George PROTOPAPAS, Analyst at the Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS), member of IFIMES
The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses events in the Middle East and the Balkans. George Protopapas, Analyst at the Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS) and member of IFIMES International Institute is presenting his view on the current situation in Turkey. His article “The implications of Turkish crisis in the domestic and foreign policy” is here published in its entirety.
The implications of Turkish crisis in the domestic and foreign policy
The corruption’s scandal that has deeply wounded the Islamic government of Prime- Minister of Turkey, Tayip Erdogan, is a complex issue with important consequences to the politics, economy, society and the foreign policy. Turkey has become a “battlefield” between two powerful men, two former allies. PM Erdogan and the influential Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen are in bitter power struggle. The old alliances are now void and new allegiances are being created. Erdogan re-approaches the old – enemy, the Army, seeking to review those convictions of whom have accused for conspiracy for overthrowing the Islamic government. In this analysis we refer to the domestic and foreign policy implications of this crisis.
The bribes’ scandal targets directly the Prime Minister and the core of leadership of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) seriously affecting Turkey’s political future. Erdogan adopted an offensive stance by removing the competent prosecutors and the Police officers from their positions. Erdogan accused foreign governments of being implicit in the campaign against him. He claimed that the bribes’ scandal is a conspiracy directed by foreign organizations and dark forces that seek to undermine the international prestige of Turkey. Clearly, Erdogan may not have foreseen the domestic and international developments that turned the tide against him. The summer’s huge anti-governmental demonstrations for the commercial and Islamic reconstruction of Gezi Park gave the first blow to Erdogan’s profile. The corruption’s scandal provided one more reason for a part of the society to rally against the government. Erdogan’s ambitions to become a nation- leader in the modern Turkish history (equal to Kemal Ataturk) have stalled. The “Sultan of Constantinople” may have forgotten that it is the public opinion that elects the governments. In view of the peripheral elections of March, he is now in pursuit of the endorsement of the Turkish society. The current movements of the Prime-Minister could determine the Turkish domestic and the foreign policies for a considerable time. The escalation of the domestic political crisis could provoke instability in Turkey and could influence its foreign policy as it prevents Ankara to play a significant role in Middle East.
Two powerful enemies
Erdogan and Gulen, the "student" and the "mentor" respectively, have become enemies. Gulen who lives in self-imposed exile in the US has created an international movement, the Hizmet. It means “the service” and promotes a tolerant form of Islam, by emphasizing in the education and the hard work. Hizmet attracts millions of followers in international level and its members have infiltrated in the Turkish bureaucracy, the Police, the Justice and the ruling Islamic Party AKP.
The corruption scandal is considered to be a part of a long-simmering battle within the AKP's Islamist coalition.[i] There are two rival sides: On the one hand, Erdogan and his followers whose political roots lay in the transnational Muslim Brotherhood movement, and on the other, the Gulenists a secretive society whose religious ideology bears a more distinctly Turkish flavor, led by Fethullah Gulen.
The symbiotic relationship between the AKP and the Gülenists has been characterized by different views as regards the domestic and foreign policy affairs but they remained for a long time below the surface. This uneasy balance continued for some time. Then, in 2012, an Istanbul’s public prosecutor called Hakan Fidan, the director of the Turkish Intelligence Agency (MIT), for questioning. The prosecutor wanted to find out about Fidan’s meetings with the representatives of the PKK in Oslo, in the context of peace agreements. Erdogan refused to allow Fidan to attend the court and passed legislation that prevents the occurrence of similar “contingencies” in the future. Erdogan continued to attack Gulen when stated that could close down the college preparatory centers that high school students attend to prepare for the university entrance exams. Gülenists are operating a vast network of these centers that besides bringing a major source of income for the organization, they also offer the opportunity to recruit new members[ii].
The battle between the two leading Islamic personalities is changing the political landscape and is creating new alliances and correlations. The Prime-Minister is approaching his old enemies, the Army generals. The government encourages judiciary to review these trials, a fact that could result the release of scores of military officers who were imprisoned.[iii] Erdogan’s tactic is the following: On the one hand tries to show that there is a “parallel state of Gulenists” within the judiciary that intends to shape the political scene, on the other he does not miss the chance to persuade the part of the judiciary he influences. Erdogan's top advisor, Yalçın Akdoğan, recently made a remark implying that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) had been the subject of a similar “conspiracy”. The General Staff of TSK was exploited the remark and filed a criminal complaint against the judges and prosecutors who had handled the “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer” trials.[iv] Erdogan tries to blame Gulenists and to attest that the “parallel state” of the Gulenists manipulated the evidence of the cases.
Inevitably, Erdogan’s strategy divides the Turkish society. When he took power in 2003 he appeared as a leader who wanted to unify the Turkish citizens and change the political stage (controlled by the secular and military establishment). The election of Erdogan in the premiership gave an impetus to a moderate Islamic political model and also enhanced Turkey’s economic and international profile. In this context, the Turkish newspaper “Today’s Zaman” summarizes the domestic and international circumstances of the last 10 years, describing also the assistance the Turkey received from the international community: “(a)The global capitalists were channeled to Turkey and money started to pour into the country; (b) Turkey was backed by an incredible diplomatic and political support in the international scene; (c) Europeans were forced to revitalize the EU membership process; (d) assistance was provided for the purging of juntas that would periodically stage coups, and the military tutelage regime was "suspended” but not demolished; (e) Serious fiscal and political relations were established with nearby countries, and with the "zero problems with neighbors" policy, joint cabinet meetings were held; and (f) a corridor was opened to Africa”.[v]
From “zero problems” to “zero allies” in Turkey’s foreign policy
Erdogan not only used the Islamic element as domestic connecting factor but he tried to expand this by creating a moderate Islamic model to the pre and post-Arab spring countries. Yet, paradoxically he encouraged anti-government revolutions, yet he refrained from condemning and isolating opportunistic radicals and extremists that emerged. Thus, in contrast to the “zero problems” strategy with its neighbors, currently Turkey is actually found to be in trouble with nearly all of them. Moreover, the internal (political, social and economic) crisis impedes any efforts related to geopolitical and foreign policy strategies, as it hampers the government’s efforts as a whole. The scandals weaken Erdogan’s international profile as he now faces serious internal challenges that expose (from the opposition’s perspective) a no–ethical governing. In this context, the global powerful international decision – centers and many Middle East’s leaders start to consider that Erdogan is an inconsistent partner, who perhaps exploited their aforementioned financial and diplomatic support. The Prime-Minister implemented Ahmet Davutoglu’s strategic thinking: the doctrine of “zero problems with neighbors” and the “Neo-Ottomanism” as the “New Mideast Order”. Simply, the said “neo-Ottomanism” has always been a paradox and it did not take a lot of time to be revealed that Erdogan’s moderate Islamic agenda may not have be so appealing and convincing to everyone in the region. For instance, the liberal, the left and the moderate Islamism Turkish citizens criticize Erdogan for an authoritarian leadership.
In particular, the doctrines of “zero problems with neighbors” and the “Neo-Ottomanism” did not manage to implement for the following reasons: (a) The “zero problems with neighbors” failed since Erdogan has enthusiastically supported the oppressed Islamist Sunni political movements that emerged from the “Arab Spring”. Turkish neighbors Iran and Syria belong to the opposite side as they are members with Iraq of the “Shia Crescent” (notionally representing the crescent-shaped region of the Middle East where the majority population is Shia or where there is a strong Shia population). The Syrian governmental elite and the president Bashar Assad are Alawites (a branch of Shia Islam) where the majority population is Sunni. The “zero problems with neighbors” was gradually reduced to “zero allies” and (b) the vision of the "Ottoman Empire" revealed Erdogan’s ambitions to dominate in the Arab Middle East, breaching perhaps that has been agreed between him and the international community[vi]. The success of Turkey's international profile that was based on foreign support finally grew to a false self-confidence and independent attitude. The Foreign Minister Davutoglu claimed that Turkey, for the first time, has finally been back to the lands that were lost during the Ottoman times, and suggests that it’s time for Turkey to take the lead to set an order for these lands and re-connect them once again — “Without going to war, we will again tie Sarajevo to Damascus, Benghazi to Erzurum and to Batumi.”[vii]
Erdogan miscalculated the evolutions in the Middle East and overestimated the dynamic of the Islamic Sunnis movements. He immediately accepted the oppressed Sunnis who took the power after the fall of authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Libya. He became one of the most ferocious enemies of the Syrian President Bashar Assad, and refrains from condemning the extremist Islamic groups who are fighting even against with the Syrian opposition forces and Syrian Kurds. In parallel Erdogan cooperated with the ousted Islamist president of Egypt Mohammed Morsi (Muslim Brotherhood) and continued to criticize the Israeli policy against Palestine. However the developments after the “Arab Spring” did not favor Erdogan’s foreign policy. The first after Mubarak era islamist president of Egypt Mohammed Morsi was overthrown by the generals and the Syrian president Assad avoided an international intervention.
According to the Αl – Monitor,[viii]many leaders of the Middle East do not feel sympathy for Erdogan as he faces huge domestic problems because of the hostile feelings against him. The events show that Erdogan foreign policy has displeased the Iraqi Prime–Minister Nuri al Maliki because Turkey took the side of Northern Kurdish Iraq on the sensitive issue of the exploitation of Iraqi oil reserves. The unofficial ruler of Egypt Gen. Fatah Al-Sisi considers Erdogan a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that Erdogan portrays as an ally of Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas who controls Gaza Strip. The Syrian president Bashar Assad has managed to survive after the deal with the US and Russia for the destruction of his chemical weapons. The two powers are trying to prevent the spread of Islamic fundamentalism from Syria to the Middle East and the Northern Caucasus, respectively. According to the Foreign Policy Magazine a former Turkish diplomat said that “Turkey was right to side with the people against the dictator, but it could have stopped there…by burning all bridges with the regime, Turkey lost its leverage with Assad."[ix] Moreover when the international community abandoned the plan for a military intervention in Syria, taking into consideration as well the side effects that could be caused by the jihadists fighters, the Turkish diplomat commented that “Turkey, to use a football term, found itself offside."[x]
The crisis prevents Turkey to play a vital role in the Middle East and isolates Ankara from the international decision-making centers. The corruption scandal gives the opportunity to Erdogan’s rivals in Middle East to recover and also creates additional problems in Turkey’s ties with the West.[xi] Erdogan blamed foreign plots, lobbies, Americans, Jews, the foreign press and a variety of other menacing institutions. Turkish newspapers also named the culprits and demonstrate as responsible Israel and the US. One broadsheet stated that the American ambassador Francis Francis J. Ricciardone Jr be declared as persona no grata because he tried to punish Halkbank Bank for its relations with Iranian funds.[xii]
The scandal of bribes reveals obvious signs of weakness for both Erdogan and his party ΑΚP. According to British think-tank Open Democracy “Erdogan has never been this lonely in his ten years of rule as the Prime Minister of Turkey. In previous crises, he may have lost the support of liberals in Turkey, as well as minorities, Israel and the US. However, he still had the support of his own cabinet, the spiritual figure Fethullah Gulen, and many of the institutions (such as the police and the judiciary) arguably “infiltrated” by or representative of Gulen’s Hizmet network. His prestige may have shattered those outside the Islamic movement, but inside, he was still impervious to criticism. The corruption case, however, has deprived him of all these lines of support. First, the people who were once his closest allies no longer hesitate in directing their critiques at the Prime Minister .When the Minister of Environment and Urban Planning Erdogan Bayraktar handed in his resignation he openly stated that his stepping down would also necessitate Erdogan relinquishing his position as the Prime Minister. Here was criticism coming from the inside, from one of the people close to the Prime Minister. Such an act, in AKP’s three-term rule, is unheard of”.[xiii]
He has been repeating mistakes and miscalculations. His political fortunes have been seriously weakened due to the fact that the widespread fear that induced in large swathes of Turkish society has been partially breached.[xiv] Furthermore, the Prime-minister loses one of his strongest “allies”, the Turkish economy. Its poor performance displeases the investors and businessmen. According to the American think–tank Stratfor “Turkey's financial troubles have been greatly exacerbated by a deep-rooted power struggle that is only going to intensify in the lead-up to local elections in March, presidential elections in August and parliamentary elections in 2015. Turkey has been desperately trying to stem the plunge of the lira, which has declined about 10 percent against the U.S. dollar over the past year. With a dramatic hike in Turkey's lending rate from 7.75 to 12.5 percent announced on Jan. 28, Turkish Central Bank Gov. Erdem Basci use interest rates as a weapon to defend Turkish lira”.[xv]
Although Erdogan has been successful in the beginning in giving an impetus to the economy and the society with the international aid and support, problems and issues were always lurking in the background. Being trapped in the paradox of the “neo-Ottoman” agenda, he failed to unite the country. The examples from this recent judicial, social, economic unrest are more than abundant.
Turkey is the epicenter of a new bitter struggle between two Islamic powerful personae. There are the following possible outcomes for Erdogan: (a) to use a conciliatory language when he understand that the instability is very close, (b) to escalate the crisis taking up all the thrown gauntlets[xvi], and (c) to cooperate with the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) under the new agreement in order to dissolve the network of the Gulenists. Erdogan faces difficult challenges. He appears to lose the moderate islamists and the minorities who had offered their support during the last decade. The Prime-Minister prepares for the key–battleground, the municipal and peripheral elections scheduled for March 2014 and is determined to do everything to secure the victory. Yet balances are very fragile in this divided, multiethnic, multicultural country.
[i] John Hannah, “The End of Erdogan?” Foreign Policy Magazine 20 December 2013
[ii] İlter Turan, "The Rule of Law is the Casualty", German Marshall Fund of the USA, 3 January 2014
[iii] Daniel Dombey, “Erdogan government considers review of coup plot convictions”, Financial Times, 4 January 2014
[iv] Gunay Hilal Aygun, " AK Party tries to bury the hatchet with Turkish army", Todays Zaman, 6 January 2014
[v] Ali Bulac, “ Why are we at this point?” Todays Zaman, 06/01/2014
[vi] See ibid.
[vii] Tulin Daloglu, “Davutoglu Invokes Ottomanism as New Mideast Order”, Al-Monitor, 10 March 2013
[viii] Semih Idiz, "Turkish corruption probe hurts foreign relations", Al Monitor, 27 December 2013
[ix] Piotr Zalewski “How Turkey Went From 'Zero Problems' to ‘Zero Friends”, Foreign Policy Magazine, 22 August 2013
[x] See ibid.
[xi] See Semih Idiz , op.cit.
[xii] Andrew Finkel, “The Filth in Erdogan's Closet”, The New York Times, 27 December 2013
[xiii] Oguz Alyanak, “The many crises of Erdogan: have we come to an end-game ?”,Open Democracy, 12 January 2014
[xiv] See op.cit John Hannach
[xv] “The Limits of Turkey's Interest Rate Hike”, STRATFOR, 29 January 2014
[xvi] Mutmtazer Turkone, What happen next ?”, Todays Zaman, 21 December 2012