Terra Nullius | The Turkish conundrum

An important signifier of a liberal democracy is its power to introspect and retain its identity, especially when its politics shifts.

A government in a liberal democracy that comes into power with a strong majoritarian mandate needs to pay attention to two things. One, if it claims to create a bold new policy, it needs to act boldly when the situations call for it. Two, it must introspect and understand its own identity and then formulate its internal policies and agenda, balancing the push and pull factors from within. The evolution of Turkey into what it is today was not an overnight instance, but the ignorance of the factors stated above.

In the decade since it came to power, the AK party got many things right in Turkey, including the conceptualisation of a new foreign policy, securing stronger ties with Western countries, talks of membership into the EU to promote economic ties and a focus on its own internal economic growth and development. However, internal politics marred in corruption, conservative ideologies, and parochialism hijacked Turkey’s original agenda from a decade ago. Within a span of the last two years, Turkey not only lost focus of its foreign policy, but it also lost its credibility and position as a secular liberal democracy because of its internal policies, tinted with religious ideologies and illiberal stances.

Under Ahmet Davutoglu as its Foreign Minister, Turkey formulated a bold foreign policy, with its pivot in the Middle East, established relations with the west, a strong presence within NATO and an eye on the membership to the European Union. Davutoglu announced the new “Zero problems with neighbours” policy and initiated reconciliation with Syria, Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf monarchies. The aim of this was to establish Turkey as a leader in the region, and ensure its influence strengthens Turkey’s position as the beacon of democracy, and a country with its present and future fervently grounded in its past.

However, a policy perfect on paper started to unravel in practice, when Turkey implemented it to navigate through the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Turkey’s initial involvement with the Syrian crisis proved to be disastrous, when despite interventions, the Syrian government remained uninfluenced, and Assad went ahead with his plans to curb the Syrian dissent. The previously warm ties between the two countries crumbled as the crisis unfolded, and Turkey decided to arm rebels and open its borders to Syrian refugees. This decision eventually cost Turkey dearly, as it led to the influence of ISIS within its Southern borders and its territory.

Turkey’s relations soured with Iran after Davutoglu’s decision to support the Kurds in Iraq. It was only recently, with a new Government in Iraq, that Turkey salvaged its relationship. Turkey’s look East policy collapsed further after its bilateral relations with Egypt broke off. Turkey’s fierce support for Morsi and refusal to accept the “coup regime” eventually led to a series of dramatic events and the removal of the Turkish Ambassador from Egypt and vice versa. Turkey’s relationship with Israel worsened since 2009, and its efforts to influence Israel-Palestine crisis, failed. A complicated history with the country and a series of events, (starting from Israel’s raid of the Gaza bound flotilla killing 9 Turkish citizens), have ensured that the relationship will see little immediate change.

Earlier in 2014, Turkey’s membership to NATO also came under severe criticism, with questions being raised about its commitment. Despite the Turkish Parliament voting for it in October 2014, the country refused to allow the NATO forces to operate from the Turkish airbases or participate in any US led operations and airstrikes against the Islamic State.

Turkey’s internal policies over the last few years have led to the mangling of its overtures for a membership into the EU – something that the country has been aiming at, since 2005. There is skepticism across the EU towards the Government’s crackdown against media persons, anti-government protestors, and corruption probes. The European Commission’s 2014 Turkey Progress Report criticised the country on multiple grounds, including independence of judiciary, separation of powers, banning of social media, censorship and freedom of assembly. Contradicting his previous statements about not being a slave to Europe, President Erdogan, recently demonstrated renewed vigour towards the EU membership and called it Turkey’s strategic choice.

Democracy breathes through the decisions of a majority. However, a democracy is only democratic, if it considers opinions of all diverse elements of its population, along with regarding the founding principles of its Constitution and national structures. The AK party came to power in the last decade on the hopes of robust economic reforms, strong governance and a populist support base. For a country – whose founder and military have propagated radical secular ethos – the strains of conservative ideologies and religious Right wing agenda slowly seeped into public life. This, along with frequent crackdowns against anti-government protests, illiberal government stances against censorship and propaganda, Erdogan’s seeming authoritarianism – eroded Turkey’s founding liberal ethos, diluting its secular credentials.

An important signifier of a liberal democracy is its power to introspect and retain its identity, especially when its politics shifts. How does it balance internal push factors with external pull factors? What are its long-term goals with respect to its short-term goals? Is nationalism defined as reigniting pride for the past or is it focusing on the future, agnostic to the preservation of another age? Is religion a marker of individual identity or broader politics? Ataturk’s Turkey and the military attempted to create a radically secular state that shunned its Ottoman past or religious colours. This was often said to be divorced from the reality of the population that was deeply religious and ideological. However, over the last decade, the AK party managed to dilute Turkey’s Kemalist ideologies and bring back a conservative, Islamic ethos into public life. Further internal political chaos, the initial influence and eventual discord with the Gulen movement (and its founder), standoffs with the military, and factionalised public opinion, further led to changes in Turkey’s overall identity.

Whether it was the Syrian crisis, managing relations with Egypt and Israel, taking a stand with NATO, or leveraging its unique position in the Middle East and Europe – Turkey eventually lost its own plot and aims, because of its inability to deliver more than rhetoric. Neither was it able to demonstrate astute diplomacy nor muscular military power. It let go of the opportunity to emerge as the credible leader it had aspired to become within the region, and to be the bridge between Europe and the Middle East, that its geographical position allowed it to be.

Maybe this is what the Turkish population wants at this point in its history. But this want has pulled Turkey back in attaining its explicit goals. The internal schizophrenia has hurt the country on all sides. Does Turkey still want to be the leader in the Middle East and retain its secular democratic ethos? Is the membership to the EU a relevant idea for the country? If not, then what are its alternative choices? In terms of balancing its international aspirations and its national aims, the Turkish government should introspect over what is best for it – unless it redefines its goals, identity and orientation. And this kind of introspection holds true for governments in liberal democracies, including India.

This piece was first published in Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review on 26th January, 2014.