Turkey Pulse

Erdogan’s fractured ties to the West

Article Summary
Some are speculating that following the victory of the Justice and Development Party in municipal elections, Turkey might seek to build bridges to the West, but this would require a shift in Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s approach.

Prior to the March 30 municipal elections, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had adopted strong anti-Western rhetoric, further tarnishing his already damaged image in the United States and Europe, as well as straining Ankara’s relations with the West. The question being asked by Western diplomats and Turkey observers is whether Erdogan, to normalize ties​, will tone it down after the strong electoral results secured by his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Nouriel Roubini, of Roubini Global Economics and a senior economist for international affairs in the Clinton administration, suggested before the elections that Erdogan would “shift policies” in a way that would eliminate political uncertainties in Europe and the United States concerning Turkey. He argued, “Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cannot realize his dream of a presidential republic and will have to follow his opponents — including a large protest movement — to the secular center.”

Roubini's prediction is predicated on two assumptions. The first is that Erdogan still wants to become president, which is not as clear-cut as it once was, and the second is that he has a desire to move to the “secular center,” even though his Islamist perspective has since been endorsed by 43% of the electorate.

The criticism Erdogan has been getting from the United States and Europe mostly concerns his increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic tendencies, apart from his accusations about external forces, mostly in the West, trying to topple him and his government. Since the elections, Erdogan has shown no sign of abating his tendencies, as indicated by his remarks on the Constitutional Court's ruling that the government’s Twitter ban breaches freedom of expression.

“We have to comply with the Constitutional Court’s ruling, but I do not have to respect it. I don’t respect this ruling,” the prime minister told reporters on April 3 en route to Azerbaijan. Questioning the speed with which the court had dealt with the case, despite there being so many others in front of it, Erdogan accused the highest court in the land of “not having displayed a national stance.” He also claimed that the court’s stance had nothing to do with law, asserting, “The law is something else. What is involved here is not a legal implementation.”

Political analysts and legal experts, who took note of President Abdullah Gul welcoming the court’s ruling, were quick to assert that Erdogan’s remarks do not augur well for the future of Turkish democracy. Many see in his words not only a defense of restrictions on the Internet, but also a dangerous suggestion that if Erdogan had the power to do so, he would change the constitution to curb the Constitutional Court.

Erdogan’s words came on the heels of his government having hastily drafted a new law on the Supreme Board on Judges and Prosecutors that curbed the independence of the judiciary and effectively closed the path for cases concerning government corruption. The government moved against the judiciary following the investigation by prosecutors (who have since been dismissed or displaced) into government corruption and took action against the Internet after corruption-related incriminating recordings of Erdogan and members of his government were leaked through social media.

Erdogan’s criticism of the Constitutional Court's Twitter ruling is not expected to play well in the United States or the European Union (EU), where his authoritarian tendencies are already under increasing scrutiny. His actions elicited a number of harshly worded statements and resolutions in the West condemning his interfering in due process as well as restricting press freedoms and freedom of thought. The criticism seems, however, to have had little intended effect on Erdogan to date.

To the contrary, Erdogan has used the criticism to bolster his standing with his followers, who traditionally have admired strong stands against the United States and Europe. Addressing a crowd of supporters in Bursa prior to the March elections, Erdogan promised to “root out Twitter,” which he has referred to in the past as a “scourge.” He added defiantly, “The international community will say this, it will say that. … None of this is of any concern to me. Everyone will see Turkey’s strength.” Within hours of Erdogan’s remarks, Twitter was banned in Turkey, to be followed a week later by a ban on YouTube.

Reactions from the West were not long in coming. US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki uncustomarily read a prepared statement during her daily press briefing of March 21, affirming that the United States supports freedom of expression in Turkey and opposes any action to encroach on the right to free speech: “We urge the Turkish government to unblock its citizens’ access to Twitter and ensure free access to all social media platforms,” the statement read. “This action is contrary to Turkey’s own expressed desire to uphold the highest standards of democracy and efforts to attract foreign investment.” 

In the US Senate, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, cosponsored a resolution on March 27 with Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., "condemning the actions of the government of Turkey in restricting free expression and Internet freedom on social media." A day later, 34 members of the House of Representatives, led by Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., signed a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to strongly demand that Turkey protect the democratic freedoms and rights of its citizens. On April 1, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and founder of the Congressional Internet Caucus, introduced a resolution calling on the Erdogan government to allow free expression and Internet freedom in Turkey.

The picture was no better in Europe, where the Erdogan government was not only castigated with strong language, but also reminded that it was backpedaling on its commitments to the EU, to which Turkey has been seeking membership. European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes referred to the Twitter ban, through her own Twitter account, as "groundless, pointless, cowardly," adding, "Turkish people and the (international) community will see this as censorship. It is." The EU commissioner for enlargement, Stefan Fule, in a statement that same day, asserted, "The ban on the social platform Twitter.com in Turkey raises grave concerns and casts doubt on Turkey's stated commitment to European values and standards." 

While similar sentiments were expressed after the government banned YouTube on March 27, none of them has had a moderating effect on Erdogan thus far, as his latest remarks on the Constitutional Court’s Twitter ruling show. This would appear to suggest that any additional criticism from the West will merely stoke more defiance, especially since it plays well among his supporters. There are a number of other, unrelated developments that will most likely prompt angry reactions from Erdogan, not only creating strains in ties but also intensifying anti-Western sentiment among his supporters.

One such development concerns the perennial Armenian genocide issue and involves a resolution cosponsored by the Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, commemorating the Armenian genocide. Turks in general, not just Erdogan supporters, reject the Armenians' claims of genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks, arguing that million of Turks were also killed during World War I. This issue continues to hold the potential to poison Turkish-US relations.

Attacks against the Armenian community in the Syrian town of Kassab by the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra group, which the Erdogan government is accused of supporting — an issue that has already been taken up in the House of Representatives — could also fuel tensions between Washington and Ankara. Another development that will have angered Erdogan and his supporters was an inquiry ordered by British Prime Minister David Cameron into the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has resulted in speculation that the group could be banned in Britain. Erdogan is a strong supporter of the Brotherhood, of which many consider the AKP to be an honorary member. 

Given this sensitive backdrop to Turkey’s current ties with the West, it remains an open question as to whether Erdogan will display the statesmanship necessary to keep Turkey’s ties with the West on course or whether he will choose instead to play to his domestic gallery, which is anti-Western by nature, with an eye on the August presidential elections and the general elections after that.

Al-Monitor's Julian Pecquet contributed to this report.

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Found in: youtube, united states, twitter, turkey, recep tayyip erdogan, european union, elections, armenians

Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have also been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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