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[OPINION] Who is behind Erdoğan?

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Mehmet Efe Çaman

When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, some soldiers in the Turkish military thought Ankara no longer needed NATO and the West. With its political values, NATO was increasingly perceived by these soldiers as a hindrance. Controversial subjects such as Ankara’s human rights record and the condition of Kurds in Turkey that were overlooked during the Cold War due to the immense importance of Turkey in Cold War geopolitics started to dominate Turkish-Western relations, particularly in the context of Turkey’s aspirations as a potential EU candidate. There were a considerable number of people in both the military and the bureaucracy that considered institutionalized multilateral relations with the West (particularly with NATO, the EU, the US and Germany) as a security threat to the territorial integrity of the Turkish state. In particular the Kurdish insurrection during the 1980s, the emergence of the outlawed Kurdistan’s Workers’ Party (PKK) and the EU demand for democratic minority rights for Kurds in Turkey contributed to this negative perception of some factions in the Turkish state bureaucracy.

During the Cold War Turkish foreign policy behavior was based on the concept of political realism in which the military played the key role. Turkey was not powerful enough to protect itself against its “giant neighbor to the north,” as many Turkish policymakers had described the Soviet Union, and it had to integrate with NATO to safeguard its independence and statehood. Only through the NATO umbrella was Turkey successfully able to keep the Soviets away. After the end of the Cold War, however, everything changed. There was no longer any Soviet threat, and the post-Soviet geography, particularly the Caucasus and Central Asia, was full of new opportunities for Ankara. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in particular opened up a new world with common cultural, linguistic and religious roots with Turkey. These nations had considerable fossil energy resources, which Turkey did not have, and a large market. Also, the Balkans were viewed by Turkish political elites as former Ottoman territories and, accordingly, a natural zone of influence. Turks soon realized that getting rid of the West and increasing Turkish power on a global scale was an enjoyable and euphoria-generating discourse; however, it had no basis in reality. Turkey needed cooperation with other powers to counterbalance the West in order to gradually become independent from it.

A military memorandum of February 28, 1997 that removed the coalition government of the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan from power was primarily seen as a domestic “course correction” and a “secular-pro-Western” military intervention, but in reality, it was not. Yes, it was carried out by secular military officers, but they were not pro-Western regarding Turkey’s foreign policy orientation. They disagreed with the Copenhagen criteria of the EU (democracy standards for EU candidates) because they believed the EU was undermining the Turkish unitary nation-state by trying to strengthen Kurdish separatism. For example, the commanding officer of the Turkish War Academy, one of the highly influential posts in the country’s strategic position, clearly stated that joining the EU would destabilize Turkey. After the 1997 memorandum, the left-nationalist wing of the “social-democratic” Republican People’s Party (CHP) became stronger and increasingly opposed democratization reforms in Turkey, calling them concessions. Ironically, the pro-European and pro-Western dynamics were derived from the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), which claimed to be the democratic center of the Turkish political spectrum. From the 1997 memorandum to 2005, the Turkish state – first and foremost the military and civilian bureaucracy – increasingly agreed with the EU orientation and the democratizing reform process of the AKP government. Also, a great majority of Turkey’s citizens, especially Kurds, liberals, democrats, other minorities, Gülenists and other Islamic/Islamist groups, supported Turkey’s EU strategy as they believed it would eventually lead to EU membership.

The zero-sum game mentality in Turkish foreign policy was replaced with a new regional policy of “zero problems” that emphasized cooperation with neighboring countries and other regional states. Turkey became a key actor in the European Neighborhood Policy. Turkish democracy improved, and the economy boomed through incredible amounts of foreign investment. A domestic and foreign policy de-securitization process occurred in which the role of the military in Turkish decision-making diminished. This process of “normalization” opened up the doors of EU accession. Moreover, military factions and their civilian accomplices in the bureaucracy lost a considerable amount of their influence. Some of the military cliques that perpetrated illegal activities such as outlining “war-game scenarios” that could potentially lead to a military coup were brought to justice and sent to prison.

This de-securitization brought transparency and accountability in domestic politics. It increased basic freedoms and per capita GDP. It restored Turkey’s relations with Greece and enabled constructive negotiations to reunify Cyprus – a country that had been divided between Greeks and Turks since 1974. This started a constructive normalization process with Armenia, which has a long border with Turkey that has been closed since 1991 due to the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute. Turkey increased its bilateral trade relations with almost all regional countries, including Syria, Iraq, Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine.

There were three major interconnected game changers of this positive outlook: a large-scale corruption scandal in 2013, the release and reactivation of all jailed Eurasianist deep-state military personnel and an attempted military coup in 2016. The power situation in the Turkish military changed considerably after these three events, and consequently, Erdoğan and his inner circle had to abandon the successful negotiation process with Kurdish separatists for a political solution to the problem and give up their pro-Western foreign policy orientation, including its democratization side effects. This new power situation eventually culminated in the criminalizing of all former allies of Erdoğan: liberals, Kurds and Gülenists. The anti-Western faction in the Turkish military maximized its power and dismissed large numbers of military personnel of all ranks – almost 50 percent of all generals and admirals of Turkish forces and about 18,000 high, middle and low-ranking officers – after the 2016 coup attempt. Currently, the reactivated deep-state military personnel are in key positions in the Turkish armed forces.

In the Western media, analysts have difficulties explaining why Erdoğan turned his back on his Western allies, terminated the political solution process with Kurdish separatists, suspended the constitution and changed the state architecture. They cannot understand why he has arrested or detained about 500,000 people in Turkey, jailed 11 democratically elected Kurdish lawmakers as well as more than 100 Kurdish mayors from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and over 160 journalists, and discharged 170,000 public servants and 8,000 academics. These numbers indicate the extraordinary extent of this purge. Even the military intervention of 1980, which was a full-scale coup that abolished the constitution, led to the firing of only 4,891 public servants, 148 academics and 576 military officers. In the current situation, the number of fired public servants is 35 times higher, the number of purged academics is 54 times higher and the number of purged and jailed military personnel is 31 times higher than after the full-scale coup. The number of dismissed public servants and other purged people is evidence demonstrating that the Turkish Republic has been replaced by another state. Erdoğan and his inner circle do not reflect the real power constellation in Turkey.

Aside from the period during which Ankara warmed to the EU’s democratic values, the Turkish military has always played an important role in Turkey’s politics. The existence of several cliques or factions in the Turkish armed forces is also a well-known fact. The unusually high number of purged officers and civilian public servants after the 2016 coup attempt point to an obvious anomaly. In the current regime, Erdoğan and his inner circle are certainly not to be underestimated. But can Erdoğan alone control the powerful Turkish military? Why did Erdoğan terminate the “Solution Process” with the Kurds? It was his greatest project and the biggest risk of his entire political career. Why did he change course in Syria and in Turkey’s general foreign policy orientation? Why did he decide to develop a strategic partnership with Russia? Why did he purge so many soldiers in the Turkish military and bureaucracy? Did he really need a purge to such an immense extent? Understanding Turkey’s derailing is not only an academic concern but also highly relevant for NATO and the future of the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and Europe.

I think this comprehensive policy shift occurred because of Erdoğan’s new deep-state partners. Current Turkish politics clearly demonstrates the immense influence of Eurasianist deep-state elements that control the Turkish military and – temporarily – tolerate/support Erdoğan, since they are using his power to convince Islamist-conservative grassroots groups in Turkish politics of the necessity of the current political course. Interestingly, the opposition (except for the Kurds, of course) such as the left-nationalist wing of the CHP, which currently controls the party, and the ultra-right-wing of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) agree, especially with the aggressive military strategy in Kurdish politics (both in Turkey and in Syria) and the anti-Western foreign policy orientation. It is hard to say whether the cooperation of the opposition with current key policies is based on voluntary cooperation or on direct strategic collaboration with the deep state. This alliance, which is currently powerful but also fragile, will remain until Erdoğan loses his credibility and charisma with the masses in Turkey. In Turkey, there is no iron-fisted type of monolithic Erdoğan regime, but rather a power balance. Once we face this reality, we will start to truly comprehend Turkey’s present situation.

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