Last Friday was even more extraordinary than usual for Turkey. Tragic coincidences seemed to pile up, creating a mysterious and ill-boding murkiness. It began that morning with some unknown glitch that caused a rescue helicopter to crash. The noise rocked the neighbourhood of Büyükçekmece on the European side of Istanbul. As chance would have it, it fell on a major thoroughfare at a time when traffic had slowed due to heavy fog. Half a dozen died, most of whom were Russians.
At the time, the Turkish president, whose regime had not that long ago tasted the bitter consequences of being held accountable for the downing of a Russian Sukhoi-24 over Syria, was just setting off on a trip to Moscow. The assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov at the hands of an Islamist extremist Turkish police officer was still fresh in everyone’s minds and the repercussions would still hover somehow over the talks in Moscow. Was there some kind of jinx? The president had been looking forward to this opportunity to clear up outstanding differences, to remove the last restrictions on Turkish truck drivers delivering shipments to Russia and, also, to lift the rest of the restrictions on Turkish construction firms. Then this had to happen! No sooner does he get some pending problems ironed out with the Russian bear across the Black Sea than others insist on cropping up.
Speaking of neighbours, while the Kremlin was hosting the man that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem regards as a main “supporter of terrorism” in Syria, Damascus appealed to the UN Security Council to tell Turkey to withdraw its forces from Syrian territory. Was there a plot? Could Damascus have known that the UN, and specifically the UN High Commission for Human Rights, would release a report detailing allegations of serious human rights violations in southeast Turkey?
According to that report, “government security operations affected more than 30 towns and neighbourhoods and displaced between 335,000 and half a million people, mostly of Kurdish origin.” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Al-Hussein said in a news release published by his office, “I am particularly concerned by reports that no credible investigation has been conducted into hundreds of alleged unlawful killings, including women and children, over a period of 13 months between late July 2015 and the end of August of 2016.” The majority of this period fell before the 15 July 2016 “coup attempt”. The report, itself, is documented by satellite imagery portraying the destruction of entire neighbourhoods as well as schools.
On top of this, that same day,10 March, the Venice Commission announced that it had just adopted an opinion on the constitutional amendment that is to be put to a general referendum in Turkey on 16 April. The opinion had been requested by the Monitoring Committee of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly. “First of all, the Commission warns against a ‘one-person regime’ in Turkey,” the Venice Commission stated in a press release. “The Commission notes that by removing necessary checks and balances, the amendments would not follow the model of a democratic presidential system based on the separation of powers, and instead would risk degeneration into an authoritarian presidential system.”
Clearly, some ruse to deflect attention was in order.
On that same Friday, perhaps just before Friday prayers, a storm blew in from the country famed for its windmills and picturesque canals. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who had been part of the Erdogan delegation to Russia, tore himself away from the side of his boss in order to head to Holland to take part in an activity for which the Dutch held that they could not provide the appropriate security. In spite of several previous notices advising him not to come, Cavusoglu insisted and was therefore treated to that stinging slap in the face of being barred from entry into Dutch airspace and being forced to land in some French airport.
Now here was the opportunity Erdogan could seize as tightly as he did that “failed coup attempt” last year. Suddenly the world was treated to a virulent campaign against “remnants of Nazis and fascists” with his ruling party’s propaganda machine marching in goose-step. One could feel the echoes of the 15 July anti-coup fervour, apart from the fact that now the campaign was girded by religious ardour and the righteous call to defend the faith from the clutches of those barbarian Dutch societies where they freely elect mayors of Moroccan origin, including Ahmed Abou-Taleb.
To add some shades of the Arab Spring revolutions to the spirit, the state-run television channels featured videoclips, rewind and replayed 24/7, of nasty Dutch policemen with police dogs growling and straining their leashes. Missing from the Turkish TV coverage were images of tear gas canisters or Toma water cannon trucks, for the simple reason that such images would remind audiences how such instruments were routinely used in Turkey to suppress dissent.
Meanwhile, from those Anatolian heights, where molten lava fumed and spewed, the signal was given to strike terror into that European heart that trembles at the word “immigrants”. So, on cue, the ultranationalist chauvinists chimed in with the ruling party’s orchestra to vow revenge and warn of all those Arab, Afghan, Sudanese and Nigerian refugees that would invade European borders the moment Erdogan gave the nod. This, would surely bring those “Franks” to their senses, they thought as the Justice Development Party (AKP) hastily penned off a statement addressed to Europe warning that the refugee deal was off unless visa-free access into the Schengen zone were granted to Turkish citizens. Naturally, AKP lawmakers failed to mention that the visa waiver could have gone into effect long ago had they amended their anti-terrorist laws to conform with EU human rights principles instead of using those laws to target their leader’s opponents.
In all events, within less than 24 hours, the EU responded to the AKP ultimatum. The response took the form of a partial freeze on EU funding for Turkey because Ankara has failed to make any progress on the outstanding issues related to the accession talks. The EU has allocated some 4.45 billion Euros in integration funding to Turkey for the period from 2016 to 2020. Of this, some 167.3 million Euros has been paid so far. However, as European Neighbourhood Policy EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn pointed out in a statement, “Turkey is moving not in the direction of Europe, but in the opposite direction. We are legally obliged to correlate financial support with the progress the country is making.” He took the opportunity to echo the reactions of European leaders to Erdogan’s latest invective: Turkey’s depictions of some European nations as Nazi and fascist are “unacceptable”, he said.
The Turkish EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik responded by suggesting that his government rename his ministry since it had currently had no meaning, at least for the short term, in view of the broadening gap between Ankara and the EU. He also stated that his government would “certainly impose sanctions” against the Netherlands, although he did not detail the nature of such sanctions. Observers suggested this was merely more hot air and idle threats, since Turkey stands to lose much more than the Dutch. Turkey is in desperate economic straits due to sharp declines in foreign trade and investment. The Turkish tourism industry is also suffering to extent that some have said that Turkey can write off 2017 as far as tourists from Europe are concerned.
Turkey will have to contend with some difficult truths, regardless of how its political elites deny them, bury their heads in the sand or try to point accusing fingers elsewhere. Erdogan has deliberately courted the animosity of Holland, Germany before that, and along with them the whole of Europe, and all for the purpose of drumming up a “yes” vote for the 16 April referendum. The EU has responded with a temporary mercy bullet to Turkish aspirations to merge with Europe and to embrace genuine European democratic and humanitarian values. A curtain is closing and it will not reopen as long as Erdogan remains in power.