Turkey’s Imperative to Restore Democratic Rule

March 31, 2022

In its early years, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government launched an open-ended accession process with the EU. From day one, the process ran into difficulties because the EU countries behaved as if they regretted their decision. Ankara gradually came to believe that the process would lead nowhere. This was the first episode in the brief story of the past two decades.

In the second episode, the West launched a misguided regime change project in Syria in which the AKP government assumed an ideologically motivated leading role. This marked the beginning not only of Ankara’s foreign and security policy downturn but also its democratic decline.

In the third episode, Turkey decidedly left the democratic path. And the EU, lacking strategic foresight, failed to keep Turkey on board. President Obama’s initiative to make Turkey’s “vibrant, secular democracy” the centerpiece of his approach to the Middle East vanished into thin air. The AKP’s foreign policy switched to burning bridges.

The fourth episode started with Russia’s military intervention in Syria in October 2015. By this time, Turkey’s partners in the regime change project had either started to leave or already left the stage with one exception: the US. But America’s sustained presence soon led to the emergence of the YPG as Washington’s major partner “in the fight against the Islamic State”.  

The fifth episode opened with a dramatic incident, the downing of a Russian fighter aircraft by the Turkish Air Force in November 2015, and ended with an apology. The highlight of this episode was Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems.

In the sixth episode, Moscow and Washington gradually changed roles, the former becoming the AKP government’s leading partner and mutual distrust characterizing the relationship with the latter.

But the seventh episode opened with a shock: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

How the story will continue keeps many in suspense. Because the global picture has become far more complicated and the main setting is no longer just Ankara.

Even before the invasion of Ukraine, the AKP government came to realize that its foreign and security policy was only leading to dangerous isolation. Thus, it decided to change tack and launched an effort to recover some of what had been lost in the past decade as a result of policy mistakes, aggressive rhetoric, and a misguided ideological approach. This started with the mending of fences with Gulf states and Israel. Had the Gulf states and Israel changed? No. It was the Turkish government that had to recalibrate.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ankara sought the role of a peacemaker. The holding of talks between foreign ministers Lavrov and Kuleba at the Antalya Diplomacy Forum was a welcome development considering the circumstances. The holding of talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations in Istanbul on Tuesday also reflected the trust both sides have in Turkey. After the talks, Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin announced that Russia will drastically decrease the military activity in the direction of Kiev and Chernigov. And the parties signaled a path envisaging a meeting of foreign ministers and then perhaps the signing of a treaty by presidents Putin and Zelensky. However, one has to remain cautious because up to now Russia’s words have not matched its deeds.

Ankara is now projecting the Istanbul meeting as the most significant, productive round of talks to date. In other words, it is trying to use the meeting to boost Turkey’s appeal abroad and the government’s appeal at home. To a certain extent, this is understandable but to boost its international appeal Ankara has to do more.

President Biden’s last stop in Europe was Warsaw where he delivered a speech many called “fiery”. He defined the challenge ahead as “The battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression.”  Listening to him, I could not help remembering what President Obama had said, in the context of the Arab Spring, in his UN General Assembly speech on September 24, 2013:

“And our approach to Egypt reflects a larger point:  The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests.  Nevertheless, we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals, whether that means opposing the use of violence as a means of suppressing dissent, or supporting the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

This policy, as defined by Mr. Obama, is not going to change. The question is where Turkey stands, where it belongs. Because Turkey is not just a Middle East country. It is a member Council of Europe and NATO. It has millions of Turks living in Europe. Its principal trading partner is by far the EU. And, it still has an “on paper only” accession process with the EU.

For decades, our relationship with the Council of Europe had its ups and downs, particularly after coups in Turkey, but reasonably quick returns to the democratic path helped avoid ruptures. Today, we simply ignore the decision of the European Court of Human Rights.

Relations with the EU have always been problematic, characterized by cultural differences, the legacy of history, and a lack of mutual trust. More than a decade ago, in view of the difficulties experienced in the accession negotiations, the AKP said that even if our membership in the EU failed to materialize, we would turn the “Copenhagen criteria” into “Ankara criteria” and continue our pursuit of democracy. This is now forgotten. The AKP no longer considers the separation of powers as the cornerstone of democracy but sees it as an obstacle to “effective government”. Are the members of the EU disappointed? Perhaps a few. But the majority is pleased because the issue of Turkey’s accession is off their agenda for good.

As for our NATO membership, this has provided us with a full-fledged seat in an enduring alliance that remains the cornerstone of European defense and security.        The lack of good chemistry between the EU and Turkey, however, has the potential to adversely affect our standing within NATO.  After all, there are two buildings in Brussels only a few kilometers apart and at one we are a member of the club or at least treated as one and at the other, we are an outsider if not an adversary, creating a contradiction. And since NATO and the EU currently have 21 member countries in common, drawing a line between the two at least from a perception point of view has become increasingly difficult. And Ankara’s relations with Washington, an important NATO ally, are also far from being satisfactory.

Next Monday, April 4, 2022, will mark the 73rd anniversary of the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty.  During the past months, President Biden has repeatedly said that America’s commitment to Article 5 of the Treaty is “ironclad”, “sacrosanct”. He has also said, “nothing about allies, without allies.” If that is indeed the case, the “Brussels contradiction” which only serves the arguments of Turkey’s Eurasianist school of thought has to be resolved.

Moreover, in an increasingly complex security environment dominated by systemic rivalry, NATO, like the EU, will put greater emphasis on the common values that all allies are supposed to share. In fact, these values like the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law as enshrined in the Washington Treaty that each and every ally has signed up for, will be among the focal areas in strengthening the political dimension of NATO in the next decade and beyond. Therefore, countries lagging behind in their democratic practices will have no other option than to overcome their deficiencies as the distinction between democratic nations and autocratic regimes would become more pronounced in times of strategic competition.

The people of Turkey see the invasion of Ukraine as a tragedy. And some regard it as a development reminding the West of Turkey’s geostrategic importance. Thus, ideas are being floated as to how Ankara may turn the invasion into an opportunity. These extend from the re-energizing of the EU accession process to putting relations with Washington on the right track and opening new avenues of defense cooperation with the West. To a certain extent, this is understandable. But if these “bright ideas” were to ignore the overarching problem of chemistry with the West, they would be doomed to fail.

The biggest challenge for Turkey, going far beyond dealing with the multiple repercussions of the invasion of Ukraine, is the restoration of our democracy. This is a defining moment in European history. Although no one knows for now how long it may last, a new Cold War has been declared. Lines of confrontation are being redrawn. Ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the founding of the Republic, Turkey’s greatest source of power was its democracy. As for Turkey’s geostrategic value, this was always closely linked to Ankara’s military power. But Turkey is not at war. Turkey already has enough hard power. What is far more important is our soft power and this is inseparably linked to our democratic performance.

Last week at the Doha Forum, Qatari and Saudi officials pointed to what they saw as unjust inconsistencies in how the West responds to humanitarian strife: acting swiftly to help Ukraine in a way that conflicts and refugees in the Middle East have not seen. The question to be directed at them is, “Yes, but what did you do to resolve Middle East conflicts other than becoming pawns in others’ games?” A democratic Turkey combining hard and soft power with emphasis on the latter would be more than a welcome guest in the corridors of international diplomacy. Political parties across the spectrum owe this to our future generations. This is the most urgent, most important issue on our agenda. It cannot wait. Time is of the essence.

Western reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been “unprecedented sanctions”. In judging Turkey’s position on sanctions, our Western allies should not overlook the fact that Turkey is located at the center of three conflict areas and for decades has paid the highest price for different sets of international sanctions.

The invasion of Ukraine is a dark page in the history of Russia. The loss of life, the devastation of cities, the suffering it has caused will reverberate for decades. And what it would entail for the Putin regime and President Putin himself remains to be seen.

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