By Laurie A. Watkins
At the gateway of the Middle East, Turkey today finds itself caught between its NATO responsibilities, multiple challenges to its regional hegemony, and its own internal struggles. These competing interests have created a political environment characterized by dysfunction, chaos, and fear. Pulled in so many directions, yet with a desperate need for international respect and influence, Turkey is the quintessential middle child of the Middle East.
I recently traveled to Turkey with fellow members of the Truman National Security Project to see firsthand the desperate situation of this historic power. Sponsored by the Rumi Forum for Interfaith Dialogue and Understanding, a Washington D.C.-based organization that serves as the headquarters for Fetullah Gülen’s Hizmet (“Service”) Movement, the purpose of the trip was to gain some background knowledge on the Turkish political landscape specifically through interactions with leaders in the public and private sectors. We sought to understand how democracy functions in Turkey via the experience of those most invested in its development. Sadly, what we found was a fractured society fraught with infighting and allegedly corrupt political parties, exacerbated by the continued curtailment of the most basic forms of free speech.
As widely reported in international news, Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdoğan is currently in open warfare with Fethullah Gülen – a former ally who the Prime Minister accuses of a comprehensive campaign to undermine his leadership. Many of Gülen’s followers are in influential positions in Turkey’s business sector, the news media and, significantly, the judiciary and the police, where they are leading an extensive corruption investigation. This political rivalry is effectively stunting any attempts to investigate wrongdoing, with Erdoğan devaluing the investigation and the AKP scrambling to protect itself above all else.
Having access to what should be some of Turkey’s most powerful and influential people showed how constraining the political environment has become of late. Whether they were parliamentary members from both the Justice and Development (AKP) and Republican People’s (CHP) parties, senior foreign affair advisors to President Abdullah Gül, or officials at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, many people felt free to speak in private, but were terrified to go on the record – and with good reason.
A recent annual report on human rights in Turkey highlights journalists being jailed for stories they have written. The media doesn’t always write as critically of the government as they should; many journalists are more inclined to talk than write. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an editor at a Turkish newspaper gave an account of the paper writing a letter of apology to its readers for not criticizing the government on a particular issue when they should have. The following day, a state-sponsored industry leader cancelled its subscription of over 1,000 newspapers – a subtle, yet very effective message. Clearly, there is a reason for widespread fear and self-censorship.
Absolutes reign in Turkish political discourse; either you support the ruling party, or you are the enemy. For example, a leading member of Turkey’s main opposition party (the CHP) recounted egregious comments made by Prime Minister Erdoğan in recent sessions, who stated “Nobody in my party will help put smiles on the faces of the enemy; they represent a part of the problem and not a part of the solution for Turkey.” The Prime Minister has also said that “The separation of powers is an obstacle before me; like untied shoe laces, they prevent me from walking properly.”
Erdoğan’s apparent authoritarian bent is indicative of Turkey’s perpetual middle child syndrome. Its need for attention, whether from the ruling government, the opposition, or the populace remains great, and its “acting out” grows worse domestically and regionally. The government seemingly misbehaves to be recognized; to feel accepted; to feel in control. What’s more, this behavior engenders little to no response from the West. Turkey is unfailingly important in rhetorical terms, but receives insufficient direct engagement.
Domestically, look at some of the regressive legislative proposals put forth by Erdoğan and the AKP just since November. Educational ‘reform’ issues have included the condemnation of male and female students from sharing accommodations in university dorms or private group homes, and many private preparatory schools – some of which are run by Gülen’s network – have been closed. A country-wide comprehensive overhaul in the Turkish Police Force has looked more like an effort to stifle corruption investigations than invest in public safety, and attempts to increase the influence of the government over the judiciary speak to Erdoğan’s apparent loathing of the separation of powers.
In addition to Internet legislation that would heavily restrict online freedom and retain browsing histories for up to two years, Turkey has made headlines once again with a ban on YouTube, purportedly for national security reasons. Just last week, Turkey became the first country to ban Google’s DNS after failing to shut down Twitter. All of these moves by the ruling party to prohibit freedom have culminated in a significant increase in polarization between liberal and conservative Turks. Yet because the latter maintain a slight demographic edge, the AKP consolidates its strength with each passing election cycle.
How does this domestic divide impact Turkish views on international engagement? Meetings with members of government, academia, business, media, NGO’s, and even average citizens all promoted a common theme: Turkey still craves the attention of the United States, NATO, and the European Union. As with other burgeoning powers, Turkey wants the West to lead, but more importantly to listen. The Syrian crisis – including refugee and security dimensions – weighs heavily on Ankara’s mind, and dissatisfaction with international action to address the ongoing civil war is palpable. Turkey also seeks assistance in developing historically complicated relationships with neighbors like Armenia and Israel; varying states or organizations in the West could serve as an honest broker for such conversations, but these Turkish concerns too often take a backseat to strategic interests viewed as more pressing.
Even with the support of the West, Turkey remains an enigma just like a “middle child.” Despite fear and censorship, a majority of Turks gave Erdoğan’s AKP party success in last month’s local elections and an apparent mandate for him to run for the presidency in August. What does engagement by the West really yield when a majority of a populace seemingly supports this kind of repression? Yet without attention to the relationship, a critical state in the Middle East may falter towards fundamentalism and become less of a democratic counterbalance in a volatile region. Simply put, Turkey can’t be ignored any less than a troubled middle child. Whether through discipline, appeasement, or cajoling, engagement is a must; there is a critical balance to be struck between listening and leadership.
But, the question remains: what strategies will work, and how long before the mischievous child grows into a worrisome adult?
Laurie A. Watkins is a Truman Project Partner and national security expert. In April 2012, Laurie left her post at the Pentagon to become the Florida Policy Director for President Obama’s re-election campaign. At the Pentagon, Laurie served as Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of the Army. She recently traveled to Turkey with the Rumi Forum prior to the local elections and interviewed leaders of the major parties.
This article originally appeared in Muftah.org and has been republished with permission.