By Francesco Ventura
On April 5th, during the ongoing Turkish Army campaign in the Kurdish city of Nusaybin, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) leader, Devlet Bahçeli, urged the government to “level Nusaybin to the ground and leave no one alive”. The speech was quickly refined and amplified by the pro-government media.
Bahçeli’s speech is just one in a growing number of incidents that are making analysts speak of the ‘nationalist turn’ under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Some have gone even further: Turkish columnist Mustafa Aykol has directly spoken of a new brand of ‘neo-nationalism’ under AKP rule.
Fifteen years ago, the AKP presented itself as a new political force, able to drive Turkey from a fledgling democracy under the protection of the military, to a 21st century democracy, modern and mature. Turkey, under the AKP, was initially praised throughout the world for its ability to balance Islam, democracy and economic liberalisation. In 2009 the US President Barak Obama spoke of Turkey’s importance for the entire world, stressing that it represented a blend of old traditions with a modern nation state respecting democracy and the rule of law, and striving toward a modern economy.
This was the beginning of the so-called “Turkish model”. This model was not fated to last however.
Yet when mass protests swept through the Middle East in 2011, from the squares of Cairo to the streets of Tunis, Turkey was still seen by its Western allies and by a large part of the so-called ‘Arab street’ as a model for the entire region.
Today, Western societies look at Turkey gingerly, wondering whether its increasingly fragile democratic institutions will last, or whether the country is destined for authoritarianism. The first defendant in this route change is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of the Republic, former Prime Minister and former head of the AKP. Of late, Erdoğan has successfully centralised his power as he pursues his personal goal of an unchecked presidential system.
The nationalist within
This authoritarian turn should be framed in terms of a nationalist shift away from the allegedly “neo-Ottoman” formula which characterised the AKP’s initial rise to power. Prior to the 2011 Arab uprising, Turkey acted as a regional mediator, pursuing rapprochement as summarised by the lost motto “zero problems with neighbours”.
The early successes of the Arab Spring made Turkey believe that it could capitalize upon the revolts, and emerge triumphant as a hegemonic power. However, Turkish involvement triggered broader regional instability and, in many cases, the old nationalist forces came back to power, re-establishing the status quo, but in a new and ever more unstable regional environment. Turkey saw its dreams of a hegemonic role in the Middle East disintegrate.
Since then, a new nationalist path has accompanied the authoritarian turn in Turkish politics, the ‘Turkish model’ is damaged, perhaps beyond repair, and Turkey’s honeymoon period with the West has started to fade. On June 9th, MEPs accused Erdoğan of undermining the rule of law by stripping the parliamentary immunity of 138 opposition MPs currently under investigation. Last January a UN committee warned Turkey against discrimination and human rights violations, especially towards the Kurds. According to Freedom House, Turkey fell by eleven positions in media freedom ranking between 2010 and 2014, and is now considered ‘not free’.
And yet prior to this authoritarian decline, there were two major democratic results in Erdoğan’s political career: the peace talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and bringing the Turkish military to heel. These moments represented the AKP’s all-embracing vision and the primacy of civil power over the military.
In 2009, the Turkish government initiated secret peace talks with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, then known as the “solution process”. Those talks brought Öcalan himself to give a historic speech in occasion of Newroz 2013, in which he called his followers to “let the arms silence, opinions and politics speak”. In 2010, a referendum placed unprecedented limitations on the military’s power over politics and society. It was the peak of Turkey’s popularity.
This all-embracing and peace-oriented attitude fell under the banner of “neo-Ottomanism”, a policy framework of proactive diplomacy, peaceful international relations, and domestic policies geared to extend civil rights and multi-ethnic coexistence.
The term ‘neo-Ottomanism’ has also been used to label Turgut Özal’s government, spanning the late 1980s and early 1990s. Neo-Ottomanism differs from traditional Kemalism, which was rooted in a firm, west-looking nationalism. While the Kemalist ideology is characterised by secularism, nationalism and isolationism, neo-Ottomanism gives space to religion within the public sphere, is open to a soft multi-ethnic policy, and promotes broader political engagement between Turkey and the regions formerly under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
So what pushed Erdoğan to move away from the AKP’s neo-Ottomanism to its current aggressive nationalism? Is there a connection between Turkish foreign policy and changing domestic attitudes?
Geography and demography offer some explanations. Turkish people are surrounded by Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, Armenians, Persians, and many others. If Turkey wants to play a strategic role in its neighbouring region, it had to soften its nationalism. Only when a multi-ethnic and all-encompassing attitude prevails is Turkey able to peacefully project its influence over neighbouring regions. Conversely, when Turkey feels trapped and its foreign policy begins to falter, nationalist rhetoric increases.
The AKP began to alter the tone of its rhetoric from neo-Ottoman to nationalist following the first failures of its foreign policy in the Syrian civil war. A vicious cycle began; the fear of being excluded by the Middle East and of the rise of the Kurds along its Southern flank triggered a sense of paranoia, which exacerbated authoritarianism and nationalism.
That increasing authoritarianism made Turkey progressively more isolated, fostering its nationalist rhetoric and adopting the “precious isolationism” narrative, according to which Turkey is isolated because “it is the only country courageous enough to adopt the moral high-ground and a value-based foreign policy”. Such nationalism feeds the struggle with the Kurds, and the lack of peace within Turkey in turn increases Erdoğan’s authoritarian posture.
Prior to the election campaign of June 2015, many Kurds supported the AKP. However, the new pro-Kurdish Peoples Democracy Party (HDP) was destined for success and refused to support Erdoğan’s agenda of establishing a presidential system.
It was arguably at that moment Erdoğan chose to make the Kurds the enemy of the state, entrenching this schism as he sought to chase ultranationalist votes lost during the peace process. A violent conflict between the military and the PKK flared up once again and several Kurdish cities were placed under siege. Simultaneously the infamous Grey Wolves reached new popularity within the country, and many supporters fought side by side with the military, both in Turkey and in Northern Syria, where they reportedly assist Turkmen factions against the Kurds.
This destructive mix of aggressive nationalism, authoritarianism and neo-imperial dreams – almost the only legacy remaining from neo-Ottoman attitude – have brought Turkey to the brink of collapse. Recently, much to the anger of Ankara, the United States has started to openly support the Kurdish YPG, which is considered to be an affiliate of the PKK by Turkey. Many Turkish citizens wonder if the USA has turned into an enemy, fostering the idea that “the Turk has no friend but the Turk”, as the old proverb goes.
This interconnected relationship between foreign policy failure and aggressive nationalism seems to have been present since the establishment of modern Turkey. After nearly two centuries of attempts to save the Ottoman Empire, at the moment of its collapse, Turkish elites chose the way of nationalism and isolation. However, every time Turkey saw a chance to emerge as a regional power, it relied on some kind of neo-Ottoman rhetoric. This was true for Turgut Özal, as it was for the early AKP government. However, whenever Turkey failed to achieve its hegemonic goals, it sought refuge in nationalist positions.
It is fair to assume that until Turkey is able to adjust its foreign policy, it will persist in its nationalist rhetoric, depicting Turks as both isolated, and as victims of a global conspiracy. The words of the now infamous Pelican Brief – the post that disclosed Ahmet Davutoğlu’s resignation – are likely the best example: “This is a country where all of the superpowers are playing chess on Turkey”.