What has happened in the Turkish Foreign Ministry?

What has happened in the Turkish Foreign Ministry?

Last summer I attended a press conference at the Family and Social Affairs Ministry.

I sat between two journalists who were wearing headscarves. Looking at my name plate, one of them said: “You have the name of a secularist.” 

For readers who don’t know, my name is a very rare, unfamiliar one that comes from the Turkic tribes in Central Asia. It is not that I would be ashamed of being labeled a secularist, but this incident was the first time in my life someone has openly labeled me by looking at my name. 

Back in 2012, some people started warning me about changes in the Foreign Ministry’s recruitment policy. “Look at the names of those who have passed the exam to enter the ministry. Compare them with past names and you will see an increase in Arabic-origin names, such as names that have become popular under the AKP [Justice and Development Party] rule, like Sümeyye or Berat.” 

Back then, I refused to categorize people by looking at their names. But that has not stopped me from voicing criticism about the changes in recruitment policy. Indeed, one of the first articles I wrote was in 2008 about Gürcan Balık, who is among the recently dismissed ambassadors following the failed coup attempt of July 15. 

Ali Babacan, who was foreign minister at the time, had come up against decades-old ministerial traditions to pick his special secretary, who is like the black box of the minister. Instead of choosing a name from among three names suggested to him from the ministry’s personnel department, he appointed Balık, a name not particularly well-known to the higher cadres of the ministry. Balık then became an advisor and kept this position with Babacan’s successor, Ahmet Davutoğlu (who tried to clear his name yesterday by telling a news channel that Balık was already there when he became minister).

That example was one of the turning points in terms of the changes in the ministry’s strict personnel recruitment. Over the course of the new few years, the rules and regulations were steadily changed further (under the instructions of Davutoğlu). No one was against reform within the ministry, but many feared that these changes were part of the AKP’s strategy to replace the republican/old-guard/secular establishment with a new/conservative/Islamist establishment.

Indeed, on the one hand the qualifications to enter the ministry were widened (or actually lowered). It was argued, for instance, that instead of limiting new recruits to the graduates of Turkey’s best universities centered in Ankara or Istanbul, the ministry should be more open to applicants coming from Anatolian cities. But with each new recruit, older hands were amazed by the absence of the newcomers’ skills, like poor knowledge of any foreign language.

Meanwhile, the strict hierarchy maintained for domestic and external appointments was no longer respected, so much so that some more junior diplomats started to take a fast track to higher positions in the ministry. Still, it should be said that obviously not all the fast-trackers were necessarily the product of an “AKP/Gülen” alliance. 

But there lies the gist of the matter for what is happening today.

On Monday afternoon, everyone at the ministry was told to stay put. All understood that this was the start of an operation. Private security personnel started monitoring the corridors (did someone think a Gülenist diplomat would make a kamikaze jump?). A few hours later, heads of departments were called and given envelopes that included lists of people who would be dismissed. Most of them were from among the newcomers. 

Some believe that all those who were dismissed have links to Gülenists, while others believe that not all are implicated. But the fact that most of those dismissed are from among the “newcomers” shows that the ministry’s old hierarchical structure has served as something of a shield against wider Gülenist infiltration into one of Turkey’s key institutions. 

The crucial question here is: Will the AKP learn its lesson and understand the value of meritocracy?