Call it a twist of fate or whatever you like, but the recent political developments in Turkey remind too much of Yugoslavia in 1989. Often times it is considered erroneous to draw parallels between political processes that are 26 years apart, but the similarities are a little too many.
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By Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp
Once inspirational leader turns authoritarian
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, very much like Slobodan Milosevic, rose through the party ranks with his political charisma and game play. Yet as his political fortunes grew so did his suspicion of being undermined by his former colleagues. The former democracy hero of the Turkish conservative right is now an aspiring El Presidente a la Turca, waiting anxiously for the result of the General Elections on June 7th. Mr. Erdogan presumes that if his former political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), could guarantee 400 seats out of 550 in the Turkish Parliament he could push amendments to the constitution that would turn him into ‘The Boss’. Nonetheless this path to totalitarianism is not shared with the majority of Turkish society. Erdogan, being a cunning politician who had always won through escalating crises sitting in his multi-billion dollar Presidential Palace in the heart of Ankara, has decided to escalate tensions on several different fronts. However this time his calculations might cost Turkey dear. For that reason it is worthwhile reminder for Erdogan about the fate of another El Presidente a la Balkan who failed his country for his personal ambitions, Slobodan Milosevic. There are several lessons that could stop Erdogan from ruining his political career.
Lesson One – playing on ethnic violence is not a wise career move
Erdogan once bragged about being the most honest among all politicians in Turkey who could realistically tackle the concerns of Turkey’s 20 million-strong Kurdish minority. He has single handedly took the initiative to launch official talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to bring a peaceful solution to a thirty year-old conflict. However, Erdogan’s larger than life ambitions in Syria got in the way; as the PKK offshoot PYD emerged as the only viable fighting force to counter the advance of ISIS in the border town of Kobane. Irked by the operational capability of the PYD fighters, Erdogan started using a condescending rhetoric against the resistance in Kobane. This sudden change in language did seriously hurt the pride of many Kurds in Turkey who ascribed a special personal attachment to the liberation of Kobane. Following his ascendency to the seat of President with 52% of the popular vote, Erdogan gradually embraced an even more hardline stance on the Kurdish issue. His latest statement suggesting that the Kurdish Problem did never really exist in Turkey dealt the final blow to any possibility of rebuilding the trust between the parties.
While the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) is poised to challenge the 10% electoral threshold in the June elections, Erdogan – who is supposed to be the impartial president – uses the language of fear, threatening those who would vote for the HDP with a possible civil war. There have already been several incidents where supporters of the HDP were forced into a confrontation with security forces; fortunately violence was avoided due to cool headedness of the HDP officials. Erdogan, very much like Milosevic of the late eighties, aimed to capitulate his iron grip on power through politics of fear only speeding the breakup of Yugoslavia and then Serbia. Erdogan is a politician who surprised many with his sudden changes of position and managed to turn his political fortunes with his keen political instincts might have gone too far this time. It is not clear whether Erdogan could retract from his hardline nationalist position into a more democratic one.
Lesson Two – confronting the international community might be rewarding in the short run but it always bites back
Turkey and Turkish society has a long history of suspicion against critique from the international community. This is partly the legacy of the long breakup of Ottoman Empire, where the Sublime Porte was under the constant oversight of the concert of Europe and the Russian Empire. The independence of Greece, Serbia and the rest is remembered as a result of international meddling into Ottoman affairs. Erdogan is very well aware of this still too powerful collective memory and is intentionally manipulating the Turkish society’s public psyche against any demands for democratization and political liberalization as a British or German conspiracy (not Russian, as he maintains cozy trade relations with Putin). This is quiet a U-turn if one considers it was Erdogan himself who has implemented pro-EU liberalization reforms between 2002-2005 to finally receive the EU-candidate status. It is frustrating that the EU has maltreated Turkey over the decades, but this is hardly any reason to legitimize authoritarian measures such as the new Public Security Law, curiously reminiscent of the 1933 Ermächtigungsgesetz law in Germany. Turkish officials are facing more scrutiny and criticism than ever.
Moreover, the rhetoric employed by Erdogan and his appointed prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, constantly reminds their religious-nationalist constituency of how the Western world is conspiring against Turkey’s unstoppable rise as a world power, and how the opposition groups such as independent journalists, university students, the enigmatic Gulen movement, independent workers’ unions are all collaborating with the west. It was not surprising how the Erdogan-controlled media once likened the mass protest events of Gezi Park in June 2013 to that of the Otpor movement that brought Milosevic down. Instead of stepping on the brakes on EU reforms and reversing back to authoritarianism, the Turkish government needs to once again start focusing on drafting an inclusive and liberal constitution once the elections are over. Otherwise constant confrontation with imagined enemies of the west would further weaken the stability of the economy and hurt the life standards of the new conservative middle class.
To be continued
Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp is a scholar and practitioner of international conflict, human rights, development and democratization. He has a PhD from the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University, and currently works as a Professorial Lecturer at the International Peace and Conflict Resolution Program of the School of International Service (SIS) at American University in Washington, DC.