The Ankara victims seen from Greece

The Ankara victims seen from Greece

In the fall of 2004, 20 senior investigators from the Greek Ombudsman’s Office traveled to Istanbul for an institution-building seminar with some high-ranking Turkish civil servants under the auspices of the Council of Europe. These civil servants were soon to join the Turkish Ombudsman’s Office, which was about to be created as a precondition of the pre-accession agreement between Turkey and the European Union.

It was a time of great expectations for Turkey. Only two years before, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) had won the election, raising hopes of emancipation from the military establishment and the powerful deep state, a new deal with the Kurds and the consolidation of critical legal changes which would transform Turkey’s institutional apparatus. The moderate Islamist party seemed eager to implement reforms so warmly expected by EU partners, while the deeply rooted phobia of Turkey in most European capitals seemed to be waning. 

2004 was equally a banner year for Greece, from the victory in the European football championship and the euphoria of the opening ceremony at the Athens Olympics, to the economic “success story” driven by frantic consumerism. For the first time in its modern history, the dominant modernizing narrative seemed to place Greece firmly at the side of powerful European decision-makers. What’s more, because of its geopolitical position and unique cultural history, Greece seemed especially well-placed to help unite the EU with its eastern neighbors. The Turkish experts very much preferred the assistance of their colleagues from the Greek Ombudsman’s Office since they were reasonably sure that the Greeks “would understand them better.” Who is closer to understanding “minority rights” in Turkey? The Spanish, the Swedish or the Greek ombudsman? 
Yet, four years later, not much remained of the promise of 2004 for either country. The Turkish success story did not seem sustainable; the EU began to pull back, while the ambivalence of European discourse reinforced traditional Turkish fears of the West. From one day to the next, the “moderate Muslim partner” transformed himself into a totalitarian ruler. As the European project seemed to fade away, authoritarianism, nationalism and division took root. Still, though instability lurked, the country’s economy continued its growth within the particular context of neoliberal Islamism.

Across the Aegean Sea, the political situation seemed more stable. Greek democracy was not in question. Yet, economic indicators were already far from hopeful. Within five years of the boom, the brand name “Greece” had become synonymous with failure and crisis. Since then, the bailout agreements with the Troika have crushed the already diminished moral legitimacy of the Greek political elites: Greece has had five governments in the last six years. 

Today, the picture of Greece and Turkey bears little resemblance to the auspicious predictions of 2004. In Greece, since 2012, citizens have been saying that “things can’t get any worse,” although they always do. The oversight of the Troika institutions (the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission), has convinced many that Greek democracy, along with the economy, is bankrupt, despite four elections and one referendum over the last 15 months. 

The best-case scenario for this cycle of endless austerity and recession is a gradual familiarization with the so-called “crisis” and its transformation to normality. The neighboring examples of EU member states such as Bulgaria and Romania bear witness to the possibility that this crisis might well become a routine. Nobody talks of “crisis” in these countries, where pessimism has taken root, although the situation is much worse than in Greece. To the east of Romania, Ukraine is in the throes of its own civil war, and in the Middle East things are more ominous still: Syria has collapsed, the Kurdish and Palestinian issues remain a trigger for violence, and for the first time in human history, a terrorist group is forming state structures. Last but not least, 200 miles south of Crete, the geopolitical continuum of the former “Arab nation” is facing, in Libya, a completely failed state.

In these grim circumstances, the Turkish Republic seems unable to present itself as a country that can deliver peace and security, either internally or externally. This is indeed bad news for the neighborhood. A few days after the explosions in Ankara, most people are, understandably, wondering, “Who did it.” But the more crucial political question is, “How did this happen in Turkey?”

As Umut Özkırımlı has argued, the Ankara bombings mark the end of the Turkish Republic as we know it. A vital question is whether they will inspire the Turkish nation to rethink its identity. Does Turkey have the stamina to change radically without political violence? Can Turkish political elites face the hard truth and acknowledge that the dominant model of an indivisible and united polity seems historically exhausted? These are open questions that will probably trouble our region for years to come.

As Greece struggles to implement its third memorandum with the Troika, the bombing in Ankara rings out as a cry of agony, and also a warning. The agony of a society that, once more in its history, sees mass murder being used as a political message. A warning that, after all, what goes around comes around in the cruelest way: inhuman political violence is not an unusual phenomenon for Europe. We know it far too well. The worst thing we could do with respect to the 100 Ankara victims is to consider them one more “Turkish particularity.” If we do so, our blind orientalism will soon be exposed as reckless naivety.

Dimitris Christopoulos is a professor at Panteion University of Athens and the vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights.