Let’s not fool ourselves, Turkey looks depressing

Let’s not fool ourselves, Turkey looks depressing

All I’m going to do is list a number of recent developments reported in the Turkish media over the past couple of days. I’ll start with the most recent case demonstrating the state that Turkey is in:

Sports Minister Çağatay Kılıç strongly warned Galatasaray, one of Turkey’s most prominent football clubs, to review its congress decision on March 25 to not expel two of its leading former players from club membership. The Galatasaray delegates ended the membership of a number of former government officials under investigation or have arrest warrants against them because of their links with the network of U.S.-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, who is accused of masterminding the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt. But delegates also voted to keep two of their former national team players, Hakan Şükür and Arif Erdem, who are openly Gülen admirers. The Galatasaray delegates said the two were part of the club brand, regardless of their political stance, which has put the club into the government’s target.

After the German foreign intelligence agency BND, a British parliamentary commission has also stated that the Turkish government could not convince it that Gülen’s secret network was behind the July 2016 coup attempt. What’s more, while the U.S. authorities are not directly saying that Gülenists were not behind the coup, they are claiming that the Turkish government has not been able to convince them. 

Turkey is an important member of the Western defense alliance NATO and proudly says it has the second biggest army in the alliance. However, the U.S. - the most powerful NATO member and also Turkey’s major military ally - has chosen a Syrian Kurdish militant group, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). That is in spite of the fact that Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has been warning former and incumbent U.S. presidents that the YPG is the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is also designated as a terrorist organization by Washington. Despite these warnings, recently it has been reported that the U.S. has been giving parachute training to YPG militants, which share the same human resources pool as the PKK.

It is not only the U.S. Also, NATO rival Russian President Vladimir Putin has not taken Erdoğan’s warnings into account in Syria regarding the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Russia gave support to Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation in Syria as long as it was aimed at ISIL, but gave protection to the YPG (as did the U.S.) against the Turkish government’s warnings. Russia, which is favored by Erdoğan in major energy projects and has influence on Turkey’s tourism revenues, also wants the PYD to play a role in the Geneva talks and says it might have autonomy in a future Syrian settlement. What’s more, Russia has still not sent a new ambassador to Ankara since Andrey Karlov was assassinated in December 2016.

Despite an outcry from the Turkish government, EU member governments have not let Turkish cabinet ministers carry out “yes” campaigning among Turkish-origin populations in Europe. In certain cases, as in the Netherlands, the treatment that Turkish ministers and government officials have received was unacceptable and humiliating. At the same time, front organizations of the PKK have no difficulty organizing mass rallies with live connections to their headquarters in the Kandil Mountains of Iraq. This state of affairs disturbs both the Turkish government and the majority of Turkish people. European governments seem to be allowing it in order to give a negative message to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), rather than as an expression of support for an independent Kurdistan or the PKK’s acts of terror.

Condemning European double standards by saying “If you keep calling me a dictator, I’ll keep calling you Nazis and fascists,” Erdoğan has also vowed to hold another referendum if he wins the one on April 16 to consolidate executive power in presidential hands. The second referendum would be to ask the public on whether to withdraw Turkey’s membership application to the EU. This would mark a significant reversal, as becoming a member of the EU is the only strategic target of the Turkish Republic approved with a substantial majority at parliament, under the title of “National Program.” Half of Turkey’s exports are sent to EU member countries, while nearly five million Turkish citizens live in Europe.

Erdoğan has also challenged the Council of Europe over its criticisms over the state of the rule of law in Turkey, the courts, media freedom and the referendum to be held under a state of emergency. Ankara is one of the founding members of the Council of Europe and just a few years ago current Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was the speaker of its Parliamentary Assembly, which these days discusses the falling quality of democracy in Turkey.

Turkey is still under a state of emergency, declared shortly after the July 15 military coup attempt last year. Following warnings from the EU and the Council of Europe, the government established a legal commission to take complaints over extended and mass arrests without trial. However, there have mass removals from public offices – including the judiciary, the military and the police - amid investigations into tens and thousands of Gülen followers placed in public positions through rigged examinations, mostly during AK Parti governments. The state of emergency also gives powers to the government to confiscate the property of private companies if their owners, shareholders or managers are under suspicion of “terrorism,” while under emergency law the framework of terrorist activities has been enlarged.

The social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has brought the recent incident in Diyarbakır on March 21 to the attention of parliament. In that incident, university student Kemal Kurkut was shot dead by policemen after trying to enter a demonstration area with a knife. Police said he may have been carrying a bomb, but pictures of the incident on social media showed that he had been stripped of his upper clothes; it could therefore be seen that he was not carrying a bomb, so he could be arrested alive or wounded. The two police officers have not been arrested by the court, and so far have just received disciplinary measures.    

Criticizing reports about arrested journalists and writers inside and outside of Turkey, President Erdoğan said all 149 names faced terrorism charges and were not jailed over what they wrote or said. It has, however, turned into a common practice to make arrests of journalists, writers and editors on “terrorism” charges. For example, Kadri Gürsel, the head of the Turkish chapter of the International Press Institute (IPI), was arrested 142 days ago along with together with nine other colleagues from the center-left daily Cumhuriyet on accusations of “helping” two illegal organizations: The PKK and the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ). They have still not appeared at court yet. 

The Turkish Foreign Ministry has spent the past few weeks either summoning the diplomats of other countries in protest or having its own diplomats summoned by these countries. Turkish industrialists are trying to convince foreign investors – particularly from the Western, since there is little problem with countries like Qatar and Kuwait - that the political and judicial atmosphere will not affect their potential investments in Turkey.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently issued a public call on Erdoğan to demand the release of Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel, who is under arrest for “helping PKK propaganda.” Steinmeier also asked Erdoğan not to antagonize relations further, claiming that Erdoğan was jeopardizing what Turkey has built so far. This was followed by a statement from Angela Merkel, who said she would not be making any remarks on Turkey’s relations with the EU until after the April 16 referendum.  
It has taken 13 years for the main opposition CHP to understand that the best way to cope with Erdoğan is to avoid antagonism with him. CHP head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been carrying out a referendum campaign that avoids targeting the president directly and does not respond to (often very personal) attacks by Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım against himself. “He cannot shout at the Americans and Russians, so he shouts at me,” the CHP head recently said in an interview with daily Hürriyet. 

It may have taken three months for the EU to understand that principle of restraint when it comes to Erdoğan.