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Turkey: seeking a way out of the crisis, Erdoğan is vowing to return to democracy

Erdogan
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In November 2020, the Turkish government, which controls more than 90 per cent of the local media, has started to spread a narrative of return to democracy, rule of law and citizens' rights. Public declarations by high-level officials, including President Erdoğan, have signalled ever since that the regime is ready for mending ties with "the West", i.e. the European Union (EU) and the more influential EU Member States, NATO, the new US administration and the UK. Given the many U-turns of President Erdoğan in the past, such major change should not be dismissed altogether. However, the context is less encouraging now. The main reason for this new apparent U-turn is the degradation of the Turkish economy and, in effect, the diminishing popularity of the regime. The official statistics do not present the real dimensions of the disaster, but data compiled from external and independent internal sources suggest, indeed, a dramatic situation.

The perfect storm: recession at home and unfavourable circumstances abroad

For instance, analyses by independent organisations of employers (TÜSIAD) and employees (DISK) put the unemployment figure between 23 and 27 per cent, which is much above the 17.7 per cent communicated by the Turkish Statistical Institute. To this must be added many other alarming parameters. Between 2013 and 2020, one third of Turkey's GDP disappeared, with a drop from $960 billion to approximately $650 billion according to World Bank statistics. The GDP per capita also fell during the same period from $12,500 to 7,800, with a relative increase to $9,225 in October 2020. Last year, the lira lost 20 per cent of its value against the US dollar and was among the worst performing currencies. Inflation has grown to above 15 per cent as of January 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the Turkish economy to shrink by almost 10 per cent over the last months and a major crisis has been avoided only by a reduction in the key interest rate despite opposition from the country's President. Nevertheless, Turkey's external debt remains a matter of serious concern, standing at over 50 per cent of the GDP since November last year. That is while foreign direct investments have decreased from 3.6 per cent of the GDP in 2006 to less than 1.2 per cent in 2019.

Turkey improving trade relations with the UK in the context of Brexit seems to be an easy task. Both countries have now limited access to EU's Common Market and need to find alternative solutions. The new deal, signed by the two sides on 29 December 2020 and valuing €20.5 billion, aims to lay the ground for better bilateral trade relations in the post-Brexit era. However, fully mending ties with the much bigger EU and US may be "mission impossible" for Ankara.

The recent appointments in the new US administration suggest that Washington will be under the Biden Presidency less inclined than under Trump to tolerate Turkey's anti-Western rhetoric and actions. Recent sanctions for the purchase of Russian-made S-400 air defence system are only the tip of the iceberg. The country's banking system, already weakened by governmental policies, may take a decisive blow following the conclusion of a court case in New York, in which the public lender Halkbank is accused of helping Iran evade sanctions. Appointments in the new US administration also suggest Washington will most probably be more active supporting its allies in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa. This will play, with incalculable costs for Ankara, against its belligerent actions in those regions. The new administration in Washington may also be more assertive in relations with Turkey concerning the degradation of its democratic, human rights and rule of law record.

All the above points, and more apply in the more complex relations with Brussels. Turkey already benefits from the Customs Union with the EU, which was launched in 1995, and from the financially rewarding agreement to stop the flow of illegal immigrants from Turkey to Europe (March 2016). Turkey also remains officially a candidate to EU membership. However, the authoritarian turn of its current regime has brought the accession process to a halt and also postponed negotiations for upgrading the Customs Union.

So, how credible is the recently launched discourse in Ankara about a return to democracy and about relations with the EU being a priority on Turkey's agenda? In short, it is not credible.

Erdoğan wants to join the EU with no rule of law and jailed journalists

It all started in mid-November 2020, when President Erdoğan spoke at a meeting of the ruling AK Party about the importance of the rule of law for "investments and economic growth". This declaration was accompanied by that of Abdulhamit Gül, minister of justice, who called on the courts to implement decisions by the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights. More recently, probably pressed by the worsening economic and financial situation, President Erdoğan insisted that Turkey sees its future in Europe and wants to "open a new page in relations with the EU". The President and his minister of foreign affairs, Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, repeated the same message two days later in a meeting with EU ambassadors in Ankara.

This is, nevertheless, yet another case of false narrative. Since November last year, the President had all institutional instruments available for at least initiating legislative reforms as to support his narrative. Improving ties demands from Turkey to meet the basic conditionality of its Western, especially European allies: democracy, respect for human and minority rights and, above all, the rule of law. Despite the President having almost absolute powers under the current constitution, amended by referendum in 2017, no change has been made to return the country to the rule of law.

On the contrary, local courts continue to rule against decisions by the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights in numerous cases of human rights abuse. From among them, the most notorious are that of former leader of the pro-Kurdish HD party, Selahattin Demirtaş, and that of businessman, philanthropist and human rights activist Osman Kavala. The two remain in jail although the prosecutors could not produce solid evidence supporting the accusations of collaboration with terrorist organisations and attempting to overthrow the government respectively.

With the judiciary controlled by the executive and the Presidency under the amended constitution, the President's opposition to freeing the two and others is decisive. Speaking to the media on December 9, 2020, Erdoğan said that, "I am definitely not allowed to intervene in the affairs of the judiciary, but [...] we are not going to protect the so-called rights of a terrorist, especially one like Selahattin Demirtaş." Each time the Constitutional Court ordered the release of Demirtaş and Kavala, with reference to decisions by the European Court of Human Rights, prosecutors opened new cases against them. They have thus been in prison since 2016 and 2017 respectively, although no final verdict was pronounced against them.

The poor quality of law implementation and the subordination of the judiciary to the executive in Turkey are beyond doubt nowadays. There are thousands of cases sustaining this idea, many of them reaching the Turkish Constitutional Court, or even the European Court of Human Rights. Most of them have been prosecuted under the country's vague but draconically interpreted anti-terrorism legislation, which invites subjective approaches.

Turkey is nowadays the biggest jailer of journalists in the European region and the lowest ranked in terms of rule of law. Freedom of expression is the main victim. The 2020 report of Human Rights Watch on Turkey indicates many cases in which Turkey's Supreme Board for Radio and Television (RTÜK) has imposed hefty fines on TV and radio stations and on internet-based media known for programmes critical of the government. The same report demonstrates that the ruling regime in Turkey has used the COVID-19 pandemic as pretext for passing legislation that curbs even more human rights in general and the freedom of expression in particular. Annual Progress Reports by the European Commission on Turkey' accession process confirm, with numerous cases as examples, the country's regress in rule of law and human rights, especially after the failed coup of July 2016.

The fight against terror, an excuse for strenghtening the authoritarian state

The preferred targets of the judiciary-executive monolith are the individuals and organisations it sees associated with the two main entities designated by Ankara as "terrorist organisations". The first is the Kurdish militia Partiya Karkeren Kurdistane (PKK) and the second is the so-called Fetullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ). The latter refers to all individuals associated in one way or another with Fetulah Gülen, a US-based Sunni Islamic preacher formerly supporting the ANK and Erdoğan, but then blamed by the regime for orchestrating the failed coup of July 2016. However, under the vague anti-terrorism legislation, virtually any opponent of the regime can be prosecuted for somehow being associated with the two entities. Thousands of such cases are recorded by the handful of independent media outlets and civil society organisations left in Turkey. To these must be added the more than a hundred thousand people (including hundreds of children and nine foreigners) prosecuted for insulting the President (Article 299 Penal Code) and/or degrading the Turkish nation, state and state institutions (Article 301 Penal Code).

All the above prove already the falsity, at least at the moment, of the governmental narrative signalling a return to rule of law and human rights. And three other recent events support this sad conclusion. The first is about the new social media law, adopted last summer and implemented in steps this year, which will allow government control over Turkish and foreign companies in the sector. This will make possible censorship and the application of the restrictive legislation on all social media platforms, local or foreign.

The second event is the passing, on 27 December 2020, of a law that allows for the executive to control all civil society organisations, local or foreign that are formally active in Turkey. According to the text, the interior minister can replace members and managers of organisations who are being investigated for terrorism charges. The minister can also apply to courts to halt and/or ban altogether activities of civil society organisations. Given the vague definitions and jurisprudence regarding terrorism and terrorist activities, it expected that this piece of legislation would be used to limit association rights even more.

The third and latest event is the recent protests at the Bosporus (Boğaziçi) University, the country's most prestigious. The President of the Republic used prerogatives in the amended Constitution allowing him to appoint the Rector. The person appointed has difficulties when expressing himself in Turkish and English, and there is also proof of plagiarism in his publications. Protests by the academic staff and students were met with disproportionate violence by police forces. President Erdoğan and other high-level officials, together with the massive pro-government media, accused the protesters of being "terrorists" who work in league with foreign forces. Only days after the conflict erupted, on December 6, the President issued a special decree. This allows the transfer of movable properties "without any conditions" between the police and gendarmerie, the military and the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) "in the event of terrorist and societal incidents and violent movements that seriously threaten national security, public order and security". The vague terms involved in the formulation and the history of the current regime allow for speculations that the government is preparing for suppressing potentially massive civil unrest and for cancelling civil rights altogether.

All the above suggests that Turkey is moving on a path fundamentally divergent from the "values" that unite its Western allies. It is already a country where the law allows the President to control the executive, the legislative, the judiciary, the armed forces, the media, the civil society, and the academia. Since some of the steps in this direction have been taken over the last months, the narrative about a return to Europe and its values is false at best. Any competent political scientist would rather interpret it as a mere cover for what are in fact decisive steps the opposite way, toward a totalitarian control of the society. Under these conditions, given the unchanging strategic importance of Turkey, only a transactional relation may remain available for the EU, the US and other Western actors. It remains to be seen, however, how such relation could possibly function in the twenty-first century.

 

Tags: Erdoğan, Turkey, EU, Washington

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  • In November 2020, the Turkish government has started to spread a narrative of return to democracy, rule of law and citizens' rights. The main reason for this new apparent U-turn is the degradation of the Turkish economy and, in effect, the diminishing popularity of the regime.
  • Improving ties demands from Turkey to meet the basic conditionality of its Western, especially European allies: democracy, respect for human and minority rights and, above all, the rule of law. Despite the President having almost absolute powers under the current constitution, amended by referendum in 2017, no change has been made to return the country to the rule of law.
  • Annual Progress Reports by the European Commission on Turkey' accession process confirm, with numerous cases as examples, the country's regress in rule of law and human rights, especially after the failed coup of July 2016.
  • Turkey is moving on a path fundamentally divergent from the "values" that unite its Western allies. It is already a country where the law allows the President to control the executive, the legislative, the judiciary, the armed forces, the media, the civil society, and the academia. Since some of the steps in this direction have been taken over the last months, the narrative about a return to Europe and its values is false at best.
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