Sympathy for the Turks

Sympathy for the Turks

After the attack on Istanbul Atatürk Airport, there was sympathy for Turks. The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin was draped in our crescent and star and reporters talked about how heroic airport guards stopped the shooters. It felt a little bit like what the French received after attacks in Paris and Nice. As simple as that sounds, it means something to people. We felt like we were part of a community.

There was none of that after the attempted coup. There was an official condemnation of the heinous act, but Turks could feel that it came from a place of concern rather than elation. The failure of the coup strengthened President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, international media was telling its readers, and democracy in Turkey was going to die now. Turks felt insulted. Why is that, and what does it mean for policy? 

Those who were in Ankara especially know that the night of Friday, July 15 felt like hell. Our own jets were booming over our heads, pounding the parliament building. Tanks were running over people; soldiers were shooting protesters. It was traumatic. 

It has been two weeks since the failed coup attempt, yet Turks haven’t overcome the trauma. It’s just the opposite – we’re trying to keep it going by staying out on the streets, plastering newspapers with it and locking down our institutions because of it. Uncontrolled, a psychological trauma could easily lead to frenzy.

Turkey now has a three-month state of emergency to restore public order and political stability. This is a constitutional mechanism just to do that, in situations just like this, so it isn’t problematic in itself, but the state of emergency a la Turca is fundamentally different from the state of emergency a la Franca. People here get caught up and can easily become much more aggressive than their leaders – like Erdoğan – in hunting down those they deem responsible. There is less control over administrative decisions in Ankara under a state of emergency than in Paris.  Weak institutional capacity coupled with weak central control brings out a very ugly side in a society. 

I was reading the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) 2016 Turkey Economic Survey just released a few days ago. The organization had a presentation on the newly released survey on that dreadful day, July 15, in southern Gaziantep. Its prime recommendation: Strengthen the rule of law, enhance the independence of the judiciary and fight corruption. Otherwise, informality will drag down productivity, growth and job creation in the economy. Have a look at Slide 16 of OECD’s Gaziantep presentation on the newly released survey for more information. 

In terms of foreign direct investment (FDI), the rule of law has always been Turkey’s major economic problem. It now seems that it will weigh Turkey down even more. 

But there is a silver lining to it all. First, it isn’t only foreign, but also domestic investments that require improvements in the rule of law now. This will force Turkey to take some institutional measures. Civilian control of the military and reforming the judiciary and police are all going to be do-or-die at this point. That sort of pressure could be useful. Second, post-coup reconciliation within parliament is getting stronger, and this time has the capacity to involve the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). So while fixing its basic security problems, Turkey might also make itself more hospitable to investment.

The only negative here is the absence of stronger EU engagement. Turkey has to focus on structural measures to strengthen the rule of law, yet the EU is not there to take advantage of the situation. They’re too fixated on Erdoğan’s monopolization of power to see potential in the country. Consider how important it would be for them to come back into the game – Turkey has long harnessed EU attention to strengthen its institutions. Now that the country is in a state of emergency, that kind of state capacity is more important than ever. Who is going to handle the mammoth legal load in front of the state now? State institutions, hopefully restructured ones. These are practical questions that the EU needs to help Turkey with.

If the stability of Turkey is important to our European partners, now is the time to act. Otherwise, decades of cooperation could unravel. So my question stands. Why no sympathy for Turks?