INTERVIEW: Max Hoffman on Turkish civil society under siege

INTERVIEW: Max Hoffman on Turkish civil society under siege

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Max Hoffman on Turkish civil society under siege

The sun sets behind the Maiden's Tower off the coast of Üsküdar in Istanbul. AA photo

Since Turkey’s July 2016 coup attempt, almost 50,000 people have been arrested, 140,000 have been fired or suspended from their jobs, 1,500 civil society organizations have been closed, and over 150 media outlets have been shuttered. 

The ongoing state of emergency has narrowed the space for civil society in the country, compounding a situation that was already critical due to the reignited conflict between security forces and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). 

A new joint from the Center for American Progress, Sabancı University’s Istanbul Policy Center, and Italy’s IAI think tank examines the parlous situation of civil society in today’s Turkey. “Trends in Turkish Civil Society” is based on dozens of interviews with activists and makes a number of recommendations about how outsiders can try to help the situation.

Hoffman spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about the report, which comes amid the recent arrests of human rights activists including two heads of Amnesty International Taner Kılıç and İdil Eser. 

What was the aim when you set out to research this report?

The report is part of a broader project we called “Turkey 2023.” The aim was to look at how the Turkish state, society and economy had shifted over the last five years, and what would need to happen for the government to meet its ambitious "2023 Goals." It's easy for analysts of Turkey and politically engaged Turks and Europeans to get caught up in the day-to-day crisis politics that have taken over, so the idea was to take a step back and think about the broad long-term trends that are reshaping the state and society. They will be important in determining what kind of country Turkey will be in 2023. 

Turkish civil society really flourished and blossomed in the late-1990s and early 2000s, the latter being the early years of Justice and Development Party [AKP] rule. But it is now under tremendous pressure. We wanted to understand what kind of impact civil society groups were having and what sort of restrictions they were experiencing, both legally and de facto. 

Turkish civil society is extremely important for a number of reasons. If you think about the big problems facing the country - whether it's youth unemployment, or the integration of Syrian refugees, or the integration of more women into the workforce, or the Kurdish conflict - it's hard to imagine Turkey reaching positive outcomes without engagement from civil society actors across the board. 

Another big point is that with the high-level politics between Turkey, Europe and the United States so polarized and negative, civil society offers one of the last remaining areas where Europeans, Americans and Turks who believe that Turkey's future lies with Europe and the West can have an effect and engage with Turkish actors.

The research involved conversations with civil society activists, leaders and practitioners in Turkey. Obviously it’s a pretty grim time at the moment. Talk a bit about the mood among the people you spoke to while doing the research.

The report is primarily about conveying the things we heard on the ground. We spoke to 40-50 civil society activists, leaders and academics. The mood is indeed fairly grim. The country was already polarized along pretty familiar fault-lines, politically and socially, and then you add to the mix the extreme controversy and high emotions resulting from the Syrian war, the resumption of the Kurdish conflict, and the coup attempt. After the latter, the legitimate need to bring to justice the perpetrators has spiraled into a very wide-ranging purge. 

The feeling among Turkish civil society leaders was deep uncertainty. Civil society has always been limited in Turkey. There have always been taboo subjects - particularly around the Kurdish question - that were liable to get you into trouble with the state authorities. Those traditional red lines are still there but there are also new restrictions. And it isn't always clear where the red lines are. People have a fear of potentially being labeled a terrorist or being pilloried in the press as a tool of a foreign power. Many people have withdrawn, with lots of civil society activities going underground or adopting a low profile in the hope of avoiding any controversy.

The other almost unanimous feeling among civil society actors was a lament about fragmentation in the sector. Everyone we spoke to - whether they were religious conservative activists or humanitarians working on the Syrian refugee crisis, or secularists determined to improve education, or Kurdish activists working for greater cultural or political rights - had their own concerns, but they all lamented that there were few alliances with other groups. They acknowledged that many NGOs face similar financial and legal restraints; for example, a Kurdish activist may face many of the same challenges as a women's rights activist from a religious conservative background. But there are very few instances of cooperation across traditional fault-lines. That was something everyone lamented and wanted to address, but nobody seems able to get past those old divides in the current context.

The April referendum on shifting to an executive presidential system included an important but little mentioned change: Handing the State Supervisory Board prosecutorial powers over civil society groups and thus giving the president even more power to police them.

The change is actually very unclear. Despite all the headlines around the referendum, there's a lack of clarity about how implementation will proceed. But I think it's safe to assume that we'll see a movement from a de facto situation where power is concentrated in President Erdoğan's hands to a de jure situation reflecting the same reality. The State Supervisory Board will be able to probe and shut down civil society groups, but that's not a big change from the existing state of emergency. It's just enshrining these expanded powers. 

What about the question of GONGOs, or government-organized civil society organizations? There are many groups that are organically linked to the AKP and aim to give a veneer of external civil validation for government policies. Often these are squeezing out space for genuine civil society groups in Turkey.

This is a really important trend that needs more reliable research from Turks on the ground who will be able to understand it better than outside researchers. One of the big questions after the break between the AKP and the Gülen movement was the fact that the Gülenists and their various business and civil society arms had functioned as the civil society wing of the AKP for many years. That gave the government tremendous power over public discourse, academic developments and the business realm. The loss of that civil society wing has harmed the AKP's social footprint and made it a more insular party. It has certainly affected its ability to reach out and influence the conversation internationally in Europe and in Washington. 

The question of how to replace those civil society groups is an open one. The government’s efforts have focused on a handful of groups, including some linked to Erdoğan's children. But I don't think any of them have reached the level of effectiveness of the Gülen movement. It's not as broad-based because it isn’t built on this network of schools that gave the Gülenists huge influence. Also because these groups are seen as being so close to the AKP, they have limited ability to reach out to new constituencies. They may be an effective mode of distributing patronage and exchanging access and public profile for a civil society "stamp of approval," but they really can’t broaden the AKP's constituency. 

The government can also exert influence through the tax code, through the offering or holding back of tax exempt status for NGOs. Tax-exempt status is by many accounts a political determination made by the government. This can have a big effect on NGOs' effectiveness or reach. For instance the Humanitarian Relief Foundation [İHH] is one of the most high-profile examples. With tax-exempt status it can launch fundraising appeals without prior notification to the government, which means it can send text message fundraising campaigns on a whim. That gives it huge power. 

The report talks about what outsiders can do to try to engage Turkish civil society at a tough time like this. What conclusions did you draw?

The EU is by far the dominant actor in terms of external support. There is a fair amount of charitable giving from the Gulf along religious lines but the EU really is the dominant player. The EU was a driving force behind the early reform years of the AKP government and the explosion of civil society over the past two decades.

Of course, the EU cannot build relations with Turkish civil society without approval from the Turkish government. But with high-level political relations in such a bad place, there is broad consensus that Brussels should reinvest in civil society in Turkey, perhaps redirecting more pre-accession funding from state institutions - which at the moment are in chaos and often highly politicized, in contradiction with EU normative goals of democracy promotion - to civil society actors. 

But among civil society leaders there's also a strong feeling that the EU has so far only supported a narrow subset of Turkish society, generally the secular, Western-oriented urban constituency. So there is a need to increase engagement and broaden the base of that engagement to explicitly include members of the AKP's constituency, expanding beyond the major cities. That's obviously going to be hard to do because there's such suspicion in AKP constituents toward the EU. 

Still, the EU has to continue supporting groups in order to maintain the "muscle memory" that could potentially increase Turkey-Europe integration when the high-level political climate eventually improves.

Already a lot of EU aid has been going directly to civil society groups. So when we talk about billions of euros going from the EU to Turkey, a lot of it has actually not gone to the state but rather to civil non-governmental groups.

Also the EU actually took some good steps in the last round of funding in 2014, making it easier for small organizations and even individual activists to secure EU funding by loosening reporting requirements. You can essentially get funded as a citizen activist in Turkey to pursue activities that serve EU goals like environmental protection, minority rights, and increasing checks and balances. 

But perhaps directly supporting civil society groups may only make the government more paranoid. We already see examples in AKP-linked tabloids characterizing some NGOs as fifth columns for dark outside powers. 

That's the central paradox of the EU's engagement with Turkish civil society. The feeling with most people we spoke to was that there are two sides to the coin in terms of foreign funding. Of course, they risk being labeled a servant of a foreign power or a tool of imperialists, but that outside support allows groups to operate and provides a measure of independence and capacity. There's so little funding for civil society groups in Turkey that many of these groups have to make that compromise. 

The way to try to insulate against accusations of being under the influence of foreign powers is to be as transparent as possible, and also for outside funders to try to engage with as wide an array as Turkish social constituencies as possible. 

Do you think there’s any chance of the government moving to formally limit NGO activity in Turkey? A couple of years ago the Russian government took steps to severely restrict space for foreign-linked NGOs.

It certainly is a big concern. There has been a wave of NGO laws restricting their activities around the world over the last few years in Russia, China and several instances in Eastern Europe. This is speculation but in Turkey I think it would probably take some sort of major controversy involving a civil society group, some sort of prompt. Because the government already has all the tools it needs to control civil society activity. I mentioned the tax code. There's also the Law on Associations and Foundations, the penal code, and the Anti-Terror Law, which all contain very vague clauses about "activities contrary to the Turkish state." They can be interpreted however prosecutors want. 

In terms of the Internet, the authorities can severely restrict access to certain URLs and websites, they can block Twitter users or order blanket bans on these platforms. They also hold wide-ranging powers in terms of organization. In order to hold a rally or demonstration or public gathering you have to secure permission from local governing authorities, which includes listing the names, addresses and contact details of the organizers, as well as accepting personal liability as the organizer for anything that happens.

So the state has pretty ample powers now and I'm not sure there's a pressing need to widen those authorities. But it wouldn't surprise me, particularly as the opposition parties begin to shift to more popular street politics, demonstrations and mass political gestures.

While on the subject, the Kremlin recently outlawed the use of VPNs, stopping Russians from viewing banned websites. Perhaps that will inspire the Turkish government to do the same, at a time when there are thousands of websites banned in the country at the moment, including of course Wikipedia.

China also recently made that move. Unfortunately when it comes to Internet regulation and censorship the Turkish government has been following in the footsteps of Russia and China, but without the capabilities that those two governments have. They would like to more closely control online activities, but the question is whether the state has the capacity to do so, especially in the wake of the coup attempt and the extreme fragmentation of the state and its various institutions.

Also VPN use is primarily an urban elite phenomenon. Most Turks still get their news from TV, which is very effectively controlled by the government. So while the government may like total control, at the moment they have enough to secure their political goals and secure their constituency.

But it's certainly something to watch. It wouldn't shock me. It shouldn't be surprising when we look at the overall political trajectory in the country. 

* Follow the Turkey Book Talk podcast via iTunes here, Stitcher here, Podbean here, or Facebook here, or Twitter here.