By Yaroslav Trofimov
Wall Street Journal
December 9, 2016
In 1910, during a war against rebels in remote Yemen,
a young officer of the Ottoman Empire liked to entertain his soldiers with
music: French and Italian operas that he played every night on a gramophone in
The youthful musical preferences of Ismet Inonu—who would
become president of Turkey some three decades later—were no mere personal
quirk. Ever since the mid-19th century, when a series of reforms brought
elections, civil rights and modern government institutions to the decaying
Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s ruling elites had looked to the West as the standard
of enlightenment and civilization.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the secularist army officer who
founded modern Turkey in 1923, sought to sever his land’s ancient bonds to the
Middle East. A revolutionary determined to transform everyday life, Atatürk
introduced Latin letters and the Swiss Civil Code to replace Arabic script and
Islamic Shariah law. This longstanding orientation to the West has made Turkey a
rare example of a major Muslim country that is also a prosperous, stable
democracy (and, since 1952, a member of NATO).
Today that tradition is under attack as never before.
Nearly a century after the Ottoman Empire gave way to today’s Turkish
republic, a tectonic shift is under way. Under President Recep Tayyip
Erdogan’s iron-fisted rule, Turkey is drifting away from its historic Western
allies in perhaps one of the most significant geopolitical realignments of our
Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey has come to look increasingly like
just another troubled corner of the Middle East. And, many Turks and Westerners
fear, the country is becoming infected with the same sicknesses—intolerance,
autocracy, repression—that have poisoned the region for decades.
Early on, Mr. Erdogan—who has held de facto power since
2002—was widely hailed as a principled democrat. In recent years, however, he
has grown aggressively averse to dissent, and in the wake of a failed coup
attempt in July, he has unleashed an
unprecedented crackdown. He is now demanding constitutional changes that
would give him near-absolute authority and let him remain at the helm of this
country of 80 million people until 2029.
“Erdogan’s real aim is to take Turkey out of the
Western bloc, out of the civilized world, and to turn Turkey into a Middle
Eastern country where he can continue to rule without any obstacles,” said
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of Turkey’s biggest opposition party, the
Republican People’s Party, or CHP. “He wants to turn Turkey into a country
where there is no secularism and where people are divided along their ethnic
identity and their beliefs. It is becoming a nation that faces internal
conflict, just as we have seen in Iraq, Syria or Libya.”
Turkish officials retort that the West is abandoning their
country, not the other way around. Mr. Erdogan recently blasted the European
Union for its “meaningless hostility” as decadeslong talks on Turkish
membership in the bloc neared collapse. “Neither the European Union nor the
European countries that are on the brink of falling into the clutches of racism
can exclude Turkey from Europe,” said Mr. Erdogan. “We are not a guest but a
host in Europe.”
Members of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party,
known as the AKP, often point out that, as the July coup unfolded, Russian
President Vladimir Putin made the first call to express support for
Mr. Erdogan, hours before President Barack Obama weighed in. That
night, many other Western politicians kept silent or even cheered for the
“It’s not Turkey that is distancing itself from Europe.
It’s Europe that is distancing itself from the axis of democracy. For them,
democracy is when we don’t elect Erdogan, and dictatorship is when we elect
him,” said Mehmet Metiner, a prominent AKP lawmaker. “Turkish democracy is
better than Western democracy.”
Such statements cause many Western officials to shake their
heads in despair while pointing to Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian
record. Some 150 journalists critical of the government are currently behind
bars in Turkey, which jails
more journalists than any other country in the world, according to
Reporters Without Borders, a media-freedom group. Tens of thousands of Turks
suspected of opposition or disloyalty—from teachers to bureaucrats to police
officers—lost their jobs in purges that followed the July coup attempt. And
last month, Mr. Erdogan’s government detained the co-heads of one of the
country’s three main opposition parties.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s yearlong campaign against a renewed
insurgency by restive Kurds has ravaged the country’s southeast. Dozens of
towns and neighborhoods have been flattened in bloody urban warfare between
government forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which both Ankara
and Washington consider a terrorist organization. A separate bombing spree by
Islamic State has hit major Turkish cities.
A month after the July coup attempt, Mr. Erdogan also
unleashed a war abroad: Turkish troops invaded northern Syria, where they are
fighting alongside Sunni Arab rebels against both Islamic State and a Kurdish
militia linked to the PKK. Mr. Erdogan has also threatened military intervention
in Iraq, and Turkish troops are already deployed near Mosul, most of which
remains in the clutches of Islamic State.
With Turkey in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, the
country’s tourism industry has withered, the currency has sunk, and the
Turkish economic miracle that had long fueled Mr. Erdogan’s popularity has
begun to fizzle.
The Islamic world once envied Turkey’s achievements, but
few Muslim leaders now look to it as a role model. Yasar Yakis, a founding
member of the AKP who served as Turkey’s foreign minister in the early days of
Mr. Erdogan’s rule, recalls wistfully that, as recently as 2011, revolutionary
leaders in Tunisia sought to calm fears about possible human-rights abuses by
promising to follow Turkey’s example of blending democracy and Islam. Today,
he says, many Turks are envious of Tunisia—the lone Arab state to overthrow
its autocrat during the 2011 revolutions and remain a budding democracy.
“Tunisia was inspired by Turkey, and now we have to be inspired by Tunisia,”
Mr. Yakis says.
As Turkey has grown alienated from the West, Mr. Erdogan
has moved toward strategic alliances with powers that won’t criticize his
newly authoritarian ways. Last month, he raised the prospect of Turkey’s
joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security and political pact
that unites Russia, China and the mostly Turkic Central Asian states. Full
participation in that group probably wouldn’t be compatible with Turkey’s
continued membership in NATO.
As part of his rapprochement with Russia, Mr. Erdogan has
already softened his stance on the raging Syrian war. Most notably, he has
tacitly acquiesced to the Russian-backed drive by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad
to retake rebel-held sections of Aleppo, at an enormous cost to vulnerable
Though Mr. Erdogan began his political life as an Islamist,
that ideology is not necessarily animating Turkey’s shift. “He knows very
well he cannot change Turkey to an Islamic state. He is afraid of the country
becoming like Saudi Arabia; this is his nightmare,” said Ali Saydam, a
columnist for the pro-AKP Yeni Safak newspaper.
Insofar as any ideology can be ascribed to the protean Mr.
Erdogan, many Turks say, it is his resentment—widely shared in the developing
world—at being bullied by the planet’s major powers. He has repeatedly used
the slogan “The World Is Bigger Than Five,” a reference to the five
permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
That suspicion of big global powers is unlikely to recede
during Donald Trump’s presidency, but Mr. Erdogan seems to be trying a
balancing act with the incoming administration. He criticized Mr. Trump’s call
last year to bar Muslims from entering the U.S. and even suggested
renaming the Trump Towers in Istanbul in response. But after Mr. Trump
praised the Turkish president’s demeanor during the July coup attempt, Mr.
Erdogan has been careful not to speak ill of the American president-elect.
Mr. Erdogan may see welcome changes in the new
administration. As the coup unfolded in July, Michael Flynn, the retired general
who is Mr. Trump’s designated national security adviser, made public remarks
supportive of the putschists, who he appeared to believe were driven by a
secularist agenda. But after Mr. Erdogan accused a Turkish cleric living in
Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gulen, of masterminding the coup, Gen. Flynn wrote an
op-ed in the Hill urging the extradition of the “shady Islamic
mullah” (even though the matter is still under Justice Department review) and
saying that the U.S. needs “to see the world from Turkey’s perspective.”
Turkey’s realignment is just part of a global upheaval
that includes Britain’s exit from the European Union and Mr. Trump’s
election, said Dogu Perincek, the head of Turkey’s small nationalist
Vatan party. Ankara’s relationship with Washington will inevitably loosen as
America turns inward and the U.S.-dominated postwar world order fades away, he
predicted. “Turkey is separating from the Atlantic system and is going to have
its place within the Eurasian system,” Mr. Perincek said.
Turkish officials say that Turkey is simply restoring some
natural balance in its international relationships and adapting to the rising
economic clout of non-Western states such as China. Ankara’s new policy
“doesn’t mean that Turkey doesn’t want to continue to work with the West
and that it wants to change its path to the East,” said Mr. Erdogan’s senior
adviser, Reha Denemec. “But Turkey is transformed. For almost 70
years, we had forgotten our old friends, the countries in the East, and we now
have to also collaborate with them.”
The West, he added, shouldn’t hold Mr. Erdogan to the
same standards as the leader of a peaceful land in a tranquil neighborhood:
“If you criticize Mr. Erdogan with the home parameters of a country like
Austria, where there are no bombing attacks, no terrorist attacks, no neighbors
like Syria, Iraq, or Russia, where it is easy to run, where there is no coup,
you are making a big mistake.”
Mr. Erdogan didn’t always bristle at being judged by
European standards. He pushed hard to integrate Turkey into Europe after coming
to power in 2002, bringing Turkey closer to EU membership than it had been since
first applying to join the club in 1987.
The AKP then saw Europe as a useful ally against Turkey’s
secularist security establishment, which worried about the party’s Islamist
roots. Using the EU membership process, which required Turkey to comply with
European norms, the AKP enacted more liberal laws that weakened the power of
military leaders who could have threatened Mr. Erdogan’s rule.
The reforms gave more freedom to Turkey’s more
conservative Muslim women, who could now wear a veil in universities and
government offices, and to Turkey’s often marginalized Kurdish minority, which
was finally allowed to use its own language. At the time, even Turkey’s
liberals and human-rights defenders praised Mr. Erdogan and the AKP.
“We thought at the beginning that he honestly meant to
wage a fight against the militarist structure in Turkey. We believed that,”
said Eren Keskin, a prominent lawyer who co-heads the Turkish Human Rights
Association—and now faces a lengthy prison term for alleged offenses against
Mr. Erdogan’s state.
But several EU member states, including France and Germany,
were uneasy about accepting a large Muslim country. As the Turks were kept
waiting in the antechamber, poorer Christian-majority countries such as Bulgaria
were fast-tracked for membership. The post-coup crackdown only made matters
worse. In November, the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted to suspend the
stalled membership talks.
Over the past decade, disillusionment with the West
prompted Mr. Erdogan to embark on a “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy of seeking
to restore Turkey’s historical trade and political ties to the Middle
East—and to become the region’s informal leader. The effort seemed to
succeed briefly after the 2011 Arab Spring, when Islamist parties friendly to
the AKP rose to power in several countries. But Turkey’s policy floundered
after Egypt’s democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government was ousted
in 2013 in a
military coup and Ankara became more embroiled in the intractable civil
war in neighboring Syria.
Still, Turkey remained relatively free, thanks to
continuing challenges to Mr. Erdogan’s authority from the judiciary and the
rival Islamist movement led by Mr. Gulen, whose supporters in law enforcement
pushed through corruption investigations against the president’s inner circle.
A turning point came in June 2015, when the AKP lost its parliamentary majority
for the first time in 13 years—in part because many Kurds who once voted for
Mr. Erdogan embraced the new, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party and its
charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtas.
But Mr. Erdogan, faced with the prospect of having to form
a coalition government, decided that he didn’t want to share power. Instead,
he used a series of cease-fire violations by PKK guerrillas to launch an all-out
onslaught against Kurdish militants. The move appealed enough to hard-line
nationalist voters that Mr. Erdogan was able to regain an absolute majority of
parliamentary seats in snap elections that he called in November 2015. Mr.
Demirtas, for his part, was
jailed last month, alongside other Kurdish leaders.
Osman Can, a one-time AKP lawmaker and former
constitutional court justice who worked on the coalition talks, is alarmed by
what he sees ahead. “The institutions have failed,” he said. “We have no
institutions that can provide rational decisions on policy. Everything is now in
the hands of one man, Mr. Erdogan, and when just one man is deciding everything,
there is no future for Turkey.”