Monday, March 15, 2010
Last week, the U.S. State Department released its “2009 Annual Report on Human Rights” and, like many other countries, it allocated considerable space to discussing cases of human-rights abuse in Turkey.
The picture is grim for Turkey, as always, even though it has made sweeping reforms in many areas to increase its prospects for full membership in the European Union.
Turkey, without a doubt, has changed substantially since the 1990s. That was a tough decade for Turkey as it sought to find its new identity and adapt itself to the “new world order” led by the only remaining superpower, the United States. Turkey was not only trying to figure out how it should define its new, unique role in light of changing international dynamics, it was also going through a very difficult period filled with economic, social and political battles. The endless coalition governments and fights, abrupt elections, skyrocketing inflation, numerous devaluations and one post-modern military coup in 1997 were just a snapshot of this decade.
Friction, a feature of relations between the Turkish state and the Kurdish segment of the country since the founding of the Turkish Republic, was also on the rise during this decade. The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a separatist armed Kurdish group, escalated its attacks, especially in the southeast region of Turkey, where the majority of the Kurdish population lives. Hundreds of unknown murders occurred, especially during the mid-1990s, mostly targeting the Kurdish businessmen who were suspected of helping the PKK.
Turkey’s political instability reflected badly on its social structure. With Turkey increasingly relying on its military establishment as the only stable force, the Turkish military increased its martial operations, budget and sway in the country. Enjoying its height in terms of popularity, the Turkish military pushed the pro-Islamic Welfare Party, or RP, out of government in 1997, hoping it would in this way stop the ongoing debate about the nature of the secular system and its uneasy coexistence with growing religiosity.
The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, emerged as a political force at the beginning of the 2000s. Under the leadership of the charismatic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and several other senior conservative political figures who had also risen from the ranks of the banned pro-Islamic parties, the AKP was welcomed by voters as a viable governing alternative.
Fast forward to the present day: Turkey’s high-spirited recent international diplomacy has been hailed by the Obama administration in the U.S. as a potential diplomatic partner throughout the Middle East and Islamic world. Turkey also wholeheartedly, and sincerely, believed that Obama could unclench the fists of those rogue regimes, including Iran, and bring much-needed stability to the region following the Bush administration, a period that put Turkey in a difficult quandary, because of the “with us or against us” rhetoric.
Turkey’s new proactive foreign policies, which heavily emphasize links with the Arab and Muslim worlds, sparked discussions in many Western capitals about the country’s direction and whether it is drifting away from the West and turning its face to the East, or the Muslim world. According to this school of thought, the AKP is a party of religious deception that has an ultimate goal of undermining secularism, linking Turkey to the Muslim world and imposing Islamic law.
The tension between the religious/conservative forces and secular forces continues to this day. Recent allegations over the “deep state” have created sharp divisions among the Turkish public. Investigations have focused on the alleged Ergenekon terror organization, a shadowy gang that is accused of aiming to overthrow the AKP government and staging a military coup by spreading chaos through bombings and attacks across Turkey. But as these investigations went on, with still no end in sight, questions about the fairness of the trials accordingly started to rise.
While the AKP’s reformist agenda undoubtedly made Turkey freer and more compatible with Western democracies in terms of written rules and regulations, the same administration’s authoritative tendencies have become more visible in recent years.
The U.S. State Department’s 2009 human-rights report, released March 11, is proof of these authoritarian tendencies in the AKP administration. “In November [of 2009], the Justice Ministry confirmed allegations that 56 judges’ and prosecutors’ telephones had been tapped as part of the Ergenekon investigation,” the report’s authors wrote. “Some observers reported that many of the judges and prosecutors whose telephones had been tapped were noted for their anti-[AKP] decisions...”
One of the most important watchdogs in Turkey, the Turkish press, has been increasingly under the threat of the AKP administration. During 2009, the same report says: “The Ministry of Finance levied a total of 5.9 billion Turkish Liras (approximately $3.9 billion) in tax fines against the Doğan Media Group... These fines nearly equaled the total value of the company’s assets... fines undermine the economic viability of the group and therefore affect the freedom of the press in practice.”
Prime Minister Erdoğan continuously sues cartoonists and advises media bosses to fire those columnists who “write irresponsibly,” as he said as recently as March.
Civil societies and nongovernmental organizations are not strong enough to impact the public opinion in Turkey. Think tanks in Turkey are also relatively very young, and are far from being independent. The frictions within the judiciary are visible, and growing conservatism, which is encouraged by the ruling administration, has created what is called “neighborhood pressure” to push public servants to appear more pious in order to be promoted, according to many accounts.
While the AKP administration has passed reforms to curb military influence, there seems to be another danger of “authoritarian” rule, with the Turkish prime minister having solid powers in the absence of appropriate and durable checks and balances. With the current one-party hegemony, along with narrow-minded and weak opposition parties, observers assert that “corruption and influence peddling are the inevitable consequences of today’s Turkey.”
What is left for us is to work for the improvement of civil societies in Turkey, forces that will stand up for a free society and a well-oiled democratic machine. If the West truly wants Turkey to improve its democracy and not get trapped in another authoritarian threat, it must do everything it can to improve those institutions. Maybe this mission can be the last and best option to help Turkey catch up with its Western peers, instead of publishing annual condemnations of human-rights abuses, which seem to be cropping up under one authoritarian regime or another anyway.