Politics & Policy

Turkey: NATO’s ‘Open Prison’

The West needs to confront Turkey, its former ally.

With Egypt’s Islamists scoring a crushing electoral victory over their secular opponents, governments and pundits alike are considering the likely denouement of the vaunted Arab Spring in the region’s largest country, Turkey. It is therefore worth noting some very troubling recent developments in the country that the Muslim Brotherhood and many in the West consistently tout as a successful “Islamist democracy” worth emulating.

On January 5, Turkish prosecutors arrested Gen. Ilker Basbug — the commander, until 2010, of the Turkish Armed Forces appointed by prime minister Recep Erdogan’s government — for allegedly plotting terrorist activities against the state. Basbug now faces the same predicament as 300 other military officers who have languished in jail for years on dubious charges of conspiracy to overthrow the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government, without a single conviction to date.

Perhaps even more disturbing, the regime has begun a new wave of arrests of journalists, bringing their total in prison to 98, as reported by the Turkish journalists union, though this number is not exact. Few of them have been convicted of anything, even though some of them have been kept in jail for four years. Using terrorism legislation to keep suspected opponents in jail for years on trumped-up charges appears to have become the Erdogan regime’s favorite method of punishing and intimidating the opposition and stifling the press. Nor are these tactics limited to his political opponents. In a searing indictment of the profoundly undemocratic nature of the justice system under Erdogan, the Turkish Human Rights Association revealed that 42 percent of the 128,000 people currently imprisoned in Turkey have never been convicted of a crime. To find preemptive incarceration on this scale, one would have to go back to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.

Not surprisingly, the AKP’s increasingly repressive policies have caused a storm of indignation among opposition parties in parliament, where the AKP has a commanding majority. The leader of the main opposition party, CHP (the Republican People’s Party), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, accused the government of engaging in a “blood feud” and of having transformed the country into an “open prison,” while another opposition-party leader blasted the AKP for “legitimizing oppression, lawlessness, and slander.”

In response, a government prosecutor has asked the Ministry of Justice to remove Kilicdaroglu’s parliamentary immunity, making it possible for him also to be indicted and thrown in jail for “attempting to influence a fair trial.” As if to confirm that the prosecutor acted with the full support of the government, Prime Minister Erdogan opined tersely that “what needed to happen has happened,” adding that the prosecutor’s action was long overdue. Should the Islamist government carry out this blatant threat to silence even the duly elected opposition, it would be difficult to argue that the AKP regime maintains even a semblance of democracy.

Which raises the question why the AKP appears to be in such a hurry, seemingly overreaching at a time when there is no visible challenge to its political dominance. The short answer is that, just below the surface, problems are brewing that may soon present a formidable threat to Turkey’s Islamists. To begin with, the grand geopolitical scheme of the AKP, known as “Neo-Ottomanism,” is in shambles. The policy was designed to re-create a Turkish Islamist sphere of influence in former Ottoman domains, based on the radicalization of Muslim minorities and a putative “zero problems with neighbors” policy, but its author, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, has little to show for his efforts. Nor has he succeeded in convincing the Balkan Christian nations long enslaved by the Ottomans that “the Ottoman centuries were a successful history” that “needs to be re-created.” Worse still, in his hysterical reaction to the new French law making the denial of Armenian genocide a crime, Davutoglu has managed to alienate the French — especially Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he compared to dictators Bashar al-Assad and Moammar Qaddafi. (He conveniently forgot that the former was a favorite Neo-Ottoman partner, while the latter dispensed the al-Qaddafi Human Rights Prize to a grateful Erdogan.) Erdogan’s anti-Israeli policy has created yet another axis of intractable conflict, and recent indications that Ankara is taking over from Tehran the role of chief sponsor of Hamas is only likely to exacerbate it.

Domestically, the AKP has aggravated the conflict with Turkey’s large Kurdish minority to such an extent that a new flare-up of widespread Kurdish anti-government violence is no longer unthinkable. Neither is the large, educated, and secular Alevi community anywhere near making its peace with the Islamists.

Perhaps most significantly, there are now clear signs that the AKP’s greatest achievement and the most important source of its popularity, a booming economy, may soon be a thing of the past. Over the past year, the Turkish stock market has lost half of its value, inflation has reached double digits, and the lira has depreciated 20 percent against the dollar. With the country importing twice as much as it exports, the trade deficit is an unsustainable 10 percent of GDP. Indeed, none of these trends is sustainable, which is why the International Monetary Fund now projects a dramatic slowdown of Turkish GDP growth — from 7.5 percent in 2011 to 2 percent in 2012.

Despite these troubling signs on all fronts, there is no evidence that the West, especially Washington, is willing to go beyond the usual apologetics for the AKP regime and admit that our NATO ally is becoming an enemy of the West and everything it stands for. If this continues, American politicians may begin having to ask, “Who lost Turkey?”

Alex Alexiev is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. He tweets on national-security politics at twitter.com/alexieff.


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