforehand. He started a purge, declared a national emergency, shut down dissenting media outlets to intimidate the rest into falling in line, and suspended Turkey’s compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights. On July 16 itself, hours after the coup collapsed, 2745 judges were taken into custody. Obviously, the list was there before the coup attempt. Erdogan has done some ‘purging’ in the past from time to time, but this time it has been truly massive even at the cost of making it difficult for the government to function. For example, 21,000 private school teachers and 1500 university deans have been purged, while 1700 schools have been shut altogether. Naturally, the education sector has been gravely disabled. Can the Finance Ministry function normally when 1500 have been sacked? About 300 in the Foreign Office are under investigation including two ambassadors. About 32 diplomats have refused to return to Turkey and have sought refuge in other countries including the two military attaches in Greece who escaped to Italy. There is hardly any part of the government that has escaped the purge which has affected over 80,000 individuals.

    What will be the impact of all this on the economy? Will foreign investment be attracted to a country in such turmoil? On July 17, Bloomberg carried a story with the caption “Turkey set for market turmoil as coup turns investors ‘ice-cold’.” Turkey has worked hard to convince the world that the failed coup has not in any way made investment in the country riskier than it was. A paid advertisement was taken out in the Financial Times of London. The rating agency Moody’s announced on July 18 that it was reviewing the current Baa3 grade and that the finding will be announced in mid-October. On July 20, Standard & Poor’s downgraded Turkey from BB+ to BB, drawing attention to ‘polarization of political landscape’ and erosion of ‘institutional checks and balances’. What Turkey’s government does not seem to or does not want to understand is that while the outside world is glad that the coup attempt failed it is concerned about the future of democracy and the rule of law in Turkey.

    The 75,000-strong Turkish military, the second largest in NATO, has lost about half of its 360 generals in the purge. Ever since he became Prime Minister in 2002, Erdogan has consistently tried, not without success, to reduce the clout of the military. It was a happy coincidence for him that Turkey’s bid for admission to the European Union (EU) necessitated raising its democratic credentials by reducing the military’s role in politics, especially since it had staged coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. In its 2004 report on Turkey, the EU said, “A number of changes have been introduced over the last year to strengthen civilian control of the military to aligning it (Turkey) with practice in EU member states.” In 2007, the Army Chief, General Yasar Buyukanit, posted a memorandum on the military’s website objecting to the nomination of Erdogan’s candidate, the then Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, for the post of President on the ground that his wife had worn a headscarf and thereby undermined the secular order. Erdogan responded by pointing out that it was none of the military’s business to give an opinion on candidates for the presidency. Gul was elected and the military’s lack of clout was exposed.

    The Supreme Military Council met at the Prime Minister’s office on July 28. In the past, the Council always met at the General Staff Head Quarters and the change of venue is significant as an indicator of the primacy of the civilian government. It is also possible that the civilian government deemed the new venue safer. The Council’s recommendations will have to be approved by the President. There is a move to change the composition of the Council by adding more ministers in order to reduce the role of the military. The Army Chief will be deprived of some of his responsibilities.

    Predictably, the imposition of emergency, the suspension of the European Convention on Human Rights, the purge, and the suppression of dissent by shutting down media outlets, all in quick succession, alarmed the EU and the US; and they gave vent to their concerns about the erosion of the rule of law, Europe being more vocal than the US. Equally predictably, Turkey reacted with a degree of hostility to that criticism, pointing out that the West did not condemn the coup, its leaders did not personally call Erdogan to show support to the democratically elected government, and that there has been no high level visit after the failed coup.

    But the real reason for Turkey’s dissatisfaction with the US is that the latter has not agreed to extradite Gulen. The US is insisting on evidence of Gulen’s involvement and it is doubtful whether Turkey has so far given any evidence that can stand scrutiny. Gulen wrote an article in the New York Times on July 25 titled “I condemn all threats to Turkey’s democracy”. The clear implication is that he condemns the coup and what Erdogan has done in the aftermath. There are signals that the US is willing to be patient and reason with Turkey. A team of US officials is due shortly in Ankara to discuss the matter of Gulen’s extradition. The Turkish media have put out a story that the team will assist Turkey in drafting a memorandum meeting US standards. This story might not be true. US Vice President Biden is due in Turkey on August 24 and the Gulen issue will top the agenda.

    Erdogan’s visit to St. Petersburg and meeting with President Putin on August 9 has attracted a good deal of media attention. This was a meeting planned well before the coup attempt. When Turkey shot down a Russian SU-24 war plane in November 2015 ‘for violating its air space’, Putin had broken off economic and trade relations inflicting much pain on Turkey. Erdogan’s initial efforts to talk to Putin were rebuffed. After a while, President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and a prominent Turkish businessman mediated, and Putin relented after Erdogan apologized in June. Putin who was keen to reconcile with Turkey telephoned Erdogan immediately after the coup collapsed. Erdogan told Putin that the call was ‘psychologically important’. There is a report that Russian intelligence gave Erdogan some advance tip off on the coup.

    The economic and trade relations broken by Russia to punish Turkey for shooting down its fighter plane are being restored. Russian tourists have already come back, and being received with champagne and flowers. Some commentators in the West have misinterpreted the resumption of relations primarily as an anti-US move. This interpretation is wrong as this is a resumption of what was there before the shooting down of the plane. The Turkish-Russian differences over Syria remain, but one should not be surprised if Erdogan were to over time get closer to the Russian position on Assad. Russia and Turkey have agreed to cooperate in the war against the Islamic State.

    Russia and Turkey are not yet allies, but they might get closer as Turkey’s hopes of gaining entry into the EU fades away. Austria has called on the EU to break off talks with Turkey on its admission. The bone of contention between Turkey and the EU is the latter’s delay in granting visa-free entry to Turkish citizens to the Schengen area in return for Turkey taking back illegal migrants who had entered Greece. The deadline for the deal was June 2016. While Turkey is insisting that the deal be formalised by October, the signals from Brussels indicate that it might not happen any time this year. Most probably, the EU is not going to agree to the visa-free entry of Turks in the near future. Erdogan might threaten to inundate the EU with Syrian refugees and might even carry out the threat unless the EU pays a huge amount of money. Europe is vulnerable to such blackmail.

    Iran sent its Foreign Minister to Turkey to show solidarity with Erdogan. The two sides agreed on the need to uphold the territorial integrity of Syria and agreed to talk more on Syria to narrow their differences. The opening to Israel signalled by Turkey before the coup will continue.

    The Turkish media have been suitably intimidated and subordinated. The media have now ‘divulged’ that it was some Gulenist group in the Air Force that brought down the Russian plane. This is dis-information. Some columnists have threatened the US that its refusal to extradite Gulen might cost its use of Incirlik. It is difficult to take the threat seriously as the air base was built by the US in the 1950s, the US has stored nuclear weapons there, and the two countries have signed a joint use agreement. Nevertheless, Erdogan has cards to play. In 2003, the Turkish Parliament passed a resolution denying the use of the base to US in the War on Iraq. It was Erdogan who talked to his MPs and made them change their stand. Will Erdogan re-enact the same and demand that the US extradite Gulen?

    Turkey is seeking more manoeuvring space by reconciling with Russia; the two may work closer in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey might try to blackmail a vulnerable EU by threatening to inundate it with Syrian refugees. Turkey will play hard ball on Gulen, but short of hard evidence extradition is unlikely. Unless Erdogan takes due care, serious damage can be done to his country’s relations with the US as the latter might reluctantly conclude that Turkey is an unreliable ally. Has the US started looking at alternatives to Incirlik? It has built one and has started building another in Syrian Kurdistan controlled by its Kurdish allies. Russia has announced plans to build an airbase at Khmeimim in Aleppo province to ‘rival Incirlik’. Will Syria, partitioned de facto, if not de jure, have Russian and US airbases?

    One wonders whether a phone call from President Obama before Putin’s would have changed the course of history. It might not have, but Obama should have called early knowing Erdogan’s paranoia and that would have made some difference as Erdogan is playing ‘the jilted lover’ with much success. Over time, Erdogan’s pursuit of absolute power and hard-line policy towards the Kurds might boomerang. The EU’s vulnerability should not be exaggerated as it takes 44 per cent of Turkey’s exports. After the general election in Germany around October 2017, Merkel’s successor might be less indulgent towards Erdogan.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.