Who is Responsible for the Death of Turkish Democracy?

Source: Reuters/ Osman Orsal

Source: Reuters/ Osman Orsal

While the EU continued to play make-believe accession talks with Turkey, Erdoğan boasted of his “game changing” win; leveraging his position as gatekeeper to the Middle East to achieve a one-for-one refugee exchange, visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and the opening of new chapters in the accession bid. There has been extensive and on point analysis covering the dark side of this deal for already vulnerable refugee communities but what does this mean for Turkey?

The EU deal, as well as illegally negotiating away refugees rights and allowing Erdoğan to use refugees as a bargaining chip based on our own xenophobic fear of changing demographics at home, is one force at least facilitating if not encouraging dramatic crackdowns on freedom of expression, the exacerbation of the Kurdish conflict and a widespread deterioration of human rights. As Brussels rolled out the red carpet for Erdoğan, his police forces brutally attacked journalists back in Istanbul. The timing of this is more than coincidental and reflects the catastrophic paradoxes of this deal in turning Turkey into Europe’s newest immigration police.

The past few years have seen the largest civil protests in Turkish history brutally suppressed, the re-ignition of the Kurdish conflict, spill over from a bloody civil war in Syria in which Turkey is heavily and catastrophically embroiled, and most recently, the almost total demise of the independent press. The closure of Koza-İpek Holding and the five media outlets owned by it in October 2015, the arrests of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül of Cumhuriyet newspaper, and now the take-over of Zaman show the vulnerability of Turkey’s decaying democratic foundations. Erdoğan turning his wrath on the Constitutional Court next may well represent the last nail in the coffin, as it were.

Hear no Evil, See no Evil, Speak no Evil…

By turning a blind eye to these concerning developments we (and by we, I mean the EU) continue to treat Erdoğan as the ‘democrat’ we’d like to see. We continue to make some lacklustre and apathetic comments against the string of authoritarian attacks against human rights – particularly in the southeast which increasingly resembles scenes from Aleppo – and against the deterioration of civil liberties stemming from Turkey’s ‘Security Reform Package,’ Orwellian in both name and nature; whilst simultaneously offering up EU conditionality almost unconditionally. This charade is based on a myopic view of the Syrian conflict and is both short sighted and ill-advised; sacrificing democracy and the rule of law on the illusory altar of security; and betraying refugees by neglecting them in a state currently following a similar trajectory as their own war-torn countries.

The price of these negotiations is very high, not only for refugees but for Turkey and the EU’s credibility and normative principles of human rights and press freedom. This sham aid deal is in reality simply an effort by Europe to securitize its borders and reflects the true nature of post-Arab Spring EU enlargement; no longer a moral project based on (misguided) notions of democratic peace, but a negotiating tool, something to be traded with quasi-authoritarian regimes seeking entry such as Turkey and Macedonia; who are now working within a transactional conditionality framework in which the EU’s stamp of approval is given not on the basis of democratic consolidation but on security alone, to which the EU’s eastern border countries hold the key.

The recently leaked, and highly controversial, minutes from a G-20 meeting between Erdoğan and EU officials Jean Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk reveal the extent of Turkey’s leverage. Erdoğan is heard threatening to “put refugees on buses” unless the EU doubles the three billion Euro aid package and expedites accession negotiations. And yet who can blame him? The EU has dumped the majority of this crisis on Turkey’s doorstep whilst simultaneously showing time and time again that it is committed only to securitizing its own borders, and not to human rights; legitimizing the use of refugees as pawns in the Cold War-esque political game of the day.

Through their own hypocrisy and purely discursive commitment to human rights and freedom of the press, EU member states have lost the ability, and arguably the motivation, to encourage Turkey to re-commit to the democratic process. By focussing only on the Syrian refugee crisis, we have proved anti-EU Turks right, at once demonstrating that arguments of the bloc being a white Christian club are on point, and that the values and principles the EU proclaims to serve are at best selective and at worst a façade.

Although it would be wrong to place this burden entirely at Europe’s door, as the AKP’s own self-serving interpretation of human rights, personal vendettas and insecurity (both privately and regionally) are also clearly at work here, a strong element that has facilitated and arguably expedited this process was the EU’s approach to Turkey since the Arab Spring. It has back-peddled on criticisms of democratic regression, even going so far as to withhold valuable and critical reports on human rights abuses prior to the elections and at the behest of Erdoğan himself, whilst simultaneously opening new accession chapters. This sends a very strong message to Turkey and the message is this; we care not what you do, just be a good Muslim neighbour and man the gates for us will you?

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said that the arrests of opposition journalists went “against European values.” But what is left of those values now? How can anyone expect them to be implemented? The EU’s ‘cut and paste’ form of democracy has shown itself to be in-adept to facing the challenges of contemporary issues of migration, multi-culturalism and regional crises; suffering under a crisis of a lack of imagination. And so once again, who can blame Erdoğan for his opportunistic use of this crisis to further ensure domestic support through gains such as visa-free travel whilst simultaneously capitalizing on the silence incurred by the Syria crisis to oppress any remaining domestic criticism. What the EU has signalled in its dealings with Turkey, through its submission to blackmail and its pandering, is that the pretence of democracy is no longer necessary.

And yet, while the democratization process was still continuing in Turkey, the EU played a seminal role. The AKP rose to power in part on their economic success, but also due to their dedication to fulfilling EU conditionality; most of all in pursuing demilitarization, expanding civil society and resolving the Kurdish crisis and Cyprus. The AKP’s commitment to these processes was lost the moment the EU chose border security over its stated principles; shining a light down the barrel of a gun on the Union’s cultural selectivity and hypocrisy.

Thus those heady days are now long gone and as we struggle through the gas cloud hanging over the Atlantis of Turkey’s democracy, the men behind the men with guns are increasingly visible. EU arms sales are ever increasing to the tumultuous region, and Turkey is no exception. Yet it is small arms sales that are particularly concerning as strong-man Erdoğan – increasingly like his counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – turns these weapons against his own people. This first came to western attention during the Gezi protests of 2013 however quickly escalated into a civil war-like state in the predominantly Kurdish south east; which has long played host to Turkey’s dangerously stratified military infrastructure and panoptical police state.

War at Home, War Abroad

The domestic revolt during and since Gezi unseated the AKP to a degree, and certainly facilitated the electoral success of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) last summer, which led (very briefly) to the AKP’s loss of its parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002. This was a significant blow to the ruling regime, but was rectified swiftly by November with the AKP orchestrating what HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş called a “bloody doomsday” in order to win back nationalist votes. Alongside a growing and to a degree legitimate fear of the insidious and murky Gülen movement, all these forces provided substantial rationale for the current Orwellian nightmare of media take-overs, state-encouraged informing and suppression of even the smallest acts of resistance.

Gezi Park was also an international wake-up call for Erdoğan. He saw that his partners in the West could not be trusted to support him at any cost, but he also saw that their criticism was merely discursive: despite objections by the EU and the US regarding the disproportionate use of force, not only did they (largely the US) continue shipping ‘non-lethal’ arms to Turkey but simultaneously began tear-gassing and shooting their own people; first during Occupy and then during Ferguson. Consequently the US shares responsibility here too, although it does not and has never held power over Turkey’s domestic affairs in the same way as the EU.

Mostly, their responsibility over the current state of affairs in Turkey lies in playing the middle man – attempting to appease both Erdoğan and the Syrian Kurds based on the childish belief that it can play with both and antagonizing jealousies on both sides. Secondly, Washington’s need of the Incirlik airbase has blind-sighted its policymakers, not only to domestic human rights abuses and violations of international law in Turkey’s recent bombing of the Syrian PYD, but to the AKP’s negligible commitment to defeating Daesh. Despite multiple and catastrophic Daesh bombings targeting largely Kurds and leftists, the AKP remains far more concerned with its own domestic (and increasingly internationalized) conflict with the PKK.

Yet in contrast to minimal gains against Daesh, reports of over 1,200 PKK militant deaths are being flaunted across the Turkish press as we speak. However with little information on civilian deaths and reports of Turkey employing “mam” tactics (similar to US drone strikes in Pakistan – anyone considered to be a military-aged-male is presumed a terrorist until proven otherwise), this number should be interrogated. But by who?

Erdoğan has managed an extraordinary take-over of the free press, which it should be noted was a short lived democratic experiment in a country with a fraught history of military coups still suffering under the 1980s military junta’s draconian constitution. Thus, the renewed and elevated use of terrorism laws to silence opposition is a concerning, if unsurprising return to status quo. Moreover, Turkey is by no means the only place to capitalize on the War on Terror to do this, with countries such as the UK increasingly targeting free speech in universities on the basis of spurious and obscure terror laws which constitute extremism masquerading as security. Nevertheless, this erosion of already tenuous human rights laws, limited legal protection for refugees and with large numbers of Kurds flooding in from Syria and Iraq; it is clear that Turkey is by no means a durable solution (and is more likely a cause) for this humanitarian crisis.

Outsourcing Obligations: Turkey a ‘Safe Third Country’?

And so what should the EU be doing aside from expressing more vague condemnations? First and foremost, it cannot see Turkey’s human rights situation as abstract from the Syria crisis. EU conditionality should be implemented as it was meant to be, in order to encourage rights and freedoms for people in Turkey, all people, including refugees. Secondly, an EU led commission should be engaged in now non-existent cease-fire negotiations between Turkey and the PKK. The EU may see this as a secondary issue when compared to the Syrian crisis, but with some reports citing up to 1.3 million internally displaced people in the south east, Turkey’s Kurdish community could well become the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

This three billion Euro aid deal, which focuses on basic needs alone, is nowhere near sufficient in and of itself. There is a compelling need for the EU to work on long-term capacity improvement and ensure that Turkey’s decaying legal structures – including the rights to employment, education and healthcare – as well as civil liberties, exist and are implemented. If Turkey cannot manage its own humanitarian crisis in the south east, nor commit to basic civil liberties nationwide, what on earth is to come for the millions of vulnerable people about to be trapped indefinitely in this increasingly polarized and insecure country?

Furthermore, Turkey’s war in the south east is inextricably linked to Syria. Until a new cease-fire can be enforced, it is going to continue to be far more concerned with bombing its own people than it is with fighting Daesh or halting the refugee flow – which, bear in mind, is exacerbated by Turkey’s bombing campaigns against the Kurds in Northern Iraq and Syria. As Demirtaş eloquently argued; “The EU has no policy… Instead of trying to dry the swamp, they’re fighting with mosquitoes. If instead they pushed for peace, the swamp would dry up.”

It’s time the EU stopped fuelling this crisis, and rather than trying to deal with the effects from a securitized perspective, deal with the causes. First, it needs to open up safe and legal land passage to Europe. Second, but perhaps most important, it needs to pressure Turkey to rein in its role in increasing refugee flows through its bombing campaigns, and to solve its own domestic crises. These domestic crises are making Turkey anything but a “safe third country” for refugees. The death of democracy, disenfranchisement, and insecurity caused by recent attacks on freedom of speech and human rights is a fundamental threat to all inhabitants of Turkey, citizens and refugees alike. If Turkey is to continue down this path, it may well become the next Syria. Where will the EU imprison its unwanted refugees then?

  1. […] its veto of Turkish accession to the bloc – something the AKP has used the refugee crisis as a bartering chip to push […]

  2. […] its veto of Turkish accession to the bloc – something the AKP has used the refugee crisis as a bartering chip to push […]


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