Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Turkey after NATO

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned empty-handed from last week’s NATO meeting in Brussels as repression mounted across Turkey in the wake of his emergency decrees

Turkey after NATO
Turkey after NATO

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned from last week’s NATO summit meeting in Brussels as empty-handed as he did following his visit to Washington to meet with US President Donald Trump in mid-May.

He did not receive a particularly warm reception from other heads-of-state in Brussels, dubbed the “capital of evil” by one of Erdogan’s loyal pundits. Certainly none of the participants took the trouble to congratulate him on the results of the recent referendum in Turkey on the constitutional amendment designed to legitimise and expand his already considerable executive powers.

Electoral monitoring and rights groups inside Turkey and abroad have harshly criticised the referendum process as unfair and marred by widespread tampering. While Erdogan was still in the Belgian capital, the news broke of calls by the US House of Representatives foreign affairs committee and Senate armed services committee for criminal charges to be brought against Erdogan’s bodyguards for attacking and beating peaceful protesters outside the Turkish Embassy in Washington.

It was also widely reported that Erdogan had personally looked on from his limousine as his security detail joined by plainclothes personnel pummelled and kicked unarmed men and women on the ground before absconding back into the embassy compound.

As he boarded his presidential plane back to Ankara from Brussels, Erdogan was livid at the American congressmen, who were “not being objective,” and at the European leaders who had barraged him with questions he was unable to answer and with demands that he would never fulfil regarding the massive purges, the systematic suppression of civil liberties and the freedoms of speech and the press in Turkey, and the need to release the thousands of opposition figures and journalists who have been arrested and thrown into prison in accordance with a series of emergency decrees.

When he met with his hand-picked media pool, Erdogan spoke of none of this, and journalists in Turkey have learned from bitter experience not to ask uncomfortable questions. Instead, he furnished reporters with routine diplomatic rhetoric regarding how “constructive” the meeting had been.

The EU had presented Turkey with a new 12-month timetable for renewing relations, Erdogan said, adding that his foreign and EU affairs ministries would work towards meeting the timetable. On the question of visa-free entry for Turks to Schengen area states, he said that he had put this on the agenda during meetings with EU officials and that Turkish and EU officials would work together on the issue.

There remains the fact that Turkish-EU relations are still marked by cool aversion. Not a day goes by without a report in the European and particularly the German press on human and civil rights abuses against opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, or on further evidence of Anatolia’s inexorable slide into an authoritarian one-party regime.

AKP propagandists respond by asking what these EU countries are doing “harbouring terrorists”. But when this ubiquitous section of the Turkish press says “terrorists,” it is not the “Islamic State” group, “Al-Qaeda” or the “Al-Nusra Front” that it has in mind, but rather the Kurds or exiled Turkish religious leader Fethallah Gulen, the alleged mastermind of last year’s “coup attempt” and his so-called “Fethallah Gulen Terrorist Organisation” abbreviated in Turkey as FETO.

European observers also cannot help but pick up on the contradictions between Erdogan’s sectarian demagoguery and his consummately pragmatic behaviour. One moment he is railing against the “racist and Islamophobic West” and proclaiming the Turks’ refusal to be treated like beggars at the doors to the “Christian club” of the EU. The next moment he is shifting into backtrack mode, as occurred during a recent emergency meeting of the ruling party, of which he has just officially become the head once again.

The Europeans were insulting Turkey and the Turkish people in the hope that Turkey would withdraw its application for EU membership, he said. Then he vowed that this “will not happen… Ankara will continue its drive towards Europe and not cause a rift with the EU.”

As for the EU powerhouse, Germany, with which Erdogan had previously threatened a rupture if it withdrew from the Incirlik Airbase in Turkey, he has now caved into Berlin’s demand that Ankara grant permission for a German parliamentary delegation to visit the airbase. It has finally hit home that Berlin might actually fulfil its ultimatum and move its forces to Jordan or Cyprus, which would give impetus to mounting demands to expel Turkey from NATO.

As Erdogan zigzags on foreign policy, one thing remains constant: His repression of the opposition at home. One case that has recently hit the international headlines is that of Nuriye Gülmen, a professor of literature, and Semih Özakça, a primary school teacher, who were caught up in the purges that followed what the main opposition party in Turkey, the People’s Republican Party (CHP), now refers to as the “controlled coup”.

Gülmen and Özakça have been on hunger strike for more than 80 days, using the slogan “we want our jobs back” to voice the plight of hundreds of thousands of Turkish state employees dismissed from their jobs in accordance with the draconian state-of-emergency decrees Erdogan has introduced in the country.

The arrest of the two hunger-strikers last week triggered demonstrations in Ankara, Istanbul and other major cities in Turkey. Since the protesters were voicing anti-AKP views, the police responded with water cannons and teargas and arrested at least 12 more people.

The ruling party’s public prosecutor justified Gülmen’s and Özakça’s arrest on the grounds that they were members of the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party - Front (DHKP-C), a leftist group listed as a terrorist organisation in Turkey.

The charge is ironic because the two teachers were fired from their jobs for allegedly belonging to the conservative Islamist Gulen Organisation. Moreover, as CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has sardonically asked, what took the authorities so long to arrest them, since the public prosecutor acknowledged that their alleged affiliation with the DHKP-C had been known to the security agencies at least since January?

The hunger-strikers’ lawyer said that the police had told them the reason for their detention was that the authorities feared that the protest could trigger massive protests like the Gezi Park demonstrations that swept Turkish cities four years ago in response to the government’s violent clampdown against environmentalists staging a sit-in in the park adjacent to Taksim Square in Istanbul.

Another unswerving policy of the Turkish president and his ruling party is the campaign of arrests against parliamentary representatives of the Democratic People’s Party (HDP), whose co-chairpersons Selahettin Demirtas and Figan Yukseldag have been in prison since November last year on innumerable charges. The AKP-controlled parliament is now readying to lift the parliamentary immunity of MPs Tugba Hezer of the Van Province and Faysal Sariyildiz of the Sirnak Province.

Civil and human rights organisations are watching developments in Turkey with alarm, putting European governments under considerable pressure to act. This they are now beginning to do, and it appears that the Turkish-EU relationship is on a slow road to a divorce. But the loser will not be the EU or NATO, but rather Turkey, which is becoming increasingly isolated under Erdogan’s rule.

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