Turkey’s year of turmoil

Carl Bildt
Carl Bildt

Carl Bildt

By : Carl Bildt

:: It has been one year since the failed coup in Turkey, and questions about the country’s future still abound.

Last year’s attempted coup was nothing if not dramatic. Mutinous F-16 fighters bombed the Turkish Parliament, and 249 people lost their lives. But the putschists failed to detain President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who then mobilized his own supporters and sealed the coup’s fate. If the coup had not been stymied within the first 48 hours, Turkey probably would have fallen into a devastating and violent civil war, the consequences of which would have extended well beyond its borders.

Today, it is difficult to find anyone in Turkey who doubts that the coup was instigated by forces loyal to the enigmatic Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. All of the available evidence seems to support this conclusion. When Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power democratically in 2002, they joined forces with the Gulenists to roll back Turkey’s old authoritarian establishment, and to shore up Turkish democracy with a bid to join the EU.

But the Gulenists had deeper ambitions — and a tradition of secrecy born in an era of military dictatorship, when many religious activities in Turkey were forced underground. After 2002, the Gulenists’ infiltration of the police and the judiciary was well known, and they used their position to stage show trials and imprison their adversaries. Less well known was the extent to which they had also infiltrated the Air Force and the Gendarmerie.

In 2013, the AKP and the Gulenists parted ways, and then began waging a silent civil war. Given that ongoing standoff, it is not unreasonable to conclude that last year’s failed coup was a dramatic effort by Gulenists to take power before they could be purged from the military.

The Turkish state, which should never have been so thoroughly infiltrated by subversive elements in the first place, undoubtedly needs to cleanse itself. But if Turkey’s democracy is to have a future, the process of removing internal threats must adhere to the rule of law and human rights, and have broad support within Turkish society.

Unfortunately, some elements of Erdogan’s response to last year’s coup attempt raise serious concerns. Of the 100,000 people who have been detained, more than 50,000 have been formally arrested. These include at least 169 generals and admirals, 7,000 colonels and lower-ranking officers, 8,800 police officers, 24 provincial governors, 2,400 members of the judiciary, and 31,000 other suspects.

The aftermath of the coup attempt could have been healing. Instead, it has so far been divisive. It is still not too late to take another path — but time is running out.

Carl Bildt

At the same time, countless people have been dismissed from their jobs, with no prospects for the future. Numerous independent media outlets have been shuttered as well, and, in just the past few weeks, prominent human rights advocates — including the director of Amnesty International in Turkey — have been arrested for supporting “terrorism.”

In the aftermath of the failed coup, Turkish society united behind Erdogan. But the government’s actions since then have increasingly polarized the country. In its effort to purge Turkey’s state of security threats, the government has cast its net ever wider. And in April, it pushed through constitutional changes in a referendum that was strongly opposed by almost half the country, including most young, urban voters. When the changes take effect, Turkey’s political system will be transformed into one in which the president wields highly concentrated power.

This is a departure from the first decade of AKP rule, when Turkey modernized its economy, developed its democratic institutions, and moved toward granting its Kurdish citizens full civil rights. Turkey’s impressive progress during this period strengthened its prospects for EU admission.

But now the future is more uncertain. If the Turkish government does not start respecting human rights and the rule of law by early next year, what remains of its EU accession bid could become unsalvageable. Turkey’s membership chances already took a hit from the failed peace and reunification talks with Cyprus — a failure for which Turkey alone cannot be blamed. And so much rhetorical abuse has been heaped on the EU that Turkey has made itself politically toxic in many key EU member states, not least Germany.

Without the political anchor provided by the EU accession process, Turkey’s modernization process could go into reverse. And if that happens, the country could be dragged steadily down into the Middle East quagmire. Turkey is already admirably struggling to accommodate millions of refugees from the conflict in Syria, in which Turkish forces are now participants; and it is a constant target of terrorist attacks by Daesh.

The future of Turkey is of profound importance. Turkey straddles Europe and the Middle East. It will soon have a population of 100 million, and has impressive economic potential. The history of Europe cannot be written without Turkey any more than Turkey’s future can be extricated from Europe’s. If it is put on a credible path toward EU participation, it can help to bridge divides in culture and tradition that could otherwise threaten all of Europe.

But Turkey’s internal political wars are now jeopardizing this future. The aftermath of the coup attempt could have been healing. Instead, it has so far been divisive. It is still not too late to take another path — but time is running out.

:: Carl Bildt is a former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden.

:: Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.

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