Turkey: A strategic partner or backsliding democracy?
The Turkish government received three strong messages on the quality of its democracy and rights from three Western partners on the same day on April 14. The messages from the European Parliament (EP), the U.S. Department of State and the Council of Europe’s (CoE) human rights commissioner came at a time when Turkey is in a counter-terrorism campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a side effect of the Syrian civil war along its southern borders and in a deal with the European Union over the control of the illegal migrant flow mainly sourcing from the Syrian war.
Considering Turkey’s desire to reactivate its membership process, including visa-free travel rights with the EU, the EP report reflected the mood in European politics about Turkey’s course, despite having no binding power. Being one of the strongest reports on Turkey, it accused the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government of “backsliding” on democracy and the rule of law. EP Turkey rapporteur Kati Piri said the regression in areas such as freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary was “particularly worrying,” adding there was intimidation of the press, a slowing down in the overall pace of reforms and an escalation of violence in the country due to PKK attacks and counter security operations.
Turkish EU Minister Volkan Bozkır turned down the report because of references to the claims of Armenian genocide under the Ottoman Empire. That overshadowed the criticism in Turkish public opinion about the decline in the use of democratic rights.
Bozkır was quick responding to the EP report on Turkey, but there were two other criticisms.
CoE Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks focused more on the security operations in eastern and southeastern towns near the borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. “The building of barricades and trenches and the arming of children [by the PKK] are completely unacceptable. But it is essential [for the government] to uphold rule of law and human rights. I have grave concerns about the imbalance I have seen,” Muiznieks said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department’s annual report the human rights practices in Turkey “provided a snapshot of the deteriorating human rights environment” in the country, stressing that the government’s interference with freedom of expression, arbitrary application of laws and inadequate protection of civilians in the country’s southeast pose great threats to civil rights and liberties. The report mentioned the “pressure against the exercise of free speech” as one of the direst problems of Turkish democracy; it cited some 30 journalists charged under anti-terror laws, raids on media companies and the forceful takeover of five media outlets affiliated with the Fethullah Gülen movement through government-appointment trustees. The attack on daily Hürriyet’s headquarters and the assault of columnist Ahmet Hakan were also mentioned in the report.
Regarding the anti-PKK operations, the report said: “The government did not sufficiently protect vulnerable populations, with the result that both PKK fighters, and, at times, government security forces reportedly killed and injured civilians.”
On one hand there are serious accusations and criticisms about the quality of democracy and the use of rights under the AK Parti government in Turkey. On the other hand, Turkey, as a major member of NATO, has not only been engaged in the fight against ISIL in Syria and Iraq but countering Russian pressure in the Mediterranean, Baltic and Caucasus. Turkey is also the EU’s partner in trying to control illegal immigration into the EU through the Aegean-Balkans route. As the reports were poured on Ankara, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan was hosting the Islamic Cooperation Organization’s (ICO) summit in Istanbul, where an Islamic Interpol was discussed against terrorism as a “major problem of the Islamic world.”
Turkey is a part of a Western strategic partnership but also under heavy criticism of its “backsliding” and “deteriorating” democracy. The fierce fight against rising terrorism makes that possible, but people (and not only in Turkey) are the ones who suffer when they lose their lives and rights.