Where now for Turkey? President Erdogan clamps down on opposition, but former EU allies fear more human rights abuses and media crackdowns

Geopolitical instability means Turkey is vital to the West. But there is much to resolve

Kim Sengupta
Friday 17 April 2015 19:34
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The abuse of human rights and suppression of the media, a savage civil war in Syria and continuing bitterness over divided Cyprus. Along with the Armenian genocide and the machinations of Vladimir Putin, these are some of the varied and controversial issues surrounding Turkey’s long and troubled campaign to join the European Union.

Coming soon are Turkey’s parliamentary elections, set to be one of the most bitter in recent times. And looming over them is the giant shadow of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader who has bestrode the nation’s politics for a dozen years, the man who wants to carry out fundamental changes to the constitution which will have profound effects at home and abroad. There is widespread expectation that after his party, AKP, secures the required majority, and he brings in a presidential system of government, thus transforming the post he holds from technically a titular one, the Turkish leader will look anew at his country’s broader future direction and EU strategy.

It has been a rocky path for Turkey with Greek Cyprus blocking the negotiating process, and degrees of opposition to Ankara’s membership from Germany, France and Austria. Even those who support Turkish entry, like Britain, have been critical of the crackdown against protest. The Turks, in turn, have stated that they may, in response, turn away from the West to focus on the region.

But current geopolitics – Syria’s slide into anarchy and the stream of Western jihadists flocking there, mainly through Turkey – has shown the West that it needs Ankara’s help. For its part, the Turkish government has announced a series of projected EU-friendly measures. They are described as “the most important modernisation project after the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey [at the time of Ataturk]”.

“The recent dramatic changes, from Syria to Ukraine and the Middle East to North Africa, require Turkey and the EU to act jointly against the global and regional threats,” the government stresses. But it was violence from the past which has brought the latest fracture in the relationship – a vote by the European Parliament ahead of the 100th anniversary of the massacre of Armenians next week, urging Turkey to acknowledge that it was an act of genocide. It came just days after Pope Francis had also spoken about the genocide of Armenians.

President Erdogan declared: “Such decisions are nothing but an expression of enmity against Turkey.” His foreign ministry put out a statement describing the European Parliament resolution as “preposterous” and one which “repeats the anti-Turkish clichés of Armenian propaganda”. Turkey accepts that there were deaths in clashes at the time, but strongly disputes the Armenian claim that the toll was 1.5 million.

President Erdogan was speaking during a visit to the Kazakh capital, Astana, one of many trips he has undertaken in neighbouring countries as part of his mission to provide leadership by Turkey. The Russians have been quick to acknowledge the country’s strategic pre-eminence in announcing the switching of gas supplies to Europe from South Stream going through the Balkans to Turkish Stream through Turkey.

The Russian and Turkish presidents discussed the plan in a telephone call last month. Turkish diplomatic sources in Ankara said they also discussed the “events of 1915”, referring to the Armenian massacres, and that Mr Putin had displayed “a great knowledge of history”.

Domestic criticism, too, can bring swift, and sometimes draconian, reaction, an issue being monitored by European Commission teams based in Turkey; 236 people were investigated for “insulting the head of state”, 105 of them indicted, eight arrested.

During the current presidency, Turkey has made 477 requests to Twitter to remove content, five times more than any other country. During Mr Erdogan’s time in office as premier and president 63 journalists have been sentenced to 32 years in prison.

Three senior Turkish journalists spoke of their despair at what they saw as government persecution of the media and charted how outlets critical of AKP have been forced to shut down. “There are now 21 TV channels which report Erdogan’s speech in full, not one shows a full speech by opposition leaders,” said one.

“Any criticism is jumped on by AKP and its supporters as treason, saying we are enemies of Turkey,” said another. “There are many, many journalists who haven’t worked for years.” In the view of a colleague: “Erdogan has been poisoned by power. People around him keep telling him that he is the sole leader of the Muslim word.”

Selcuk Erdem, an editor of the satirical magazine Penguen, two of whose cartoonists were sent to jail for 11 months and fined £3,630 after a cartoon led to complaints from Mr Erdogan’s lawyers, is reconciled to the risks. “They don’t like, or want, criticism. We’ll carry on drawing cartoons. We don’t insult anyone, worrying about court cases will lead to censorship in your mind, which is something we don’t want.”

But even many critics accept that after years of military rule, AKP has helped the disempowered. Indeed that is where much of its voting base lies; services such as healthcare have been transformed, the economy continues to be strong and Turkey’s standing in the world has risen.

A civic society umbrella group has listed hate crimes against LGBTs, discrimination against them in employment and housing, and their exclusion from the constitution. AKP deputy mayor for Istanbul, Mustafa Sentop, was categoric: “We don’t find it right to have an expression concerning gays in any part of the constitution.”

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