September 6th, 2016
By Irena Baboi – Research Assistant
On the night of July 15, a faction of the Turkish army attempted to overthrow the government in Ankara and take military control of the country – and failed. The killing of over two hundred and injuring of over a thousand civilians and security forces was followed by the biggest purge in Turkey’s modern history. In the weeks since the failed coup, tens of thousands people, including army generals and officers, police, journalists, judges and even teachers and NGO workers have been suspended, removed from their positions, or arrested; and with the recent release of 38,000 convicted criminals jailed before the coup to free up space for those detained in the purge, the crackdown on the opposition and suspected plotters seems likely to continue.
These events, coupled with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proposal to reintroduce the death penalty, should be seen as a cause for concern coming from any democratically-elected government; but even more so from a country that has been a member of NATO for decades and is a candidate to join the European Union.
Turkey’s departure from democratic values, however, has been years in the making – the coup merely provided an excuse to accelerate it. In the last decade, growing political and social divisions, along with threats from militant Kurdish factions and the Islamic State, have provided the Turkish government with the motivations needed to resort to increasingly authoritarian measures and actions. President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) were drifting further away from the progressive path they started on long before the coup.
In these circumstances, the West’s slow and ambivalent response to the failed coup has been highly counter-productive. The events in Turkey were met with widespread criticism and threats rather than an effort to deepen cooperation, and the reluctance to condemn the coup, as well as the failure to express solidarity with its victims, betrayed a preference for a wait-and-see approach to the unfolding of events rather than a firm commitment to one post-coup scenario over another. As a result, Erdogan sought the support and solidarity he did not receive from the West elsewhere; and proved that it was not difficult for him to find it.
Losing no time, Turkey looked to Russia for everything the West failed to provide or threatened to take away. In the first meeting since the fallout caused by Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet in November, Moscow promised to restore bilateral trade with Ankara, as well as gradually ease the economic sanctions, resume charter flights, and possibly even lift the visas imposed on Turkish citizens. This resumption in relations between Erdogan and Putin serves to send a clear signal: the West is not the only option for Turkey, and Russia is more than ready to fill the void left by Europe.
This does not mean that, in order to prevent a complete shift towards Moscow, the West needs to condone Erdogan’s behaviour; but from a strategic point of view, Washington and Brussels have to look beyond the effects and into the causes and motivations that have led to these events. Without suggesting that the lengths to which Erdogan’s recent decisions and actions have gone are in any way justified, Turkey is not wrong in feeling increasingly disillusioned with and even let down by Brussels and Washington. With an accession process leading nowhere, this is a country that has strived for decades to be part of their world, only to be shown time and again that it is not wanted in it.
It follows, then, that the West needs to rethink its relationship with and approach to the government in Ankara, especially since the AKP is likely to remain in power for the foreseeable future. With virtually no progress on the EU front even before the coup, and Ankara’s strategic importance as a NATO ally, the West simply does not have sufficient leverage to coerce Turkey into realignment. What it could do instead, however, is offer Turkey a much sought-after incentive in exchange for the easing of its current political crackdown and an effort to stabilise the situation; and that incentive could and should come in the form of agreeing to grant the country visa-free travel in October.
As the situation stands, the only winner in the aftermath of the coup has been President Erdogan, who can now use these events as an excuse to get anything he wants. The opposition has lost virtually all potential justifications to object to his decisions, and the West’s reaction has served to fuel anti-Western sentiment in Turkey and increase Erdogan’s popularity and support among the people. As a result, Erdogan will continue to act with the confidence that there are no strong motivations to change, either positive or negative; and so far at least, that confidence has not been misplaced.
At the same time, while Erdogan will go as far as he can to consolidate his domestic power, he will not trade NATO for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the European Union for the Eurasian Union. Decades of economic, security and structural ties with the West are unlikely to be cut and fully replaced with Russian ones. Moreover, disagreement over Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, where Moscow and Ankara support opposing sides, is unlikely to be resolved or even compromised on by either one or the other in the near future. Brussels and Washington understand this, but what they also needs to understand is that the stick without the carrot means little to a country for which alternatives exist.
What direction Turkey takes impacts not only the country’s own future, but also that of the wider Balkan region and Europe itself. A stable Turkey is crucial in light of current uncertainties and threats; and as a reliable ally, it can only make Europe stronger. As such, the West cannot afford to turn its back on Turkey as much as Turkey cannot afford to turn its back on the West. But rather than criticising Turkey for drifting away, efforts should be made to bring it closer again. Instead of building more walls, Brussels and Washington need to start building new bridges.
If only one lesson is learned in the aftermath of the failed coup, let it be this: Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s foreign policy was defined by the phrase “peace at home, peace in the world”; eighty years on, the implications of this motto are more significant than ever.
Image: A demonstration of President Erdoğan supporters (Source: Mstyslav Chernov via CC BY-SA 4.0)